Decolonising History in the Anthropocene – a proposal

“He (sic) who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell (1984)

In a civilisation facing an emerging climate catastrophe that its education system is ill equipped to cope with – we face the difficulty of having to imagine a future within a mental framework dictated by the limits of the society that is creating the crisis – and by people in charge who seem content to run on with business as usual until its too late. The way we teach and learn History is currently part of the problem and needs to be part of the solution. Those who control the present want to lock us into a narrative about the past that suits them; and prevent us imagining any future that does not.

The limits of a “national” framework”.

History is usually taught within a national framework – and therefore looks at the world in a distorted way. The way that each significant country prints maps that show it at the centre is a similar distortion in Geography. US maps split Eurasia in half to show the Americas as middle Earth, European maps centre on the Greenwich Meridian, Chinese maps centre on the Pacific and East Asian region – where most of the world actually lives to be fair. In these, the Americas are a fringe continent on the right and Europe tucked away and barely noticeable in the top left corner, while Britain is barely visible as a little blur of islands almost beyond Ultima Thule and of no significance whatsoever. Seeing one for the first time comes as a shock when you are used to seeing it smack in the middle.

So it is with the national framework for History. The use of History as “the national narrative” (“Our Island Story”) tends to be promoted by the centre right – as “national epic” by the far right. But, even without this being that explicit, looking at the world through the lens of a particular nation – which means through the views of the people who run it – is as disorienting as mapping the world in your head by absorbing Mercator’s projection. When I was in First Year Juniors in 1961, we had a huge world map on the wall – lots of it still coloured in pink – and – being a day dreamy sort of child – I spent a lot of time looking at it – the shapes, the colours, the relative sizes. Many years later, as an adult, I found it almost impossible to accept the reality that Brazil has a larger land area than the United States; because the map in my head was Mercator’s and – on his map – it doesn’t.

The purpose of nationally framed History is to create a shared mental space, a common imaginary identity built around a self image of a “people” with certain fundamental characteristics in common (which comer-inners have to integrate into) and a presumption of allegiance to time hallowed institutions and ways of doing things. This is the way “we” do it. The stories that are told may or may not be true. The way they are framed frequently owes more to myth than truth. The Washington Post ran a story last year about the way British History is perceived in Britain and the way it is perceived in the rest of the world. In Britain, people thought that the most significant and archetypal experience in British History was World War 2.  In the rest of the world, without exception, the most significant and archetypal experience in British History was seen as the British Empire. I suspect that the rest of the world – a large part of which was on the receiving end of it – has us bang to rights on that.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked (in Fractured Times) that no one knew how to teach History in Vienna in the 1920s. The old text books glorifying the Austro- Hungarian Empire were still in the schools, but the seemingly eternal Habsburg Emperors were no longer holding sway from the Hofburg, and the Empire had shattered, under the crushing pressure of World War, into disparate components run by nationalists with smaller, fiercer stories told in a vernacular closer to home. Some Austrians were soon to find their own version of this, but in the meantime, the History text books were glorifying a ghost.

At the time of America’s “unipolar moment” in the early 90’s – declared to be the “end of History” by Francis Fukuyama – there was a globalising version of this, with all previous human societies and social orders as preparations for the American way of life; now posed as a norm for the rest of the world to match up to; rather than the extraordinarily hollow, wasteful and precarious existence we know it to be. Rather like the way Hegel – teaching as he was in Berlin – interpreted the whole of human History – and the ultimate working out of the Weltgeist – as leading inexorably and benevolently towards its perfect incarnation in the Prussian state of the 1830s. Both these flatten out a key point about History – that human societies have been very diverse and there is no one model for them. They have changed. The present is unlike the past in many respects and the future need not be like it either.

None of these frameworks are of any use at all in understanding how humanity got to the current crunch and, if what we understand of history is to be anything other than stories we console ourselves with – or use to blame others – as the planet burns, it needs to be.

An Environmental Framework

We need a framework for History that looks at forms of human society in relation to their environment. All human societies have a definite mode of surviving that is defined by – and transforms – the environment in which they develop and lead to characteristic social relations, political and religious forms which define the character of conflicts and struggles within them.

What follows is a draft and meant to stimulate discussion and development. There is no attempt to look at pedagogy, nor what to teach when; more an attempt to sketch an initial brainstorm of what kind of understanding we need. There are huge gaps reflecting the limits of my own learning. This is not a chronological list. The list of examples at the end of each section is just that – not an attempt to be exhaustive nor to suggest that each of them has to be studied. References: Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond. What happened in history. V.Gordon Child.

Hunter gatherer (paleolithic) leading to Early Farming (neolithic)

Emergence of human species. 95% human existence has been as hunter gatherers.

