Apart from the awesome arrival of our granddaughter, two things are on my mind just now, partly in connection with that event because it focusses one on the future, which in this case will, I hope, extend into the twenty-second century. This has provoked the ironic purchase of white goods which are more energy-efficient, although clearly there is embodied energy in them, but we have to preserve this world for our grandchildren so this time it’s personal, as the cliché has it.
This is an eldritch chimæra of four works to which I’ve recently been exposed: ‘The Archers’ (been exposed to that since 1973 at the latest but even still), ‘The Last Man On Earth’ (which apparently has really bad acting but because of my lowbrow taste I’m able to enjoy it anyway), James Lovelock’s ‘Novacene’ and Edmund Cooper’s ‘The Overman Culture’. Three of these deal with a potential apocalypse, two of them focus on artificial intelligence and one of them is an everyday story of country folk. I’ll talk about the AI angle elsewhere. ‘The Archers’ is a notably non-apocalyptic soap opera, though with educational intent, at least initially. However, it’s recently been bugging me – apparently this is called a “plot bunny” – that the soap tells a tale of a village which clearly has a considerable history extending well back into the Dark Ages and probably Roman times. It has prequel novels which I understand go back to the early twentieth century, and there’s a volume covering its fictitious history which I’ve ordered and am currently awaiting with anticipation, but oddly, to me, what they’ve never really done is to explore the mediæval aspect. Thus I decided to do that, and am currently researching and planning a seven-episode series covering the years 1315 to 1381, because of the eventful nature of the fourteenth century. They were, as the phrase has it, interesting times. In fact they were bloody awful, even leaving aside the fact that feudalism characterised that time. Although most people with more than a passing knowledge of English history would doubtless be aware of this, it’s pretty gobsmacking how appalling the fourteenth century really was. It was shockingly grim. The bucolic tone of ‘The Archers’ can’t really survive this turn of events and the best that could be managed would be a kind of ‘Black Adder Style’ gallows humour, if I decide to go in that direction.
The 1300s marked the end of the Mediæval Warm Period and the start of the Little Ice Age, which only seems to have ended as a result of the Industrial Revolution, as James Lovelock explores in his ‘Novacene’. In other words, the previously mild English climate favourable to the growth of crops, which moreover enabled marginal land to be brought into full cultivation, underwent a change to cooler summers, colder winters and more rain and snow. Europeans suffered terribly because of this. The warm period had enabled the population to grow considerably from about the beginning of the ninth century onward, and the climate change, nota bene, led to a crash with enormous consequences. Firstly, the cold wet weather of 1315 meant that crop yields crashed from a seven to one ratio for wheat to a two to one ratio or below. That proportion allows for one grain for planting and one for eating, which is just about subsistence agriculture, and was also reflected in the productivity of other food crops. Consequently there was no food, the wet conditions made it hard to store up seed, salt used for preservation also got damp and washed away, the fish moved south because of the cooling water and there was considerable inflation. Villeins and serfs ended up eating the grain for planting to survive, then later slaughtered their beasts of burden for food for the same reasons and were left with a situation where they couldn’t use oxen to plough the fields because they’d eaten them all and in any case they had nothing to plant if they had been able to. Older people voluntarily starved themselves to death so the younger generation could survive and there was also infanticide and cannibalism. This went on until 1317 and food stocks and farming didn’t recover completely until the mid-’20s. That was the Second Horseman – Famine.
Then there was the start of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337. The Hundred Years’ War actually lasted more than a hundred years and had several truces in it, so although being a mediæval war it also broke for the winter and other happenings – I’m guessing holy days and fast days for example. One cause of the war was the attempt to deny the right of Isabella of France to “transmit” her succession to her sons, and the rivalry between the Plantagenets and the House of Valois was also a factor. Armies were fed from local food sources, so happening as it did just a couple of decades after the Great Famine, this was not particularly marvellous either. As far as I can tell, this was a self-inflicted calamity with little to redeem it, although from a modern perspective the fact that it was partly caused by a gender-related issue redeems it a little. Even so, it still seems pretty appalling that the main reason for taxation up until very recently was to enable wars to be fought. Relating this to the Great Famine (not to be confused with the Irish and Scottish Great Famine of the nineteenth century), there was a general upturn in violence resulting from the desperate circumstances it had wrought, so it’s possible that it could relate to the onset of the Little Ice Age. Even so, the Hundred Years’ War strikes me as the fourteenth century version of Brexit in that it was basically the fault of the royal houses of Europe. Like it, it involves Calais, which was captured by the English and hung onto for a couple of centuries. It’s interesting how the realities of physical geography bring these kinds of parallels. The First Horseman – War.
