22 June 2009
Metamorphoses – The Terrible Beauty of Change
Professor Michael Mainelli, John Harle and William Joseph
A Fusion Of Benjamin Britten's 1951 "Six Metamorphoses After Ovid (Op. 49)" For Solo Saxophone with Commercial Musings On Sustainability
People change the planet in beautiful and terrifying ways, from high art to base waste. Never before have we had such power to transform our planet and ourselves. Never before have we so risked losing everything. Robust economies and environments are essential to mankind's future. This performance combines music inspired by Ovid's works with selections from modern political and economic thinking in order to envision how society might metamorphose towards sustainable commerce with nature.
John Harle – Saxophonist & Composer & Speaker
Michael Mainelli – Mercers' School Memorial Professor of Commerce
William Joseph – Computer Graphics
[Opening Graphic – John Conway's Game of Life]
[Graphic – Publius Ovidius Naso]
Today's performance features a sustainable odyssey 2001 years old. In 8 AD Publius Ovidius Naso completed his great work, Metamorphoses, Changes. Metamorphoses is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter, the grand style of classical times. It was published as 15 books, in length over 600 pages. As our most complete reference for Greek and Roman mythology, Metamorphoses would always have been important, but Ovid was a master. A master poet, a master storyteller, a master muser on life's most enduring theme, change.
Metamorphoses has inspired art, theatre and music - from wandering minstrels and troubadours to Chaucer, Botticelli, Marlowe, Milton, Mozart and Joyce as well as Benjamin Britten, whose works are being performed, and other poets such as Ted Hughes, from whom there are six selections today. Today's exploration began at the request of the Director of the City of London Festival, Ian Ritchie, who had the idea to combine selections from four years of Gresham College Commerce lectures on sustainability with music and graphics as part of the Sustain! segment of the festival.
Change challenges mankind constantly. From natural disasters & diseases, to social upheaval & disorder, to science & technology, the only constant is change. Ovid's masterpiece was written in a time of change. He was born into a republic and died in an empire. Over the two millennia since Ovid wrote, perhaps the biggest change is to our world. Ovid's poems play out in a world of sylvan shade, of babbling brooks, of lavish landscapes and of perilous peaks. A world of nature. Today we live in a world compressed by our own expansion.
The terrible beauty of change inspires the wonder of scale changes. Scale changes are my phrase for a Zen-like moment of enlightenment. You delight in changing scale when you move from believing that some carnival magician is just sleight of hand to the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, he or she is deploying genuine magic. You delight in changing scale when you move from the wind-in-the-face exhilaration of a roller coaster at a fairground to staring at a rattling bolt inside the coaster with the terrifying realisation that some overworked carnival employee bolted it all together last night.
[Graphic – Pan]
I. Pan – Despair to Hope – Nature & Mankind
Pan, who played upon the reed pipe which was Syrinx his beloved.
Which takes us to Pan. Pan is the god of woods and pastures, mountain peaks and landscapes, the god of wild nature. Pan is equally the god of pastoral lust. Pan has a goat's feet and two horns, and wears a lynx-pelt. His appearance at birth so terrified his nurse that she fled, thus irrational terrors come from Pan-ic. Pan once battled Apollo in music, his Pan pipes against Apollo's lyre. While the judge, Tmolus, awarded the prize to Pan, King Midas believed Pan's wild music was the more authentic.
The music touches on how Pan got his pipes. Chasing the nymph Syrinx to the banks of the river Ladon in Arcadia, Pan's pursuit terrifies her. To escape him, Syrinx called on the river nymphs to change her form and "instead of a fair nymph's body, Pan found himself clutching some marsh reeds" [Raeburn, 2004, page 40 – I, 706]. Yet,
The tender canes were shaken by the wind;
And breath'd a mournful air, unheard before;
[ http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.1.first.html ]
effecisse sonum tenuem similemque querenti.
arte nova vocisque deum dulcedine captum
[ I, 708-709 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met1.shtml ]
Thus when Pan blows on his pipes made from Syrinx's form we have the music of nature. "This converse, at least, shall I have with you". Thus our first encounter of commerce, commerce with nature and commerce with each other. Business commerce, social commerce, sexual commerce. Pan - signifying the limitless potential of the human spirit - creativity, regeneration, endeavour – perhaps the first and most optimistic part of an economic cycle, yet these bubbles will be blown apart and die.
