Australia had a chance at the election last Saturday (18 May 2019) to turn towards a more compassionate, inclusive society, to shoulder its responsibilities to reduce its contribution to deadly climate change, to share more, to think about what we as individuals can do for our country, and especially for those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than just for me and my family.
Despite the polls and the bookmakers portraying Labor as an unbackable favourite to win (or perhaps partly because of that), Australia did not take that chance. That was a mistake, and it reflects shamefully on the Australian electorate. They chose to vote for what they had been misled into believing were their own financial interests, without casting the slightest thought to what the interests of others might be, especially the less fortunate.
The invariable custom after surprising election losses is for political pundits to line up to give their smug views about what the loser did wrong. The fact that these same pundits did not identify as mistakes before the election the tactics of the loser that they are now saying were mistakes is not mentioned. Carefully avoiding that embarrassing admission, the pundits continue to pose as all-knowing, all-wise, basking in the glow of their own all-seeing hindsight.
If it is a mistake to do something that can only be identified afterwards to have disastrous consequences then it was a mistake for me not to take the entire savings of my family, re-mortgaged our house for as much as I could, and bet the lot on the Coalition winning the election, for which I would have quintupled our wealth. Was that a mistake? Would it have been a responsible act to do that? Would it have been ethical? Of course not. It would have been reprehensible.
We can go further. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say it was a mistake for the midwife that assisted at the birth of Pol Pot not to have strangled him at birth.
If the only insight you have to offer on an event comes from hindsight, better remain silent!
To take a small philosophical digression, the comments from hindsight are not even correct! To say that Labor would have won if it had used a different tactic – made itself a ‘small target’ by announcing as little policy as possible before the election – is to assume that the damage incurred by being a big target would not have happened but everything else would have remained the same. In real life of course, everything else never remains the same! To imagine how history would have evolved if we were to change one or two things (killing Pol Pot at birth, making Labor a small target at the 2019 election) is indulging in what’s called a counterfactual, something that, as I discuss in this essay, is rife with logical problems. At the practical end is the problem that everything else never is the same, once we change one or two significant factors. As both Dirk Gently and the Buddha pointed out – everything is connected to everything else. At the theoretical end, we have the even more difficult problem from Bell’s Theorem of quantum mechanics that, unless we allow the possibility of faster than light communication, it is not even valid to ask what would have happened if we’d done something differently. The question is meaningless!
So take that, pundits burbling on about Labor’s mistake! Get back to me once you’ve read up on the Madhyamika notion of Dependent Origination and understood Bell’s Theorem, and are able to try to fill the holes they blast in your smug platitudes.
Unfortunately, ignoring the pundits is not enough to save us from discussions of ‘what Labor did wrong’, because the Labor party itself will be doing some soul-searching over the result. That is unavoidable, and understandable. After a loss, one has to use the experience to gain insights about what might work better next time. I don’t mind that, as long as there is no pretence that the Australian public (which democratic dogma insists we must treat as being infinitely wise!) has sent a message to the party about what is necessary to be a good government. So often after elections we see the defeated party, or sometimes a party that wins but much less handsomely than it had expected, make public statements of contrition, asking the voting public for forgiveness for not being what they wanted, and promising to listen more. To do that in this case would be like a parent grovelling before a toddler after the toddler has had a tantrum because it was prevented from hitting its baby sister, promising to be more accommodating to the toddler in future, if only the toddler will please, please forgive its silly, misguided parent.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the relationship of politicians or governments to the voting public is like that of a parent to a child. That idea went out with Plato, thank goodness. I am just pointing out that the failure of the voting public to accept an offer of changes to society from a political party does not mean that it was not a good offer. How otherwise can we explain the continual re-election of war-making Binyamin Netanyahu over his peace-seeking opponents, of the South African National Party for so many years in the apartheid regime there, or the repeated electoral rejection of MPs in 18-19th century Britain that sought to end the slave trade? There is no wisdom to be found in democratic decisions. Their only virtue is that they are less often as vicious as some of the non-democratic decisions that get made.
This election was billed as the ‘climate election’. One of the main differences between the parties was that Labor had a program to rein in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the Coalition not only did not have any plan and had presided over rising emissions in recent years, but were toying with the idea of using taxpayer money to subsidise the construction of new coal-fired power stations. So much for the Coalition being the party of free enterprise and small government!
