The Rescue!History site is wide open for discussion, blogs and other relevant information. If you have information, comments, or blogs of your own you wish to place on this site please contact Marianne McKiggan in the first instance, putting ‘R!H Blog’ in the subject line.
7 August 2013, brief update on current news and forthcoming plans
A group of us met in early July to thrash out an agenda geared towards reaching out to academics, students and wider public. See Events page. We ended up with six directions we wished to explore, an executive summary of which is as follows:
1. the local and global: projected conference. Jonathan Coope to draft idea/call for papers (See Events)
2. History and climate change MOOC: Tim Cooper to facilitate/develop
3. History and biospheric crisis (‘anthropocene’) : possible Raphael Samuel Centre, event, in Conversations and Disputations series, George Yerby to lead, Carrie Hamilton to assist and advise
4. local workshops/events, Chris Shaw and Lesley Docksey to explore by way of Tom Paine and Tolpuddle themes (and where we might possibly be able to get some funding)
5. compilaton of list of R!H academics and their themes as available for local groups and their events. Chris Callow.
6. Global Environmental Governance event, UEA, next spring. Paul Warde to consider history panel, pos. with R!H input.
Lesley Docksey, May 2013
How does one rescue history when facing the possibility that, because of climate change, there may be no more history, or at least no more human society to study what has been recorded about our past.
One could rewrite it; that’s a good starting point. Why do I think that’s not just an option but necessary?
For over 40 years I have made period costumes for films and television. It follows that I have an interest in social history; what people ate, wore, how they spent their days, what they were afraid of, what they dreamed of. I’m interested in all the little people who lived their quiet lives, grew the food that fed the country, wove the cloth that made the clothes, built the houses and made the furniture – and paid sometimes outrageous taxes that had no benefits for them, were hanged for hunting or stealing a loaf of bread when they were trying to feed their families, saw their property stolen, were dispossessed by the already rich and suffered grievously when war swept the land, war planned, decreed and executed by the powerful.
I once bought The Social History of England by Asa Briggs on the strength of rave reviews. What a disappointment! The usual parade of kings, chancellors, archbishops and other men of power. Oh yes, what these men did heavily influenced how the little people lived, or struggled to live, and each king’s reign brought changes, but…
There is never any real recognition of how much the state really depended on these nameless people, no recognition that without them those in the palaces would have starved and gone naked. The temptation is always to write history which is based on the power and the money, using the records of the powerful. The reigns of kings govern how we remember history, and how we teach the children.
There are few records of the lives of the common man and woman. For most of history the majority of them were illiterate and what they had to say would not have been considered that important or worth preserving. Parish records show births, marriages and deaths, but nothing of the lives lived between those events. There are some books that give a more complete picture of the people – Montaillou by Emmanuel La Roy Ladurie is a good example. But it is based on the records of outsiders and is a study of a community in crisis, not a record of the humdrum every-day living that kept nations ticking over.
The power and the money have brought us to where we are today – facing catastrophic climate change and, judging by what’s going on in country after country, global war too. Possibly the end of all we know and love. The end of history as we know it too.
I am a feminist by nature, although not a rabid one. But I remember the debates, the arguments from the late 60’s through the 70’s (and still raging) about HIStory and HERstory. History is about winners and losers. Herstory is about continuity. History is about one-off events and people who did extraordinary things, sometimes glorious but often short-sighted, self-seeking or horrifically cruel. Herstory is about everyday life where often the most extraordinary event is surviving for another day. It is the story of the little people, women and men, people who again and again picked up the pieces of shattered lives and carried on. We wouldn’t be here now without them, but we may well not be here in the future because of the leading players of History.
History needs to be rewritten as Herstory. Forget the big names and the battles, the empire building and horse trading. Study instead the remarkable ability to survive that the nameless millions have shown over the centuries, their ability also to live in relative harmony with neighbouring communities. This is true social (and ‘sociable’) history. The little people need to be recognised, they need to know who they were and are, the vital part they have played, unsung, through the centuries. Most of all, they need to know and understand how important they are to the survival of the human world.
Lesley Docksey, 4 April 2011
Why bother ? Thoughts prompted by the ‘Does Climate Change put a Spanner in the Works of History?’ debate at the University of London on 1 April 2011
Climate change is happening. Anyone who has observed their gardens, the birds, the weather and the seasons over the last twenty to thirty years has seen the beginnings of it. And it looks as if we have already gone too far to stop change from occurring at a damaging level. We could possibly – possibly – rein in our activities to a level where the changes would be survivable, at least for some of us. But – the world is warming up and life is going to get pretty uncomfortable for everyone.