Gods can never experience the second greatest transformation of all; gods cannot die. Yet since classical times the death of Pan has been rumoured. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in despair over 150 years ago of the disappearance of Pan's world, "Pan, Pan is dead". Oscar Wilde lamented too – "O goat-foot God of Arcady! This modern world is grey and old, And what remains to us of thee?" Our first scale change is an AH of nature – from low to high, from tiny flower to dramatic landscape. Just a rumour that Pan lives gives us Hope.
[Pan (1:48), graphic – Strings, a fractal]
The cliff-face of Tmolus watches
Half the Mediterranean. It falls away
To Sardis on one side, and on the other
To the village of Hypaepa.
Pan lives in a high cave on that cliff.
He was amusing himself,
Showing off to the nymphs
Thrilling them out of their airy bodies
With the wild airs
He breathed through the reeds of his flute.
Their ecstasies flattered him,
Their words, their exclamations, flattered him.
But the flattered
Become fools. And when he assured them
That Apollo, no less,
Stole his tunes and rearranged his rhythms
It was a shock
To find himself staring at the great god
Hanging there in the air off the cave mouth,
Half eclipsed with black rage
Half beaming with a friendly challenge
'Tmolus, the mountain', suggested the god, 'can
[… after the contest …]
Pan was humbled. Yes, he agreed -
Apollo was the master. Tmolus was correct.
The nymphs gazed at Apollo. They agreed.
But then, a petulant voice,
A hard-angled, indignant, differing voice
Came from behind a rock.
Midas stood up. 'The judgement', he cried,
'Is ignorant, stupid, and merely favours power.
Are nothing but interior decoration
By artificial light, for the chic, the effete.
Pan is the real thing - the true voice
Of the subatomic.'
[Hughes (1997), "Midas", selections from pages 206 to 209]
[Graphic – Phaeton]
II. Phaethon – Rise and Fall – Mankind's Power & Terror
Phaethon, who rode upon the chariot of the sun for one day and was hurled into the river Padus by a thunderbolt.
David Bowie sang, "Turn and face the strain" in his album Changes. From tension springs creativity. Arthur Koestler proposed three domains of creativity – artistic inspiration, scientific discovery and comic inventiveness. The common pattern underlying creativity is the "shaking together of already existing but previously separate areas of knowledge, frames of perception or universes of discourse" [Koestler, 1967, page 195]. Koestler wryly expresses the continuum from artistic inspiration, to scientific discovery to comic inventiveness by the reaction induced, respectively the AH reaction (art), the AHA reaction (science) and HAHA reaction (comic).
"Zen lives in humour. … and humour lies on the razor-edge of self and selflessness, where a man looks round at the back of his head and lifts himself up by his belt. Zen recognises the tension between technical mastery of a subject and enlightenment or satori." [Humphreys, 1949, page 130]. Scale changes inspire enlightenment, whether through the art in fractals, the power laws in science or the sudden jolt of realising a double meaning.
We face two big social challenges. The first challenge is evident doubt about our own sustainability. Whether it's climate change, pollution, biodiversity or just the recognition that our own successes have led to population growth that may bring about our downfall, people clearly have more and more concerns about sustainability, the long-term. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word for "crazy life", and also the title of a prophetic, non-verbal 1982 film about our world being out of balance. We've been having more and more koyaanisqatsi moments.
The second big social challenge is evident doubt over the sensibleness of our governments and our economies. The drama of the Credit Crunch provides many opportunities for tragic heroes, from hedge funds to crooks to big bank chairmen to politicians to regulators.
Dr Gro Brundtland's 1987 "Our Common Future" report said – "What is needed now is a new era of economic growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable." "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Can we change our scales?
