Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Future of History

I can’t recall ever enjoying reading about or studying history when I went to school.  It was, well, boring.  It seems that as I accumulate past, present, future, time concept on blackboardmy own history, I become increasingly interested in who and what has come before my time.  I am fascinated with scenarios both historical and future.  For example, key events in history link up to bring us to where we are but what if things were different, even one link in the chain of events?

“Coal gave Britain fuel equivalent to the output of fifteen million extra acres of forest to burn, an area nearly the size of Scotland.  By 1870, the burning of coal in Britain was generating as many calories as would have been expended by 850 million labourers.  It was as if each worker had twenty servants at his beck and call.”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3236-43.

I read that and think ‘wow, what if coal and its use had not been discovered?’ Coal has become and continues to be a key ingredient for most generation of electricity in the world.  Consider how our lives have been transformed by the discovery and harnessing of electricity, which depends on us having access to sources of fuel like coal, gas, nuclear, and renewable energy such as solar, wind, and water.

“Suppose you had said to my hypothetical family of 1800, eating their gristly stew in front of a log fire, that in two centuries their descendants would need to fetch no logs or water, and carry out no sewage, because water, gas and a magic form of invisible power called electricity would come into their home through pipes and wires. They would jump at the chance to have such a home, but they would warily ask how they could possibly afford it. Suppose that you then told them that to earn such a home, they need only ensure that father and mother both have to go to work for eight hours in an office, travelling roughly forty minutes each way in a horseless carriage, and that the children need not work at all, but should go to school to be sure of getting such jobs when they started work at twenty. They would be more than dumbfounded; they would be delirious with excitement. Where, they would cry, is the catch?”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3291

You see, when I was a young student you could have pointed me to this sort of thought-provoking text and I would have said ‘so what’ or ‘whatever’.  But now I read that and think about how exciting history is, the discoveries and developments necessary to support my life style and overall improvements for all people groups.

If you were to calculate your average consumption of electricity you would might be surprised to hear that “[s]ince a reasonably fit person on an exercise bicycle can generate about fifty watts, this means that it would take 150 slaves, working eight-hour shifts each, to peddle you to your current lifestyle.” (The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3308)

All production or service is based ultimately on energy whether for people or machines.  We rely on coal, oil, and gas for so many aspects of our lifestyle.  These are essentially historically stored solar energy – the earth is like a huge battery for us to tap into.  Before people discovered these sources and began to create machines to do their labour, most work was done by humans, most often serfs or slaves, and animals, that were expendable.  They needed fuel in the form of renewable calories to be able to perform their work.

When you look back in history at the rise and fall of nations and empires, their success and demise often lies in how they were able to source fuel (for people and animals).  Vast tracts of forest were cleared to grow food (sound familiar…) – these eventually ran out or were too far out from the core of the nation and that society became unsustainable (with major environmental impact).  History teaches us that renewable energy sources are often unsustainable beyond a certain point.  Think about this comment:

“Next time you lament human dependence on fossil fuels, pause to imagine that for every family of four you see in the street, there should be 600 unpaid slaves back home, living in abject poverty: if they had any better lifestyle they would need their own slaves.  That is close to a trillion people… You can regret the sinful profligacy of the modern world, which is the conventional reaction, or you can conclude that were it not for fossil fuels, 99 per cent of people would have to live in slavery for the rest to have a decent standard of living, as indeed they did in Bronze Age empires.”, The Rational Optimist, Kindle loc. 3310

In other sections the author indicates that even though several billion people still suffer with hunger and other significant problems, without the progress, in particular by leveraging fossil fuels, made historically they and most of the world would be worse off.  Most of the planet would have to be dedicated to growing food and nothing else!  I don’t know about you but I find this to be profound.  This leads me to the irony we face now and in the future.  Our “green” energy movement is essentially trying to move us back to an ancient way of powering a society, albeit more hi-tech.

History shows a clear linkage between progress / improvement and the interconnectedness of people and their ideas. 

“The secret of the modern world is its gigantic interconnectedness” (Kindle loc. 3782), “Technologies emerge from the coming together of existing technologies into wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts” (Kindle loc. 3791), “The history of the modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating” (Kindle loc. 3806), The Rational Optimist

This speaks volumes to the importance of education, life long learning, in a collaborative way.  Isolated, self-sufficient, or independent learning, isn’t going to get us far.  Collaboration, integration, interdependence, purpose-driven, these are some key attributes for our education system to embed deeply in our children’s learning experiences.

I would love to see history come alive, somehow, in our children’s educational experience.  I wrote about a futuristic history machine previously and about life in 2020 but more practically, I wonder what master teachers of history are doing today to expose kids to a rich and engaging journey through history.  This is important since our future is so predicated upon knowing and understanding our past!  What might you share about your experience with history personally or in teaching it to young people?