Twitch Plays Pokemon: Humanity in a Nutshell

In the three weeks or so since its inception, Twitch Plays Pokemon has come very close to taking over the internet. It has spawned its own memes and in-jokes, its own subculture, has been reported on by major news networks around the world and has somehow persuaded hundreds of thousands of people at the time to repeatedly type ‘up’ into a chat menu in the vain hope their input will make a difference. And somehow, this all makes for surprisingly compelling viewing.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: a stream of a Pokemon videogame broadcast live over Twitch TV, with a mod for the chat that allows viewers to enter onscreen commands that will effect gameplay- so somebody typing ‘down’ into the chat will cause the player character to move down (assuming, of course the command is not received whilst the character is in the midst of stepping from one tile to the other. Thus, people from all over the world are forced to work together, or at least in something vaguely approaching sychronicity, to progress through the game, and the more people they are the more chaotic and hard to control the whole business becomes. Naming Pokemon is a quite hilarious farce. With no central control of the game, viewers are forced to try and negotiate immediate aims and decisions through the ever-scrolling chat before even attempting to implement them, and if no clear consensus is reached then the character is essentially condemned to walking back and forth around a city or other immediate area whilst everyone attempts to move in different directions. And, this being the internet, there are more than a few trolls- those who delight in the inherent chaos of the game and make it their job to hamper progress wherever they can.

Somehow, the image of a pixelated figure walking randomly about the screen has proved wildly popular, with hundreds of thousands of people watching and contributing to the adventures, functioning as a group brain that has become known as the Hivemind. The nature of the stream has led to a large number of somewhat bizarre oddities compared to a regular Pokemon playthrough- with the game playing day and night with a rotating cast of controllers, grinding for hours on end to level up Pokemon is less soul-destroying on the player and will quite often continue for hours on end as the Hivemind endeavours to decide what to do next. As such, Pokemon tend to level up fairly quickly and battles, even against Gym Leaders, are relatively speaking straightforward to win. However, successfully walking to where the Hivemind ‘wants’ to go, unlikely to have been considered a challenge by the original developers, is a far more taxing business. A series of one-way ledges in the early days of the stream took over a day to navigate, and a subsequent mountain pass had to be attempted on multiple occasions after several ‘accidental’ uses of Dig took them back to the start- the 30 second delay between the chat and the screen doesn’t exactly help. An attempt to deposit the offending creature in the PC, another unintended yet extreme challenge involving multiple successive ‘correct’ button presses, ended with the party’s two best Pokemon being released and lost for all eternity, and attempting to buy a water stone (after many hours of heated debate) ended in similar failure. One maze required the entire nature of the stream to be restructured as ‘Democracy mode’ was initiated- hell, even getting through the door to the Pokemon Centre has baffled users for more time than it has any right to.

But perhaps the main motivator behind TPP has been the lore and humour developed within. A veritable religion has sprung up surrounding the Helix Fossil, an early game item that, being early up in the items list and unusable in general play, was consulted on many occasions- the player character was said to be ‘looking to the Helix for guidance’. Its counterpart, the Dome fossil, has become a Satanic figure, with several particularly annoying game features (such as the aforementioned user of Dig) becoming ‘servants of the Dome’. The chat has also come up with its own nicknames for the selection of Pokemon with strings of random letters for names and has more recently (at time of writing) become fixated with the captured ‘Doges’ (this is the internet after all), aka the Pokemon Poochyena.

So… why am I talking about this? Well, other than because I find the thing faintly amusing, I find what TPP represents truly fascinating, and I think it exists as the perfect microcosm of, and metaphor for, human existence and society. Think about it- we have thousands of people united only by a common goal (completing the game), yet each with very little power to achieve said goal. They do what they can, hampered by the limitations of the world they find themselves in, and a chosen few rise above the rest and at least attempt to give the masses direction toward they go. But all do not function in harmony- different voices all compete for attention, with every participant sure they have a way to make things so much simpler if only everyone would agree. Others act as saboteurs and dissenters, criminals if you will, their efforts in a stroke undoing the hard work of others as they contentedly giggle to themselves from the sidelines, whilst still others just go about their duties almost randomly in the hope their efforts will count for something. In doing so, the Hivemind has developed its own gods, religions, folklore and history, providing the entertainment and distraction needed for the stream to keep going. Sometimes, these distractions and other differences of opinion have held the stream up for hours, halting forward progress. And yet, despite all obstacles, despite what should surely be unmitigated chaos, this stream has achieved things many would have thought impossible. They have overcome their obstacles, put aside their differences and (after a fashion) made decisions, have captured some of the rarest and trickiest to obtain of all Pokemon (most notably the singly-occurring Zapdos hidden in an obscure corner of Pokemon Red) and ultimately completed two games (Pokemon Red & Crystal). They are even making good progress on a third (Emerald) at time of writing.

Society at large is, to me at least, not too dissimilar. Each and every one of us goes about our daily lives, doing what little bit we can in the grand scheme of things. Some of us attempt to make the world a better place and do so, others have no such lofty goals but end up doing so anyway, whilst others, either deliberately or through well-meaning but failed attempts, end up dragging us down as a collective. Some have risen to ‘lead us’, many of whom make very little difference to the way we each individually function, whilst other things, from organised religion to what’s on TV this evening, have kept us distracted and motivated to keep on going. We have struggled, we have failed, we have bogged ourselves down for aeons as we all pull in different directions, and yet somehow we have prevailed- and not just that, we have thrived. We have built this amazing world around us, a society that puts the food in my belly, the roof over my head and the internet connection that lets me write this and watch the very stream that has inspired this post. The Hivemind of planet Earth has somehow achieved great things, and for those cynics among you who so often wonder how, I would look no further than Twitch Plays Pokemon.

