Special topicFeatures

XXIV.2 March + April 2017
Page: 38
Digital Citation

Connecting past, present, and future

Rebecca Wright, Colin Pooley

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We cannot escape the past. It is always with us in our memories, in the physical landscape and environment that endures, and in the legacy of past policies and planning decisions at both local and global scales. On a personal level, we are constantly learning from past actions and experiences, trying hard not to repeat previous mistakes. But in terms of policy formulation, all too often the decisions that are made today—and that shape the future—seem to ignore the lessons of the past. In this article we argue that planning and policymaking would benefit from a greater appreciation of the role of the past in shaping the present, and from recognition of the potential benefits of some ways of living that have slipped from view. This may help to avoid the unintended negative consequences that have sometimes arisen from past decisions.

Clearly, how the past is viewed in relation to the present and future will depend on the policy goals that exist at the time. These will differ as governments, both local and national, change and as external events beyond the control of individual governments shape national policies. In this article we mainly draw examples from the U.K. and the U.S., under the assumption that two key policy goals of any administration must be to create a society that is more equitable, in which resource conservation and environmental protection are central objectives. Clearly such aims will interact with other goals—most obviously those of economic growth and full employment—but we assume that they are not incompatible, and, indeed, that in many ways they are dependent on each other. We suggest that by paying closer attention to some aspects of past societies, it may be easier to combine the goals of greater societal equality, protection of the environment, and economic prosperity.

The principles advanced here could be applied to many aspects of society, economy, and culture, but we limit ourselves to drawing examples, based on our own research, from two arenas: transport and energy. They have been ever present, raise important issues of social equity and environmental protection, and are likely to become increasingly important as the 21st century progresses. We use selected examples drawn from 19th- and 20th-century history to show that in the connected arenas of transport and energy use, some of the structures and systems that were common in the past could usefully be replicated today and in the future, not least because individuals and families tend to use new technologies to maintain existing lifestyles. First, we review some of the existing connections between historical research and visions of the future. Second, we assess the sources that may be used and some of their limitations. Third, we examine selected past predictions of future technologies. Finally, we return to the practical advantages of focusing policy on aspects of the everyday in the past, present, and future.


back to top  History and the Future

It is often suggested by politicians and policymakers that the public is resistant to change and that the adoption of transport or energy policies that restrict, for instance, car use or household energy consumption to conserve resources and reduce carbon emissions would be unacceptable to many. However, by collecting evidence from oral histories of past travel behavior, it can be demonstrated that when transport systems have changed, people have altered their travel behavior with relative ease (e.g., shifting from trams to motor buses in British cities in the mid-20th century). Similarly, evidence from diaries demonstrates that travelers have been very adaptable and resilient in the face of transport difficulties and have altered their behavior as circumstances changed around them. Although transport and energy infrastructures have changed dramatically over time, the basic needs and priorities of individuals and families (such as shelter, work, and food) have not, and people rapidly adapted their behavior to cope with fresh circumstances and to maintain their everyday lives. Historical evidence also suggests that the transport and energy systems of the past could be more equitable than some of those available today. For instance, in the 19th century, all but the very wealthy traveled and heated their homes in similar ways. Therefore, transport-related social exclusion was less marked than it is today, when not having a car can lead to significant challenges. Historical evidence suggests that people could adapt quickly to the introduction of technologies that reduced the energy demands of transport and other everyday activities. Such policies could also help to reduce social inequalities [1].

Calls for a greater connection between past, present, and future in policymaking are not new, but they do remain limited. The online platform History and Policy (www.historyandpolicy.org) has existed since 2002 and provides a vibrant forum where historians can engage with current policy issues. Other, more recent publications have also argued that historians should become more engaged with the present and future, including in the fields of transport and energy policy [2,3]. However, there is little evidence in Britain that engagement by politicians and policymakers is more than superficial. This contrasts with the situation in some parts of continental Europe, where, for instance, historical researchers in the Netherlands are embedded in one of the country's main planning structures [4]. One of the more common ways in which historical material has traditionally been utilized in planning and policymaking is in the forecasting of long-term economic and demographic trends to produce different future scenarios. Past time series of data may be used to extrapolate future trends while changing key parameters such as birth and death rates or economic growth to produce different scenarios. However, such techniques can provide only a macro-scale perspective and are often undermined by rapidly changing circumstances or by the unpredictable behavior of individuals and organizations.