The Australian voting public chose to vote for the party that wanted to do less than nothing to control climate change. Does that mean that controlling climate change is a bad idea? No, it just means that the Australian voting public is, on average, too selfish to be prepared to do anything about it, if there is the slightest risk that it might cause them a little inconvenience. For most Australians, caring about the climate apparently means tossing an item in the recycling bin occasionally, buying a few cloth shopping bags that will end up at the bottom of some cupboard because it’s too hard to remember to take them to the shops, and and nodding in a concerned-looking way, saying ‘oh yes how awful’ in a compassionate-sounding voice when there is talk of the devastation climate change is wreaking.
Undoubtedly Labor underestimated how selfish and gullible the average Australian voter is (gullible, because they were able to be convinced that increased taxes, and removal of government handouts, that only affect the wealthy, will somehow affect middle and working class Australians as well). The party took a risk, publishing detailed policies on a number of important issues, rather than just running on the platform that the current government has been distracted by internal warfare for six years and has done nothing for the country, so should be sacked. They made themselves a big target because, if you go to an election with policies, you have a mandate to implement them. If you go to an election without policies, all you have a mandate for is not being the previous mob. As soon as you try to make any significant policy initiatives, people can complain that’s not what they voted for – with some justification (although not very much if, like me, you support Edmund Burke’s formulation of the duty of a representative government).
To go to an election with few policies is great if all you aim to do is get elected. We have had governments in the past, on both sides, at both state and federal level, that have focused solely on getting into and staying in power, never made any policy decisions that might frighten anybody, and hence achieved nothing and left the country or state a worse place than it was when they came to government (Bob Carr, former NSW Labor Premier, take an especially deep bow!). To go to an election with a bag full of policies is politically courageous but also politically generous, because it offers the country the opportunity of real, meaningful government, rather than just self-obsessed clinging to power. What this election result seems to suggest, as did the surprise defeat of the Coalition in 1993 with its big target ‘fightback’ policy reform package, is that it is not politically possible for challengers to offer meaningful policies, because against any meaningful policy that involves significant government income or expenditure, a scare campaign can be mounted. Why? – because to be meaningful it must involve some change in income or expenditure – either the amount or from where it is obtained or to what it is applied – and that means there must be some people that will be less well off under the proposal. All that’s needed for a good scare campaign is to persuade enough people that they will be one of those worse off, regardless of whether there’s a skerrick of truth in it.
I don’t blame the Coalition for its scare campaign on taxes and reduction of government subsidies to well-off retirees. Any political operator on either side will make the best use of the tools available to them, within some pretty broad limits, and the Coalition did just that. Any political party would do the same. What is disappointing is that the Australian voters were (1) gullible enough to be convinced they would be disadvantaged by something that wouldn’t disadvantage them and might even benefit them and (2) selfish enough to use that as a reason to not do anything about climate change, more compassionate treatment of refugees or many of the other elements of the Labor policy package that sought to help the less well-off.
In 2022 we can expect the Labor campaign to be almost policy-free, as the Australian public has made it crystal clear to the political parties that that’s what’s necessary to get elected these days. Next election, the pundits will all line up to criticise that, conveniently forgetting that they criticised Labor after this election for not being policy-free.
It’s a bit sad these days, walking down the street, seeing people’s faces, and recognising that the majority of them voted for themselves, rather than for climate action or reduction of inequality. I can’t know which ones voted which way, so I try to give each person I see or with whom I interact the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were not one of the selfish ones, even though I know the odds against that being the case for all of them are astronomical. It’s just part of trying to remain cheerful and being friendly to people.
It’s very sad, but it’s bearable. As long as I don’t have to listen to anybody in Labor begging the forgiveness of the Australian people and promising to listen more. It should be the other way around.
Bondi Junction, May 2019
Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.
Yet I feel safe.
Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?
Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.
So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.
Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.
But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).
Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.
A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.
Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.
Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.
I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.
It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!
There are two lovely trees in my garden. It seems to be my life’s remaining mission to try to save these trees from the attempts of the local possums to kill them. They do this by climbing into the trees and systematically stripping off buds and young leaves, leaving branch after branch a grim, ravaged skeleton.
The war has been running for several years now. It is not always the same possum, but it is usually only one at a time. Possums are territorial and defend their territory against interloper possums with vigour. I don’t know what has led to the two or three changes of the possum guard we have had since the war began. Perhaps the incumbent died. Or perhaps they were ousted by a more powerful interloper. While the actors may change, the role – the archetype – remains constant. ‘The possum’ is the unitary force of darkness that seeks to turn my garden to a barren, Mordorish wasteland, regardless of which particular possum is playing the role in any given year.
