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A gooey glob of yellow hubris

Richard: Bill Avent has been posting "on and off," as he puts it, on this site for several years. As far as I can see, this is his maiden piece for Webdiary.

Bill describes himself thus: "Grumpy old man who never grew up. Not always serious. Writes poems that everyone hates, because too confronting. Author of one self-published novel that publishers won't touch with a barge pole, because it is too astonishing a read. Currently working on a non-fiction book, working title "The Holy Grail". It is about how to make the perfect beer. Traditionalist. Nurturer of noble hops. Pissed as a fart."


A Gooey Glob Of Yellow Hubris
by Bill Avent

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

These days we think of Humpty Dumpty as an egg. But who or what the original Humpty Dumpty really was, we can never truly know. Some say he was King Richard III, who fell from his horse during battle and was hacked to pieces by hostile anti-royalists. Some say he was Cardinal Wolsey, for some reason or other. Others hold that Humpty Dumpty was the name of a high-set cannon, very large and powerful, which exploded during the English Civil War and fell in pieces at the bottom of a castle wall. The high technology of the nursery rhymist's era was prone to blow up in its users' faces. The more things change, the more they remain the same…

Whichever historical event, or whichever myth growing out of such an event gave birth to the nursery rhyme, though, they all have one thing in common. And that thing is one Humpty Dumpty has in common with a fair number of the nursery rhymes that have come down to us through the ages. Toddlers still learning to talk burble them to delighted audiences. Little girls teaching themselves to skip a rope sing them in playgrounds. No one cares what their words mean. But a little research and a little reflection will reveal that many of the simple little songs parents have since time immemorial been handing down to their children echo the voice of the common man's satisfaction at the downfall of the high-and-mighty. An expression of amusement at the comeuppance of the hubristic.

Pride cometh before the fall. The Greeks knew all about that, and the taking down a peg of the self-important. It is from their language that our word hubris comes. The Greeks had playful, capricious gods, ever ready to punish any man who dared presumptuously to credit himself with his own good fortune. Good fortune was a gift from the gods; so a modicum of humility, if you please, was their message. And if you don't please, we'll show you what displeasure is, you puny mortals.

Modern mortals who believe in deities have only one. A Super-Deity who has no equals; only underlings. He began His career as a jealous, vengeful God who, when He gave up on communicating with His people, morphed somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, into a benevolent, merciful one. A Father which art in Heaven, who will look after his children and, if they are loyal and obey His rules, reward them with immortality. Not immortality equal to His own, of course, but under Him. It seems that some who believe in creation create gods in their own image; while others create gods according to their own wishful thinking. And those of us who don't believe in deities invent a best of all possible worlds in which humanity can solve all its problems itself. Mankind is god enough for them.

Either way, we are free to hold fast to the habits we have formed, secure in our faith that all will be well in the end. When the direction in which we have been travelling begins to reveal itself as a wrong one, we will not deviate from it. We will instead resolve to make it right. We will insist that it is right, and the only direction possible, even if it looks like killing us. We will not question it. When we see the writing on the wall we will appoint a Professor Garnaut to tell us what we need to do in order to keep going in our familiar wrong direction — the one to which we have grown addicted. We will hold conferences and discuss the pros and cons of the professor's recommendations. We will want to know how much money they will cost us. Some of us will demand compensation. Others will look for profit, asking "What's in it for me?" Thumb twiddling, habits and hubris will reign supreme while the thing we call civilisation gets set to flush itself down the toilet, taking with it most of humanity, and most of the earth's plant and animal species, and all of modern man's mostly questionable achievements.

Civilisation, as it is generally defined, has been around for a relatively short while. 8,000 years, is a common estimate. It came about quite suddenly, and went on to take root over most of the globe, giving rise to a formal, strict and complex hierarchical system of interaction between individual and group — a thing people had previously only seen in ant colonies, beehives and the like. It coincided with humanity's affliction with its edifice complex, another thing we share with mindless insects. What caused these bizarre aberrations is anyone's guess. Perhaps the gods decided to play a trick on us. Perhaps humanity became the unwitting subject of some mad scientist's experiment. Such notions as these are no less sensible than civilisation's Father which art in Heaven.

The mechanics of it seem to have followed a similar pattern world-wide. First humankind learned to domesticate the plants and the animals, and assume ownership of them. It was but a short step from there to the practice of domesticating each other. Before long tiny elite factions owned, controlled and exploited the lives of the masses. Equality was replaced by a social structure based on the shape of a pyramid. In celebration of that Great Leap Forward, the masses were soon put to work building pyramids of earth and stone.

