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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.
A quotation from the Psalms recently came to mind. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. (Psalm 90, v. 10).
Having reached that Biblical milestone earlier this year, I recall a favourite uncle of mine quoting the above lines at me some decades ago when he reached the age of 70. At that time, his attitude was: I’ve done my bit for the world, and given you a good start. Now it’s up to your generation to carry on the good work. Study hard, find jobs, work hard, and you’ll end up like me, looking back on a life well-lived and enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Based on the foundations laid by an earlier generation, many in this generation (myself included) worked hard and enjoyed a prosperous life, largely managing to evade the conflicts and other terrible things that happened around the world at different places and different times. We lived in a time of a rising tide lifts all boats otherwise known as trickle-down economics, but somehow gravity didn’t do what it was supposed to do, for the simple reason that human greed defies gravity. So instead of trickling down, money trickled up, slowly at first, until the present day when it’s become a roaring flood. Economic pundits (and most famously the pop group Abba) call it “The Winner Takes it All” syndrome. Economist Brian Arthur who has published a body of work on technology and society calls it “the network effect locking markets in to the domination of a single player.”
So here I am, at three score years and ten years thinking, the work’s not done yet; we’ve not laid the foundations of prosperity for coming generations, we’re not leaving behind a healthy planet for them. There’s still time, but there’s a lot of work to do, easily doable despite the shortening window of opportunity remaining, if enough people join in. Here are some links to steps for a healthier planet.
These are only small actions, but following the suggested prescriptions on only one of these links can greatly improve your own health as well as that of the planet. As a side benefit you might find, like Moses, that your eyes are not dimmed, nor your natural force abated. So here’s wishing you all the best for the future of the 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.
St. Mark, Chapter 10.
13. And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
Terrible things are done, mostly by dictatorial governments, to children everywhere, especially to the children of the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed. However, when an official spokesperson for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of freedom and the rule of law says, “I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” then that person has surely never heard that the law is an ass; that laws were made for people rather than the other way round; that war crimes are committed by people who say, “I was only obeying the law. I merely followed orders.”
Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.
Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.
Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.
Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.
Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.
What could be more principled than companies that work to genetically modify seeds, breeding out negative traits and selecting a mix of desirable qualities that make them resistant to pests, hardy enough to withstand droughts or floods as desired? After all, farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years, patiently crossing varieties and developing superior strains of the world’s crops. Enter the profit motive. Still no harm done, we thought! Selfish interest is the lever used by civilizations to lift their peoples to prosperity, with the profit motive as the fulcrum on which this lever rests.
The world has generally accepted the truth of this principle ever since Adam Smith pointed it out in his seminal work, first published in 1776. Except for a relatively brief interlude when some nations experimented with communism and socialism in a failed search for social justice and equity, the world has broadly accepted Smith’s premise that wealth creation is a good thing and ought to be encouraged by enlightened governments that simply move out of the way and allow entrepreneurs to do their stuff. By and large, this is what seems to have happened in the case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Basically, some large corporations have copyrighted and distributed their seeds (sounds fair enough; respect for intellectual property rights sets the basis for innovation and prosperity). The problem is, these corporations have also made the rules about what happens to the seed generations that follow. They have decreed, and governments have accepted, that farmers may not retain a proportion of seeds from their crop for planting the subsequent season, but have to buy the seeds from the corporations again.
As Lizzie Wade points out in her Science article “How Syrians saved an Ancient Seedbank from Civil War”
…Maize, for example, was created by ancient Mesoamericans by painstakingly breeding more and more appetizing teosinte, a stubby grass with tiny, tough kernels that has so little in common with modern maize that archaeologists dismissed it as a possible wild ancestor until genetic tests revealed the surprising truth. The problem in the short run is that conventional breeding can be s…l…o…w. Teosinte was domesticated in central Mexico between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, but farmers only managed to create a variety that tasted good a mere millennium ago
As S. Grant points out in his article “10 Problems Genetically Modified Foods are Already Causing,” once they plant GM crops, farmers can no longer legally harvest their own seeds and are in danger of entering an era of perpetual bondage. Thus serfdom re-enters the world in the 21st century, this time clothed in the language of high-tech and carrying the false promise of freedom from hunger. Lawmakers are all too often ignorant and dazzled by technology, so they fail to realise the problems with GM crops are more to do with social and juridical issues rather than with the technology itself.
“In India, seeds are taken as a symbol of God’s blessing. They keep it, they store it, they know what is good seed and bad seed.” “Control oil and you control nations. Control food, and you control people.”
The above two memorable quotes are from a must-see 9-minute video about Natabar Sarangi, a village farmer who distributes free seeds to poor farmers out of the deep conviction that the thousands of varieties of seeds bred and developed over centuries should not be lost. In the process, he helps many of them to modest prosperity.
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.
A chance remark by an acquaintance about the world running out of food led me to revisit a paper written in 1979 by Prof. Cesare Marchetti, an iconoclastic physicist and materials scientist who likes to think outside the box. The title of his paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal “Energy” is “10 to the power of 12: a check on earth’s carrying capacity.” The full text of this paper is available here:
A second writer on this topic, this time in a book called “How Many People can the Earth Support, (WW Norton, 1995)” is Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist. Check this link for a summary of the book.
Even if the contents of Marchetti’s paper are seen as a thought experiment using back-of-the-envelope calculations, it still is a remarkable viewpoint that is worth remembering when faced with everyday accounts of the seemingly intractable flood of problems facing humanity: land degradation, overpopulation, the coming water crisis, climate change, environmental refugees, desertification, deforestation, sea level rise, ice melts at the polar caps, stratospheric ozone loss, excessive ground level ozone formation through traffic pollution and so on. The list of problems is seemingly endless, and reading a newspaper seems to involve ingesting a daily diet of hopelessness. In contrast, here are the concluding sentences from Cesare Marchetti’s and Joel Cohen’s papers respectively below.
Marchetti: It seems that the problems of growth are basically of cultural character. The Judeo-Christian axiom that the earth is given to man to be dominated, very material to western aggressive and destructive attitudes, may progressively be substituted by the Buddhist axiom that the earth is given to man to be contemplated; thanks to an enlightened use of technology.
Joel Cohen: More than ever before, the land that supported people became a partly human creation. For humans now, the notion of a static, passive equilibrium is inappropriate, useless. So is the notion of a static “human carrying capacity” imposed by the natural world on a passive human species. There is no choice but to try to control the direction, speed, risks, duration and purposes of our falling forward.
The conclusions I draw from these two very different studies are the same:
- there is no shortage of potential threats to human existence (always has been)
- there is no shortage of solutions
- there is plenty of work to do, so no danger of long-term unemployment
- subtle shifts in the public perception of problems can have tremendous long-term implications (the speed with which such shifts can occur is only the truly new element in global dynamics).