Jokes rely on scale change. A couple book a flight on a four engine aircraft. The husband looks to starboard to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a starboard engine, but don't worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just three engines. However, we will be one hour late to our destination." A little later, the husband turns to port to see one of the engines on fire, only to hear the Captain on the loudspeaker, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a port engine, but don't worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just two engines. However, we will be three hours late to our destination." Still later, the husband turns to starboard again to see the second of the starboard engines on fire, only to hear the Captain tremulously on the loudspeaker, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are dousing a fire in a starboard engine and, while this is my first time in over two decades flying, don't worry, this aircraft is designed to fly safely on just one engine. However, we will be six hours late to our destination." Hearing this, in frustration the husband turns to his wife – "If that fourth engine goes, we'll be up here all night!"
Are we like that couple or can we look down upon the whole world and fix it? Which brings us to Phaeton. Phaethon was the son of Phoebus, the sun god. Phaeton seeks assurance that his mother, Clymene, is telling the truth that his father is the sun god. Phaethon ascends to heaven and meets Phoebus, who swears by the river Styx to give Phaeton anything he should ask for in order to prove his divine paternity. When Phaeton obtains his Phoebus' promise to drive the sun chariot, everyone tries to talk him out of it. Stubbornly, Phaethon proceeds, but fails to control the chariot and must be killed by Zeus to prevent further disaster.
You are only a boy, too young to attempt it. Your destiny's mortal; your wishes transcend your mortal limits.
[Raeburn, 2004, page 49 – II, 54-55].
sors tua mortalis, non est mortale, quod optas.
plus etiam, quam quod superis contingere possit,
[ II, 56-58 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met2.shtml ]
What more fitting tale for mankind than setting the world on fire?
[Phaethon (1:29), graphic - Sun Spot sequence from Hubble telescope]
… Phaethon asked for the chariot of the sun
And one whole day driving the winged horses.
His father [Phoebus] recoiled. …
His head shook.
'On the course of that chariot and those horses.
A boy could not hope to control them.
You are my son, but mortal. No mortal
Could hope to manage those reins.
Not even the gods are allowed to touch them.'
[Phaethon] leapt aboard, and catching the reins
From his father's hands, joyfully thanked him.
With a splitting crack of thunder, he [the Almighty] lifted a bolt,
Poised it by his ear,
Then drove the barbed flash point-blank into Phaethon.
Snuffed the ball of flame
As it blew the chariot into fragments. Phaethon
Went spinning out of his life.
Phaethon, hair ablaze,
A fiery speck, lengthening a vapour trail,
Plunged towards the earth
Like a star
Falling and burning out on a clear night.
Over his grave, on a rock they wrote this:
Here lies Pheobus' boy who died
In the sun's chariot.
His strength too human, and too hot
His courage and his pride.
[Hughes (1997), "Phaethon", selections from pages 28 to 43]
[Graphic – Niobe]
III. Niobe – Pride before Loss – Caution & Trust
Niobe, who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into a mountain.
Trust is reliance on other people. Cooperation is when people agree to work together. Without cooperation everything is a zero-sum game; no one benefits from helping others. All markets are based on trust & confidence. Investors must take risks, new products and services must be explored, one needs to trade with strangers.
Niobe's tale is perhaps the saddest, of hubris leading to nemesis. While a girl, Niobe knew Arachne, who Athena turned into a spider for her pride, but Niobe failed to learn the lesson.
nec tamen admonita est poena popularis Arachnes
[ VI, 150 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met6.shtml ]
To show the gods she knew her place and to speak of them humbly.
[Raeburn, 2004, page 217 – VI, 151].
Niobe boasted of her superiority to the goddess Latona because the goddess had only two children, the twins Apollo and Artemis, while Niobe had fourteen. Because of the offence to their mother, Artemis kills Niobe's daughters and Apollo kills Niobe's sons while they practice athletics. In grief over his children's slaughter Niobe's husband Amphion kills himself. Devastated, Niobe turns into stone. Her stone form is swept by the wind to Mount Sipylus in Phrygia where she weeps unceasingly, waters pouring from her petrified complexion.
