Understanding History: Questioning Everything to Unlock a New Tomorrow
Science is often seen as a method for predicting the future. We look to meteorologists for the forecast, economists for the value of the dollar, and doctors for the best path forward when diagnosed with a disease.
Conversely, we look to historians to understand the past. In studying the decisions that humans have made, we are able to repeat what has worked and avoid prior mistakes. Twenty-first century technologies have made this difficult, though. For example, studying warfare tactics of the 19th century will not help in the age of cyber warfare. The purpose of studying history, however, is not solely to be aware of our mistakes; rather, it is for understanding the origins of our present-day norms. Our current reality (political systems, economic situation, values, technologies, etc) is the outcome of a string of events spanning millions of years. Becoming aware of this unlocks possibilities that we would not typically consider -- here, we find the true reason for studying history.
“The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.” - Yuval Noah Harari
The Origin of Lawns
Our prehistoric ancestors did not cultivate grass in front of their caves.
So, where did this phenomena emerge from? And why does it matter?
In the late Middle Ages, the demonstration of power and authority manifested itself in the physical world by way of grass. Owning a lawn -- which would become the trademark of nobility -- was brought into being by the French and English aristocrats around the year 1300. Before the era of lawn mowers and sprinklers, maintaining a large plot of grassland took a lot of work. But the important aspect of lawn ownership back then was this: in exchange for all of the upkeep, zero value was provided. The simple act of animals grazing the land would kill the grass -- thus, during the advent of lawns, no humans or animals were able to walk on these plots of land. From this, we can break its origin into three points:
Maintaining a lawn required hard labor with zero return -- something only the rich could afford
Poor people could not afford large plots of land nor could they spend their time or resources on grass
Noble status could be easily deduced by the size of a lawn: the larger and more well kept, the more powerful the owner
This tradition has taken root and has permeated all of the developed world to this day. Even now, political structures demonstrate nobility and power through grass. Look no further than the White House of the United States.
As the late 18th century hit, we began to see those with high status (doctors, lawyers, bankers) mimicking their ancestors by cultivating lawns. Then, the Industrial Revolution hit. The middle class grew and did not hesitate to begin cultivating plots of their own. At the same time, mass production of lawn mowers and sprinklers made all of this possible, perpetuating what would become a cultural norm. Today, even the suburbs of Dubai are littered with lawns which require exorbitant amounts of water to be maintained.
To that end, most major sporting organizations have transitioned to well-kept grass for their games: football, soccer, and even the Wimbledon tennis tournament to name a few. If a child is born to a wealthy nation, chances are high that they will play sports on grass. Conversely, if a child is born to a poor nation, they will likely use makeshift balls and play in the dirt.
The Absurdity of Life
So, here we are. It’s the 21st century and humans identify lawn ownership with political power, social status, and economic prosperity. By understanding our origins, we can see that other paths are available. Why not grow moss or a wildflower meadow, go casual with gravel, or install faux grass? We gravitate to cultural norms without seeing that other options are available. Viewing life through this lens forces you to question the origin of everything.
Why do we celebrate weddings?
How were nations born?
Why do we work 8 hours a day?
Sometimes, the norms are perfectly fine -- but, at the very least, you will be able to recognize that alternatives are possible. Through the example above, we can see the “cold hand of the past” being released from our neck; this allows us to look both left and right and understand that we are not confined by what we perceive to be set-in-stone rules.
Truth be told, we are flying through space on a rock spinning roughly 1000 miles per hour. Everything about who we are and what we value is absurd, down to the origin of lawns. Try not to get too caught up in it and devise your own path forward. There are plenty of paths available, if only you can open your eyes to see them.