The Third Horseman is of course Pestilence, which for my purposes right now is the most “interesting” of the four and also the most notorious event of the fourteenth century – the Black Death. This infection seems to have spread into Europe from ships folding their sails in Sicily, Venice, Sardinia and Corsica in 1347. The signs and symptoms are pretty well known but I’ll go over them again anyway. Tumors (note the spelling – not “tumours”) the size of apples arose in the armpits and/or groin which oozed pus and blood when opened, the lungs filled with fluid and the body became afflicted with melancholy skin lesions. The victim also had a fever, vomited blood and death occurred within a week. It was attributed to a foul miasma brought by a wind, and looking at it from the perspective of humoral medicine, to me it looks like an excess of melancholy. That said, it notably marked the onset of doubt in the medical profession that the principles of Galen and Hippocrates were effective and probably led to the introduction of chemotherapy shortly afterwards (not “cancer chemotherapy”). I could get led into a quagmire here because this is thoroughly homeedandherbs territory, but even so I’m sticking this, and the rest of what I’m going to say, here. In any case, whatever the cause, the disease killed a quarter of the population of Europe.
The standard explanation nowadays is that the Black Death was related to Yersinia pestis, carried by rat fleas and was bubonic and/or pneumonic plague. A third variety, septicæmic plague, also exists. This has also been questioned. It spread literally thousands of times faster than the plagues mentioned would be expected to, crossed mountain ranges where rats didn’t go, and afflicted Iceland where there were no rats at the time. There were also no reports of mass die-offs of rats, which might be expected. One form does produce the buboes mentioned in Boccaccio’s description and there are petechial haemorrhages as described, but the spread may have been between humans rather than via rat fleas or rats. Pneumonic plague can be spread via droplet infection. It’s been suggested that the Black Death was in fact either anthrax or the African disease Ebola, which would make it a hæmorrhagic viral fever rather than a bacterial disease, and it’s notable that the first infections in Europe were in the Mediterranean region, just as it’s thought that AIDS spread into Europe from Africa via Sicily. However, Yersinia pestis DNA is found in plague pits, the problem with that being that it might’ve been there anyway because rats were so common.
The soil and seed analogy emphasises that there are two groups of factors in infection: the pathogen itself and the state of the body in which it finds itself. Some of the time, the physical health of the body is fairly irrelevant because of the virulence of the organism associated with the disease, but this is by no means always so, and this, I think, is key to what the Black Death actually was. This can be illustrated with reference to the horrific disfiguring ailment known as noma, cancrum oris or “water canker”.
Noma is a disease now found mainly in Africa south of the Sahara. It starts with a gum infection in childhood, which then spreads to the cheek, elsewhere in the mouth, causing the tissues including bone to become gangrenous. The victim is left with a large hole in her face passing through to the inside of the mouth, which makes it hard to eat and leads to social stigma. It can also cause blindness due to inability to close the eye. Predisposing conditions include measles, poor dental hygiene, proximity to livestock and, particularly noteworthy, malnutrition. Babies are occasionally born with it, and having recently become a grandparent, this is particularly appalling to me. In a sense, it’s easily preventable through good nutrition and antibiotics, and it’s a neglected disease. This term, which is official, refers to serious diseases which are widespread but relatively little studied and into which little resources are invested. Incidentally, in my alternate history of the Caroline Era, AIDS is a neglected disease since it was retained in Sub-Saharan Africa due to the presence of a liberal pope after John Paul II’s assassination led to the use of condoms, and has practically wiped out the population of Central Africa. The fact that noma even still exists is appalling and ought to spur us all into bringing about global socialism, along with about a million other things. Of course this doesn’t happen because the wealthy and “powerful” either never see it or are sociopathic due to their upbringing, so we continue with global capitalism and its outrageous toll of death and suffering.