So much of the talk about climate change, as with global growth and development, ignores the very basic fact that despite our belief that humanity is above and acts outside the rest of nature, we are talking about natural systems. As such they will inevitably follow the ‘laws’ of nature, and whatever humanity does will have to comply with those laws. But few humans these days live within nature. Whether it is someone engaged in agri-business or a poor dirt farmer, we all tend to act from the view that we can somehow control natural processes to our advantage.
What I find most distressing about the whole climate change debate is the complete lack of urgency in any of the discussions, particularly among those who have the power to do more than just control their own carbon emissions. Endless discussions about carbon trading, new forms of fuel (God forbid we should all stop bouncing around the planet), and of course geo-engineering. We can surely figure our way out of this with a bit of techno-fix. Can we?
The idea of geo-engineering is very persuasive, alluring even. It means that we as individuals won’t have to alter our behaviour. It can be safely left to ‘them’ to sort out. But given how fast we are using up the earth’s resources, will we have enough available to install engineered schemes on a global scale? To be effective, any scheme would have to cover the earth. Could every nation manage to put aside its national interests and cooperate in global action? And how would we pay for it?
My father was in charge of research and technical development for British Petroleum. In the 1960’s he headed a project to turn oil into protein that could be used as animal feed. I can remember him saying to me, ‘Lesley, we shouldn’t be using this stuff to drive around with. We should be eating it.’ The project was successful and I remember eating some of the ham from the pig raised on this new animal feed. This was an early example of a ‘techno-fix’ and one that, despite being very promising, was not developed further, mostly I suspect because BP wouldn’t make the money out of it that they could out of fuel, chemicals and plastics. Yet nearly fifty years ago my father, who was wise as well as intelligent, could see that man would need food more than petrol. Looking back, it seems to me his work was devoted to finding the most beneficial ways of using oil, rather than the most profitable. How many other chances, ideas and routes have we missed in our pursuit for profit? And I am absolutely sure that even if some geo-engineering schemes were put in place to help mitigate climate change, they wouldn’t be the simplest, most effective schemes, but the ones that earned the most money for somebody.
Which brings up the question of money. The global financial institutions and the greed they inspire have long been a crash waiting to happen. I don’t think the system can be repaired. We can’t go back to where we were. We in the developed countries have been living too well, too comfortably and too selfishly for too long. And we have saddled everyone in the world, wherever they live, with an enormous debt that cannot be repaid. We have gambled away our future, let alone the children’s future, sold the family silver and stripped our cupboards bare. There is no way we can buy it back, not without prompting an even bigger crash. And we cannot attain that myth of ‘sustainable growth’. Even finance must obey natural law. Everything grows to its natural limit and then stays there until it quite naturally dies. Force it to grow beyond its limit and all that happens is that it falls over and dies before its time.
The way we grow and supply our food is another system at breaking point. All major cities across the globe depend on food being shipped in from other countries. We have lost the local food supply chains. We have turned away from seasonal foods and expect constant supplies of ‘exotic’ foods. The knowledge, once widespread, of how to grow food is now an unknown for most people. We still have enough food to feed people – but most of it is in the wrong place and ends up wasted. Monoculture with its vast fields and vast machinery creates a form of desert along with plagues of disease and pests. The fertility of the soil is dropping and using chemical fertilisers may grow a few more crops, but they do not replenish the soil, with the result that the topsoil depth is diminishing, dangerously so in some places. It will take very little to throw a spanner in the workings of our food supply.
For news watchers like me, there have been little hints for some time of the simmering rebellion in the minds of the poor in all parts of the world. The events in the Middle East and North Africa have been very visible, but they were not the first and they certainly won’t be the last. People are tired. They are tired of struggling to live, to find work, to earn enough or grow enough to feed their families. And above all they are tired of being ruled by the rich and tired of the rich grabbing all the rewards. For instance:
“There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.” (Bob Herbert, Losing Our Way, New York Times, 26/03/11)
It is not just the dispossessed in Egypt or the Yemen who are rising up against such arrant unfairness, though few commentators have picked up on this. One who did was Sir Jeremy Greenstock the former UK Ambassador to the UN. Speaking on the Today programme during the height of the demonstrations in Cairo, he warned that the governments of Western democracies were also at risk from angry citizens. Facebook rebellions led by the young are going to become more common. Governments can threaten to shut down the internet but when Mubarak did that in Egypt all that happened was that the economic life of the country stopped because all world trade depends on it. The young simply moved smartly sideways and carried on with their electronic communications.
