Power

Remembering the past won’t save us from the future

The curse of Santayana in the age of climate change.
Power

Remembering the past won’t save us from the future

The curse of Santayana in the age of climate change.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And those who teach the past are doomed to hear these words over and over, an adage that must be tolerated as a justification for their line of work. The historically ubiquitous line belongs to the philosopher George Santayana, originally appearing in his 1905 treatise Reason in Common Sense. The statement has taken on a life of its own, completely liberated from its author, ambling through the decades as an oft-quoted, and often garbled, axiom on human history. Now, you usually hear the phrase with small but telling mutations: it is not just the past but the lessons or mistakes of the past; not remembering, but learning from; not condemned, but doomed. Prodigiously compact and readily comprehensible, it is a convenient pearl of wisdom, its apparent truth glistening all the more because every passing day seems to furnish new examples of lessons unlearned and mistakes re-made.

The past is grim, but generally beloved. History, especially the history of war, remains a popular subject. Appeals to the past are among the favored weapons in our common rhetorical arsenal, accuracy be damned. (See: Make America Great Again.) But as a college major, history is currently in decline. It is one of the many fields liable to be branded as irrelevant to a vision of education obsessed by the quest for so-called “marketable skills.”

It falls to us history teachers — and the students who dare follow in our footsteps — to validate the study of our discipline however we can. And so, Santayana’s axiom is right there, like a fire axe behind glass, ready to be grabbed in desperate times. Why take Western Civ II over some other gen-ed? Because, in addition to three “easy” credits, maybe, maybe, you’ll learn how to help keep us from screwing up the future as badly as the past. It may not really be why the lecture seats fill, but it rings with nobility of purpose, and just might help salvage a defense for the liberal arts.

Now that I have spent a few years on the job, though, I find that my shoulders droop upon hearing an incantation of Santayana’s proverb. It hangs in the air like a curse. On one hand, if a student or history enthusiast takes inspiration from it, to voice frustration would be to play the pedant and wet blanket, “well-actually”-ing away a curious mind. On the other hand, it is a miserable way to imagine the study of history. For one thing, it brutally oversimplifies, reducing the multiplicity of all past human experience into a single parable: all that our kind has ever done or known is for us only worth knowing as a tale of what not to do. Worse, it is inescapable.

Even if we “understand” history in this way, then what? The alternative is not so much a positive future as just not the same bad past as we think we know it. It invites delusion, as though we can replay history like loading a video game from a save point and trying again, now that some of us, at least, have the walkthrough. Moreover, the proverb implies paradoxically both that history will keep operating without human intervention (the notion that “history repeats itself”) and that, Sideshow Bob-like, humans seem to keep stepping on the same rakes: all of our bad pasts seem to have kept happening regardless of what we did; maybe we’re just a bad species. We’re all equally to blame for the past, but also powerless to really make a better future.

It appears clearer by the day that such thinking is suicidal, on a planetary scale. We face something truly unprecedented — the certainty of human-made climate change and the possibility of annihilation. Santayana’s axiom is not only an irritant to a malcontent like me. It has become the worst kind of common wisdom: the kind that promises to guide but can only mislead. There is no walkthrough to follow, and if we fail to mitigate the coming horrors of the Anthropocene, we will be doomed to repeat nothing at all. Nothing, that is, but being forced to bear the sight of ghostly palimpsests of centuries past or eerie warnings from earlier victims of an unforgiving planet, stitched together into a kind of historical highlight reel, a flash of civilizational recollection before slipping into oblivion.

It appears clearer by the day that such thinking is suicidal, on a planetary scale.

So what use, then, is history when staring down such a future? I would argue that studying how the Anthropocene came about can, at least, help us imagine a fate other than utter devastation – but only if we study it as the product of human agency in specific contexts of time, place, and, crucially, power. The recent New York Times Magazine feature, “Losing Earth,” attempts the former, but too much evades the latter. It speaks in the first-person plural: we failed to act in the 1970s, we were our own villains. “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”

Looking closely, however, at the early history of the fossil fuel age, we see that social, economic, and political systems, thriving on inequality, exploitation, and the outsized agency of a relatively few historical actors, are to thank for today’s rising tides and temperatures, not humanity as an undifferentiated mass. In his compelling 2016 book Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm places the blame for global warming on capitalists and the system they created – not a generalized “we.” Coal-fueled steam engines, unfettered from the environmental and biological limitations of earlier power sources, revealed the possibility of “unlimited” economic growth. Beginning in the 1780s, British factory owners came to embrace steam as a way to minimize the cost of labor – that is, to shatter worker autonomy, maintain a boundless pool of desperate mill-hands, and drive down wages. In other words, Malm writes, “Steam arose as a form of power exercised by some people against others,” and thus the idea of the Anthropocene as a “species-wide project” is untenable.

Moreover, Malm’s interpretation of the Industrial Revolution helps illustrate why studying history to satisfy Santayana’s axiom is especially dangerous in our current moment. We cannot reroute our path towards annihilation by retracing the steps that took us to a fossil economy in the first place. “[A]ny straight parallelism between the entry into and the exit from the fossil economy is spurious,” he writes. “It comes close to the fallacy that the present is essentially the same as the past, allowing for an immediate transfer of precepts, such as when generals have drawn up their strategies of ancient battles and suffered grievous defeat…” Learning this history is not a way to guide capitalism out of a crisis of its own creation. Not when the logic of that system accepts, for example, the burning of “excess” shale gas before it is ever sold as a sound strategy for guarding future profit.

Learning history in the Anthropocene cannot mean learning it to avoid the repetition of past “mistakes.” History can provide no lessons toward building a better capitalism. Instead, it must include, for the sake of survival, the study of resistance to the systems that have brought the planet to a precipice, and of the long line of projects aiming to defeat that system’s death-drives. In the history of resistance, and especially of collective action, we can provide students of history the only “marketable skills” that will matter.

Andrew Behrendt is an assistant teaching professor of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.