We apes choose Commerce to organise ourselves. So follow this circle. Society wants people to work. People need to be motivated to work – we let them anticipate profit. CP Snow remarked, "Jam today, and men aren't at their most exciting: jam tomorrow, and one often sees them at their noblest". [Snow, 1998 (originally 1959), page 44] When people compete appropriately in their work the results are economy, efficiency, effectiveness and innovation. Competition leads to growth, or gets out of control – leading to destruction outside the rules of the game. To control competition we control violence and firm size and cartels. Some people succeed or fail through luck or skill. As apes, we will favour our own offspring over others. Successful people acquire more wealth that gives them more power which they can hand on to their children. As apes, we value equality. To reduce inequality we try to stop the acquisition of power and redistribute through tools such as death duties or taxation. We either have punctuated returns to equality and much argument, or constant returns to equality and ruin the motivation to work. We need a scale change.
Trust and money are uncomfortable partners. We live in two worlds simultaneously, the social world and the market world. Social and market norms conflict. A simple solution is to keep the two separate. But this is often not possible. Today's financial crisis is, at heart, a crisis of trust. A couple of years ago, banks knew how badly they managed their own risks, how aggressively they'd priced their own assets, and how much their own bonuses depended on these aggressive valuations. "If we're acting so irresponsibly, think how much more irresponsibly other banks must be acting." When banks failed to trust themselves, they also failed to trust each other, withdrawing credit, thus creating liquidity and solvency problems at fellow banks in a domino-effect that came back to themselves.
Self-interest is a common feature in establishing trust. One of the key pieces of information discovery in all negotiations is, "what's in it for the other party?". We implore children to stop and think about why someone would offer something for free. The concept of self-interest and enlightened self-interest, looking to the longer-term, is fundamental to all of economics since Adam Smith.
At the end of the day, we must decide whether commerce corrodes or enhances trust. We must decide between the Irish dramatist Oliver Goldsmith's (1730-1774) assertion that "Honor sinks where commerce long prevails" [The Traveller, http://1picture.org/poems/golds02.html] or another Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) who wrote, "He's a man. I know him: his principles are thoroughly commercial." [Man And Superman, Act 4].
Commercial self-interest ensures that successful commercial people must maintain a basic level of trustworthiness. Or are we just too trusting, with too much pride in our own commercial creations?
[Niobe (2:26), graphic - Volcano, a fractal]
Niobe gazed at the corpses.
All her children were dead.
Her husband was dead.
Her face hardened
And whitened, as the blood left it.
Her very hair hardened
Like hair carved by a chisel.
Her open eyes became stones.
Her whole body
Life drained from every part of it.
Solidified in her stone mouth.
Her feet could not move, her hands
Could not move: they were stone,
Her veins were stone veins.
Her bowels, her womb, all stone
Packed in stone.
This stone woman wept.
A hurricane caught her up
And carried her
Into Phrygia, her homeland,
And set her down on top of a mountain.
And still there, a monument to herself,
Niobe still weeps.
As the weather wears at her
Her stone shape weeps.
[Hughes (1997), "Niobe", selection from page 223]
[Graphic – Bacchus]
IV. Bacchus – Destruction after Excess – Internalising Externalities
Bacchus, at whose feasts is heard the noise of gaggling women's tattling tongues and shouting out of boys.
Externalities are not having to pay for things that cost other people. The classic example is pollution. If you can pollute while manufacturing something, while I have to pay to keep the local river or land clean, you have an advantage over me. Carbon emissions are a good example of a millennia old externality that is starting to be "internalised", that is, we are starting to have to include the costs of carbon emissions in our economic and financial calculations.
Bacchus is otherworldly; he comes from before Grecian times and outside Greece, from Asia Minor. There are many tales of Bacchus in the Metamorphoses – his birth, changing Ariadne's crown into a constellation and the seduction of Erigone. Bacchus is the one deity, with Hercules, who ultimately joins the twelve Olympians.
