VI.4: HISTORY

No-one can do anything as well as it can be done unless they are totally absorbed by it, and that implies endless curiosity – not only what things are like, and how they operate, but how they came to be as they are; and, as far as is knowable, why things are the way they are and not some other way. In short, everyone who is truly absorbed, and curious, must take an interest in history.

Or as the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana observed in The Life of Reason in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – and that includes repeating the mistakes. All too obviously he was right. So it is that intellectual government advisers have appeared on television during recent famines to tell us that come what may, the suffering people should not eat crops intended for export – for the long-term interests of humanity, or at least of that portion of it that is deemed to matter, depend, those sages assure us, on international trade.

Defenders of free trade produced exactly the same arguments during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when a million died of starvation and another million emigrated – about a quarter of the whole population. Ireland’s barns at the time were stuffed with oats, but they were earmarked for England’s horses, and the monetary transactions were deemed to matter more. Even if the modern free-trade advocates had known any history, they might still have clung to their neoliberal dogma. But perhaps they would at least have thought a little longer.

We have much to learn too from the Luddites of the early 19th century who smashed the new textile machinery. They were not the mindless opponents of progress as they are commonly portrayed. They asked serious questions about the nature and the price of progress; how we should balance increase in “efficiency” and wealth against human values, ways of life, and the health of the biosphere. The same questions seem even more pertinent today.

All history is pertinent to the crucial issue of land – who should own it and who should have the right to use it. We can learn from the way things were done in Classical and feudal times, and from the Levellers, the Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, and reformers such as Robert Owen and Henry George, and much, much more from Britain and the whole world. For as the Preacher observed in Ecclesiastes, “there is no new thing under the Sun” (at least in principle).

Then of course there is the history of farming itself – how it came into being (which is much misunderstood) and the societies and people who over millennia turned wild and often toxic plants into crops, and skittish and often dangerous creatures into livestock – and then, alas, often pushed them well beyond what ought to be seen as acceptable limits. Who made this happen? When? How? Why? So of course we must look at history too.