Noma used to be found a fair bit in Europe, including Britain, where it persisted until at least Victorian times. We can assume, in fact, that it existed in England in the fourteenth century, where it would undoubtedly have led to the conclusion that a family was cursed and caused social ostracism and persecution. The point about noma, however, is that without malnutrition and other stresses on the body, the same pathogens associated with it only cause self-limiting conditions. After the Great Famine, the population was weakened and tuberculosis and pneumonia were widespread. Children who weren’t killed or eaten during this time would’ve grown up fairly sickly. I suspect, therefore, that the Black Death is not so much not plague as such as the way Yersinia pestis takes advantage of a weakened and constitutionally compromised body, so it’s very much like noma, whose associated bacteria here generally coincide with mere tonsillitis and sore throats. In other words, it was all the rest of what was going on in the fourteenth century that led to the Black Death turning out the way it did. Subsequent waves of infection were milder, probably partly because of evolution in the human population but also due to improving general health and nutrition. Before I move on, the Black Death was very probably spread partly by flagellants – people walking to distant towns and cities whipping themselves and others in penitence for the sins of the world as a way of assuaging God’s wrath – and also by the movement of troops in the War.
Rather than getting into the consequences of the Black Death just now, which are interesting and valuable material for the ‘Archers’ project, I’m going to turn to ‘The Last Man On Earth’. There are clearly going to be spoilers at this point, but I think probably the series is little known and not popular or critically acclaimed, so if you go on reading it’s not much of a loss and in any case they’re quite mild. In ‘The Last Man On Earth’, almost all vertebrates including humans have been wiped out by what seems to be a viral hæmorrhagic fever. So virulent was this that the apparent number of survivors in the whole of North America, whose population is currently 579 million, only seems to be in low double figures. This is of course a plot device to get all the people out of the way so the apocalyptic fun and games can start, but oddly, in spite of the fact that it’s based on gallows humour, it manages to introduce a number of realistic features which are usually ignored in post-apocalyptic fiction. What piqued my curiosity, however, was the feasibility of humanity being practically wiped out by a virus or other pathogen.
The Plague of Justinian in the sixth century is estimated to have wiped out up to a quarter of the species. This is far less devastating than the Mount Toba eruption, which seems to have left about a hundred people alive. As for the Black Death itself, which like the Plague of Justinian is associated with Yersinia pestis, that seems to have killed about a quarter of the population of Europe and also a large part of the human population of other parts of the Old World such as China. This is devastating but also relatively easy to recover from. Spanish ‘flu wiped out about 3% of Homo sapiens and like the Black Death correlated with a major European war. Prevailing wisdom holds that a virus is unlikely to wipe out our species because a pathogen which destroys its host is destroying its habitat and would therefore wipe itself out. The problem to my mind with this argument is that we are ourselves in the process of making our environment uninhabitable and there’s little sign of that changing. It also seems to me that this puts the cart before the horse in evolutionary terms. Mutations and evolution may lead to greater fitness to survive in the long run, but that doesn’t mean that individual mutations don’t lead to extinction in the short term, leaving other species who do have greater fitness to survive and reproduce. Maybe we’ve just been lucky up until now.