Planter of grapes which delight the heart, and the Lord of the Night-Dance;
[Raeburn, 2004, page 131 – IV, 14]
Nycteliusque Eleleusque parens et Iacchus et Euhan
[ IV, 15 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met4.shtml ]
Of Bacchus' numberless names, Liber, or free, is important. What is more "beyond price" than "free"? "Free" removes an entire host of commercial defence mechanisms from your armoury. Zero cost is an asymptotic negotiating point where we become irrational. Under "free" conditions we make foolish choices and often create externalities.
We've created big problems with "free". Pollution pervades air, land and sea. Our putrefied rivers gleam and boil. Our waste litters landscapes. Our atmosphere warms up while our biodiversity drops down - emblematic polar bears drown in the arctic. Then the facts:
- extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times their pre-human level, threatening more than 10% of birds and mammals, 8% of plants, 20% of freshwater fish and 5% of seafish. Following the planet's five previous mass extinction events, humans are racking up one for themselves, some scientists estimate that this Holocene extinction event will eliminate half of today's species by 2100;
- 47% of all forests have been destroyed by mankind and "up to 50 percent of the Earth's photosynthetic potential is directly appropriated for human use" [Sachs, 2008, page 68]
- 15% to 35% of mankind's water use is unsustainable;
- one-third of the world's fisheries have collapsed and total global fisheries collapse is projected within the next fifty years while the seas grow increasingly acidic;
- mankind has more than doubled CO2 levels and, all things being equal, to stop increasing CO2 levels we'd have to plant the equivalent of the entire land area of Spain, or two United Kingdom's, every year forever.
To work you up to a crescendo of disgust is only a matter of reciting all that's been ruined or lost till you beg me to stop. There are good news points of rivers being renewed, of sulfur dioxide and CFC emissions being curtailed, and of brownfield land being reclaimed. There are many good plans to halt or reverse environmental damage from reforestation programmes to moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol. But I don't want to let you, or me, off the hook – mankind has damaged the earth and on present form shall alter the earth substantially, mostly to its detriment, for some time to come. Further, what we're losing is irreplaceable. We can't yet build a spaceship to take people to Mars, as we are unable to build a closed biosystem that can last three years. We still don't understand our own ecology, and we can't escape.
Bacchus' revenge on Pentheus is perhaps the most disturbing transformation. Pentheus was a king of Thebes whose own name means "Man of Sorrows", foreshadowing one of the most violent scenes involving Bacchus. Pentheus bans Bacchanalia, so Bacchus causes caused Pentheus' mother, Agave, and his aunts, Ino and Autonoë, along with all the other women of Thebes, to rush to Mount Cithaeron in a bacchic frenzy. Pentheus is lured to spy on the bacchic rites, but he is discovered and in their frenzy, believing him to be a dangerous wild boar, the women tear Pentheus limb from limb.
[Bacchus (1:53), graphic – Feuerwerk, a fractal]
When he [Pentheus] heard the unbearable howls
Of the Bacchantes, and the clash of their cymbals.
And when he stumbled in his fury
And fell on all fours,
A changed man, Pentheus,
Emptied with terror,
Tries to crawl.
His mouth bites at new words,
Strange words, words that curse himself,
That renounce himself, that curse Pentheus.
He convicts himself,
Begs for forgiveness
With blood coming out of his mouth.
He heaves upright,
Shouting to his aunt: 'Autone,
Remember your darling Actaeon
Torn to rags by the hounds that loved him.
Pity me.' The name Actaeon
Sounds to her like the scream of a pig
As she wrenches his right arm
Out of its socket and clean off.
While Ino, with the strength of the god,
Twists the other likewise clean off.
Armless, he lurches towards his mother.
'Mother', he sobs, 'Mother, look at me,
Recognise me, Mother!'.
Agave stares, she blinks, her mouth wide.
She takes her son's head between her hands
And rips it from his shoulders.
She lifts it, like a newborn baby,
Her red fingers hooked into the hair
Letting the blood splash over her face and breasts -
'Victory!' she shrieks. 'I've done it! I did it!'
