Introduction for a talk on Climate Change and the National Trust

Moretonhampstead Parish Church, 2nd October 2008

Thank you all for coming to this evening’s special event, arranged under the auspices of the Moretonhampstead History Society. For those who don’t know me, my name is Ian Mortimer, and I am the Chairman of the Society.

When it was first suggested to me that we should invite Adrian Colston of the National Trust to come and talk to us, a metaphorical light bulb went on above my head. Obviously, the chance of hearing an expert on the subject of climate change and heritage, and by all accounts an excellent speaker, was one not to be missed.

But there was a more important factor which made this an excellent idea, over and above our own enjoyment of his talk. What he has to say is new, and not just intellectually interesting; it is fundamentally important to our heritage. And when I say that, I don’t mean just understanding how we may better preserve old buildings and ancient landscapes for the future in the face of climate change; I mean understanding the very nature of our heritage, and why we would want to preserve our heritage in the first place.

As a historian myself, this is of great importance to me. It will, I believe, become increasingly important to everyone else in society as the effects of climate change take hold. So, if you will bear with me, I want to take a few moments in this introduction to explain what I mean by ‘changes in the very nature of our heritage’.

It may not be apparent to everyone but we are living at a time when our entire relationship with our past is changing rapidly.

Although history in the popular press continues to inform, entertain and delight us, and although we all visit heritage sites regularly and see them more or less the same from year to year; and although popular history books are produced by the hundred – the reality is that in a hundred years time, our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s view of history will be very different from ours.

This is for two reasons.

The first is an intellectual one. History has always changed. A thousand years ago, history was in an embryonic form; someone might try to pull together the works of chroniclers who had recorded their own views of their own times, but on the whole the old chronicles were simply copied verbatim. It was really only in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that history as we know it developed: a way of objectively describing what happened in the past as opposed simply to chronicling one’s own times. Then, in the early nineteenth century, history experienced another shift, as so many chroniclers and old historians were found to be simply wrong: the records of the government then just transferred to the public record office were found to contradict the chronicles over and over again. So the nineteenth century started to develop a concept of scientific history, in which all facts were gathered, evaluated, assessed and arranged in a narrative form. It came to be believed that history was a process of working out all the details, and that one day all history would be finished – in the sense that all the knowable details would be known. In the twentieth century the philosophy of history ripped up this idea and showed that two historians can have equally valid views of the past, based on the same evidence. They might take themes rather than events as their subject, or see different forces at work, or wish to stress different aspects of the past due to their own experiences and intentions.

But nothing changed history as much as the challenge of postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s. Postmodernists attacked the authority of historians – all historians, from popular writers to the most eminent Oxbridge professor – and denied that they had any real knowledge of the past. Very briefly, they postulated that historians can never prove anything meaningful about the past, because the evidence which survives is always partial, attesting to only a tiny fragment of what actually happened – and even this tiny fragment is so overwhelmingly huge that no individual human mind can come to terms with even a miniscule proportion of it. According to postmodernists, history is a series of stories told by historians for their own purposes, in their own ways, based on their own social conditioning and their own selection of what partial evidence survives. It is thus a personalised and largely artificial discipline, reflecting little or no reality about the past.

University historians failed to answer these challenges in a meaningful way, justifying history through its educational value, as the study of documentary evidence. Of course, this was of no consequence to anyone except those who saw history as only existing in the classroom. But, as a result of the widespread academic failure to deal with postmodernism, something very interesting happened. The public started to answer the challenge of history themselves. History in the 1990s became more popular than ever – driven by a public desire to know about the past. History appeared more often on television than before, and even more history books started to appear than before. All this history did not tell just one story: it told a range of stories. It answered the many varied questions which people wanted to know. There was no longer any such thing as history; there were just lots of histories – each one an attempt to provide an intelligent answer to a valid question.

These developments in history had an impact on the heritage professions. People began to ask, in the wake of postmodernism, why do we care for some buildings and not others? If heritage is just something we pick up to entertain us, e.g. in magazines or weekend visits to country houses, why do we regard heritage bodies as charities? Indeed, why do we bother keeping all this old stuff? What is the value of digging up yet more old pots and bones? Why do we stop people knocking down listed buildings when they want to build carparks, which are far more useful?

Today in 2008 the single answer to all these question is obvious. History is not about the past. It is not a matter of a professor telling you what happened and how important it was. History is about us, about humanity. Or, to be more particular, it is about humanity in time. It is about the way you feel when you look at an old building or a stone row, not just whether you can determine the truth about who built it and when.

So, this is the first reason why our relationship with the past is changing. It is no longer a teacher-led subject dictated by university professors. It is a matter of people – specialists and communities alike – wanting to understand how humanity has changed over time, and how, in some respects, it has not changed, and what all this really means for us as individuals, families and communities.

