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I had the flu last week. It probably wasn’t a flu, actually. Just a cold and a fever that kept me in bed for three days. What a bore, you say. No. It wasn’t at all. Because the illness opened up a window of time where I could indulge myself and read what I wanted to. I was on a train journey when the fever and chills began, so I wrapped myself up in my warmest clothes and began to read Madeline Miller’s wonderful book.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. When I started the book, I knew of Circe only as an appendage to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, an also-ran who played a small supporting role in the life of a classic hero. She was the one who bewitched his men and turned them into swine. In passing, Circe is spoken of as a daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph. In this book, the heroes (Jason and Odysseus among them) are shown to be flawed human beings with all too human frailties that undermine the lives of those closest to them. The parallels to the 21st century fall of several iconic heroic figures are very close and inescapable. The author brings Circe to magnificent life; a courageous woman who battles her fate and in the end, defies her father to escape the eternity of exile on the island of Aiaia to which Helios has condemned her. Rather than simple mythology, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story (over a period of several centuries, admittedly); a story for our time about a long suppressed and battered woman who finds her voice. The miles flew by and the train journey soon ended. By the time I finished the book I was home, the discomfort of the train journey behind me, and crawled tiredly into bed. After several cups of tea I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was bedtime. I was wide awake, with a runny nose, a bit of a cough, and no chance of going back to sleep. So I started another book.
Die Trapp Familie: die wahre Geschichte hinter dem Welterfolg by Gerhard Jelinek, Birgit Mosser. Many Austrians find it annoying when tourists gush about The Sound of Music and think that it represents a true picture of the country. They see the movie and the musical as a candy floss image of the truth. So this painstakingly researched history by two reporters sets the record straight. For me the real hero in the story is Captain von Trapp, a highly decorated U boat captain. More impressive than his wartime exploits are his apparent human qualities. According to his own writings, he genuinely agonized about enemy loss of life when attacking enemy shipping (but followed duty and did it anyway). He was a devoted father, had a harmonious marriage to his first wife, the mother of his first five children. It didn’t hurt that she was a wealthy English heiress who came from a prominent industrial family based in Trieste. An Irish cousin of his first wife who spoke no German lived in their household for several years. So his children grew up speaking English as well as German. This stood them in good stead in their burgeoning international career. Apparently it is true that the good captain used a ship’s bosun pipe with individual calls to summon his children, but only because they lived in a rambling house with extensive grounds. He was by no means a martinet and when Julie Andrews, pardon, Maria Kutschera, arrives as a childrens’ governess, the family was already very musically capable. They sang in a choir with Captain von Trapp playing first violin and two of the older children on instruments. Anyway, just as in the movie he does really marry the governess, and it is her driving ambition that makes them internationally famous. From this point on, the Julie Andrews myth seems to be closer to the truth. Good reading for the first night and second day of the fever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was feeling much better as I started reading, but soon realized I wasn’t going to get completely well until I’d finished this book uninterrupted. It was a long and easy read. The narrative flowed unpretentious, self-aware and honest. After finishing the book, two impressions were very clear. This woman would be a great politician if she wanted to be one. Second was the certainty that she would never, ever go into politics. And so I delved into the life and times of this fascinating couple. Interestingly, only the last 30% of the book is dedicated to the White House years, presumably because so much of it is in the public record. It is very clear that the focus of her life, apart from the causes she has been associated with, is her family. The immediate family and the extended family. In any case, it was a refreshing and compelling read and I emerged from the book completely well enough to go back to the normal routine of time spent outdoors and other work.
This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days. So here goes!
Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)
Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.
The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.
“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).
I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.
Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.
Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.
Coming across some unsweetened chocolate containing dried figs and ham (prsut), the combination seemed so unusual that we picked a packet up to try at home later. This was in a little shop near the open air market of Ljubljana, the eminently walkable capital of Slovenia. The combination, when we tried it, was delicious and to be highly recommended. Tasting this reminded me of a bitterly cold winter evening some years earlier, wandering through a Christmas market in Vienna, when I was stopped by a bearded man who looked like a Peruvian pan flute player.
“You look cold,” he said.
“Yes, I am cold.”
“Try a mug of Aztec chili chocolate with rum,” he said. “It’ll warm you up in no time.”
So we bought two steaming mugs of his brew and soon felt a pleasantly mild fiery glow spread through our innards. It helped us forget frozen hands and the biting cold for a good half hour. Figs originally came from Asia Minor, modern day eastern Turkey, but they spread early all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Chocolate probably originated in Olmec lands around 1000 BC where they called it kakawa. The origin of the word chocolate is presumably from an Aztec word ‘xocoatl,’ a bitter drink they brewed from cocoa beans. Here’s a link to a brief history of chocolate.
A gourmet friend told me several years ago about a trip to Sicily where he ate the most delicious lasagna he’d ever tasted, in a nondescript restaurant in a small village. Curious, he asked the owner, who was also the cook, the secret to his lasagna. “Unsweetened chocolate,” the man explained, pointing to a thin brown layer in the middle.
