Only Slow Time can answer Rapid Decline

In every century, historians have mis-told their stories. Their narrative has been of the ephemeral – of what this leader, or that “great general” did to change the course of history. Such tales are useful to leaders. They can be presented at court, admired by politicians and entered as texts in school and university curriculums. They are mirrors for the aspiring to pose their best sides and even, by rote learning of passages – to parade an erudition for the admiration of less “extraordinary” people.
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In the same way, narratives are often mis-told by people wishing to change contemporary events – political journalists and theorists, social commentators, “climate change activists” and so on. Those narratives propose that ephemeral action can create durable change. They use the mis-telling of historical events as a precedent to similarly mis-tell the durable changes created by their own political actions.
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My readers will know of Fernand Braudel’s method for a truer telling of history – of the longue durée – of the deep and slow morphologies of societies above which, short-term and medium-term events and their effects survive for their short and medium terms – having little influence on enduring commons of social behaviour. Tolstoy tells a similar tale in War and Peace. Napoleon can disrupt events by posing as Everyman to vast numbers of followers, but he is nothing to the longue durée. Recent UK & US elections have shown the power of that Everyman stance. The pain (leaving aside climatic tipping points) will come and go.
In his book, Home, Francis Pryor unravels British history in Braudel’s way – He asks, what is common to all historical periods? – the idea of home. That simple thought unlocks the past, not as an exotic, but a familiar place – literally – where ancestors like us, in every important way, lived and loved. We find truth in the ordinary – not in praise poems of court bards. We live firstly in families, and only expediently under hierarchies.
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In her copious writings of the Fens, – of ancient field systems and commons – Susan Oosthuizen finds archaeological evidence for unchanged settlement, in spite of the spun tales of migration, or invasion – of “Neolithic star gazers”, warrior-culture “beaker people”, or Saxon “barbarians”. These “events” never happened outside history books. She presents archaeological evidence for unchanged field systems, commons and settlements from at least the late Bronze Age until the Early Medieval Period. In her book, The Emergence of the English, she shows how English speaking emerged from the social necessities and fashions of a necessarily tri-lingual people – from Latin, Brittonic and Old English – and that all three languages were probably spoken without effort, even before the Roman (indisputable) invasion of the island. Now, DNA evidence finds no differences between the people of Wales and England – even though Brittonic language survived in Wales and not in England. Language is a useful tool. It does not define ethnicity. It seems the Celtic invasion “event” – bringing Brittonic/Brythonic languages, never happened. Probably, since the Mesolithic, Welsh and English people have stuck fast in their longue durée – adopting technologies, gods and languages as time passed. We’ve no means to know how we spoke then, but we can be almost certain how we thought of home, proper and improper behaviour and the necessity to maintain those commons – common to us and common to them – common to the slow movement of time. I would append that we would have welcomed travellers, traders and traveller’s tales. We still do.
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Wait a minute! You say, climate change and species extinction need immediate action. We’ve not time to consider grand notions of deep time. We must sign petitions, appeal to powerful politicians – ask them to “act on the science”, because all is now short span.
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I say, it is foolish to appeal to Napoleon. We must turn from the ephemeral, to stir the deep time, which flows through all of us. It is foolish to ask leaders to impose a circular, steady state, or doughnut economy, when these things can only be, if we, personally and one by one, live them. The long durée is me and all of us. It is the invisible hand. It is inherited skills – the idea of home and home-making, the sanctity of the ordinary, of passing on the ordinary… Leaders can only pervert those things. They have led us astray, so that we created BP, Amazon, Tesco, Renault, Microsoft… by our collective purchasing powers. Leaders cannot create BP and co. Only we can do so and only we can undo so.
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The long durée must un-weave the delusive curtains – the sometimes beautifully-woven charisma of Hector, Achilles, Alfred and Arthur; of captains of industry; of Tech Everyman in jeans and trainers. Where a human tool meets its materials is both a sensuality and an ancestry, which joins the species to its soil. It is consequence. We are all consequence. And here’s another thing – cultures are what people do to make them. They stop, when people stop culturing. Until the industrial revolution, leaders have not interfered with the making of cultures – that is, with the skills of the trades. Leaders have relied on the autonomy of trades’ people without question. They’ve only distorted it by rent and taxes – and by recruitment to war. But when long-evolved tools, were replaced by new, coal-driven tools, leaders without skills made clumsy attempts at culturing. Now, we have the consequence.
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Here, in the long durée what then do we propose? – we people, who G K Chesterton said, have not spoken yet? Do we propose to the powers that they impose a steady-state economy? – knowing that such an action would precipitate immediate collapse of institutions, currencies, stock markets and related companies and the tax-generating wages of those they employ? We also know that the powers belong in the short span – by the mirror of last night’s opinion. There is no possibility at all, of their acting on our request.
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Instead, we can appeal to each other to abandon suicide and re-learn what drives all durable settlements – commons of good behaviour. It is a moral appeal and could be a religious appeal. Only that central and binding moral can emerge intact as consumerist and monetarist infrastructures collapse tragically around us. They must collapse.
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Our time is as epic as those remembered from the flood and the fall, which seem universal to almost all cultures. Science will not help us, nor institutional, or NGO guidance. It is simple – we must quench our fires and re-grow, or let re-grow the biomass and biodiversity of our lovely, singular Earth. The ancestral power of the long durée is in us all. Today, it survives only in the house-hold: in parental guidance, in the rationing of chores and pleasures and in inherited taboos. The household produces children – fully formed into the wider culture. But, as we’ve seen, a perverted household created Microsoft and Amazon by the power of its spending. Many millions of households did it. Then, schools and universities taught and consolidated the perversion. Education is our flood. Now is the Great Sanity. Un-spend Amazon. Many millions can do it. Where a tool meets its materials comes a spark of truth in educated darkness. First pick up the tools. De-school. Follow the sparks. As the young Geoffrey Hill sang – “Arthur, Elaine, Mordred, they are gone, under the raftered galleries of bone – and over their cities stands the pinnacled corn.”
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Is that extreme? – Well yes. We are at the extreme edge of extinction. That which goes on though dynasties pass – the pinnacle corn, children laughing at their games, the heaps of couch grass – will also enter oblivion. Leaders will not save them. Only I can. Only you can.
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