• The perfect antidote
    December 10,2012

    The perfect antidote

    After the overdose of short-view analysis about the recent election, I enjoyed reading Bill Bryson’s “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.” It was fun and a change, but its 632 pages and long view of 19th-century English social history also shed a lot of light on our American 21st century.

    Bryson describes the excessive privileges — wealth, feelings of superiority — and self-justifying rationalizations of the English landowning class. This 1 percent who obtained riches from privatizing common agricultural land built extravagant residences taken care of by looked-down-upon, overworked and under-rewarded servants.

    Today’s 1 percent doesn’t seem so different. They obtain riches by owning and taking most of the rewards of more productive machines, not sharing them with the workers using those machines, largely because of an oversupply of labor at home and abroad.

    There was one difference, though. When bad weather and the competition of American agricultural products hit England’s landowner class in the late 19th century, they were devastated despite their feelings of superiority and had to bail themselves out by selling their titles to the American wealthy via marriage and their accumulated valuables to American museums.

    Bryson also describes the tremendous changes taking place during the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, both helpful and harmful. These changes will no doubt even be greater in our 21st century as the immense growth of production, energy use and stress on our Earth is accelerating.

    Bryson tells us that of the total energy used on Earth since the Industrial Revolution, half of that energy has been in the last 20 years, and almost all of that in the developed world. This acceleration in all our world cannot go on forever, even if most of the electorate today thinks our Earth can handle it.

    Looking at history is a good antidote for the 24-hour news cycle.

    Harris Webster


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