Sunday, 30 October 2011

Seven Billion Baby

A few days ago, I found myself driving through the Duchy of Berg, on my way to a wedding in a neighbouring town. It was a beautiful late autumn morning; the sun, though growing inexorably weaker as the days become shorter, had gained enough strength to burn away the early morning fog and shone unobstructed from a bird-egg blue sky on the last glories of colour which the fading vitality of nature was able to provide. Red and green had largely disappeared – with the exception of the dark grey-green of the conifers and the brighter green of many of the fields – for the first autumn storms had already stripped many leaves from the trees and most of those remaining had very little chlorophyll left, so that the boughs and branches were already beginning to show signs of their winter starkness. November is just around the corner.

It was an idyllic scene, an overwhelmingly rural scene, rolling hills, fields and woodlands; one which could almost be pictured as Frodo’s Shire, if you just imagined the occasional house, power pylon and metalled road away. And then it struck me that the region I was travelling through was, in fact, part of the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area, the second largest polycentric urban area in Europe (after London), with over 12 million people and a population density of 1,422/ It is, in economic terms, the largest economic area of Germany, accounting for around 15% of national GDP, one in which one city boundary frequently borders on the next – and yet, it is a region which is still predominantly green.

Of course, Germany is one of the richest countries in the world; a developed land, moving in many areas into a new technological, almost post-industrial phase, which has had the time and the wealth to deal with many of the worst excesses of heavy industrialisation, providing the vast majority of its population with a standard of living which would be longed for by billions of people throughout the world.

A world which, if we are to believe the experts, will welcome its seven billionth citizen sometime this weekend. The baby may be born in the Rhine-Ruhr area, or in Tokyo, in Beverly Hills or London; following statistical probabilities, however, it is more likely to take its first breath in the slums of Cairo or Mexico City, in the Gaza enclave or one of the camps in Northern Kenya, where the refugees from the hunger and chaos in Somalia are gathered in teeming hundreds of thousands. Though it may live its life in prosperity and privilege, it is more likely to grow up in poverty and existential uncertainty. If it lives a long life, that child will see a new century, having lived through one in which, in all likelihood, the human family will have taken the decisions which will decide whether the future will be bleak and increasingly uncertain on an increasingly wrecked planet, dominated by violence, poverty, a desperate struggle for mere survival by the vast majority of people, and death; or one in which humanity has faced up to the challenges it has created for itself and developed solutions which guarantee a life in dignity and relative security for its members.

The Parable of the Yeast
As a young man in Ireland, I spent a couple of years with some friends making wine as a hobby. We would never have described ourselves as oenologists; our primary aim was to produce significant quantities of a pleasant, drinkable, alcoholic product at an affordable price. While we experimented (sometimes successfully J) with different local fruits, the easiest way was to work with grape juice and kits, which could be bought relatively cheaply.

Apart from grape juice and the correct ambient temperature, the most important ingredient was the yeast. Basically, a small amount of dried yeast is added to the raw must and, in around two weeks, it converts nearly all of the sugar present into alcohol and carbon dioxide – the process known as fermentation.

It’s well worth looking at this process a little more closely. If the conditions are right, that small amount of yeast feels itself in yeast heaven and commences to behave accordingly. It starts to eat sugar, pissing alcohol and farting carbon dioxide for all it’s worth to get rid of the waste products. It also begins to reproduce like hell, being fruitful and multiplying at an incredible rate, creating a lot more yeast, which also starts to eat sugar, piss alcohol and fart carbon dioxide. A side effect of this is the generation of a large amount of heat, something the wine-maker has to keep a close eye on; the yeast does like it warm, but not too warm, a potential problem with all the reproduction and metabolising which is going on.

Towards the end of the process, the conditions change. The sugar starts to grow scarce and the amount of alcohol now present is proving increasingly poisonous for the yeast. As resources diminish and toxicity increases the yeast starts to die off, first slowly, then with increasing rapidity, until, in the end, all the yeast has died and fallen to the bottom of the fermentation vessel as a sediment known as the lees and the wine is basically ready (though to make it drinkable a slower secondary process, known as malolactic fermentation in which bacteria convert malic to lactic acid, must still take place).