[Hughes (1997), "Bacchus and Penthius", selections from pages 198 to 200]
[Graphic – Narcissus]
V. Narcissus – Inclusive or Exclusive – Feed-forward To Community
Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image and became a flower.
Around 450 BC, Protagoras, a Greek Sophist, noted, "Of all things, the measure is Man; of the things that are, how they are; and of things that are not, how they are not." Human beings may be regarded as insignificant in the scale of the universe or indistinguishable at a cosmic scale from other life, but in Commerce we believe that the ultimate determinant of value for markets is the value given by people.
"There is the old story about the market craze in sardine trading when the sardines disappeared from their traditional waters in Monterey, California. The commodity traders bid them up and the price of a can of sardines soared. One day a buyer decided to treat himself to an expensive meal and actually opened a can and started eating. He immediately became ill and told the seller the sardines were no good. The seller said, 'You don't understand. These are not eating sardines, they are trading sardines.'"
[Klarman, 1991, page 5 - in turn attributed to Sequoia Fund, Inc., annual report for 1986]
Markets are anthropo-centric. Canadian environmentalist Dr David Suzuki points out that the Brundtland Commission "called for the protection of 12% of the land in all countries, a target which has absolutely no scientific basis and yet which very few countries have managed to achieve. But we are one species out of 15 to 30 million species on the planet and setting a target of protection of 12% of our land base for all the other species means that we seem to take it for granted that we can take over 88% of the land."
People wonder how financial market risk varies from natural risk such as earthquakes or hurricanes. The key distinction is that financial markets incorporate people's perceptions. When you give a bad weather forecast predicting rain tomorrow, it doesn't make rain tomorrow more likely. But when you give a bad forecast predicting a share will fall tomorrow, you do make it more likely. People add a very strong feed-forward loop to financial systems. 'Talking a market' up or down frequently moves a market up or down. Too much connectedness in people's opinions can be a bad thing, leading to bubbles; too much isolation means that communities stagnate and die.
We must combine global information and problems with local solutions. We need to find more ways to give communities genuine power and genuine responsibilities, including bearing the consequences of their actions. Our political positions need to be re-mapped. Why can't we have parties that recognise huge numbers of responsible, overlapping and competing communities within a market society, or parties that recognise that while there is no such thing as a global community, globally-dispersed communities do exist today?
Our self-infatuation is best explored by the tale of Narcissus.
infantem nymphe, iam tunc qui posset amari,
Narcissumque vocat. De quo consultas, an esset
[ III, 345-346 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met3.shtml ]
'Tell me,' she asked, 'will my baby live to a ripe old age?'
'Yes,' he replied, 'so long as he never knows himself'
[Raeburn, 2004, page 109 – III, 347-348]
Echo, a nymph under a curse of repetition, falls in love with the beautiful Narcissus. Echo stealthily follows the handsome youth hunting, longing to address him but unable to speak first. When Narcissus hears her footsteps and shouts, "Who's there?", Echo answers "Who's there?" Back and forth it goes until finally Echo rushes to embrace the lovely youth. Narcissus pulls away, leaving Echo heartbroken. Echo spends the rest of her life pining for the love she never knew, until only her voice remained. To avenge this rebuff, Nemesis sends Narcissus a punishment. As he drinks from a pool, Narcissus, sees his reflection for the first time in his life and falls in love with the beautiful boy he sees. Eventually, realizing that the image he sees is himself, and realizing that he cannot act upon this love, he tears and beats at his body. As he dies, the bodiless Echo comes to him moved by sorrow and pity. His soul is sent to "the darkest hell" and the narcissus flower grows where he died.
[Narcissus (3:04), graphic - Face2Face, a fractal]
In his sixteenth year Narcissus,
Still a slender boy but already a man,
Infatuated many. His beauty had flowered,
But something glassy about it, a pride,
Kept all his admirers at a distance.
None dared be familiar, let alone touch him.
A day came, out on the mountain
Narcissus was driving and netting and killing the deer
When Echo saw him.
Echo who cannot be silent
When another speaks. Echo who cannot
Speak at all
Unless another has spoken.
Echo, who always answers back.
