History as Freedom by Joe Costello

Dec 3, 2021 by

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Modernity destroyed history. The technologies of industrialism buried the past, building atop it an always not quite graspable future. Nonetheless, historical knowledge remains freeing. It gives understanding of how the present world came to be, and maybe more importantly, an appreciation that everything that is, never necessarily had to be.

In relation to the age of the earth, the species homo sapiens has been around a very short period of time. Wherever we presently reside, we all descended out of Africa. For the vast majority of human existence, we organized in small groups, living off the land, gathering plants, and hunting animals for sustenance.

The farming era, where we settled in one place, populating in ever greater numbers, annually sowing and reaping crops, is relatively recent. The present industrial era, defined most easily as the mass burning of coal, oil, and gas, is but an instant, though an instant that radically redefined both human existence and the landscape of the planet. For those born into the industrial era, an environment of concrete, steel, and automobiles is as natural as a grass covered savanna filled with buffaloes and antelope was to our ancestors.

This industrial environment has created myths, beliefs, institutions, identities, and processes relative only to industrialism, having little meaning outside it. Humanity is leaving the industrial era, but it is all we know. This is not unprecedented. For example, in Medieval Europe, the Catholic Church defined human life in certain ways as completely as industrialism defines human life today. In a rather thick history documenting the changes of that era, “Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages,” the author R. W. Southern makes an astute historical observation which is immensely helpful for today. He writes,

“It often happens at critical moments in history that ideas which have long held the field almost unchallenged are suddenly discovered, not to be wrong, but to be useless; then almost everyone can see they are absurd.”

We are surrounded by prominent ideas, and it needs to be added, institutions, that are not wrong, but useless. In the not too distant future, their absurdity will become clear to all. One way or other homo sapiens enter a new era and despite industrialism’s dismissal of history, our history, especially our relation to the planet will prove both highly useful and freeing.

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