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Useful And Fantastic: Waste No History

Val Yule encourages us to preserve the best of the past.

'Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.'

All around us we are throwing away history—and vast resources try to recover what has been lost before.

Australia is a recently urbanised country, yet already we have destroyed so much of what our forefathers have built—The glory of late Victorian Collins Street in Melbourne, and the fine and comfortable suburban homes now being trashed to replace with in-fillers for a denser population, and the wonderful books that are trashed in libraries because 'we only have NEW books.'
There is now evidence that humanity may be over 150,000 years old, but only the last 50,000 with tools and other signs of culture. But what can we see today of those 50,000 years apart from what is dug up or found in caves?

I have looked over the glorious scenery of bare green glens in Scotland where only a few stones show there were homes there just a century ago, and of signs of the thousands of years of humans living there before that — there is nothing.

In other places there are strange rings of standing stones from ages past. What else was there when those stones first stood around?

In the past, many signs of the past have withstood invasions and decay—until recently. Our culture is the most destructive ever. We have destroyed more in the past fifty years than any other generation, Genghis Khan and all. We make body counts of enemies killed—but most bombs dropped destroy the past as well. The Iraq war has destroyed history that had survived a thousand years. The Olympic Games in China is causing vast swathes of traditional Chinese courtyard homes to be wiped away. Until less than thirty years ago English medieval churches could stay open unattended all day, for anyone to visit whether to admire or to pray.

We cannot keep everything. We would be suffocated by the past. It can be bad enough when an inner urban disadvantaged school with limited space has to keep an old tin shed as its assembly hall because it is 'heritage'. It would be easy enough to re-erect it somewhere else.

We cannot keep all our family treasures. Most people cannot even keep their parents' heirlooms or a selection of photographs or family history. This is a shame. Everybody's home should have enough room to store a bit of its past—even things people may want to use again, like prams.

The National Library is putting 'everything' into permanent digital record—wonderful, as long as the technology exists to continue to access it.

School students have to study a lot of contemporary fiction—and they don't always like it. They are often expected to study history as if they were university research students—this sort of critical literacy is needed occasionally—but most of their history studies should have all the grip of narrative. A main practical reason why humans are inbuilt to love stories is to remember their past. And we can keep trying to tell it more 'like it really was'.

Look back at the newspapers of ten, thirty, eighty, a hundred years ago. How many of the problems of that time have we solved? How many are just going on and on and on? So that journalists and letter writers might as well just press ditto buttons. What a waste that these protests and ideas have not been followed up to completion.

Listen to all the people assuming that human behaviour today is always the same as always before—that teenagers were always horribly rebellious, that everyone always took drugs of some sort, that war is innate, that no nation has been sober—what a waste of history that people are so ignorant of alternatives that have been successful—and how they were lost. How did people manage when there were no plastic bags or kitchen paper?

One of the most important aspects of history should not be lost—knowing about past dead civilisations and how they have died through their own excesses and waste—and how others have saved themselves. We need those histories now.

© Valerie Yule


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