Humans as social animals. Speech. Tools. Art. Polytheism. Matriarchy or patriarchy or both?

Currently existing hunter gatherer societies in rain forests.

Impact on environment. Extinction of mega fauna in the Americas and New Zealand after human arrival.

Farming emerging from and generating denser populations. Why did this happen in some places and not others?

Which plants could be grown and stored in sufficient amounts to be viable for farming and where were they?

Which animals can be domesticated and where were they? Diets and disease.

River based early local Empires (Bronze Age Eurasia – advanced stone age Americas)

Common features. A big river and/or irrigation. Ships for bulk transport. In Eurasia wheeled transport – carts and chariots. Bronze tools and weapons. Storage for surplus food. Armies. Specialisation of trades. Ploughs. Animal power – horse, buffaloes, camels, Llamas (in South America). Writing, keeping accounts, partial literacy. Monarchical theocracy with partially animal based gods. Priesthoods beginning to investigate the stars and develop mathematics. Oral story telling in poetic form. The first written stories and Holy Books. Monumental building. Life bound up with natural cycles and vulnerable to them (the years of the lean cow). The spread of the local empire dependent on the limits of horse power and the extent of controllable space.

The Maya as a study of a society hitting ecological limits? How did the Inca Empire get so big?

Possible examples. Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, Egypt, Shang Dynasty China, Maya, Inca,

Large Empires (Iron Age – medieval)

As above but more so. Iron tools and weapons. Water power. Roads. Emergence of more human like gods and development of monotheism in Rome and Arabia.

Monotheism as a cultural/moral/legal framework allowing expanded trade in medieval Christendom and Caliphates. Heresies and schisms.

Slavery and economic implosion (Rome). The impact of (natural) climate changes on agriculture after the “Roman optimum”. The impact of drought on nomadic movements.

Vulnerability to disease and climate shifts (effect of volcanic winter in 530’s and subsequent plague in Byzantium and elsewhere).

Early Chinese industrialisation – what stopped it taking off?

Rome. China. Caliphates. Khanates.

First Globalisation

Oceanic exploration – Ocean going ships from China and Europe. Why did China stop? Global trade, gunpowder, plantations, slavery and slave trade, racism, pandemic genocide of native Americans.

The “little ice age”. Why did it happen?


Surplus capital from above – Steam power. Machines. Mines. Factories. Mass production. Canals to railways. Mass transit. Mass migration. From sail to steam. From flintlocks to rifles. From wood to steel. From villages to cities. Massive rise in population.

Unevenness of development. World Empires, world wars 1740’s – 1815. Science turned to production, the production of science. Increased scientific exploration of everything. Mass education. Mass entertainment. Mass politics. Mass struggles. Gas power, electricity, chemicals, oil, motor vehicles.

Rise and fall of Pax Britannica. Sea based global power.

Carve up of Africa – colonial genocides and famines – resistance to and within Empires.

Empires turn on each other – WW1 and WW2. Revolutions and civil wars – Russia, China.

Cycles of growth and collapse. Great depression. Fascism. Holocaust. Dust bowl.

The Anthropocene

When did it start?

Atomic power and nuclear bombs.

The American Century? Rise and decline of the Pax Americana. Air based global power.

Decolonisation and neo colonialism. Cold wars up to 1989. Hot wars since. The collapse of the USSR and the rise of China.

“Green ” revolution and land degradation. Patenting nature. Industrialised agriculture and factory farming. 6th mass extinction.

“Just in time” patterns of global trade. Containerisation and the shift away from manufacturing in developed countries.

Space – the final frontier?

Climate change awareness. What is happening? Who is responsible? Who is already paying the price? Contemporary movements for change.

The time’s out of joint episode 3. We the people?

The real divisions in a society in crisis are often obscured by the form of the apparent political rift. When Polly Toynbee (Guardian 26/3/19) argues from opinion poll results that the divide between leavers and remainers is now more strongly felt than prior allegiance to political party she underlines a disjunct between a passing sense of identity and a longer term set of alliances based on material interests that are more fundamental.

These interests cross borders. A paradox of globalisation is that the ethno-nationalist reaction against it is being encouraged, assisted and funded by the policy of the Trump administration in the United States, and some of the right wing  media outfits associated with him. Some US businesses are doing this directly – looking forward to serious pickings as big polities are broken up into weaker fragments. They are working on the EU. They would like to do it to China.

The most fundamental  division in Britain is between those who have wealth and power and those who do not – however they voted in June 2016. It is in the interests of the former to coral as many of the latter as possible behind them and the most potent way to do so has always been “patriotism” – the assumption that being born in a place should put you at the front of the queue for whatever is going and – that your particular “identity” somehow makes you both better than other people and gives you a wider significance- as a compensation for your very real subordination and obscurity in everyday life. In countries that are no longer as powerful and influential as they were, this often becomes toxic.