There are now two trees that the possum does it best to kill, but at first it was only one tree – an Albizia or ‘Silk Tree’ – a deciduous tree with a spreading canopy of lovely, silky-soft fern-like fronds.
They remind me of the Truffula tufts in Dr Seuss’s story of The Lorax, who tried to save the Truffula trees from the greedy depredations of the Once-ler. The tree was planted about twelve years ago to replace a tree that died, grew quickly and flourished for several years, delighting us with its beauty and its cool shade in summer. But then the possum arrived!
But did the possum arrive, like the greedy, destructive Once-ler in Seuss’s book? Was it a possum explorer that ‘discovered’ this ‘uninhabited’ territory in the same way that the plaque below Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park claims that he “discovered” this territory of Australia. Did the possum claim the territory for his possum king, thereby instantly erasing the rights of any existing residents, just as Cook did? Or was the possum there all along, never bothering about the Albizia until one day it munched some as an experiment and discovered how delicious it was? Were we ever peaceful cohabitants? I don’t know. But whatever the genesis, the war started a few years back when I realised one day that it was December and the Albizia had no leaves. It had always been late waking from its winter slumber, so I had never been concerned when it lagged other deciduous plants. But December? I thought maybe it has some disease, and took some of the skeletal fronds – stripped of greenery – to a garden shop, where they told me it was either possums or rats. I did the experiment they suggested (leave cloths around base of tree overnight, then examine for droppings the next day) and confirmed that it was a possum – they have larger droppings than rats.
I was devastated. They say you don’t realise how much you love until the subject of your love is threatened. Well, I realised.
What followed was a series of all sorts of strategies to protect the tree. I won’t bore you with the details, but the list includes spraying repellant on the leaves, hanging camphor balls from branches, installing a motion-activated ultrasonic noise-maker, winding fairy lights over the branches, putting various types of plastic spikes on branches and the nearby fence, leaving a powerful, timer-activated floodlight pointed at the tree and even shrouding possum-accessible parts of the tree in clear, flexible perspex that a possum cannot grip. At times the tree has looked more like a missile bunker than a beautiful piece of nature.
The most successful strategies have been the floodlight and the perspex sheeting. But neither seems sustainable to me. Although it’s very energy-efficient LED, the floodlight uses 50 watts of energy for eight to ten hours a night, depending on the time of year – almost half a kilowatt hour per day. That may not sound like much to you but to a radical greenie like me that feels like treason to my most dearly-held principles. As for the perspex sheeting, the trouble is that it acts as a sail in the wind, putting enormous strains on the connection points and the branches when we get our ‘Southerly Busters’ that bring blasts of welcome cool air from the Southern Oceans at the end of some scorching summer days. After particularly windy days there is often repair work to be done, and I feel bad that the loud noise the sails make may disturb our neighbours.
Further, every now and then, even those Best Practice strategies fail. A new possum takes up residence that is less afraid of light, or the possum works out a sneaky way around the perspex barricades. I am always in search of a solution that doesn’t have such loopholes, or the high maintenance of the sails or the energy consumption of the light.
In war the most important weapon is information. My primary source of information is an infrared camera that I mount on a tripod and which wirelessly transmits to a base station that records video. When I suspect the possum is breaching the defences, I deploy the camera overnight and review the footage in the morning to see if it has broken through and if so how. I then use that information to work out how to plug the gap.
Reviewing the video in the morning is an angst-ridden experience. You watch hours of nothing happening, at 32 times fast-forward speed, then suddenly the possum creeps into view, its eyes glowing in the infrared like a demon. It contemplates the tree, tries this approach – blocked, then that – blocked again. On a good day it goes away defeated. But on a bad day it tries something new and by some unbelievable feat of gymnastic agility manages to get a claw hold on some part of the trees wood and wrestle its way up into the canopy. Once there it proceeds to massacre the tree at its leisure. It’s like watching CCTV of a bully beating up a dear friend, with no help in sight, and you, the viewer, helpless to intervene because it has all already happened. Words cannot do justice to the sick feeling I get in my stomach when that happens. But I have to force myself to watch the torture, second by miserable second, because only by doing so can I hope to learn how to prevent its recurrence.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay – obsession. My family and friends chuckle about me and my war. I can well understand that it appears as a monomaniacal obsession – the sort of thing that arty fiction is written about. But what sort of obsession is it? There are two great works of fiction that in my mind compete to represent my battle: Moby Dick and The Fourth Wish.