Civilisation, since the Great Leap Forward, has continued to leap ever further forward in leaps and bounds; though it may be worth noting that, unlike stone pyramids, none of our present day edifices can hope to be still standing five thousand years from now. Our modern monument to madness is our ability to overpopulate the world, gobble up whatever elements in it we find useful, pollute it and change its climate. The damage we have done to the world may well take nature five thousand years to repair. Therein lies our claim to fame. Oh, how far we have come, and how powerful we are! How proud of our progress! How Toad of Toad Hall. But, hey, let's not be in too big a hurry to forget Humpty Dumpty, who had a great fall.

Before it embarked upon its jumpy journey along a wrong road, our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, seems to have been successfully trundling along for somewhere around 100,000 years. Adapting to and meeting every challenge the world threw at them, its members conquered their world, without ever damaging it or its climate. And according to archaeological and anthropological evidence, people living through those ages seem, in the common sense of the word, to have lived quite civilised lives. From earliest times, a lot of their efforts were dedicated to creating art. Some examples of their art still exist; and they are breathtakingly beautiful. People from earliest times cared for their elderly, and buried their dead with flowers, valued artifacts and ceremony. Judging by studies of the lives lived by those few remnants of humanity not until recently forced to live under the constraints of what we call civilisation, they made their children toys to play with; spent much of their time singing and dancing and telling each other stories. And, no doubt, composing nursery rhymes.

Now we buy toys from K-Mart. Plastic ones, made by slaves on the other side of the world. We listen to songs recorded on plastic, and sit quietly on plastic chairs to watch professional dancers dance. Our here-today, gone-tomorrow stories come to us on DVDs made of plastic. We live in a world smothered in the stuff. Smothered in all manner of dangerous toxic waste, the by-products and side effects of our precious civilisation. Such things as asthma, allergies, obesity and diabetes become increasingly pandemic. Young afflicted and unafflicted alike develop eating disorders and engage in the madness of deliberate self-harm. A wave of youth suicide sweeps over the civilised world. The 21st century world's climate goes awry, thanks to damage done in the 20th.

But all of that is OK. We can count on the root cause of our problems to solve them for us. All will be well so long as the pyramid can be kept standing; so long as our economy can continue to grow like a cancerous tumour. That is what it has always done, as far back as we can remember. It is what we addicts have come to depend upon for our livelihoods. Our greatest fear is that our sacred creation, the steamroller now threatening to squash us all, might slow down. After all, it isn't going to roll over us today, or tomorrow, is it? And what the hell have future generations ever done for us?

And when we take time out from genuflecting to our steamroller and think to teach our children a nursery rhyme, we reach back through time to remember one. Perhaps, without being conscious of it, we recognise in Humpty Dumpty the destiny fate has in store for us, we Kings of the Castle, parasites and destroyers of all we survey. And know in our hearts that we deserve that destiny. But seldom does our hubris fail to come to the rescue and banish such disquieting thoughts as those from our minds.

Now that we begin to glimpse the reality of what has been predicted for years, we will take measures to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Not stop emitting greenhouse gasses, because of course that would be impossible. Our lives must go on in the style to which we have become accustomed; and on no account may the march of progress be impeded. We will merely slow the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 levels, and hubristically hope for the best. As a pointless sop to the anxiety felt by some, we will trade something called carbon credits from one place to another; impose a tax to solve the problem, and compensate those who pay it, because we mustn't alienate anyone. We will babble about saving some particular river or other, so as to preserve the status quo; and when we recognise the futility inherent in that, we will babble about relocating food-growers from one part of one insignificant little country to another. That should save the world, we will say, sagely nodding our heads at one another. We will have to bite the bullet, and do things like that. And replace our light bulbs with more efficient ones. The gods must be shaking their heads in wonder.

To feed our addiction to power consumption, we consumptives will look about for alternative sources of the stuff we love to waste. Science to the rescue: we will learn more better cheaper faster ways to turn food into fuel to feed our machines. We learned long ago that our every footprint must weigh at least a tonne. And the more footprints we can make, the better. Politics to the rescue: we will offer each other incentives to have more babies. More better cheaper faster population growth. The gods must be laughing fit to do themselves a mischief.

"Sorry, mere mortals," they will say, when they bring their hilarity under control. "This thing you have set in train has its own momentum now. You can't stop it, you fools. Your ice caps are melting; so their cooling effect is being lost. Your oceans are warming; so instead of absorbing carbon dioxide as they have for thousands of years, they will now release it into the atmosphere. Your dry land forests, when they get really dry, will die away or burn, and not recover. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide as they did when they were alive, in death they will release it into the atmosphere. Your wet land vegetation, swamped by too much torrential rain, will die, decay, and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Warmer and warmer and warmer, drier and wetter, stranger and ever further out of your control, your world will get. Every man for himself, for a bad long while. Welcome to the new world you have made.

