Timelines

Pressure to save our environment is surely the movement of our time. Climate change, pollution, sea level rise – we’re told if we don’t save our planet now, future generations will look back at us and ask, ‘Why the fuck not?’ How could we have let the Earth decline into a shit show for them to have to clean up? Instead we’re busy burying radioactive waste on the ocean floors and allowing emissions to irrevocably change our atmospheric content. We are the generation that humanity will be so disappointed by in years to come. If we still exist at all.

But here’s the thing. Humanity is a product of history. And if you take our experience on this planet as a small chunk of time – which is all it ever is – how can we worry about the environment when we’re not even supposed to be here now? Two World Wars over the last century. The constant threat of nuclear apocalypse since. Was humanity even supposed to have survived?

It comes down to stories. Seventy-five years ago this week, my British grandpa, Henry Stevenson landed on the shores of Italy as part of the Allied movement to end the Second World War. My own family’s dynamic is a direct result of that time.

Henry came back with a form of trauma that defined its generation – he didn’t talk about it. Well, being shot twice he laughingly referred to, but seeing his close friends die? Nope. No conversation. And my grandfather on my Polish side, Adam Lewandowski, was no different. Arguably even more tight-lipped. The Soviet-Polish Air Force didn’t support those who’d been in the Polish resistance, the AK – Armia Krajowa, or Home Army. After Stalin gained control of Poland, thousands of AK members were never seen again. Sent to Siberian camps or to graves in the forest. The only way we know Adam was even in the AK is his membership card kept very silently in his desk. 

For both grandfathers; we’ll never know what they experienced. Which is the the way they wanted it – not to burden their children. Of course their children were still burdened. After all, how can you grow up to be an effective and open communicator in a house where things aren’t talked about? I can see now how this history in turn affects my own children.

‘What do you mean you don’t want to go on Quest with us? When I was your age my dad sat me down in his car to explain why he was leaving and played a song on the CD player to explain why. Can’t ever listen to Landslide since.’

Lulu rolled her eyes. ‘Yeah, but where you spent your life wishing your parents never split up, I spend my time wondering when you’re going to. I mean, get over it for God’s sake!’

Fair point. Maybe if our generation do screw it up – the environment, the climate, the very fabric of our planet, maybe future generations, our children’s children will realise it wasn’t all our fault. That after the last hundred years, we were never supposed to be here in the first place. Maybe that’s how history works. 

One thought on “Timelines

  1. Perhaps the family member who suffered the most in protection of his country and the preservation of humanity was your Grandpop (being my original and singular Granddad, and the same fellow your Grandma Ivy Joan called Uncle Billy). When he came back to England after military service ending in 1918 he had to be institutionalized. After recovering a mental equilibrium, somewhat, and returning to civilian life, he met and married a beautiful young lady who died of tuberculosis (then an untreatable disease) very soon afterwards. Having no wife and no children, the improved welfare of his nieces and nephew (Grace, Ivy and John) became his calling. I remember him as a master gardener, a lover of the countryside at every turn in the path or roadway, endlessly cheerful (alike to his nephew), modest and totally devoted to my Grandmother. He – while joyous every day – carried burdens, totally unrevealed. He would be appalled – I am fully sure – at the horrors my generation have inflicted on the natural world to this date in time now. It is, after all, a new and global inhumanity.

    The first atmospheric pollution I recall witnessing were some of the London smog events. In around 1960, the journey from Haywards Heath to Ipswich using the Stevenson’s Morris automobile involved crossing the River Thames on the Woolwich ferry. There were no bridges to do that on the eastern side of the city. And I remember being in the car on the deck of the ferry on the south side of the river and not being able to see the landing on the north shore. By the time I was living and working in London later, circa 1968, strict pollution controls had been implemented and children and elderly people who had chronic lung diseases did not die in big numbers in the winters. Some humanity had been reclaimed, locally, once in time.

    In early 1980, I was driving someplace in suburban Maryland in the evening (maybe you were with me …) and a special program was broadcast by the American University Public Radio Station (WAMU) in Washington D.C. It featured work, undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that had been started about a decade earlier. The full study was, for that time, a very sophisticated examination of our singular ecosphere, as a set of limited resources that humankind was depleting at a sharply increasing rate. The work was known as “The Limits to Growth” study. It was different from other big studies of the day then, in that the research team had published their primary assumptions and results as a small book. This had allowed a whole bevy of opinionated scientists and “thinkers” to critique just about every aspect and feature of the work; with astounding vitriol in many instances. Well, as it turns out, the Limits to Growth team were far closer to being right than being wrong. Where their original work was questionable had more to do with the lack of systematically and independently collected data, which they could have used as inputs, than with any lack of foresight. And, to say the bottom-line truth, they weren’t very good communicators. (Somewhere I have a copy of that one, singular, small book.)

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