Sometimes, when you think nothing changes, it’s helpful to look back and see how the world has been in motion all the time.
Shifts that would have seemed unthinkable have happened, gradually and without being planned or directed.
We like to see the world as solid and reliable: it’s convenient. But change is the norm. And that should give us hope.
The perspective of a life
You can see this more easily when you have a few decades under your belt. (And, in my case, several packets of biscuits.) My childhood memories are from the 1970s and early 80s, in a town in Yorkshire.
I remember we came home one day and Mum had changed our blankets for these strange duvet things. They seemed to work… We didn’t have central heating – I can’t remember whether other people’s houses did, but I think it was uncommon. We had a big old storage heater at the bottom of the stairs – you often had to negotiate drying clothes to get past – and a gas fire in the lounge. My grandparents had a coal fire, which was (by then) unusual and fascinating.
We had a local Co-op store, but supermarkets as such didn’t exist. Shops sold specific things. Mum used to send me down the road to the butcher, or up the road to the little general store or the newsagent. When I went to university in 1985 the big Sainsburys was a new thing for me. Now it’s the norm to buy everything in one big shed, because humans love convenience, and big companies have grabbed those revenue streams.
There were about half a dozen black and Asian kids in my year at school, and they were strange and exotic. The term ‘paki’ was in widespread use for anyone who looked a bit Indian (shortened from Pakistani because they were all seen as the same), and it was common to call the corner shop businesses many of them created ‘paki shops’ – while being happy to go there for the convenience. (I think I managed to avoid using those labels. I hope so.)
Now you can see a breadth of different-coloured faces and hear multiple languages in an urban crowd, especially in a university city like this one. And most of us think we should respect each other and try to get along. (Though the last week’s news stories about racism linked to politics show that there are still rough edges and fears easily stirred.)
Same-sex relationships were just not talked about in public: certainly not in front of children. It was an inappropriate topic for decent people. In the media: “He’s a bit like that, you know. He’s one of those.” Because that was seen as unmanly. I think lesbians were even more invisible. Now it’s settling in as a routine part of culture that people like who they like and, now, can marry them. When people talk about their husband or wife you have to watch your assumptions!
We’re still working to expand the edge of what society sees as acceptable for women, and perhaps that’s one where change has let us down. But we’re now even opening up the most basic assumptions about ‘male’ and ‘female’ as a foundation of social reality.
From big issues to smaller ones – swearing was another thing that wasn’t acceptable in public. Even mild words would raise eyebrows, and it was understood that children should be screened from it. Now there are no limits, on the street or on broadcast media. The last few bleeps are an endangered species. A visitor from the 70s would be astonished, embarrassed and outraged.
Smoking is now, remarkably, prohibited in public indoor spaces, and attitudes have shifted against it.
People used to get respect and status from their position in society: doctors, councillors, bankers. Now the social strata have flattened out more. People are seen as simply doing jobs, and can be questioned and criticised. The media were trusted more (and probably took their objectivity more seriously).
There were no computers. (Emphasis to shock the young folks.) I was probably 15 when a few enterprising teachers persuaded the school to buy three of the new-fangled microcomputers and start a computer club. We spent hours typing in code to make lines bounce around the screen, and saved it to cassette tape. Later on, there were boxes that let you connect over the phone line, and this funny grey and blue thing called the World Wide Web. Now we have computers in our pockets, our cars, our washing machines. My phone can store over 10,000 floppy disks’ worth of data.
Having mentioned cassettes, you bought music on vinyl or tape, and listened to it on the radio. CDs came in mid-80s, and now everyone’s into digital downloads and not paying artists. When I was young the UK had three TV channels. And the Banana Splits were on every summer.
If you were out and about and wanted to phone someone, you had to find a phone box.
I don’t remember much environmental awareness, apart from natural history programmes and maybe saving the whales. I do remember Oxfam trying a recycling dustbin thing with different-coloured plastic bags for different materials.
As far as I recall, there weren’t frequent reports of serious flooding like there are now.
There wasn’t much emotional awareness or talk about feelings. I’m sure experiences will vary wildly on this one. But looking back it seems to me that no matter how much parents and others cared about you, they weren’t well versed in what to do with that, and still caught up in presenting themselves as roles rather than people.
I look at my friends raising children, and of course they’ll be making their own share of ‘mistakes’, but it seems to me like a massive leap forward in creating well-rounded future adults with less internal stuff to deal with. That may be the most massive human change process of all. Generational shift is our insurance policy.
Sometimes we get depressed about the slow pace of making the world better because we live day-to-day life on short timescales. But when you look back and apply perspective, it’s amazing how different things are.
On the other hand, a potential can build quietly for a long time then appear to create change very quickly. The movement to divest from coal seems like this to me – it felt like I took my eye off social media on climate for a minute, then suddenly there are all these people.
You don’t know what effects your actions will have, and be part of, in the bigger picture. Maybe you’re planting a tree that will bear fruit much later. Maybe you’re a raindrop that’s going to be part of a wave really soon.
We think the things around us in our lives are The Way Things Are, dependable and immune to change, but they have always been changing, whether it’s slow or fast. The world is dynamic: it’s just easier for our brains to have a model that isn’t.
When people say human activities can’t change the climate or there’s only one way to do politics, that’s what they’re defending: a worldview that doesn’t need thinking about.
When they dig in, perhaps it will be useful to encourage them to reflect on their own lives, and the different situations and approaches they’ve seen.
Cause and effect is all around us. One person can’t avoid making a difference. Hiding away and withholding the good you might have done – that’s a difference that harms us all. Or you can take your agency and roll your sleeves up.
Maybe the events of the world seem like a big wheel with a lot of momentum. But we can put our shoulders to it and nudge it away from the sinkholes.
We know people can make a massive difference, because they already have. We just need to do it consciously with a shared vision and joint effort on a grand scale.
If we do, what stories might today’s youngsters be able to tell?