"Diverting your food grains from people's stomachs to feed your machines is already causing food riots. Of course we gods know that members of your species, ever since you became civilised, have always been happy to to grow fat whilst others starved; but this is different. When mortals unaccustomed to hunger get hungry, the pyramid they have been taking for granted as a fact of life will soon go pear-shaped. Your pyramid-shaped civilisation is about to go down the gurgler. Sorry for laughing. Well, come to think of it, we are not really sorry at all. We are gods. You only thought you were. Welcome to our world you are not."

So what parts of our great civilisation's achievements should we try to preserve for those few of our grandchildren's great-grandchildren who will survive the Great Leap Backward? As did the guy in Planet of the Apes, they will no doubt see crumbling remnants of our era's edifice complex when they ramble into the less pleasant parts of their world; but only the gods can guess what they will make of those. They will know that someone was here before them. They will probably speculate as to what we were like. Should we be busy making time capsules? What should we put in them, I wonder. Selected examples of our arts, literature, science, mathematics, or what? E=mc2 won't be much use to them. And what would they make of Shakespeare? Nothing he wrote makes sense except in terms of our defunct, dysfunctional pyramid. Nothing anyone wrote makes sense outside of that.

Some of us might want to show them photographs of all the birds and animals we had, before we so stupidly destroyed most of them. Some too blinded by their hubris to be able to think straight may want to tell them that man once walked upon the moon. Some will probably want to tell them all about our Father which art in Heaven. For myself, I would rather let them know that our children skipped ropes, just as theirs do; and tell them a few of our nursery rhymes.

All the King's horses and all the King's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.


To save us having to make time capsules, does anyone out there know how to put an ice shelf back together again?


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of optimists & optimism

Paul, having had the good fortune to get onto the invitation list to various lectures at the University of Sydney, and having always wanted to know, or know about ‘everything’, I turn up consistently. A professor visiting from London said to me: ‘I have seen you at a few of these lectures, what is the interest?

I replied that I was hoping to find people with a less bleak view of the world than I had.

He replied: ‘Hell man, you are coming to the wrong place, try the local pub!’

Bill, if I understand the various reports correctly climate change devastation is already at a stage envisioned as the worst possible scenario for 2050. Yet most of those with any sort of authority seem to be squabbling like kids: you first, no you!

I find it difficult to believe that any of them believe in the phenomenon as it appears to me as if they treat it like some political theory that they can accept or reject at whim, and without consequences.

Some years ago, before climate change was a general topic a friend of mine and I were speculating upon the outcome should the world go to hell in a hand basket.

Grant said if he survived he would be working to collect and preserve all the books and information — it was before the internet — possible and store it safely.

I said I would be attempting to establish a self-sufficient community, along with appropriate defence arrangements and be destroying all the books and information sources I could lay hands on, and killing people like him.

Grant was horrified. I explained that there is no evidence that humans learn from their mistakes, so the best chance they had of constructing a better world was to leave as little information as possible of the present disaster in the probably vain hope that they as they blundered along they might luck onto something better.


Bill Avent, it is great to finally meet someone who makes me look like an optimist.

Troubling scenario

Ah yes, Bill Avent.  I have trouble with my worst case scenario also.  I like to consider a range of possibilities,  however.  And, although people usually surprise me on the upside, occasionaaly the opposite happens,    eg. Geoffrey Dutton's description of the backyard nuclear fallout shelters in Kansas in the 1960s:  each equipped with a machine gun to fend off those who did not have shelters.

Am I bovvered?

Simon, yes. I remember it. Reminded me a bit of King Midas. They say there are only six basic story plots in the world. And most of them feature hubris as the central character.

F Kendall, the yellow glob represents the fallen Humpty Dumpty — the broken egg which even the tiniest child can see can never be put back together. Not even a King can do it. Not even we, with all our science and technology, can hope to put a broken egg together again. I have tried to draw an analogy between Humpty's fate and that which seems to me to maybe lie in store for we who have set ourselves up so high above the natural world.

I have trouble with your worst case scenario. However highly advanced and fortified their cities, people can't live in cities without surrounding countryside to feed them. While we are led to believe we live in a technological age, we really still live in the agricultural age. We need to eat every day.

Richard, my take on it — and bear in mind that I am wildly speculating here on a worst-case scenario — is not that humanity is doomed like dinosaurs. Ours is a pretty tough species. Mad, hubristic, but admirably indomitable. Maybe it's my hubris speaking, but I don't think we've finished our run yet. What I sometimes wonder about is how far back we will go if our civilisation collapses. Maybe as far back as the stone age. But never mind. As the wonderful Catherine Tate would say, Am I bovvered?