back to top  Researching Everyday Pasts

In spite of the dominance of this macro perspective, historical archives hold a wealth of information about past everyday life, providing a micro perspective for policymakers and planners. Journals, oral histories, advertisements, news media, magazines, instruction manuals, policy documents, film, art, and literature are a few of the many available sources from which details about everyday life can be gleaned. From these sources we can collect anecdotes about technology use, personal habits, routines, cultural norms, and preferences, as well as expectations about the future. Diaries, for example, contain musings on mundane details, from information about the daily commute to reflections on the evening meal. Oral histories capture memories of the past, documenting personal thoughts and anecdotal evidence of emotional engagements with living environments. Instruction manuals record appliances and point toward their intended use. Popular advertising, lifestyle magazines, and marketing materials reveal cultural meanings attached to products. Cultural artifacts similarly act as a depositary for evidence about past models of everyday life. Novels, biographies, and political tracts are littered with references to everyday practices. In addition to written sources, visual culture is equally revealing about the ways in which everyday lives have been structured. Photography, both professional and amateur, documents the changing space of the home, capturing arrangements of objects and trends of decoration. Film captures social practices unfolding over time. The post-war British genre of Kitchen Sink Realism, for example, tells us much about the social customs and living practices of factory workers in the 1950s.

Each of these sources has limitations, posing challenges for a historian of everyday life. Policy documents chart transformations at a governmental level, but as top-down documents they reveal little about how people experienced and lived these changes. Instruction manuals, advertisements, and industry periodicals provide information about how manufacturers intended their appliances to be used, but consumers did not always use products as intended. Furthermore, in the words of Joy Parr, it is the "embodied histories" that are excluded from the historical archive. Tacit knowledge, Parr points out, is recorded through the body in lived practices rather than in textual or representational forms [5]. Historical sources privilege certain senses, with sight traditionally being prioritized over touch and smell. This hierarchy feeds into the type of historical documents available, with academic traditions being "deeply invested in texts and in textual critique as the arbiter of research results" [5]. To overcome this weighting, Parr has created a website, the Megaprojects New Media series (http://megaprojects.uwo.ca), to explore new ways of capturing "embodied histories" lost to text.

Genre and form also structure information about everyday practices, determining what data is included and omitted. Biographies, diaries, and film, for instance, exist within established traditions where literary conventions determine what information is included in each type of source, from the intimate to the heroic and fantastical. The final constraint is practical. Sifting through historical sources requires time and labor. Moreover, there is a tendency toward diminishing returns when hours are spent transcribing illegible handwriting to find only the occasional detail about a commute or a bath-time ritual. Even once this information has been retained, there continue to be challenges in extracting data in a coherent manner. The digitization of historical archives and the emergence of new research methodologies from the field of digital humanities are making these practical limitations easier to handle. Functions such as word searches, data mining, and frequency charts also provide new avenues for historians looking to locate trends and patterns in large bodies of material. However, there is a danger that this focuses research on those sources that are available in digital form, ignoring others that might give a different perspective.

back to top  Past Futures

Records of past futures also reveal avenues not taken. Multiple futures coexisted in the past. Some were borne out and others failed to materialize. National forecasts, such as the 1952 U.S. report Resources for Freedom (otherwise known as the Paley Report), predicted that by 1975, U.S. aggregate energy consumption would be roughly double the amount consumed in 1950. This turned out to be a conservative estimate, as U.S. energy consumption rose from 36.5 exajoules (EJ) in 1950 to 75.8 EJ in 1975. In contrast, its suggestion that by 1975 the maximum plausible market for solar energy could be as large as 13 million installations in homes (contributing to 10 percent of the nation's energy system) was an example of a possible future that has so far not come to pass. Other futures played an active role in shaping energy infrastructures. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, private utilities in the U.S. published exaggerated forecasts for electricity consumption, circulating alarmist predictions about how consumption would soon outstrip supply. These predictions influenced the rapid construction of new generating capacity, which was soon made obsolete as electricity consumption fell during the 1970s. Social practices also vary greatly from country to country, leading to very different trajectories in the adoption of new technologies. For example, in 2013 82 percent of American households owned a tumble dryer, compared with 57 percent in Britain and 5 percent in Italy [6]. New technologies must always be located within specific cultural, environmental, and political contexts.