The Olmecs gave us chocolate and avocados. Kiwi fruit were brought out of China and found a new home in New Zealand where its name changed from Chinese gooseberry to kiwi. Okra originated in Ethiopia and now is used by households from India to Florida. Sugarcane spread from India and New Guinea to the rest of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes also originated from South America, while chick peas came from Turkey and the Middle East as long as 8000 years ago. Ethiopia also gave the world coffee, probably via Mocha in modern day Yemen. Tea, as is well known, came from China.
Where is all this leading to? To people, of course. To the people who consume these foods and beverages all over the world. Thank goodness for the free movement of food and food habits. A world without hummus, okra, tomatoes, potatoes or, God forbid, coffee and tea would be a world of culinary despair. So the way the world is going right now, most nations are saying, ok, we’ll take your food but not your people. Imagine the long-term global poverty and despair that then ensues, not only immediately, but in the long run. Imagine a world of monocultures with no biodiversity! So next time you go to vote, remember to vote for culinary diversity, and the people that come with it. This idea is underlined in the following illustration and article from UK think tank Global Future about future diversity in business leadership.
I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?
A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?
Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!
How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.
Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.
If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.
Around 2009 economist Tim Jackson wrote a book called “Prosperity without Growth” that attracted the attention of policy makers worldwide. Maybe the excitement was mainly in the academic community, but I do know that Tim Jackson was sought after by policy makers and politicians for several years after the publication of his work. I assume the latter were looking for advice about ways to institute policies that would ensure deep systemic change. Of course they did not get any useful information. Jackson’s answers only showed what had to be done, not how to do it. That ‘how to’ is the preserve of politicians and, ultimately us, the electorate.
This brings me to the real reason for failures of governance. Us. We. The. People. Many years ago I had a brief interview with the foreign minister of a country and asked him why he did not implement what we both agreed would be a common sense measure to enhance regional food security at practically no cost. The helplessness implicit in his reply was illuminating. One of the ‘aha’ moments of my life. “Bring me a mandate,” the minister said, “and I will gladly take this decision.” In that moment, like cascading coins from a slot machine, the realization dawned. In democracies, it is us. We have to use our starling intelligence, as members of the swarm to mould societies as we wish. In travels through many countries I’ve noticed that where people sit back and complain about the government, the corruption, the lousy politicians; they are not doing anything much to change the status quo.
In the words of George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, we have only the one planet, but we’re living a four-planet lifestyle. In 2018 Earth Overshoot Day fell already on the 1st of August. This is the earliest date since the practice began in the 1970s, calculated by the WWF and the Global Footprint Network. This is the date when humanity’s annual demand on Nature exceeds what the Earth can regenerate over the entire year. In other words, this is the date when we begin to rob the bank. And most of us, good people, in our struggle to provide a comfortable life for our families, in ensuring livelihoods for our children, are totally oblivious to this. So before the politicians act, we have to change ourselves, reduce our demands on the planet. Sometimes this can mean enriching our lives by doing more with less. And very often this change begins with an inward journey that only we can make. No politician can ever do this for us. The transformation that the world needs is inside of us. All of us.
Many years ago, I was shocked when an economist friend of mine (not you, Larry) said “so what?” in response to my moaning about arctic sea ice loss and the threat of extinction to polar bears. The economist in question is a thoughtful, gentle human being who would never think of himself as cruel or unkind. But he was thinking in terms of economic resources for human needs and, like a lot of people, myself included, who are stuck in their heads (i.e. nurture their intellect and take pride in it), they see themselves as thinking people, and therefore naturally superior – unthinkingly superior – to all other living things.
I came to humility rather late in life. This late-found humility was triggered by a number of factors; the increasing number of vegetarians and vegans in my circle of acquaintance, the anti cow-slaughter movement in India, increasing evidence of methane emissions from cattle farming for meat, and a video about South African Anna Breytenbach who has made interspecies communication her life’s work. I had always appreciated animal pets as sentient beings, but Breytenbach’s work, in particular, brought me to see them at eye level so to speak, dispelling any vestigial notion of superiority. Yes, we can think faster, outwit them in IQ tests, juggle, ride bicycles, add numbers, make wars – and exploit our planet – much better than they ever can. Despite all this, if we don’t recognise them as sentient beings with as much right to live as we do, then we put our own humanity, and humankind, at risk.
A friend recently remarked on the number of stray dogs in her neighbourhood. She complained that animal rights activists were busy protecting the rights of the dogs, while ignoring the plight of poor people in the same area who were struggling to eke out a living. I neglected to point out at the time that a government that does not respect the rights of animals as sentient beings is much less likely to respect the rights of economically powerless people. Take the case of infrastructure. When have rich people ever lost their homes and land to make way for a dam? If you can show me an example, I would wager they were richly compensated and ended up materially better off than before. Never so in the case of the poor. The same applies to roads. An eight-lane highway is deemed necessary and land is appropriated, very often from people who can never afford to use that highway.
And so I come in this roundabout way to the fact that Simba died two nights ago. This blog posting is a mark of respect to the passing of a much loved animal. She was only a cat, but she was a sentient being. R.I.P. Simba.