I reckon stone age people did all right. I would quite like to know what other people think about that.

There is a book I always recommend, because it is such a thought-provoking read. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, by Gene Wolf. In it, people live on a planet which they believe they colonised within living memory, keeping alive the Earthly civilisation which they brought with them. But mysterious anomalies keep appearing. It turns out that their ancestors came to this planet untold generations ago, found life there barely sustainable, reverted to barbarism and had to develop their own civilisation from scratch.

Individual action

We are continually told that other countries are doing nothing, which is far from the truth.

Apart from state action, there is much individual action.


I don't understand why such as the ABC don't focus on people/local/area/state action., which is where it's happening.   Ok, easier to hit on politicians, I guess.  Not interested in actually bringing to people and their dilemnas the news about other people and how they actually attacking their dilemnas.

Nah. Easier to hit on Rudd....they are stuck in the old "messiah" view.

The Messiah View

There's a book title there, F Kendall  Agreed!   I'm becoming concerned that our current PM is manifesting analogous traits.

You've given me an idea.  My Year 12 English teacher was Leonard Cohen, the New Zealand bluegrass singer who I bet doesn't bother to google his name.  He also used to teach John Schumann, btw Jenny, and when Schumann and Cohen played at the Bridgewater the phone didn't stop.  He runs the local end of Canopy, a carbon-neutralising natural forest replantation project.  I'll ask him for a Webdiary piece from that end of things.

Endings and beginnings

Does anyone recall Paul Theroux's "Ozone"?

USA post nuclear wipeout.  Small, highly advanced, highly fortified cities of the superrich.  Hungry, impoverished ferals roaming and scavenging the rest of the country ... that's rather the way  I see  the worst scenario.

I didn't believe that GWB was a climate change sceptic once  I read of his 2006 purchase of 90000 acres in Paraguay, above the world's largest fresh water aquifer ... right next to both 1000000 acres bought by family friend Rev Moon, and a secret US military base.  I now think that it was in his interests to keep people as ignorant as possible as long as possible, and I wonder where JWH stands in all this.  In a safe place, I would speculate. 

Who knows how to make anything by hand anymore, Richard Tonkin?  I spent a few hours this afternoon cleaning out bits of the shed, and kept a handful of books from the 20's and 30's covering areas from  making useful farm gadgets and machinery to  raising good calves.  (I kept such as "how to fly", Marie Stopes, and the guides to married life also, although I don't expect to need or use them).  But, I think "alternative" magazines carry this info anyway.

Is "a gooey glob of yellow hubris" meant to represent the human race?  If so, it seems to me to be a bit unkind.  But, I imagine that the masters of the universe, such as GWB, see us as such.


Vonnegut had quite a few interesting notions, Simon.  I'm looking for a link, but I seem to recall him saying a bit before he died that nature was curing itself of the illness of humanity?

Did you read Galapagos?  In that one Vonnegut theorised that we'd evolve into seals, and given that all we'd be doing was basking in the sun and diving for fish, our brain capacities would diminish greatly.  As far as I'm concerned we're well along that road.   Perhaps before the current form of nature collapses around us we'll have time to genetically re-engineer ourselves to survive?  Flippers and fur would be a good start.

The trouble is that when the machines that make our "fish"  grind to a halt for lack of fuel, we'll have lost the "common knowledge" we used to survive before them.  Who knows how to make anything by hand any more?  Learn it from a book? What book? it was stored on computer before the Blackout.

I was once an avid reader of Anne MacCaffreys Pern series, a set of books focussing on planetary colonists parting with their technology (over hundreds of years) and having only their previously-created genetic solutions to protect them against the hostilities of their environment.   I read them long before I'd heard of Climate Change, and now wonder if we're going to have to consider such approaches to survival not on other planets, but this one.

We'd best get cracking, though, while we can still remember how to do it.

Bill, thanks for a fantastic piece.  We are indeed on the brink of creating irreparable damage.  Mostly though, it will be to ourselves.  We're akin to dinosaurs creating our own meteor clash.  That particular cataclysm wasn't the end of the world, though... but certainly it  was the end of the dinosaurs. 

Nature I think, will still be evolving when humanity is a subterranean fossil.

In the meantime, a la Farenheit 451, I'm still workinng out which book I'm going to be.

One Drop!

Bill: "To save us having to make time capsules, does anyone out there know how to put an ice shelf back together again?"

I believe, just one drop of Kurt Vonnegut's "ice-nine" is all that's required.

... and (by God) .... we'd be stupid enough to use it!

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