You probably know the story of Moby Dick, even if you haven’t read all of it (I never made it past about page 100). The story is of Captain Ahab who, having had his leg bitten off by a huge white sperm whale, spends the rest of his life pursuing the whale around the seas, obsessed with obtaining his revenge, and (spoiler alert!) eventually being killed by the whale in a final battle. Ahab’s obsession is beyond all reason. It consumes him, when he could have led a perfectly enjoyable and prosperous life as a ship’s captain. Is The Possum my Moby Dick?
The Fourth Wish is quite different. It is a three-part TV drama from 1974, remade as a movie in 1976, about a single father whose school-aged son is dying of leukaemia. The father asks his son to make three wishes, and then does all he can to make the wishes come true before the child dies. Fulfilling those wishes for his son is the father’s obsession (the father is played by the late John Meillon, who became much more famous subsequently for his role as Walter in the Crocodile Dundee movies). He is an inarticulate, emotionally repressed, not terribly capable person. But he rises to the occasion in his desperate quest to make his son’s limited remaining life memorable and fulfilling. It is the first television or movie drama I can ever remember having been moved by – I would have been eleven at the time. Meillon does a marvellous job of conveying the father’s tremendous sadness.
My story is of the tree and the possum and me. If we focus on the enmity with the possum, it parallels Moby Dick. In Moby Dick there is no counterpart to the tree – no character that needs protecting. On the other hand if we focus on the nurturing side, it is like The Fourth Wish. In that case there is no counterpart to the possum, unless we anthropomorphise the leukaemia and cast it in that enemy role.
Having written all that, and read it over, I think it is more Fourth Wish than Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession was founded in hatred and revenge. I don’t hate the possum, even though it is my enemy. I expect I would kill it if I could, but humanely, and as a regrettable necessity, certainly not as revenge. The creature is only trying to live. If it would agree to go easy on the Albizia I would readily forgive its past savageries. I’m sure we could become great friends. But alas, it will not. It is not the possum’s fault that it doesn’t have the foresight to spread its foraging between many different trees in order that all of them may flourish. I feel great sorrow when I see the tree’s ravaged limbs. I so want to do something to help it, yet I feel as though I am up against implacable odds.
The story of the second tree is similar to that of the first. A red gum, it was planted about three years ago as a mature sapling, and very soon grew and flourished. It has almost tripled in height. But a few months ago I noticed that its canopy of leaves – formerly rich and luxuriant, was looking thin and sickly. Going up closer to look, I saw that many branches had had most of their leaves bitten off – the tell-tale chewed stubs bearing testament to what had happened. Deploying the camera overnight, my fears were confirmed – it was the possum. From then on I knew that I had two patients to protect from the predator, when before there was only one.
There is another story that this saga reminds me of – Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In that novel, Lucy Westenra, a vivacious young friend of the narrator’s fiancee, is vulnerable to the hypnotic spell of Count Dracula, who is able to lure her in the middle of the night, in a sleepwalking trance, out of her heavily protected house to the wild lands that surround it, where he feasts on her blood. Each time that happens she loses masses of blood and gets weaker and her friends don’t know how to help her. They save Lucy’s life several times after she has suffered otherwise fatal blood loss, by giving her transfusions of their own blood. Each time they do this, they take further measures to try to keep Dracula away and Lucy safely in her room. But repeatedly, after Lucy has recovered for a few days and is starting to look healthy again, Dracula finds a new way to lure her out, and she is found near death’s door again. Finally, this happens one too many times, and she dies (sort of, but to say any more would be a spoiler).
It may seem a little melodramatic to cast the possum as Dracula, and my beloved trees as a Victorian heroine, but when I see those eyes suddenly appear out of the dark, glowing like demonic coals in the infra-red image of the CCTV, it doesn’t feel far-fetched at all. By trying every strategy I have, I manage to keep the demon at bay for a few days, so the tree can recover and grow a few new leaves (so it can breathe! – just like we need blood to carry our oxygen). Then, one night, the possum gets into the tree, savages it and I find it in the morning at death’s door again.
Here’s a picture of the possum, demonic coal-like eyes and all, posing grimly atop the almost-cadaver of its victim.
