Everybody calls for values and vitas – or fears the problems – of the past, cherishes – or criticizes – the now, hopes for the (literally) no-place of a future utopia or fears the equally non-existent (or not yet existent, anyways) future dystopias.
Where the focus goes, to the good or the bad, in the past or the future, there goes the criticism of other times and of people with another focus. Rightly so, perhaps – and always dangerously.
Looking at the past and the present in realistic ways, seeing the good sides and the bad, is something we seem particularly bad at, and it seriously hampers our chances of building up from there to better futures.
Earlier times and pre-modern ways of life are, for example, either presented as harmoniously in tune with nature – think of all the tidbits of (real or imagined) Native American wisdom floating around, the celebration of bucolic and pastoral pasts – or shown as necessarily “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The problem is this:
It is quite true that life expectancies have gone up only with modern medicine – but it is also possible that statistics on life expectancy in earlier times or among premodern groups are skewed because infant mortality was high (you can get an average life expectancy of forty years from 10 people all living to close to 40 years, or having 5 of them die as children and the other 5 only past 70…).
Neither is it only lifespans that count.
Even if most people didn’t have long lives, they obviously lived well enough to survive and reproduce (or humanity would have died out then and there).
It’s a rather extreme example, of course, but an Alexander the Great (and his soldiers) experienced and accomplished rather a lot in his 30-some years of life.
Most of us now can expect to live to between 70 and 80 years of age – and then find ourselves living our younger years in ways that may mean that the older years will be existed through rather than lived well… – Or how much experience and accomplishment do you think it will it bring to be obese from an early age, and then to have to fight diabetes and all the problems that come with it throughout the remainder of life?
We even find ourselves afraid of changing to better, learning more, developing better happiness. Or even just cooking and eating well, moving around enough, trying and creating work that we will want to do in our lives…
Besides, to get back to the past and the life span: Researchers are quite certain that the average lifespan of the individual actually declined in humanity’s switch from hunting and gathering to agricultural ways of life, and time spent working for sustenance increased.
The rather cartoonish but excellent “Crash Course World History,” in its very first episode, discusses that matter very well – and again, it is not lifespans themselves that count as much as other advantages to societies and cultures (such as, strange as that may appear, their stratification, specialization, and greater power).
Think back to medieval times: Yes, they were much harder. More violence, more chances that sickness means death, the hard labor in the fields.
When it comes to work time, though… At the same time as there was hard work, as Michael Perelman points out in The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers, when you didn’t have to bring in the harvest (incidentally, somewhat similar to the situation with hunter-gatherers and their daily allocation of time, though they had to work even less to get by), there was actually a lot of free time. Holidays per year (admittedly, predominantly church-controlled) numbered up to 200.
Or take food: Nutrition was probably not the best, with times of plenty and times of famine. More often than not, though, it was possible for people to feed themselves and increasingly produce surpluses – with advances in technology, in ways that did change entire ecosystems, but still in rather ‘sustainable’ ways. Otherwise, without those surpluses, all the great works of art and architecture (and learning) we often still admire could not have been built…
Moreover, “poor” farmer’s cooking (neither that of the destitute, nor that of the overly rich) increasingly turns out to be a rather healthy choice compared to the meat-, let alone sugar-, rich modern industrial diet.
Current agriculture is decidedly not sustainable, but still highly productive – and producing much more, certainly in terms of calories, even per person, even given the much higher numbers of people now living on this our planet.
Yet, commercial pressures drive many subsistence farmers off their land and into a destitution that is outright (stereotypically) medieval – and destitute compared to subsistence farming in well-functioning agro-ecological societies…
To add insult to injury, it produces so much of many commodities that, simply for the companies who have that produced to make a higher profit (the farmers don’t make much of any profit from it), derivatives of those crops find their way into just about any food, and get marketed aggressively: Soy and corn, first and foremost, being used to feed cows that should graze and even salmon that should hunt other fish, getting put into ever more processed foods as high fructose corn syrup… and the “diseases of civilization” progress. Along with lifespans (perhaps), but with truly better lives?
We could also think about the material affluence of modern lives. It’s obviously there, and information and communication technology has been giving us opportunities for learning and sharing ideas – and doing commerce, and so much more, not least of which is to find entertainment – that are quite unimaginable compared to the things that came before.
At the same time, we are not necessarily all that much better off for them. More entertained, more distracted, for sure. But happier? Leading richer lives? Able to concentrate on things and people that are important?
All too often, we just chase the next buck and the next bit of interaction, be that the somewhat more real of social networks or the even more virtual of online role-playing games, all in the pursuit of happiness and the accumulation of ever more stuff.
Meanwhile, to those who know how to handle life – and their finances – well and who know values, not just prices, of things, traditional kinds of products can be worth it. Decidedly so.
The disposable razor may be more convenient, but the good straight razor costs less over a lifetime and could still be passed on to the next generation – and it builds virtues such as skill and attention.
Not many good traditional cooking utensils are needed for a well-stocked kitchen, they would have been familiar to someone from bygone eras – and they all will serve their purpose well (if the cook knows how to handle them right) for a long time. The plethora of modern gadgets, for the most part, is nothing but a waste of money and space – wrapped up in the promise of the “easy.”
IKEA may be fun to browse and indulge in the accumulation of more acquisitions, but real carpentry makes furniture that looks and feels better, lasts for generations, and does not use chemicals that may be harmful.
Not to mention bespoke tailoring and shoe-making…
But of course, such goods also entail less novelty, more of a steady-state economy (and though that may be both necessary and better, it still is a term alone that startles many a politician and economist). We can’t all return to hunter-gatherer or subsistence lifestyles, and wouldn’t want to.
Anyways, though, the point is not to decide, once and for all, whether the past or the present were/are better or worse. Trying to do that, there is either an earnest but still misguided calculus of average lives (which were/are longer or shorter, richer or poor), or only just the focus on either the good or the bad, depending on personal aims and convictions, and resulting in the presentation of caricatures of the lives considered.
Life at different times, in different societies and different social strata, has always presented its own challenges and its own opportunities. Every time has its pleasures and positive potential, and every time has its problems. Past, present, and (if we are not totally, stupidly destructive) future.
It is also quite clear that some elements of our human lives, simply by virtue of them being human lives, will for all practical extents and purposes, always be a part of human lives:
We are living bodily beings, and thus we need air, water and food. For good health, we need them in certain conditions and compositions.
We are social animals, and thus we will always live in social groups of some kinds, and with some arrangements being better for our well-being than others, but also with a great range of possible arrangements.
The same applies for all the things that make us happy, and the same pertains to the ecological connectedness of our bodies and minds with and in the life that surrounds it: there is diversity, but there are states more conducive to our flourishing.
It’s high time we quit quarreling over just what time is/was absolutely all worse or better, learn what we can about what is possible and good, and get to work on better.