Sunday, September 11, 2022

End of Civilization

 Rereading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, I noticed an off-hand comment of Crake I hadn't before. There is no second chance for civilization. History is full of stories of empires rising and falling and rising again. So it seems natural to assume that if civilization collapses, people will eventually pull themselves back together and rebuild. Probably faster than last time, because of the residual knowledge preserved in writings and artifacts, and maybe in lore. But there's a key problem.

All the easily accessible deposits of coal, oil, and gas have been used. There is more in the ground. Some say a lot more, some say not much more, but it doesn't matter. At this point, it takes an advanced technical society to get it. No one is going to invent hydrofracking if they don't already have sophisticated technology built on ample energy supplies. You don't start drilling for oil on the ocean bottom. If you need to move a mountain to get at a coal bed, you need earth-moving machinery.

Atwood posits that this is even true for metals. Sources of iron and copper are no longer sitting on the surface, easily found. In order to sink a mine five hundred yards into the earth, you need to already have metal tools. There will be salvage metal available, of course. That may be enough to get metal-working going again. But I don't see any way around the energy bottleneck.

The mythology is wrong. Empires rise and fall and rise again. Civilization rises, endures for a time, and then passes away.

Humans have trod this earth for 50-150,000 years (counting from "Behavioral Modernity"). Civilization has only existed for 5,000 of those years. For the first 2-4,000 years, it was an oddity, practiced only in certain regions where the available resources were ideal. It's only in the last 1,000-1,500 years that civilization has been extensive around the globe.

Enjoy it while we've got it. It may never come again.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Vive la Free Press


NOTE: This was a collaboration between me and Isabelle, written some years ago. She was no older than 12. Most of the plot is her genius, I contributed mostly prose, historical context, and clever French names.


Vive la Free Press

by Eugene and Elizabeth Fairfield

Daring Palace Robbery

PARIS FREE PRESS--A daring robbery took place late last night at the royal palace. The thief scaled the palace wall, despite pouring rain, and entered through a fourth-story window directly into the queen's bedchamber. The queen herself was sleeping after her usual nightly debauchery, and old Louis the Umpteenth had moved to the opposite end of the palace, saying, "She shakes the whole foundation when she snores."

Eluding palace guards, the thief made his or her way down to the kitchens and exited by the service door.

The thief passed up countless valuables, including the queen's carelessly heaped diamond necklaces, all purchased with the onerous taxes paid mostly by the working poor. The only items missing were from the royal pantry, including flour, german chocolate, evaporated milk, coconut, pecans, eggs, butter, and baking soda.

Publicly, palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant denied the robbery had taken place, but posters are appearing around the city, describing the thief as "male, or else female, of indeterminate height and weight, with hair of an indistinct color, and wearing wet clothing." A reward of 50,000 livre is offered.

The thief, who prefers to remain anonymous, said only, "I was hungry," a phrase echoed by many in this oppressed country.

Hungry Thief Strikes Again

PARIS FREE PRESS--For the second day in a row, a robbery took place in the royal palace. The thief outsmarted palace staff by entering this time by the kitchen door. Flummoxed guards explained, "He was supposed to try to get out this way."

The thief opened the royal counting house, ignored several sacks of gold that had been plundered from the hard-working people of the country, and stole a quill pen. He or she then worked through the palace, lifting several 10-inch round cake pans, a knife sharpener, some musical instrument cleaning supplies, and a roll of twine, before exiting through the royal dog flap.

Palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant just about had a coronary, saying "When will you idiots get it through your thick heads? There was no robbery!" Wanted posters continue to appear throughout town, increasing the reward to 100,000 livre.

The only evidence discovered was a travel brochure the thief had dropped, entitled, "Paris on £10 a Day." A high-placed official said, "Clearly, the thief is a foreigner, probably a kraut."

Said the thief, "I'm not a kraut, but the queen is."

Police suspect the thief is staying in one of the low-rent boarding houses mentioned in the brochure. Needlessly destructive raids are planned for later tonight.

Police Raids Thwarted By Mass Protest

PARIS FREE PRESS--Forewarned by clever journalists, the people turned out in huge numbers to defend their dwelling places. Police descended on the neighborhood, intent on "clobbering some of the unwashed," in the words of one unidentified officer. They were turned back by crowds approaching 200,000 strong.

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire attempted to deny responsibility, saying, "We weren't raiding the neighborhood. We got a call that there was a riot in the area."

Organizers of the protest, who forgot to give their names, said, "Oh, that's likely."

Hungry Thief Can't Be Stopped!

PARIS FREE PRESS--cleverly disguised as the queen herself, the Hungry Thief slipped into the palace, and made off with some loose change and a bottle of vanilla extract.

"I suspected something was up," said a palace guard, now relieved of duty, "because the queen didn't have her usual lack of personal hygiene."

Said the thief, "There are limits to what I will do."

Palace Spokesman Oral Le Bruyant screamed incoherently, but careful listeners agree he was probably saying repeatedly, "There was no robbery!"

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire sent a letter to Free Press offices, saying, in part, "If you insist on publishing slander and lies, we will shut you down. See if we don't."