The war continues. I have bought another floodlight. Now I am using 90 Watts when both lights are on – one for each tree. I will have to buy carbon credits to offset the electricity. I have also devised new defences involving longer spikes arrayed along the top of the fence, in an attempt to deny the possum a launching pad. If they turn out to be effective, maybe I can turn the lights back off so that I won’t be single-handedly responsible for pushing global warming beyond the point of no return. Time will tell.
Bondi Junction, October 2017
One day the sun will grow so large that it will first dessicate, then bake, then engulf and vaporise, the Earth and everything on it. No life will survive that. Perhaps some people will have escaped to habitable places in other solar systems, but it’s hard to imagine it would be many, given the enormous energy that is likely to be involved in any interstellar travel. I expect ordinary people will be unable to escape.
Even escapees will be wiped out eventually, as the universe, many billions of years from now, slides inexorably into heat death. No life will survive that.
So there it is: the end of the world is a matter of when, not if. We are powerless to prevent it.
That background makes it a bit confusing to work out what moral obligation we have to take actions that prevent a near-term end of the world, and to avoid actions that would hasten it.
If we are talking about preventing the end of the world in our lifetime, it can be easier to resolve, because that would affect people that are alive now, and most people recognise that they have at least some obligation of care to other people that cohabit the world with them.
But that obligation is less widely accepted when it comes to future generations, and the farther away those generations are, the fewer people tend to feel an obligation towards them. Politicians sometimes talk about intergenerational equity and caring for the future of our children, maybe even our grandchildren. But it’s a rare politician that argues for a policy on the basis of its effect on our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-children.
At some stage, life on Earth will come to an end, and it seems likely that that end, unless it occurs in the blink of an eye – which it is hard to imagine happening – will be accompanied by tremendous suffering. If that is inevitable then how can we work out whether it matters whether it occurs sooner or later?
We cannot solve this by reason alone. As David Hume so acutely observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Of course he wasn’t saying he did prefer the destruction of the world. He was saying that one must look to one’s emotions to find an answer.
Looking to my own emotions, I confess that I am more alarmed at the prospect of the world ending in a catastrophe in 100 years than in 100 million years, despite the fact that I will not be here to see either..
I use the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘cataclysm’ because I think the end would be lingering and painful. We should be so lucky as to be extinguished in the blink of an eye. Philosophers who have nothing better to do with their time make up thought experiments involving a button you could press to instantaneously end the world, and ask under what circumstances you would press it. But there are no such buttons, nor ever likely to be, so we need to contend with the end being a drawn-out, painful process. I suspect widespread famine would be a major part of it. That would lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled violence as people compete for the dwindling resources of food and water. Disease would spread to accompany the famine – perhaps providing a more merciful end for some. We see this sort of catastrophe already in some parts of the Earth, and we will see them more often as climate change becomes more severe.
Is a ‘soft landing’ possible? What if, realising that the world will become uninhabitable within 200 years, we were to decide that we were morally obliged to not have children, in order not to inflict on those new people the pain of experiencing the world’s slow death? What would a world with no new children be like? Most of us, including me, feel that it would be very sad. I know of two novels that explore this: ‘The Children of Men‘ by PD James, and ‘I who have not known men‘ by Jacqueline Harpmann. In the first, for some unknown reason, humans cease to be able to conceive. The novel is set about twenty-six years after the last baby was born. In the second novel, a group of female prisoners escape from their underground dungeon to find the Earth deserted. They wander for many years in vain search of other survivors and after a while start to die of old age, with no replacement.
Both novels are confronting, bleak and sad. The James also has a thriller element to it (which I won’t spoil for you), but the basic premise is still bleak.
It would be very hard for us now to decide ‘No more babies’. Imagine us all gradually dying one by one, deprived of that feeling of continuity – the circle of life – that one gets from seeing younger generations. But what if society had the time to work up to that over several generations? What if, realising that all life would cease within ten generations, society worked to change its culture in order to equip people to feel more positive about non-procreation and less reliant on younger generations. It would be a very difficult psychological shift to accomplish. It would have to counteract the powerful impulse embedded in our psyche by evolution – to perpetuate the species. But who knows what techniques of psychological manipulation humans may have managed to invent in a thousand or more years’ time? Maybe they could condition future humans to find fulfilment in bringing their species in for a soft landing – for instance in working as a childless carer for old people until one becomes too old to work. Things could be set up so that the last remaining people have all the food, water, clothes, medicine, shelter, power and entertainment they need to survive solo (we would also need to train people to be comfortable with isolation, which we current humans are definitely not). They might also be provided with pills to provide a painless end to life once they near the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves. That is not how it happens in ‘The Children of Men‘. But that book is set in 2021, not 3021, and with no notice for society to prepare for the landing (for some reason fertility just suddenly ceases in 1994).