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Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be

An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

The End of The World

As everyone who understands the concept of buying a new calendar when the old one runs out should be aware, the world is emphatically due to not end on December 21st this year thanks to a Mayan ‘prophecy’ that basically amounts to one guy’s arm getting really tired and deciding ‘sod carving the next year in, it’s ages off anyway’. Most of you should also be aware of the kind of cosmology theories that talk about the end of the world/the sun’s expansion/the universe committing suicide that are always hastily suffixed with an ‘in 200 billion years or so’, making the point that there’s really no need to worry and that the world is probably going to be fine for the foreseeable future; or at least, that by the time anything serious does happen we’re probably not going to be in a position to complain.

However, when thinking about this, we come across a rather interesting, if slightly macabre, gap; an area nobody really wants to talk about thanks to a mixture of lack of certainty and simple fear. At some point in the future, we as a race and a culture will surely not be here. Currently, we are. Therefore, between those two points, the human race is going to die.

Now, from a purely biological perspective there is nothing especially surprising or worrying about this; species die out all the time (in fact we humans are getting so good at inadvertent mass slaughter that between 2 and 20 species are going extinct every day), and others evolve and adapt to slowly change the face of the earth. We humans and our few thousand years of existence, and especially our mere two or three thousand of organised mass society, are the merest blip in the earth’s long and varied history. But we are also unique in more ways than one; the first race to, to a very great extent, remove ourselves from the endless fight for survival and start taking control of events once so far beyond our imagination as to be put down to the work of gods. If the human race is to die, as it surely will one day, we are simply getting too smart and too good at thinking about these things for it to be the kind of gradual decline & changing of a delicate ecosystem that characterises most ‘natural’ extinctions. If we are to go down, it’s going to be big and it’s going to be VERY messy.

In short, with the world staying as it is and as it has for the past few millennia we’re not going to be dying out very soon. However, this is also not very biologically unusual, for when a species go extinct it is usually the result of either another species with which they are engaging in direct competition out-competing them and causing them to starve, or a change in environmental conditions meaning they are no longer well-adapted for the environment they find themselves in. But once again, human beings appear to be showing a semblance of being rather above this; having carved out what isn’t so much an ecological niche as a categorical redefining of the way the world works there is no other creature that could be considered our biological competitor, and the thing that has always set humans apart ecologically is our ability to adapt. From the ice ages where we hunted mammoth, to the African deserts where the San people still live in isolation, there are very few things the earth can throw at us that are beyond the wit of humanity to live through. Especially a human race that is beginning to look upon terraforming and cultured food as a pretty neat idea.

So, if our environment is going to change sufficiently for us to begin dying out, things are going to have to change not only in the extreme, but very quickly as well (well, quickly in geographical terms at least). This required pace of change limits the number of potential extinction options to a very small, select list. Most of these you could make a disaster film out of (and in most cases one has), but one that is slightly less dramatic (although they still did end up making a film about it) is global warming.

Some people are adamant that global warming is either a) a myth, b) not anything to do with human activity or c) both (which kind of seems a contradiction in terms, but hey). These people can be safely categorized under ‘don’t know what they’re *%^&ing talking about’, as any scientific explanation that covers all the available facts cannot fail to reach the conclusion that global warming not only exists, but that it’s our fault. Not only that, but it could very well genuinely screw up the world- we are used to the idea that, in the long run, somebody will sort it out, we’ll come up with a solution and it’ll all be OK, but one day we might have to come to terms with a state of affairs where the combined efforts of our entire race are simply not enough. It’s like the way cancer always happens to someone else, until one morning you find a lump. One day, we might fail to save ourselves.

The extent to which global warming looks set to screw around with our climate is currently unclear, but some potential scenarios are extreme to say the least. Nothing is ever quite going to match up to the picture portrayed in The Day After Tomorrow (for the record, the Gulf Stream will take around a decade to shut down if/when it does so), but some scenarios are pretty horrific. Some predict the flooding of vast swathes of the earth’s surface, including most of our biggest cities, whilst others predict mass desertification, a collapse of many of the ecosystems we rely on, or the polar regions swarming across Northern Europe. The prospect of the human population being decimated is a very real one.

But destroyed? Totally? After thousands of years of human society slowly getting the better of and dominating all that surrounds it? I don’t know about you, but I find that quite unlikely- at the very least, it at least seems to me like it’s going to take more than just one wave of climate change to finish us off completely. So, if climate change is unlikely to kill us, then what else is left?

Well, in rather a nice, circular fashion, cosmology may have the answer, even if we don’t some how manage to pull off a miracle and hang around long enough to let the sun’s expansion get us. We may one day be able to blast asteroids out of existence. We might be able to stop the super-volcano that is Yellowstone National Park blowing itself to smithereens when it erupts as it is due to in the not-too-distant future (we also might fail at both of those things, and let either wipe us out, but ho hum). But could we ever prevent the sun emitting a gamma ray burst at us, of a power sufficient to cause the third largest extinction in earth’s history last time it happened? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?