We now come to another thread in New England history, the nature of environmental change. We do not know when people first arrived in New England. My present best guess based on dating patterns is between 30 and 32,000 years ago . The millennia since have seen many dramatic environmental changes. Sea levels have varied from perhaps 60 metres below current levels to 120 plus metres below to one to two metres above. Rainfall, wind and temperature patterns have varied greatly over this long period, with consequent changes to vegetation and animal life. Water courses have shifted, changed.
There is a saga here of human adaptation, of survival and change. To understand this, to explore the deep New England past, requires us to drill down, to look at the detail of change. It also requires us to put aside sometimes deeply held preconceptions. The geographic and human patterns that existed in 1788 were not the same as those that existed 6,000 or 30,000 years before. The visual images we hold today provide no real guidance to that past.
To illustrate this, take your picture of the Tablelands and strip away most of the current vegetation, replace it with tundra with periglacial conditions in spots. Or perhaps as an even more dramatic example, replace your images of the beaches, rivers, forests and estuaries of the entire North Coast with a more rugged coastline dropping sharply to a cold and more distant sea.To the Aborigines, the past was a living element within a moving present. They preserved memories of the past through stories that recorded past events, explained life and were attached to the world around them.
The British settlers took a very different view. To them, the present was a step towards a still to be defined future. They were not blind to uncertainty and risk, to the likelihood of failure. How could they not be? Infant mortality rates were falling, but most families still faced the probability that some of their children would die in infancy. They faced the risks of nature, of economic collapse, of death by misadventure. A browse among any of the older Australian graveyards will clearly reveal the number of and variety among those who dyed from misadventure. As another illustration, at the middle of the nineteenth century the chance of a mariner dying at sea was one in four.
Despite all the problems, there was a pervading belief in the possibility of progress, in the chance for individuals to redeem themselves, to establish establish futures for themselves and their families. This was in many ways an optimistic age. It took a particular form in the United States partially expressed in the concept of the self made man. There the idea that individual destiny rested with the individual carried with it the connotation that since success was open to all failure was the individuals fault. This gave a certain harshness to social policy that survives to this day.
The attitude in Britain and the evolving Empire was different. There in the midst of a general belief in progress was a recognition that progress was not inevitable for all, that individuals and society had a responsibility to those and their families who were disadvantaged to provide support. This recognition took many forms including cooperative action, the rise of unions, the development of Government policies intended to support families and ameliorate disadvantage. One Australian version of this was the Deakinite social contract.
I have opened a large subject here, but for this Monday Forum I pose three questions:
- Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the belief in the possibility of progress?
- Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost sight of the inevitability of risk and individual failure replacing it instead with an approach focused on risk minimisation rather than advancement?
- Has modern Australia and indeed the Western World lost the idea of the social contract, of the importance of cooperative and collaborative action, of Government social policies based on the combination of individual effort and social advancement so that all benefit?