If a soft landing were possible then, while an end of the world may be inevitable, its accompaniment by great suffering would not be. It would then become easy to argue for doing what we can to delay the end of the world. It is simply to prevent a great suffering.
What if it’s not possible, so that the great suffering is simply a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’? What if the amount of suffering accompanying the end of the world will be roughly the same regardless of whether it occurs in 200 years or 200 million years? Are we morally obliged to do what we can to defer it beyond 200 years? I pick 200 years by the way because that should be long enough to be fairly certain that nobody currently alive will be around to experience a world’s end in 200 years.
It seems to me that the main difference between the two end dates is all the currently-unconceived humans that would experience life in the intervening 199,999,800 years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that such lives should come to pass? There is very little moral guidance on this. Even religions have little to say about this, with only a very few religions (albeit big powerful ones) forbidding contraception.
A group that has a decisive opinion that is the direct opposite of the anti-contraceptionists is the anti-natalists, led by the prominent South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar argues that, since all life contains some suffering, it is immoral to create any new life. He does not accept that suffering may be offset by pleasure at other times in a life. Even a few moments of mild pain in an otherwise long, happy life makes the creation of that life a moral mistake, in Benatar’s book. Less extreme anti-natalists argue that procreating is OK if we think the new life will have more pleasure than suffering but that, since we can’t be sure, we are obliged to not procreate. A more folksy version of this is the comment uttered at many a late-night D&M discussion, that ‘this is no world to bring an innocent child into‘.
Not many people are anti-natalists. Most people, despite the exaggerated doom and gloom on the news – terrorist this and serial-killer that – (of course no mention of the real dangers like climate change, malaria, poverty, road carnage and plutocratic hijack of our democracies) see life as a generally pleasant experience and look positively on conferring it on new humans. But that tends to be a very personal feeling, in which the moral dimension cannot be disentangled from the powerful personal urge to procreate.
For those of us who are neither anti-natalists nor anti-contraceptionists, the question of those lives in the intervening 199,000,800 years remains a mystery to be explored. Is it important that they come to pass? Is it good that they do so?
Lest you decide I sound like a homicidal maniac and ring Homeland Security to have me ‘dealt with’, let me state here that I feel that it is better to do what we can to delay the end of the world. That’s a major factor in why I think action on climate change is the most important issue facing humanity today. But I won’t go into the reasons why in this essay, because this topic will be discussed at my upcoming philosophy club meeting and I want to avoid spoilers. In any case, I’m more interested in what other people think about this.
The dilemma posed by this essay was first raised by Oliver Kirk.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
- What, if any, obligations do we have to unborn generations? Do they include an obligation to ensure their existence?
- Does the nature or strength of the obligation change with the remoteness of the future generation?
- If we accept that the end of humanity will occur, and will be accompanied by great suffering, are we obliged to do what we can to delay it for as many centuries or millennia as possible (taking as agreed that we are obliged to delay it beyond the lifespan of anybody currently alive)?
- If we do feel obliged to delay, does that imply an obligation to maximise the population of the Earth, subject to being able to maintain adequate living standards?
- How do I feel about the fact that a time will come when there is no more life? Does it strip life of meaning? Or does it enhance meaning? Or neither?
- How would I feel about a world in which human reproduction became impossible?
- Do I feel differently about the world ending in 200 years from how I feel about it ending in 200 million years?
- What implications do our opinions on the above have on our feelings of what stance we should take on current future-oriented issues like climate change, balancing government budgets, infrastructure building, asteroid mapping, solar flare prediction?
PD James: ‘The Children of Men’
Jacqueline Harpmann: ‘I Who Have Never Known Men’ (‘Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes’)
Peter Singer: “Practical Ethics’. Discussion of obligations to future generations on p108-118 of Third Edition (2011, Cambridge University Press).
I fried mushrooms and zucchinis in the juice left over from having fried a steak for my daughter. Then I ate them. They were delicious.
There’s nothing remarkable in that, except that I’m a vegetarian who is, since my ‘conversion’, repelled by the idea of eating meat. I could not have eaten the steak, but was happy to eat the mushrooms and zucchini fried in its juices.
