When studying history, bits of wisdom can be found that shine through the progression of time and inspire our actions. We find that history is filled with lessons that give us insight into our capacity for destruction, compassion, and apathy. We can take a look into the lives of those who lived before us — what they created, how they acted — and from here we can determine how we ought to act today.
Considering the problems the world faces, we may look back on how we developed in the past and harvest the fruit from groves planted by our predecessors. The first lesson that can be derived is that history teaches us that we are products of our circumstances and therefore we must change the structure, policy, and substance of our environments to better address our problems. A second lesson is that when we’re presented with a problem and we don’t know what to do, history often has some well-trodden path on which we may discover inspiration and direction. It just so happens that people have been concerned about similar things for most of history, and their work, or at least their approach, can orient our focus. Contextualizing our existence in the grand progression of the world, history shows us what can happen and therefore what we are to do. As a third lesson, it follows that, oftentimes, the most civil and productive element of change is dialogue.
We are a product of our circumstances…
Within the light of history, we uncover the relationship between our environments and human nature. The conditions that our ancestors faced shaped how they lived, developed, interacted with each other, and perceived the world. It is the combination of all the influences we’ve ever had that construct our consciences piece by piece and inspire our particular actions. History shows us that we weren’t born in a void but that our characters and beliefs are put together by what’s around us. This isn’t to say that we are devoid of agency, but that our agency is limited to what our environments offer. How could we think to act a certain way when it was never brought to our attention?
With this approach, we can hone in on certain factors and observe how they have influenced people’s actions and lives.
It is a challenge for us to apply this question and type of thinking to the issues before us like climate change, income inequality, psychological disorders, and many others. How can we influence how the public thinks about these problems in order to enact whatever solutions there may be, from increased cultural awareness to positive policy change? How can we emphasize the grave immensity of the environmental challenges we face so that individual citizens may think twice before giving further business to a company directly responsible for the mass deforestation of Sumatran forests in Indonesia? How can we stop getting citizens to vote for policy that doesn’t address these things or for politicians who won’t admit their validity? Now that history has equipped us with a perspective that orients our focus on the external conditions that people live in, by what methods can we organically develop this trust and understanding with the rest of society to work together and change these conditions? We can open up the folds of history and derive answers.
Historical figures show us how it’s done…
Throughout the 19th century, the acquisition of land in the United States and a growing economy prompted a population explosion to which farmers responded by tripling the amount of farmland from 20 million acres to 76 million. To clear land and harvest resources, intensive and rapid deforestation occurred, lowering the total amount of forest in the United States by hundreds of millions of acres — an area greater than the total territories of Germany and France combined. It was a combination of efforts by civic organizations and media that helped alleviate unrestrained deforestation. Self-trained artist John James Audobon painted hundreds of wildlife portraits, particularly of the birds of America, which reminded the people of the United States to think of the animals. Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, reflecting on the virtues of living with low consumption and low impact and promoting a healthier relationship with the environment while simplifying life. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature, discussing how humans can impact the environment to irreversible and damaging ends. Public organizations sprung up like the American Forestry Association, which pushed for the protection of forests and eventually led to the Forestry Reserve Act. Another notable example is John Muir’s Sierra Club, which pushed for national parks.
Theodore Roosevelt had a passion for the environment and was deeply impacted by Audobon, Muir, Thoreau, and other environmental figures. Through policies passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as the Forest Reserve Act and the Antiquities Act of 1906, Roosevelt used his presidential power to establish approximately 230 million acres of protected land. The American people made it clear what they cared about and became more conscious of the direction they wanted to go in. This piece of history shows us not only that change can happen, but it also illuminates the methods that worked to influence public opinion and policy. We can create media, write, organize, collectivize, protest, march, ring doorbells, sign petitions, run ballot initiatives, give speeches, host events, run for office, and the list goes on.
The Importance of Communication
As reflected by those historical figures who were successful in influencing public opinion, it is important to note that we must put great thought into how we communicate. We must deeply consider the function of rhetoric. We must realize how our words will be absorbed by our audience and what strategies can genuinely convey our concerns and ideas to other people. This means that we must transcend our emotional responses to those whose disagreement feels unpleasant in conversation and debate. Remembering how history shows us that people are products of their circumstances alleviates those internal negative reactions when someone holds a different perspective.
Each person’s unique psychology internalizes the culture, media, and personalities around them. What is the point of judging someone for what they have not been exposed to at the different developmental stages of their lives? How is it our fault that there are things we haven’t seen, words we haven’t read, or ideas we haven’t thought about? We must consider this when discussing ideas and problems that are perceived differently by groups with conflicting beliefs. Will we let our egotistical assumption that others should feel the way we do overrun our duty to hear them out and understand why they feel or think the way they do? Are we so arrogant as to believe that the arguments of others couldn’t be more valid in some way than our own? The only way to really figure this out is through as sensible a conversation as we can allow. Day-to-day interactions of individuals who create public opinion are defined when they talk about things, often after being exposed to some piece of media.
In her book Silent Spring, author Rachel Carson highlights the heightened awareness surrounding the detrimental effects of the excessively damaging DDT pesticide in the 1960s. Her book contributed to its banning in the United States; when people talked about addressing the environmental concerns of DDT, they cited Carson’s book. We see that when people have contemplated the efforts of others to convey a sincere and passionate concern, it’s easier to act with them, especially when the listener’s position and feelings are more accessible. History displays to us the effects our communication can have. The more genuine, heartfelt, and open-minded the message, the better the effect.
Obviously, all of human history has led to our current existence as we know it. We are at the forefront of hundreds of thousands of years of human history. It is our collective actions that decide the trajectory of the progression. It is up to us to decide how we spend the “now.” With the never before seen power of the technology of our age, we must evade the most absorbing distractions developed in order to maximize our attention. We must create media to get messages across about problems we care about while also having the open-minded capacity to listen and consider other points of view. Existing on the precipice of history, we may look at the reflection of our collective human race and learn what features need the most work. Will we set examples for future generations to look back on as we create history? It is up to us whether or not we will better this world. Anne Frank once wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” We must take this to heart.