Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Reversals of Fortune

Two reversals that have occurred over the past few decades come to mind.

1. We used to be worried about nuclear winter. Now, we are worried about global warming.

This brings to mind the famous poem by Robert Frost, Fire and Ice, published in Harper's magazine in 1920:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


2. We used to be worried about killer bees. Now, we are worried about Colony Collapse Disorder.

This brings to mind the famous poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, published in 1925:

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Have the bees fallen victim to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, their colonies subject to intensive entropy?

Much of farming is dependent on bees for pollination, and without the species Apis mellifera L. and its relations, our system of agricultural production would collapse (and by our I mean the human race), and worldwide famine would result. That Colony Collapse Disorder may be caused by mobile telephone signals interfering with the natural navigational abilities of the honeybee gives new meaning to the term media ecology, but that hypothesis isn't taken all that seriously so far.

But even if the cause is one or a combination of the likely suspects, bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite, or pollution, the important point is that bees are a vital medium of interchange for pollination, a medium of intercourse and reproduction among plants, and a basic agricultural technology. (The fact that we think of farming as being close to nature rather than as a technological modification of the environment on a grand scale shows how distant we've become from that first great technological leap approximately 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution, although allergies to milk, e.g., lactose intolerance, and grains, e.g, Celiac Disease, are evidence of the fact that we did not evolve to digest those foods and their ingestion is a relatively recent phenomenon in evolutionary terms--one of the many things that parents of autistic children do to try to help their children is to put them on gluten and casein free diets on the theory that there is a biochemical factor related to the digestive system, an almost impossible task, I can tell you from experience.)

I should add that as a medium, the bees are also great communicators--the dances that they use to communicate to one another rival in their complexity the linguistic ability of human beings. That's something that comes up in any introductory communication class. We are linked to the bees in very significant ways.

It is believed that the population of the world passed the 6 billion mark on October 12, 1999, and is now over 6 1/2 billion. Although the rate of growth has been slowing, the population is still increasing by about 77 million people a year. At this rate, experts predict we'll be up to 9 billion by the year 2050.

Any biologist will tell you that the population of a species within a given ecosystem will fluctuate over time. A species that continues to increase in population will eventually reach the point where its environment can no long sustain those numbers, resulting in a die-off that could, potentially, be massive.

It is hard to say at what point the human population will exceed the world's ability to sustain it. Many thought that we would hit that point before we got up to six billion of us. But we are constantly altering our environment through technological innovation. Our inventions are not just "extensions of man," to use McLuhan's phrase, for insofar as we are part of the earth, our media are also extensions of the earth. But can our technologies extend the world's sustainability indefinitely, or will our overreaching exceed our grasp? McLuhan also said that every extension is also an amputation, so as we extend the earth we are also cutting it off.

That judgment day may be upon us brings to mind the famous poem by William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, published in Dial magazine in 1920:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The imagery is specifically Christian, but the sensibility is universal. Something is going, something is coming, and we'd better watch out.


From the standpoint of the 1920s, could Frost, Eliot, and Yeats have had much more than an inkling of what was coming around the corner? Can we, today, catch much more than a glimpse of the future out of the corner of an eye?

But we can use our peripheral vision.
We can perceive and we can prepare.
We can find knowledge and wisdom.
We can find healing, and hope.
Every reversal begins with a verse.

1 comment:

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