In times when I am feeling pessimistic and negative – many would say realistic – I wonder whether there is any real difference between humanity and yeast. Looking at the past couple of hundred years, in particular, this view could well be seen as justified. As a process it is nothing special in nature, it happens all the time; species finding an environment which particularly suits them, over-reproducing and exhausting that environment as a result before dying back in massive numbers to make way for others and allowing new processes to begin. And we too are a species of life, just as yeast – or lemmings. The problem is that our environment has become the entire planet and the exhaustion of resources and the changes we effect on that environment are likely to become so dramatic that, when the tilt-moment comes and the die-back begins, we will have left an incredible mess behind us. If that die-back is not accompanied by widespread nuclear war (still a distinct possibility, particularly in times of increasing chaos, uncertainty and desperate battles for survival), the planet, and life, will survive us, but recovery from us will take quite a while.

Yet there is one aspect which makes us different from the yeast and the lemmings; we have the capacity to think, to plan, to imagine and envision the possible future and voluntarily tailor our actions in order to choose the direction in which that future will grow and thus influence its concrete reality. Up to around a hundred years ago, it can be argued, there were few enough of us, and the earth was big and bountiful enough, for such considerations to be unnecessary. That is no longer the case. We are becoming increasingly aware of our global interconnectedness in all sorts of ways – also of the consequences of our unthinking consumption of everything the planet has to offer and of our crazy merciless competition for increasingly scarce resources. Many major changes have already taken place and, just like the yeast, our “metabolising,” reproduction and ever-increasing production of carbon dioxide as a waste product is already showing signs of raising the temperature in our planetary fermentation vat to a level which is becoming uncomfortable for us. We have not yet learned to piss alcohol, but the other waste products we produce are quite poisonous and damaging enough.

The (symbolic) birth of Seven Billion Baby can perhaps be an event which helps us focus on what is at stake – the future of that child and his or her siblings; the future of all our children and grandchildren. It can be that beautiful world of the Duchy of Berg I drove through a few mornings ago, but it can also be the world of the Somali refugee camps in Kenya – or worse. But a world in which both can coexist and in which, above all, the residents of Berg can go about their lives largely unconcerned and untouched by the fates of those in the camps will not be able to continue to exist for much longer, for the strains and pressures we are creating planet-wide on all sorts of levels will become increasingly difficult to ignore. If we do not start to act much more decisively than we have done up to now, I very much fear that that tilt-point will come and the die-back will begin. And that is something which will profit none of us (except, perhaps, some fraction of that one percent who have so much power and money that they can barricade themselves away in enclaves to carry on some kind of sterile continued existence).

The signs are increasing that time is running out for us – that it is coming up to a minute before twelve. What gives me some hope is our capability, despite everything, for creativity, imagination and empathy. And our ingenuity and energy when it comes around to getting things done at the last minute.

Happy birthday, Seven Billion Baby. I wish you lots of luck – you’re going to need it. But maybe you’ll have it too; after all, seven is supposed to be a lucky number!

Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 21 October 2011

An 18th Century Gentleman

Join me, if you will, on a little harmless flight of fantasy. Imagine you had the choice of whenever and wherever in history and geography you could live, and that you were free, moreover, to choose your status in life there and then too. Where and when and who would you like to be?

Westport House in Mayo, Ireland
On reflection, I think I would like to have been an Irish gentleman of comfortable means in the second half of the eighteenth century. As such, I would have been a member of a small, privileged elite, the group known as the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, which, following the defeat of the old Irish great lords like the O’Neills and O’Donnells at the end of the sixteenth century and the Cromwellian defeat and dispossession of the great majority of the remaining native or Norman Catholic gentry in the middle of the seventeenth, had attained secure control over both land and power in Ireland. Many were descendants of Cromwellian officers or settlers, installed by the English in that period, along with some few older settlers or even native Irish gentry who had accepted English rule and the English protestant religion.