The second reason why our relationship with history and our heritage is changing is that we have become aware of the price we have had to pay for social change.

Today we live longer than our antecedents. We eat more often and we eat richer food. We drive cars, we fly in airplanes, we travel by trains and ships; we buy electronic commodities, we have oil transported around the world in tankers. We are proud of the fact that we have medicines which make our lives infinitely more comfortable than those of our medieval forefathers. But we are now becoming aware that, all through the centuries, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, we were clocking up a debt to the natural world. And that debt has grown bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and we have done nothing about settling it.

For the first time in human history, we have become acutely aware of the limited resources at our disposal in the world. And we are just coming to accept, universally, that that price is twofold, for not only are our irreplaceable resources limited, our increasingly rapid consumption of them is damaging to the environment. Our entire philosophy of social ‘progress’ – our ability to build a better world – is having to change at a fundamental level, because now we can no longer ignore the fact that all social progress and the very functioning of our market economy comes at a price.

To illustrate this, cast your mind back across the last thousand years, to 1008, and the reign of Ethelred the Unready.

Normally we would say that, halfway through the last thousand years was 500 years ago, 1508, the year before Henry VIII came to the throne. That is how we have always been taught how to think – along a straightforward linear timeline. But now consider that thousand years in relation to the number of people alive in each year. Think of that thousand years in two dimensions, a time and population graph. There is a very steep rise at the 2008 end of the graph. Apart from the blip in the late fourteenth century, the graph is more or less a slow rise between 1008 and 1758. Over those 750 years, the population of England quadrupled from about 1.5 million to six million. But in the last quarter of the millennium, is has gone from six million to more than fifty million.

Think of all those years as people-years: how many mouths to feed each year, how many garments to be stitched, bowels to be evacuated, acres sown, cows slaughtered.

Look at that graph of population again. If you count the number of people alive in any given year, you can start to assess the number of people-years that have been lived since 1008. It adds up to about Nine Billion people-years. Half of those people-years have been lived since 1901. Of all human experience in England since the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the period from Ethelred up to 1901 amounts to 4.5 billion man-years, and the period since Edward VII accounts for about the same.

Now, if we were just counting mouths fed, garments stitched etcetera, that would not be of huge significance. The Aztecs demonstrated that you can support massive populations with hugely developed cultures with no environmental damage as long as you are prepared to eat a lot of maize, live in a hot climate, and do not make the mistake of inventing the combustion engine. In England, however, our exponential population growth has huge implications when considered alongside industrialisation. Think of the last thousand years not as a linear timeline, nor as a two dimensional graph of population over time. Think of it in three dimensions, the amount of raw materials consumed by each person per year over those nine-billion man-years.

Today in the UK, when we have a population of 60 million, we consume about ¼ ton of steel per head. In 1845, when we had a population of 16 million, we consumed one twentieth of a ton of iron and steel. Not only has our population quadrupled, each person consumes five times as much iron and steel. And this is just one resource. We still consume a whole ton of coal per head every year in the UK – 80% of which goes to make electricity. Whichever raw material you pick, you can see the hole in the earth exponentially growing. About 80% of all the iron and steel ever used in the UK has been consumed since 1901. If you were born in 1941 or earlier, then 60% of all the iron and steel ever used in the UK has been consumed during your lifetime.

This is why I say as a historian that our relationship with the past is changing fast. For centuries we made a very modest impact on our landscape, and we could view it as a land of abundance. Now, after just a few generations of stripping that abundance from the land on a massive scale, we realise – for the first time in human history – that abundance is not enough. We are having to learn self-control as a society in a very short space of time. And that is not easy when we have been governed either by feudalism or capitalism for the last thousand years.

What does all this mean for us?

It means the heritage of the future will be very different. At just the point when we have come to question what history is, and what heritage is, and have come to the conclusions that what is important about the past are those things which continue to have meaning for us as communities, families and individuals, we are having also to acknowledge that our way of life from now on will have to be very different. We now know that everything we do, and everything we buy, has an environmental impact. The very awareness that our resources are limited means that our natural resources will increasingly subject to political prioritisation. With an ever-expanding population, we cannot be sure that all our heritage assets will remain at the top of a politician’s priorities, or anywhere near the top, for that matter.

And above it all looms the threat of climate change. I am no expert in this field – I leave this to Mr Colston – but I do know this. The scarcity of resources and the fragmentation of our views of what matters historically are going to mean we have to discuss what we preserve and what we conserve. This applies to everything from historic buildings to unspoilt landscapes and even things as abstract as electronic data.

As I said earlier, our whole relationship with the past is changing. From now on, we will have to champion those things which we want to see preserved. We will have to work harder at keeping our heritage alive. A policy of benign neglect will no longer do.

Ian Mortimer
2 October 2008



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