I think it entirely possible that we are reaching the edge if not the end of human history, yet in Friday’s debate there was no mention of the lessons history already shows of what happens to systems out of control. There are several examples of civilisations that have used, abused and finally trashed their environments, resulting in an ignominious crash and in some cases, a complete disappearance of the people and their lives. Yet most of us, including historians, will not learn the lessons history offers. The brutal fact is that we now live in a global civilisation, so we can expect a global crash. The environment is going to crash. The financial system is going to crash. The governance is going to crash. And people are going to be so hungry, angry and desperate that life all over the earth will suffer.
From one point of view I am quite optimistic. I don’t believe that humanity as a whole will act altruistically, or at least not until it is too late, no matter how hard some individuals will work to address the problem (the problem of course being humanity itself), but I don’t worry about the future of life on this lovely planet. While the sun exists in its present state, the earth will keep going, and life is here. No matter how much we destroy in our blind carelessness and greed, life will evolve into forms we can’t even begin to imagine. So why bother? Why try to change my behaviour and use less? Why try to do my little best to lessen the level of climate change? Why struggle to grow my own food and buy local? Why learn to live on less and less money?
For starters, it happens to be the right, the moral thing to do. Also if I love the earth, as I do, then I do it for her sake, not mine. And there is a chance that at least some of the human race will survive the changes we have wrought. It is surely our duty to somehow ensure that the best of us, not the worst, survive. Our future should not be in the hands of those who mistrust everyone, who see threats everywhere, who react only with violent control and who armour themselves against life. Those that survive should be those who have learned to share, to cooperate, to live peacefully in small communities, and who refuse to give power to any who seek it. Most of all they should have learnt to see humanity as being no more, and no less, than a part of the life on earth; that all life’s rights are equal to theirs; that they are only entitled to their small share of the abundant riches of the earth – because I do not doubt that after all the breaking down and ruination, the earth will grow back to abundance. It is what life does, and unlike us whose time appears to be running out, it has the time to recover its glory.
(“Mostly retired from a career in historical costume for films and TV, I live in darkest Dorset and campaign (among other things) for the abolition of war. Got into that because of the damage war (indeed – any military activity) does to the earth, my great love. I edit the newsletter Abolish War and publish the occasional article on the internet.”)
Paul Dukes, 29 November 2010
Letter from Aberdeen to the associates of rescue-history
Let me first express my joy at learning of your existence from the programme of the Anglo-American Conference, 2010. No doubt the delay was caused by my present circumstances, in active retirement for more than ten years but working most of the time away from the internet in the Aberdeenshire hills. But a weekly visit to the worldwide web always gives reinforcement to a consideration of which you will all be well aware: the vast amount of online information makes valuable discoveries difficult.
In any case, I was unable to attend the Anglo-American because of a previous commitment to another conference organised by the German Historical Institute in Moscow on War and Society in Transnational and Long Run Perspective. We had a lot of interesting discussion on aspects of the behaviour of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in Central and Eastern Europe, the French defeat of 1940 in its context, wartime economies and famine. You can’t be in two places at once, but I consoled myself by ordering two copies of the book to which many of you have contributed, History at the End of the World?History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure. I gave one of them to a friend in Moscow to be passed on to Russian counterparts to yourselves if he could find them. No positive reply so far, and it could be that they don’t yet exist. I kept the other copy for myself, and have learned a great deal from it, on subjects with which I had previously been unfamiliar from prehistoric to our own times. Some of the contributions touched directly on my own recent work, which was nearly completed before my trip to Moscow. And so, regrettably, there was no time to digest your book sufficiently to incorporate its findings adequately in my own, due to be published by Anthem Press in 2011 as Minutes to Midnight: history and the Anthropocene Era from 1763.
In his Introduction to History at the End of the World?, Mark Levene writes on p. 20: ‘If, as the atmospheric physicist Paul Crutzen puts it, we are now in the era of the anthropocene in which the impact of human beings on eco-systems is the prime factor determining the behaviour and perhaps ultimate fate of the biosphere, then we surely need to pinpoint the societal and economic processes by which this has arisen.’ Crutzen’s observation is the starting point of my book, which goes on to answer in the affirmative Levene’s two questions about the human impact on the anthropocene era: ‘Is it a function of the advent of the industrial revolution, and hence of an emergent capitalism whose origins also lie in the peculiar rise of the West? In which case is the ‘damage’ done by the last two hundred years of historical trajectory, in any sense, containable or reversible?’ No doubt, you would agree that the answer to the second question must be much more tentative than that to the first. As far as I know, my book is the first to spell out, albeit in broad outline, the manner in which historians themselves have responded to the challenge of successive times since 1763, the year in which James Watt completed improvements in the steam engine and Great Britain moved closer to becoming ‘the workshop of the world’ through its defeat of France.
