The Old Days

Daily breakfast. Fresh milk from hundreds of miles upstate, processed oats from a thousand miles away, berries flown 5000 miles over the equator, fish oil from an ocean, exotic coffee. Modern miracles everyday.

Old folks edit memories into nostalgic golden auras, young folks have no ancient memories to edit.  By default, the old days become fantasies filled with shining knights, noble warriors, nature priestesses or the like, and endless summer beckons.  Men were men, a simple world calmed the spirit, and strong beliefs helped everyone through dark times.  Each individual who imagines those daydreams also imagines themselves as one of the winners _ always a knight or warrior or princess, never a slave or peasant, surely never shivering famished in winter.

The really old days need not harken back to Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Neolithic China.  We have trouble conceiving of daily life before 1900, and cannot really grasp it before 1850.  No electricity or plumbing, food preservation mostly using salt, horse manure (and worse) stinking everywhere, almost no bathing especially in winter, violence rampant, heavy drinking because of bad water, frequent hunger and desperate cold.  Women always pregnant, often dying in childbirth.  Almost half of children dead before the age of ten.  Men crippled or killed by machinery, beasts, infections, and other men.  You don’t realize how tough the human race is until you dig deeply into true histories of such times.

My Pennsylvania childhood in the fifties is nostalgically seen as a golden age.  We were taught that we were the exceptional people, inheritors of the earth, the vanguard of coming wonders.  But that was based on a world where all other industrial powers had been ravaged by war, their most productive citizens killed, cultural illusions destroyed.  Worse was to come in places like China and Africa as new ideologies replaced the old.  But we kept on working in untouched America, confident that it was our virtue that made us strong.  Even so, children were placed in iron lungs from polio, poisons were freely emptied into land and water, junk piled up in unseen lots, and the “melting pot” of culture was rude and crude and kept certain groups in helpless poverty.

Fog an appropriate metaphor for both past and future.

Today many worry about the dire effects of climate change.  Others consider threats from artificial intelligence, and the always fragile logistics of a technological civilization.  Doomsday worries have been common since people could first construct and tell stories.  In my childhood it was mostly nuclear war. 

But local personal doomsdays have always arrived with the four horsemen _ war, famine, plague, and ubiquitous death.  Villages and provinces have been wiped out.  Losses of over half the population have been common.  Today, those problems are both more real and more abstract _ real because most problems are truly universal and global, abstract because so far they are all merely possible rather than actual.

Back then, it is true, the numbers were less.  A few billion, rather than seven going on nine.  Especially in the Americas a lot of open land which is open no more.  More spread out into rural communities, rather than jammed into massive cities and clustered suburbs.  Some say, “too many people, the planet will certainly be destroyed, species go extinct.”  Granting some of that, it may not be so bad as claimed, no petri dish of a bacterial culture that will end up eating itself.  Population overload is one of the least worrisome problems these days _ humans certainly have ways to take care of it without plague or massacre.

Looking back or looking ahead? Not quite sure.

Everyone wants to believe in Neverland fairy tales, where we all stay young and vibrant and the world is a fantasy of constant wonder.  You know what?  That almost describes today, for about half the world’s population.  Maybe we can bring up the other half into similar fortune, and let everything we worry about vanish into the horror realities of the old days.  That, anyway, is my unrealistic new year’s wish.

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