They grew to form a peculiar class. The hardening of religious positions in the seventeenth century led to a situation where, for the vast majority of the native Irish, Catholicism became more than a religion, advancing to part of a cultural identity which made the religious difference just one part of a definition of Irishness, coalescing in self-understood difference from (and generally sullen opposition to) what was increasingly seen as an unwanted foreign occupation. This development was, of course, mirrored – and often exacerbated – by the growth of the Anglo-Irish self-image and the policies of the controlling English crown, which equated popery with treason and imposed all sorts of legal sanctions against Catholics (known in Ireland ever since as the Penal Laws), including disenfranchisement, inheritance disadvantages, judicial preference of Protestants, prohibition of worship, etc.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Ascendancy was firmly in control, sure of their supremacy – both in the superiority of their nature above that of the native Irish and its guarantee by England. That society was ordered was a divinely ordained fact of life and their position at the top of the heap was clearly a reflection of the divine will.

Yet this was also the era of the enlightenment, an age of reason and even – within certain boundaries – tolerance. Certainly the atmosphere of the time was one which respected rationality and moderation and abhorred what was often described as “enthusiasm.” It is perhaps ironic that it was the general stability of society, coupled with limited tolerance for ‘free thinkers’ and a distaste for the religious enthusiasm which had nearly torn Europe apart in the 17th Century, which created the environment in which those ideas would develop which would lead to the destruction of many of the foundations of that society; ideas propagated by thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire, Paine and Rousseau.

This then, is the background to the Irish gentleman whose life I would like to live. I imagine my wealth and income as fundamentally based on land, good land; an estate preferably in County Meath, or Kildare, somewhere, at any rate, not too far from Dublin, where I would also maintain a town house.

Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century is one of the most pleasant European cities in which to have a residence. Large enough to be a centre of culture, it is still small enough to be familiar, developing that special identity it retains to this day as a huge village where everyone, through two or three connections, knows everyone else worth knowing and where gregariousness is a fundamental fact of life. It is a city undergoing splendid renewal in what came to be called the Georgian style, with the building of fine houses, magnificent civic buildings and beautiful parks, including the largest public park in Europe, the Phoenix Park.

Georgian Doors in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin
My Dublin residence I imagine in one of these fine new Georgian streets, at best fronting one of the tasteful squares built around a green park, such as Mountjoy or Merrion Square, perhaps even on the central St. Stephens Green. From there I would be able to easily participate in the busy cultural life of the city; going to musical performances in Mr. Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street (where Handel’s Messiah was premiered), attending (if my wealth were great and my contacts influential enough) civic occasions and balls at Dublin Castle – the seat of government of the English Lord Lieutenant, the top aristocrat who represented the crown – perhaps frequenting Sunday services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to hear its great dean, the glorious man of letters, satirist and addict of controversy, Jonathan Swift, preach.

For my religion, naturally, would be that of the established church, the Church of Ireland, the Hibernian version of Anglicanism; an obviously supremely reasonable kind of Protestantism, retaining much of the better older traditions which had been initially part of the universal church until Roman popish superstition had perverted them. Though, if I am to be truthful, my personal religious convictions are not particularly deep – in fact, if pressed, I would probably describe myself as a deist, though this is not a position I would loudly profess publicly. Among educated friends of my own class, my position is widely shared but we still see the value of religion as a necessary part of societal order and guardian of public (and, to an extent, private) morality. Moreover, the church provides a means of living for many younger sons of gentle birth and has, in Ireland, thrown up such prodigies as the aforementioned Mr. Swift, or the great philosopher, Bishop Berkeley.

It is conceivable that I might have a seat in parliament. Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth century, for 18 glorious years, the Irish parliament in Dublin succeeded in throwing off practically all the controls the British parliament in Westminster had accrued over the previous centuries and exercised wide-ranging autonomy in the administration of the country until fear of French invasion and native Irish rebellion – the Irish rising of 1798, while unsuccessful, was alarmingly inspired by French revolutionary ideas – led to the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 and the abolition of the Irish legislature.