In the course of a long residence in Scotland, I have become a close adherent of some of the main views of the Scottish Enlightenment as summarised, by no means to everybody’s satisfaction by Arthur Herman in his book on the subject: ‘We are ultimately creatures of our environment’ but its changes ‘are not arbitrary or chaotic. They rest on certain fundamental principles and discernible patterns.’ Therefore, Herman asserts with his own emphasis: ‘The study of man is ultimately a scientific study.’ In this spirit, my book aims to be scientific: rational, global and evolutionary. It also suggests that history should join other sciences, humane, social and natural, in a pandisciplinarian approach to our present predicament in a manner already set out in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon: ‘And generally let this be a rule, that all partitions of knowledge be accepted rather for lines and veins, than for sections and separations, and that the continuance and entireness of knowledge be preserved. For the contrary hereof hath made particular sciences to become barren, shallow, and erroneous; while they have not been nourished and maintained from the common fountain.’
I hope that at least some of you will be able to find the time to read Minutes to Midnight when it comes out next year, and to spread the word.
Paul Dukes: p.dukes (at) abdn.ac.uk
Julie Cappleman-Morgan, 4 April 2008
Being at yesterday’s conference in Birmingham (the End of History conference, Birmingham and Midland Institute, April 3 2008) and having enjoyed it immensely I’d like to suggest an idea about how academics might encourage the public into action regarding climate change, in the context of achievements of working class people of the past.
On my way home I was thinking about ways in which academics might be able to take the issues of action on climate change to the general public (that is, to drum up some motivation) and I thought others might be interested to hear my husband’s recent experience, which triggered my idea. We have both recently read ‘The Progressive Patriot’ by Billy Bragg in which he talked a little about his ancestors and working class roots. He mentioned EP Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’ (as did Mark Levene in the conference symposium). I have a copy of this book but have yet to read it. My husband said it sounded interesting, so when I told him I had a dusty copy somewhere, he dug it out enthusiastically and read it daily on his commute to work.
We both have working class roots. Rob’s family were Welsh coal miners and farmers while mine were North Essex farm labourers. Rob was intrigued to learn about the struggles, mobilisation and action of the working class again powerful others. He had not known how much hardship they had experienced, nor how much they sometimes achieved against odds. This is our history and we knew nothing about it! Most TV historically-based programmes are about wars and royalty!
Rob found the book quite hard to read at times due to its very academic nature (he was educated to A Level) but nevertheless he persevered. Thank goodness for Google as, when necessary, Rob looked for more information on various incidents and names etc when he did not understand them, or where he had no knowledge of the topic being discussed. He learnt so much from this exercise and felt that it was very worthwhile. He felt that more should be done to enlighten the rest of the population who would be very unlikely to read EP Thompson!
His experience led me to think that many of us should be aware of our ancestors’ history in order to get a sense of how we arrived where we are and also that when enough people act together, things can change. What I think is lacking in our society currently is the knowledge of characters from our own working class pasts who can inspire us with a sense of hope and agency.
So many people in our country feel completely powerless in terms of the decisions and actions our government makes supposedly in our names, that affect our everyday lives. As I have found myself, writing to your MP, taking part in public consultations and demonstrating seems to make little difference when the interests of powerful corporations etc are taking precedence. There must be other ways that ‘ordinary’ people can make themselves heard and take action in terms of issues surrounding climate change and the globalising economy. What better way perhaps to inspire the public than to raise awareness of their ancestor’s achievements as well as to alert them to the potential outcomes of inactivity!
So, I was thinking that it would be great if ‘updated’ accessible books/ tv series / films based on EP Thomspon’s book were produced and put into the context of the current issues we face, i.e climate change, corporate power, neo-liberalism reaching into education etc etc, and what ‘ordinary’ citizens could achieve if they followed the examples of their ancestors. It’s a tall order, but who better to put the wheels in motion than historians who are well versed in EP Thompson’s work, knew him personally and who also have connections at the BBC?
I am, if nothing, an optmistic idealist but what do others think?