A division within the wealthy – in which one faction breaks with the established way of doing things- leads to all sorts of weird developments in which all that is solid turns into air – old Etonians claim to be anti-elitist, a leadership contender for the Conservative Party says “Fuck business”, the Daily Express, Sun and Mail denounce the House of Lords and the judiciary; and hedge fund managers short sell UK stocks and bonds to cash in on the economic consequences of their “patriotic” campaign – in which the lower orders are urged to “believe in the country” – taking as their motto an inversion of JFK – “ask not what you can do for your country” – ask only what your country can do for you.” and go laughing all the way to the tax haven.  Because the country is set up for their benefit and only functions in order to do so, they wrap themselves in the Union flag while deftly stashing their assets in Dublin or Belize or Singapore, and preparing to burn “traitors” on bonfires made of red tape, as a distraction from the grand opening of

  • Free Trade Ports and Enterprise zones (in which they and their friends will be bribed and subsidised to invest, while paying no tax back)
  • the take over of the Health Service by US insurance firms (and probably Virgin) -so check the wallet before the pulse
  • and the spread of chlorinated fried chicken stands- finger lickin cheap and nasty.

disguising their venality in the name of “The People.”

So, who are “The People”?

When Michael Howard went on the radio on Sunday (24 March) to argue for the hardest available Brexit, he talked about honouring the wishes of the 17.4 million people who vote to leave in the referendum, without troubling himself to question whether his own preference was indeed what they were voting for. He had a point as far as it went. 17.4 million is a lot of people and their views have to be taken into account. But, beyond the 17.4 million, what about the rest of us?

In a country with over 66 million people, that’s just under 50 million who’s views – in Howard’s world – are simply to be excluded from having any say or influence in the future direction of the country.

One of his Conservative colleagues commented today that “the British people” had “voted overwhelmingly” to leave the EU. Thinking that a ratio of 52:48 of those voting is “overwhelming”is sufficiently odd to require some investigation as to who he thinks “the British people” are.

Of a population of 65.5 million in 2016:

17.4 million voted leave.

16 million voted remain.

13 million were under 18 and ineligible to vote.

3 million were EU citizens not entitled to vote despite working and contributing.

16 million didn’t vote at all.

As a graph, this looks like this.


For this Conservative MP, the bloc represented in dark blue is an “overwhelming majority.” For Michael Howard these are “the people”, or at least the people that count – in whose image the nation must be recast. This is also about the control of the 17.4 million. Their views were and are far more diverse than they have been presented, but for people like Howard they are a useful statistic forever frozen in 2016 – the time of The One True Vote.

This sets us up for continuing crisis and polarisation. A political project that seeks to slash and burn regulations and protections for workers rights and the environment, that favours the replacement of the civil service with ad hoc committees of businessmen, that is prepared to see social security, farming and manufacturing go to the wall by slashing tariffs, and the re-ignition of the Irish troubles over a reimposed border, cannot afford to have a consensual approach. The sheep must be separated from the goats and the goats must be slaughtered. The cultural revolution style shrillness of the headlines – CRUSH THE SABOTEURS – ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE –  matches the disruptive scale of the project and also the impossibility of it being carried through without a breakdown in an agreed political framework in which differences can be resolved without violence. It is in this context that a reviving UKIP is seeking to build an effective  street fighting movement led by Tommy Robinson, pulling firms of football hooligans into some very large and aggressive mobilisations which have attacked trade unionists and the police.

If Brexit is averted the crisis will continue because everything that then goes wrong will be attributed to “the great betrayal” – in the same way that Germany was only defeated in World War 1 because the army was “stabbed in the back.” Untrue myths are often the most potent – because they cannot be tested. The scale of this remains to be seen, but anyone who thinks that just remaining in the EU as it currently is will solve all our problems has not noticed the economic stagnation of the euro zone, the impasse of Macron, the backsliding of Germany on its climate change commitments and the continent wide spread of US backed ethno-nationalist currents likely to make the next European parliament the most right wing in its history.

If Brexit is not averted – especially if we get a hard version – the grim realities are likely to turbo charge a hunt for further “saboteurs” and “enemies if the people”.

Although the weariness at all this is often expressed in the infantile injunction to “just get on with it” – as if “it” was something that you could “just get on with” – most people want to be able to get on with their lives without massive upheaval and disruption. Remaining, or the softest possible Brexit, like Labour’s deal or Norway plus, offers the best chance of relative stability in which “The People” can realign around more fundamental questions.