I regard myself as a man of progress, a man of reason. As a young man, following a few years at Trinity College, I have made the Grand Tour of Europe, experiencing something of life and culture in continental Europe; an experience which has reinforced my conviction of the superiority of the British way of doing things. Nevertheless, combined with a certain studious inclination, the experience has helped me to improve my knowledge of French, which has basically replaced Latin as the lingua franca of civilised men and the mastery of which enables me to maintain a correspondence with other men of ideas throughout Europe.

As a gentleman I would be married, though – given the perils associated with childbirth in a society in which medical knowledge and, in particular, the knowledge of hygiene were still fairly rudimentary – I may well be a widower. The path for my sons is clear; the eldest will be my heir, the second would go into the army (in which case, I will have had to purchase a commission for him), the third would possibly try to make a career in the church or train in one of the professions, like law. For my daughters I would have to provide a dowry before finding suitable husbands for them.

The basis of my prosperity is my land. Most of this is farmed by tenants, and their rents make up a considerable portion of my disposable wealth. It is a good time to be renting land. The spread of the potato has meant that tenant families are able to feed themselves on relatively small farms, so their numbers are growing and the possible subdivision of the lands they rent increases my income.

Not that I regard myself as an exploiter. I see myself as a fair, concerned landlord and squire, interested in modern ideas of farming, trying to improve the lots of my tenants (insofar as they are prepared to listen to me), reading and applying the ideas of modern agricultural thinkers such as Jethro Tull to the model farm areas of my estate which I administer myself. I see myself as being fair to my tenants, being approachable and even prepared to postpone rents or find other solutions, for those going through difficulties. While I deplore their papist superstition, I am tolerant enough to allow them to follow their superstitious ways of worship and even have an amiable relationship with their (technically illegal) priest – quite an educated fellow as a result of a number of years spent studying abroad in Salamanca and Rome.

Life on my estate is, in many ways, fairly self-contained. The army of servants necessary to keep my manor (known to the native Irish as “the Big House”) comes from the estate and we form a little community of our own. My children all had Irish wet-nurses – as, indeed, I did too – and, before they were old enough to be educated and learn the necessary awareness of their status, their playmates were ordinary peasant children. A large amount of what we consume is produced on the estate, though such necessities as sherry, claret and port have, of course, to be imported.

But, in contrast to the rich cultural life in Dublin, the intellectual stimulus on the estate is rather poor. Many of the neighbouring squires are rather ignorant, more interested in hunting, gambling and duelling than in serious use of the mind. Though my position demands that I hunt occasionally, I have no interest in gambling, and have seen far too many men ruined by ill-considered bets, generally fuelled by drink. The number of educated men around in the vicinity of my estate are not many; the schoolteacher, the vicar (unfortunately a pompous bore, who drones on interminably about the dangers of the teachings of Mr. Charles Wesley) and the doctor and lawyer from the nearby town. They join me regularly for dinner where we discuss everything from politics to the works of Mr. David Hume and the Prussian thinker, Emmanuel Kant.

Oliver Goldsmith by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Having passed fifty, I am starting to feel my age, having begun to suffer from that curse of men of my class, gout. My friend, the local doctor, speculates that a diet high in red meat, port and claret may exacerbate the condition, though I find it hard to accept that my after-dinner port can be a contributory factor to the pain in my big toe. He might as well claim that it is a result of my wig being too tight!

I recently had a visit from one of my university compatriots at Trinity, Mr. Oliver Goldsmith. A most agreeable fellow, and one of some literary pretensions. He read to me from his latest work, The Deserted Village. It is a fancy of mine that his observations concerning the heedless doings of the richest of men, uncaring of the general common weal, may retain a significance beyond my own time, still retaining relevance, perhaps, in centuries still to come:

“Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
The rich man's joys increase, the poor's decay,
'Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and an happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards, even beyond the miser's wish, abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains.  This wealth is but a name
That leaves with useful products still the same.
Not so the loss.  The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth;
His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
Indignant spurns the cottage from the green;
Around the world each needful product flies,
For all the luxuries the world supplies:
While thus the land, adorned for pleasure all,
In barren splendour feebly waits the fall.”

Pictures retrieved from:


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