I used to think that studying history was valuable because a) it’s inherently useful to understand your origins and b) the past contains lessons that might help predict the future.
But the more I’ve learned about the past, the more it seems to be propelled by a whole bunch of random and super-arbitrary events. Far from being a reliable guide to the future, history often puts agency in our hands and allows us to imagine and create a tomorrow that’s largely unencumbered by what came before it.
Take the history of lawns, which Yuval Noah Harari’s recounts in Homo Deus:
A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it…
And I bet that history is super weird…
The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility…Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns.
So rich people invented lawns to flaunt their wealth? Kind of makes me less hot on lawns. Eventually:
…the Industrial Revolution broadened the middle class and gave rise to the lawnmower and then the automatic sprinkler, [and] millions of families could suddenly afford a home turf. In American suburbia a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person’s luxury into a middle-class necessity.
So the sprawling lawns of suburbia are part of a centuries-long game of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses where the Joneses are dead European aristocrats? Lawns now seem supremely weird.
Having read this short history of the lawn, when you now come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard.
You are of course still free to do it but you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation.
“This is the best reason to learn history,” Yuval Noah Harari writes, “not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.”