Palace Crackdown on Free Expression

THE PEOPLE'S UNDERGROUND PRESS--Palace Police ruthlessly attacked the offices of the Paris Free Press, destroying property valued at under £200,000, and writing nasty words on the walls. Everyone present was arrested and dragged off to jail, where someone was heard to laugh wickedly and say, "You'll never see the light again!"

Police Chief Brute Le Téméraire said, "We didn't write those words. They were already there when we arrived."

Warned by watchful citizens, the Free Press staff had already fled the building, taking with them a small printer and many cases of type. The only one left in the building was the paper's mascot, Mittens.

Editors of the Free Press are continuing to publish from an undisclosed location.

Inauguration Party Tonight--Public Invited

PARIS FREE PRESS--Habile Le Faim will be inaugurated as our new president tonight, in a gala celebration certain to please.

"The people made this happen," said Le Faim. "So everyone is invited."

Outraged over many abuses under the old monarchy, in particular the crackdown on the Free Press, not to mention the mishandling of beloved Mittens, angry people stormed the palace last week and overwhelmed the guards. Mittens was unharmed but shaken by her harrowing ordeal.

Palace spokesman Oral Le Bruyant was heard saying, "But... but... but... this was all nonsense!" just before he was tossed out on his derrière.

The king and queen had no comment, due to the large number of socks stuffed in their mouths.

Organizers say the Inauguration will feature many wonderful foods, especially german chocolate cake, in honor of the departing queen.

In other news, the editor of the Free Press, who coincidentally is also named Habile Le Faim, has left the paper, saying he or she will "just be really busy with some new responsibilities I have to take on."

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Aragorn and Frodo

 I just watched Aragorn vs. Toxic Masculinity, which is a wonderful discussion of Aragorn as a quintessentially masculine character who is simultaneously tender and affirming. I've had the thought that Aragorn's greatest, defining moment in the movie comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, when he meets Frodo in the woods, at the Breaking of the Fellowship.

If you recall, Boromir has just tried to take the ring by force. Aragorn has sought Frodo to ensure he is safe, but when Frodo sees him, he backs away. "Can you protect me from yourself?" he asks. 

Aragorn is caught between two destinies: the Ranger and the King. The Ranger is all he has ever been, the man who works in the shadows, fights evil, defends the weak, and stays apart from the affairs of men and kings. Royalty is his heritage, but the last man to claim this heritage, Isildur, was destroyed by the temptations of power. If Aragorn could have his way, he would stay the Ranger. He fears the kingship, and the temptation it entails. He joined the Fellowship to do good as a Ranger, not a king. 

In the book, it is clear that both destinies stay with him on the journey with the Fellowship. Once they draw near to Gondor, Aragorn knows he must choose: turn right, to Gondor, and become king; turn left, to Mordor, remain the Ranger. When Gandalf falls in Moria, Aragorn is left as the leader of the Fellowship. His destiny is now clear: he must choose the path he wanted to choose, be the Ranger, lead Frodo to Oroduin.

There on the banks of the Anduin, Frodo throws this destiny into doubt. If he goes with Frodo, he could be a risk to the quest. Frodo has determined that he must go alone. In the movie, Frodo makes one last effort to avoid his fate. He offers the ring to Aragorn. Will you go, instead of me, and destroy the ring? The offer is probably the cruelest thing Frodo could have done to Aragorn. "Here," he has said. "You can escape from the destiny you fear. All you have to do is take the thing that is the source of all you fear."

But it is mercy, as well. Frodo's offer makes plain to Aragorn: the path of the Ranger is not free of temptation, it is not clear, it is not easy. When Aragorn refuses--an act few people in Middle Earth are capable of, to refuse the ring of power--it is not just his fear of temptation. He sees that this one before him, this hobbit Frodo, might be the one who can do this deed. There is something else that Aragorn can do, instead. He can be the king of men.

He folds Frodo's hand over the ring, and pushes it away, and says only, "I would have gone with you all the way. Into the very flames of Mordor."

Moments later, an army of Orcs appears, and, while Frodo flies, he turns and salutes them with his sword. He is ready. He cannot bring the ring to Mordor. His destiny is to stand and do battle.

Aragorn never forgets this moment on the banks of the Anduin. After the Seige of Gondor, when he stands as the hero of the hour, when he has rode into battle under the flag of the kings of Gondor, still his thought is with the hobbit he had pledged to protect. So he conceives the maddest of all strategies: a suicide assault on the gates of Mordor, to create a distraction, and give cover for Frodo's mission.

The purpose of his mission is never forgotten. When they are surrounded by the hosts of Mordor, and he has made his rousing speech--"On this good earth, I bid you stand! Men of the West!"--he then turns, and says quietly, "For Frodo." 

The final moment, of course, comes at his coronation. Sauron is defeated, Aragorn is crowned king, and he is finally reunited with his elven princess. As he is walking through his people, and all our bowing before their king, he meets Frodo and his companions, and says, "My friends. You bow to no man." He drops to his knees before them, and all Gondor sees their king kneel. Most have no idea why, but if their king is kneeling, they all fall to their knees. All Gondor kneels to four hobbits from the Shire. Because Aragorn knows that what he has done, becoming king, that was actually the easier path than the one he had intended. It was Frodo made Aragorn king. Then he went on to save all Middle Earth.