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WERE THE GOOD OLD DAYS ALL THAT GOOD?

 

The good old days. Were they the 1950’s? Or before any of us were born?  We tend to romanticise the past if for no other reason than we were younger then. A very selective memory also tends to create myths about the past.

 

The idea of a Golden Age buried somewhere in the past is also part of the mythology and story-telling of almost every national and cultural group. When we go back to the earliest recordings of human history we find that the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks or Hebrews all had their sacred stories of a golden age just as the Australian Aborigines have their Dreamtime. In more recent history, national or cultural groups have created their own golden age of noble beginnings.

 

If the present is not what it should be (and it never is), there are always voices urging us to return to our noble past. Radical environmentalism dreams of a return to a more primal way of life. It is a kind of environmental romanticism or ecotopian enthusiasm that creates a myth of “the noble savage” or of hunter-gatherer societies that lived in simple harmony with nature.

 

Such reconstructions of the past are only myths because they gloss over examples of ecological damage, including extinction of species, caused by primitive cultures. Anthropologists tell us primitive cultures spent almost their entire lives scrounging for enough to eat. Knowing nothing of germs, they thought that all illness came from spooks, spells and angry gods. Most people were ill-nourished and filthy. Infant mortality was always atrociously high  With the average human life span around 25 – 30 years, life was  “short and brutish.” Some golden age!

 

What about the golden age of Early Modern life before the onset of the industrial revolution? Films can easily give us romantic images of beautiful people living in harmony with nature. Princeton historian Lawrence Stone tarnishes that myth with this account::

 

The almost total ignorance of both personal and public hygiene meant that contaminated food and water was a constant hazard. The result of these primitive sanitary conditions was constant outbursts of bacterial stomach infections, the most fearful of all being dysentery, which swept away many victims of both sexes and of all ages within a few hours or days…The prevalence of intestinal worm were a slow, disgusting and debilitating disease that caused a vast amount of misery and ill-health…Another fact of Early Modern life which is easy to forget is that only a relatively small proportion of the adult population at any given time was both healthy and attractive, quite apart from the normal features of smell and dirt…Both sexes must very often have had a bad breath from the rotting teeth and constant stomach disorders which can be documented from many sources, while suppurating ulcers, eczema, scabs, running sores and other nauseating skin diseases were extremely common and often lasted for years.” (Cited by Bjorn Lomberg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, p.53)

 

No wonder archivist Otto L. Bettman actually wrote a book called The Good Old Days: They were Terrible.