This struck me as odd when I first thought of it. But I was able to explain it to myself well enough, at least at first. The explanation was that I was brought up to abhor waste and, since the juices would otherwise have been wasted, and the cow had already been killed, it would be a shame to waste the nutrition of those juices. All very sensible, except that the same argument wouldn’t have worked had my daughter decided she did not want her steak. I could not have eaten the steak to save waste, however strong my intentions. I would have requested my daughter to bury it in the garden. That is the fate of all unwanted meat scraps in our house, as experience has taught us that putting them in the compost bin attracts too many rats and breeds maggots.
As an aside, our garden is full of decently interred parts of animals. Buried carefully and solemnly, but without ritual (unless I do it, in which case there may be a surreptitious incantation of respect for the departed spirit). Perhaps that is why the garden is so lush.
But that leaves me without an explanation for why I will eat the thus-fried mushrooms but not a leftover steak or sausage. Don’t get me wrong. A left-over portion of meat is a rare event in our house, as we only have two meat-eaters out of five (the third meat-eater having flown the coop), and I try very hard to err on the side of too little rather than too much, to avoid the animal having died any more in vain than necessary.
Anyway, an alternative, or perhaps supplementary, explanation occurred to me today. It may be a bit new-agey and holistic, or is it just brutally biological, I don’t know. But whichever it is, I stand by it. It seems to explain why I’ll consume the juice but not the steak.
Carl Sagan told us that we are all made of star dust, and how deep and inspirational that is. But other perspectives are possible too. One comes from an African philosopher – Simba the Lion King. He reminded us that we are all part of the circle of life. Put bluntly, while from one perspective we are made of the remains of dead stars, from another we are made of the remains of dead animals and plants. And however vegetarian or even vegan we may be, we are still made of both. Because there is no food chain with a top and a bottom, there is only a food cycle. Even Lions and Tyrannosaurs become food for worms and bacteria, fungi and plants. Plants are part animal juice and animals are part plant juice.
So when I eat a pear or a nut I am also feasting on the bodies of long-dead kangaroos, rabbits, mice, dingos and wild cats and dogs. And also on the bodies of long-dead people.
Not only do we all eat the remains of people and animals. We also breathe them. The air is full of small particles of organic matter, each molecule of which has probably been part of the body of a long chain of living organisms – plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, whatever, over the billion or so years since organic chemistry really took off on this planet.
And of course we are breathing in loads of dust with every breath, which they tell us is mostly discarded human skin.
Now this doesn’t mean that I regard all consumption as identical, either in an ethical or an aesthetic sense. I have no immediate plans to become a direct cannibal, or any other sort of direct carnivore. I have aesthetic objections to both and ethical objections to most carnivorous opportunities that are presented to me. I won’t start eating steaks simply because I have come to dislike the thought of chewing on flesh, because every bite would remind me that this animal had been imprisoned for life and finally killed for my benefit.
That would not be the case if the animal had been shot in the wild, or raised on a happy farm (I picture the farm in Charlotte’s Web) and humanely slaughtered there rather than undergoing gruelling transport to an abattoir. But since almost all meat in our society does not meet that standard, I have come inevitably to associate the texture of meat with that spectre of life imprisonment and execution. So unfortunately, I could not even eat a humanely culled wild kangaroo or Wilbur the pig from the idyllic-sounding farmyard in Charlotte’s web. I doubt I could even eat road-kill, which would be the most defensible of all choices. Just because of the texture and what it reminded me of.
But there is none of that involved in consuming the juice of a steak, especially when combined with zucchini and mushrooms. One does not have to chew it or slice it. There is no tearing and ripping involved. One’s only obstacle to consuming those steak-cooked mushrooms is the potential to think ‘Oh no, this was cooked in the remains of a cow!‘ But since my epiphany of this morning, all I need do is remind myself that everything I eat is made of the remains of animals, including people. So why be squeamish?
Bondi Junction, November 2014
How fine it is to mend things.
There is a real satisfaction in tinkering with a faulty object, examining it, taking it apart, finding the source of a problem and then coming up with a way to fix it. The satisfaction comes partly from the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve a puzzle, and the pleasure in successfully solving it. Then there is the pleasure in learning something new about the world. Once I fixed a metronome and was delighted at what I learned about the ingenious clockwork mechanisms that were concealed within the case. I like to think of those creative and resourceful engineers and craftspeople that had remarkable ideas like putting a little doodad here that would tip the whirligig there on every third revolution, which would, via a series of additional baroque interactions, make a little bell chime.
What a brave new world it is, that has such people in it!
