History is About the Past, That’s Kind of the Point

Why you shouldn’t buy into Tobias Stone’s end of the world article

Skeletons dancing like it’s the end of the world — a thing which is still not inevitably happening right now. Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, via Wikipedia.

Hey, so I have a history background. According to this article by Tobias Stone, that makes me some kind of authority on the subject of what happens next now.

My background is archaeology, so also history and anthropology. It leads me to look at big historical patterns.

Tobias’ article makes an interesting point about cycles. But despite that interesting big history view, he makes it without drawing out a very good sense of how cycles relate to your life and our future right now.

History isn’t actually very good at predicting the future. As Mark Twain is (questionably) attributed with saying:

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

History knows what happened in the past. The future is different each time, though. Even if some of the words sound similar.

A photo of Mark Twain, who probably didn’t say that history rhymes. From Wikipedia.

If you want a grand narrative, Tobias makes for interesting reading. (I’m not being sarcastic. I really enjoyed reading it.) Even if the way he outlines the long term upside of, say, the black death glosses over the fact that, for those who died, it really was the end of the world.

Grand narratives are appealing, but that doesn’t make them true. The idea of “progress” – that history is the story of each society being better than the last – has been rejected for a long time, even if we sometimes still get a version of it at school. But rejecting progress as an idea isn’t the same as mixing up the past with the present.

We have better medicine than England during the plague, better communications than Europe before World War I, and, surprisingly, less fascism than Europe and America before World War II.

Which is to say that we can both recognise that in the past they also thought “now is different”, while still being aware of what tools we have that our predecessors didn’t. Even if our tools also give us problems that our predecessors didn’t have.

I think you can learn a lot from history. “Don’t be complacent” is a good lesson. “Yes, this is really happening” is a good lesson. “Little events can spiral out of control almost in an instant” is a pretty good one, too.

But “this will be just like last time” is millenialism. Which in practice means “a kind of cultish death wish, where I find a coming apocalypse unhealthily appealing”.

That, for me, is the worst part of Tobias’ piece: the suggestion that that this is the end, and that the end is inevitable. But the end isn’t coming, even if suffering does. We have to live with this. No matter how horrific things become, most of us it won’t kill.

And inevitability fuels itself.

During the unfolding crisis that started the First World War, a belief in the inevitability of a coming big war lead some of the era’s European generals to calculate – amid the chaos started by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – that now would be the best time to start that war.

According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm:

… at a certain point in the slow slide towards the abyss, war seemed henceforth so inevitable that some governments decided that it might be best to choose the most favourable, or least unpropitious, moment for launching hostilities.

The belief that the looming war was inevitable helped start the First World War. A fear of the inevitability of a repeat of that Great War (not yet the first of two) lead Chamberlain to appease that prospect, rather than confront it early.

“Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals” Not necessarily the same exact generals Hobsbawm talked about, but close. Source: Library of US Congress via Wikipedia

A sense of inevitability about losing the fight against global warming is also a self fulfilling prophecy. But that doesn’t actually make warming inevitable all by itself.

Don’t buy into the inevitability that is written deep into Tobias' piece. That goes double if you feel like Trump is the end of the world.

Germany between the wars was economically devestated by the First, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was devestated by the legacy of colonialism, Russia was devestated by bad policy during and after the Communist regime. They didn’t have strong civil societies, strong courts and a strong tradition of government. The United States does. Despite how it may appear at the moment.

This doesn’t mean that the worst can’t come to pass. But it does mean that there are still powerful ways you can get involved to stop racism being the norm in the United States, or in your own country.

Believing that disaster is inevitable helps allow it to happen. Don’t be blinkered about what a Trump presidency means. But, by the same token, don’t believe that disaster is inevitable.

The tools for dealing with impending disaster is by observing the now, not drawing analogies from history.

Work out what you’re best at, and act.