Thursday, October 29, 2009

Looking forwards to the past

I must admit that before I studied the stone age with my children, I had a very Hollywood or cartoon vision of the people. I studied the stone, bronze and iron age at school, but had the impression that the people were brutish and barbarian, and not at all the intelligent people that we like to think we are.

I knew that the monuments and circles like Stonehenge were designed to line up with the movements of the sun, without ever questioning how on earth primitive man, with no compasses, clock or calendars could possibly have found this information.

A night under the stars, watching for meteor showers and talking with my children about the life of the stone age people who lived in our garden, taught me more than months of lessons in school. I realised that I would be an ignorant townie and probably starve if dropped into the stone age world of flint knapping and hunting deer. Or die of poisoning, eating the wrong berries or plants. Or die of exposure, unable to build a house without a ready supply of bricks and mortar from a local Wickes (which is itself built over a bronze age habitation).

I realised that the people of that time were not much different from us in appearance or intelligence, but they had to be educated to be able to do most things for themselves... a man would have to be able to make his own weapons and tools, build his own house, make his own clothes, catch his own food. Their intelligence wasn't less than our is, but it was all directed towards survival skills and being able to do all the necessary things oneself. Goodness what happened if you got sick or hurt. Well... you died, if you didn't have close family to look after you.

In today's world you can go through life quite incapable of catching or killing your meals, unable to identify plants and herbs, unable to build houses, make your own clothes, or even cook our own food.

In their world, there was a magical didn't waste anything, and used whatever was the appropriate tool for the job. In our world, we have become careless of the raw materials we have at our disposal, and unthinking about throwing away anything which doesn't serve our needs at the moment.

This is a change which happened only recently: my grandmother never threw away a useable jar, piece of string or elastic band. She remembered a world without packaging, where you took your own jug to the inn for beer or bag to the grocers for eggs, and the world of the second world war, with rationing and shortages of sugar and meat.

Our modern world became blase with plastic and oil and we have frittered away the resources which in years to come we may be held to account for. Our morass of plastic which washes up in the stomachs of albatross chicks inadvertently fed poison by their parents. Plastic tags, trashy plastic toys, plastic bottles, plastic bags and packaging and useless little tokens of our throwaway society. For years, because we haven't had to think about where our food is coming from, where our next piece of plastic is coming from, we haven't thought at all... I recently heard a talk on radio about how our grandchildren may regard our profligate use of the worlds resources on stupid bits of unnecessary plastic... you used it...for what!? to hold new pairs of socks together? To attach price tags?

My feeling is that while we think our lives are full of worry and economic angst, we are probably living now in the richest and least worried state of all time and will look back with envy at a time when - in the west - we don't have to struggle to survive. I don't believe the doomsday predictions about 2012, but that's not to say that I don't think the Maya knew what they were talking about: it is the end of one age, and the beginning of another, and it is possible that there are changes ahead whether due to climate change caused by us or climate change caused by natural cycles or climate change caused by the end of an astronomical phase ending in pole shifts and disasters... but which ever way, we will begin to see changes caused by the climate shifting.

We need to change back, to go back to being people who conserve the things they have, who know about the natural world and what burns/doesn't burn, what can be eaten/can't be eaten and how to use old tech to do the things we want, in case new tech lets us down.

I found this website, Primitive Ways, which has lots of information about making your own baskets or tanning your own hides, and also a fascinating article about the belt which the iceman Otzi carried with him on his last journey cross the pass in the mountains. It reminded me how wrong I was to regard early man as ignorant or unintelligent, for what intelligence there was in the things that he carried and the things that he'd made.

That's not to wish us all back to the stone age in the years to come, but to hope that we learn to apply some of the economy and intelligent use of resources that were a necessary feature of those times.

Unfortunately I fear that the tragedy of the commons indicates that we may postpone taking action until it is far too late - and by taking action I am not just talking about recycling and using low energy light bulbs, but planning for rising sea levels, changing food production methods and a world where maybe nothing will happen at the touch of a button, and we may need to learn to be responsible for ourselves.

Einstein is quoted as having said: I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

I think he would have imagined a fight between two worldly powers, and not a fight against environmental changes, but if we get it wrong, he's right anyway. It's back to the stone age.

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