Many futures failed to materialize. Science fiction futures (strikingly captured in the 1960s TV series The Jetsons) never came to pass, and neither did Maynard Keynes's 15-hour workweek forecast in 1930. Products, such as the 1950s all-electric doghouse, did not secure a mass market—closing down, until recently, a potentially lucrative energy market in pet upkeep. The failure of particular technologies and futures demonstrates the role of path dependence through the ways in which people adhere to familiar or dominant technologies. For instance, the decision to cook with gas or electricity remains driven as much by historical inertia as by personal choice, as costs and infrastructures conflict with cultural preferences and cooking habits. This exposes the tension between the inevitability and malleability of the futures that came to structure everyday life. Futures have a momentum, but they can also be shaped.

back to top  Conclusion

Recent events across the globe have demonstrated that the ambitions and policies adopted by governments are often disconnected from the everyday values and actions of individuals and families. This is evident, for instance, in the increasing public distrust of political parties and of expert opinion in Europe and the U.S, and in the British vote in June 2016 to leave the E.U. Most policy is formulated at a macro-scale, be it concerned with climate change, global inequalities, trade agreements, or coping with the movement of large numbers of migrants from conflict zones. In contrast, individual people live their lives at the micro scale, negotiating work, housing, family, and community on a daily basis and with little real engagement with national and global concerns beyond passive observation through news media. For instance, research on attitudes toward greater use of walking and cycling for everyday transport has demonstrated that people are most likely to see benefits in terms of their personal health and improvements to the local environment, and are less likely to adopt sustainable travel because of concerns about global climate change. Similar attitudes have also been shown for other aspects of energy consumption and carbon reduction.

We suggest that the analysis of past transport and energy scenarios may help to identify ways in which to at least partially remedy this apparent disconnect. For instance, it is clearly sensible to encourage people to undertake more short trips on foot or by bike whenever feasible rather than using a car. In the past, walking was by far the most important form of everyday transport for most people, and in mid-20th century Britain, cycling was the preferred form of everyday transport, particularly among men. The reasons for this are not hard to deduce. First, there were far fewer alternatives: Many people had little option but to walk in 19th-century Britain. Second, the physical structure of urban areas meant that most people lived close to their workplace and that many of the goods and services that people needed could be found relatively close to their homes. Clearly it is not sensible or possible to return to 19th-century patterns of life, but we do suggest that transport and energy systems that minimize inequalities between users and maximize sustainable energy use—and which to some extent replicate past structures—are both feasible and desirable. For most individuals, the factors that are important to them and their families have changed little over time, and when new technologies are developed, people often use them in ways that maintain existing patterns of living. Greater appreciation of some of the benefits of past patterns of everyday living may help to produce more equitable, sustainable, and convenient systems of transport and energy use, today and in the future.

back to top  References

1. Pooley, C. Mobility, transport and social inclusion: Lessons from history. Social Inclusion 4, 3 (2016), 100–109.

2. Guldi, J. and Armitage, D. The History Manifesto. Cambridge Univ. Press. Cambridge, UK, 2014.

3. Divall, C., Pooley, C. and Hine, J., eds. Transport Policy: Learning Lessons from History. Ashgate, Farnham, UK, 2016.

4. Toussaint, B. Using the usable past: Reflections and practices in the Netherlands. In Transport Policy: Learning Lessons from History. C. Divall, J. Hine, and C. Pooley, eds. Ashgate, Farnham, UK, 2016, 15–30.

5. Parr, J. Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003. UBC Press, Vancouver, BC, 2010.

6. Fischer, B. and Kaufman, N. America's most unpopular way of saving energy... is one of Europe's favourites. Opower Blog. Jul. 31, 2013; http://blog.opower.com/2013/07/americas-most-unpopular-way-of-saving-energy-is-one-of-europes-favorites/

back to top  Authors

Rebecca Wright is a research fellow in mass observation studies at the University of Sussex. This research was conducted as part of the AHRC project Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on energy futures and the role of expertise, international organizations, and public communication in the construction of future imaginaries. r.k.wright@sussex.ac.uk

Colin Pooley is emeritus professor of social and historical geography in the Environment Centre, Lancaster University. His current research and publications focus on migration, mobility and everyday travel in Britain since circa 1800, including examining the ways in which understanding of past processes can inform the present. c.pooley@lancaster.ac.uk

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