But the most important source of satisfaction from mending things is its contribution to sustainability. Every broken toaster, metronome or lamp shade mended is one less piece of rotten landfill and one more set of valuable resources saved to be used for another five or more years.
Quality control in manufacturing is almost non-existent these days, except for products where faults can cause serious safety hazards. It is much cheaper for a manufacturer to dispense with quality control and simply replace any faulty items returned by customers than to maintain an expensive quality management process in their factory. Why do your own quality control when you can get your customers to do it for you, at no cost?
The consequence of this is that an older, mended object is often better quality than a new replacement, because the older item may have been made in a factory that paid more attention to quality.
My abilities at fixing things are very constrained though, and venture hardly at all into the domain of Soft Things. I can, only just, sew a button on a shirt. It will usually stay on for a while, but it’s not a pretty sight. But beyond buttons I am at sea. That is not generally a problem because my partner is highly skilled with soft things, so between the two of us we manage to take care of most feasible mending.
But there is one terrible exception to the portfolio of challenges with which we can cope, and that is the rehabilitation of socks. What I wonder is ‘Why does nobody darn socks any more?’.
Now I am not asking that as a curmudgeon hankering after the days of his youth, when he could barely walk about for risk of getting stuck by the needle of one of the innumerable sock darners with which he was surrounded. No, my youth was in the post-sock-darning era. My mother was an avid mender of all sorts of garments. Some of my school clothes were more patch than original material. But I can’t recall her repairing a sock (Perhaps she did and I have forgotten).
I know there was a sock-darning era, because I have read many times in books of people performing this wondrous act, but it seems to have pre-dated my life.
The art seems to be long gone, yet it seems to be so useful, that one wonders why it has gone.
Let me be perfectly frank about this: I own many, many pairs of socks. So when it comes to things sock-related, I modestly consider myself to be something of an expert. And I have noticed a tendency of some of my socks to develop holes at the end of the big toe. I stubbornly wear those socks for a while, hole and all, but usually end up having to give up and throw them away under the weight of protestations from my family at the shame it brings them to have a father or partner walking around with holes in his socks.
Think how proud they would be instead, if passers-by could all see that my socks had been mended, perhaps with a striking splotch of scarlet thread on the end that darned over the hole. What a grand world that would be, in which people had access to sock darning services, whether from talented friends and family, or from hired artisans.
I don’t know why the art of sock darning disappeared. Some suggest it is that the types of materials used to make modern socks make darning difficult and unreliable. But I blame children’s story books. Let me give one example. Doubtless there are many others.
The other morning I was doing reading assistance with children at the local primary school. The story that my charge chose to read was ‘The Hole in the King’s Socks’. It tells the story of a king that has a hole in the toe of one sock, and gets a cold toe. He seeks advice from all his courtiers as to how he should remedy this, and none of the remedies (eg stuffing it with leaves, as the Royal Gardener suggests) work.
In the end, the Queen suggests to the king that he knit himself some new socks. He rapidly learns to knit, makes some socks, puts them on, and they all live happily ever after, with warm toes.
It is nice that it encourages learning new skills but other than that, this story is wrong on so many levels!
Firstly, why does he need to make two new socks when only one is damaged? We can see from the illustrations that the new socks are identical in colour and pattern to the old, so there is no problem of mismatch (not that that would be sufficient reason to throw away a perfectly good sock anyway).
But more importantly, if he can learn to knit a sock, why can he not learn to darn, and simply darn the hole? That would use only a tiny fraction of the wool needed to make a whole new sock. Yet that option was not even considered. Presumably both the old socks – the pristine one and the only-slightly-damaged one – were consigned to landfill.
I ask you, what sort of message is this sending our children? “If something is faulty, just throw it away and get a new one”. Whether you make it or buy it makes no real difference. The resources used in the manufacture of the old thing are still wasted.
As you would expect, I gave my young, impressionable reader a moving homily on the foolishness of the king in throwing away his socks, and how we should always seek to mend rather than replace. I am not sure if it had any effect. She seemed more interested in trying to balance her pencil on its end while tipping her chair backwards. But one tries to plant the seeds of wisdom, you know. One never knows when they might take root and grow.
In the past couple of decades we have seen a renaissance of previously unfashionable crafts such as knitting, quilting and crochet. Is it too much to hope that the craft of darning socks will also make a comeback? If I can only live long enough to see that, then I think I will truly be able to die happy.
Bondi Junction, July 2014