Everything I’ve written here so far has had a rather glib atmosphere to it, but this is of course a serious matter. Apart from anything else, it involves us, our families and friends. The abstraction and detachment I feel is probably an issue of scale. Even so, the Doomsday Argument is about the near future, and although I’ve addressed its validity elsewhere because it may not in fact work particularly well, it’s worth covering it again. Suppose one’s life to be a random sample of all the human lives which will ever occur, and more specifically that one’s thought that humanity might be about to disappear is a random sample. This thought clearly did occur many times in the fourteenth century, as is seen from accounts at the time along with the art and literature it produced. Even so, it seems reasonable to suppose that one’s life occurs about half way through all human lives which will ever be. It was calculated in about 1970 that seventy-five thousand million people had lived up to that point, with the cut-off in terms of evolution being Homo erectus, who lived from around a million years ago up. Whether they were capable of having such a thought is another matter. Presumably it correlates with behavioural modernity and this is in fact an overestimate of the number of people capable of thinking that way. Also in about 1970, population was doubling about every thirty years. This has apparently now slowed, but population growth generally slows because of development, because children are not then being used as much for labour or care of the elderly and infant mortality goes down, so an underdeveloped world such as this one, in which mora is still rife, has rapid population growth. Population reached seven thousand million in 2011. Seventy-five is roughly eleven times that number, which is less than 2⁴. Since doubling occurs every thirty years in current conditions, this amounts to one hundred and twenty years, yielding a date of 2131 – we can expect the last human being to be born about that time given these assumptions. Note that this argument has nothing to say about the cause of our extinction, just that it’s likely to happen shortly after 2131, or at least within a human lifetime of that date.
There are naturally major flaws with this argument. For instance, it might just be predicting when humans become immortal or when we stop being pessimistic about our future. It also leaves the mechanism of our demise entirely mysterious. It looks at first that it suggests a cause connected to overpopulation, but in fact it does nothing of the kind. What it does do, though, is focus the mind on the future and possible reasons for human extinction, and it particularly does this if one has descendants or cares about people who have them, or are just young. My father is currently ninety. He lived through a time and in conditions which were not particularly conducive to health. Nonetheless he’s still here. Extending that to our granddaughter, who was born last week, it’s reasonable to expect her to live until at least 2109, a mere twenty-one years before the supposèd cutoff date, which itself is well within the expected lifetime of any children she might have. This brings the prospect vividly home to me, and it makes me wonder, moreover, what explains the disturbing lack of concern shown by our apparent leaders and the high and mighty generally. While I’m aware that they might not buy into the Doomsday Argument, which even I think has its flaws, it’s no longer rational to deny anthropogenic climate change, and on the whole these people have children and probably grandchildren. What are they expecting to happen?
During the ‘noughties, it was notable that the schooling system did not appear to be preparing the rising generation for survival in a post-apocalyptic environment, and in fact seemed to be mainly concerned with short-term economic goals. This was under the auspices of New Labour, which was enough to discredit the Blairite project completely and make a vote for Labour a crime against one’s children and grandchildren. This doesn’t currently hold true, although it does of course apply to voting Conservative at the moment. I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the richest governments and powers on the planet are engineering some kind of population crash, although this may be paranoid. Regardless, we can enumerate the possibilities:
- They’re just short-termists.
- They are aware of the risk and have a plan but are keeping it secret in order to hide the fact that it doesn’t include most of us.
- They’re in denial about the risk and therefore have no relevant plans.
- They’re aware of the risk but expect something like a technical or market-based fix.
- They’re dispensationalist post-millenialist Christians and see this as the apocalypse, and are therefore not interested in sorting it out.
I think the last is true of some religious people. The penultimate possibility is compatible with Singularitarianism – the idea I’ll explore later when I get to talking about ‘Novacene’ and ‘The Overman Culture’. This has been described as “The Rapture For Nerds”. One problem with it for them is that it doesn’t look like it’ll end with them in power still, or rather, able to maintain the illusion to themselves that they are. Another is that it’s been possible to provide for every member of the human race for a very long time now, though probably not in the fourteenth century, but this simply hasn’t been done, and this doesn’t depend on technology. The idea that they’re in denial is rather feasible and was suggested to me recently. The second possibility strikes me as the most feasible but also the most paranoid, and that bothers me because I can’t decide what it is.
But I want to leave you with this. I now have a grandchild. On the whole, most people in the developed world become grandparents at some stage, although of course many people are also child-free, not least because of the state of the planet and society. Considering that this is where the majority finds itself, we can surely be expected to have common cause in getting this sorted out. It’s just extremely concerning to me and also rather mystifying. Any thoughts?