[Narcissus said to Echo:]
'You are me. Now I see that.
I see through my own reflection.
But it is too late.
I am in love with myself.
I torture myself. What am I doing -
Loving or being loved?
What can my courtship gain?
What I want, I am.
But being all that I long for -
That is my destitution.
Why can't I get apart from my body?
This is a new kind of lover's prayer.
To wish himself apart from the one he loves.
[Hughes (1997), "Echo and Narcissus", selections from pages 74 to 83]
[Graphic – Arethusa]
VI. Arethusa – The Needs of the Many - Population
Arethusa, who, flying from the love of Alpheus the river god, was turned into a fountain.
For our sixth transformation we turn to Arethusa. Arethusa was a nymph favoured by Diana. One day, while bathing in a stream, Arethusa came to the attention of Alpheus, the river god. With Diana's help she fled under the ocean to the isle of Ortygia in the harbour of Syracuse, where Diana changed her into a fountain. Yet Alpheus was not wanton, and he followed her, changing himself into a river to be united with Arethusa. Legend holds that the waters of the Alpheus river in Greece mingle underground with Arethusa's and emerge in the Arethusa fountain.
Arethusa describes the perfectly still stream in which she skinny-dipped, so clear you could count all the stones, thus drawing Alpheus' attentions:
Once, I remember, in the summer's heat,
Tir'd with the chase, I sought a cool retreat;
[ http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.5.fifth.html ]
"invenio sine vertice aquas, sine murmure euntes,
perspicuas ad humum, per quas numerabilis alte
calculus omnis erat, quas tu vix ire putares"
[ V, 587-589 - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.met5.shtml ]
Arethusa's tale is one of continuity and connections, continuity from the heavens to the waters under the earth, connections direct from Greece to Italy. But also connections from the many to the one. The "elephant in the room" or "elephant on the table" is shorthand for an issue that everyone knows but wishes to ignore despite its significance. The elephant in the sustainability room is population.
Today's world population is estimated at over 6.7 billion people. It took millennia to reach 1 billion people in 1800. 123 more years to double to 2 billion, 33 years to get to 3 billion in 1960, and we've been adding about a billion people in just over every dozen years since 1960. We spent most of the past two millennia growing by spreading across the planet, now we grow in place, made possible by medical advances and the Green Revolution.
The UN provided a disaster scenario for population growth – 36 billion people in 2300. In 1974, TJ Bass published a book, "Godwhale", yet another science fiction story about a distant future earth. The seas have died. A lone bio-mechanical harvester, half-whale/half-robot, roams the seas alone. Back on land the population hits 3.5 trillion. Only two orders of magnitude above the 36 billion in the UN's 2300 disaster scenario. 50,000 people/mile2 or 235 people/hectare. A planet covered with every area the size of a football pitch containing over 100 people. In comparison, London's overall population density is just under 50 people/hectare. But Mumbai already exceeds the Godwhale scenario with just under 300/hectare. Civilized Seoul is over halfway there with 167/hectare. The 3.5 trillion were living but, as you'd expect, not as we'd know it. Recycling their waste and body parts, eating processed goo, living in cramped quarters under a brutal dictatorship. Battery people. We don't want that, but people have gotten used to a lot of things.
One scary simplifying equation for change is I-PAT, originating in a 1970's debateamong the ecologists Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren and Barry Commoner. The terms of the I-PAT equation are frighteningly direct - I (environmental impact), P (population), A (affluence or consumption) and T (technology). As population and affluence grow, the environment will increasingly degrade. Technology can be both a force that increases impact or may reduce impact. The math is harsh - live few or live dirty. Impact = population times affluence times technology.
Someone once asked, "what would Jesus have paid for environmental sustainability?" Well, at the time of Jesus there were only 170 million people on the entire planet, so in comparison to today's prices, not a lot. The exponential growth imperative of a single species, "go forth and multiply", meets the boundaries of our biosystem in a huge clash. A bunch of naked apes in northern Europe and north America have spent the past 500 years increasing affluence because they haven't had to pay the environmental costs of doing so, with today's hot topic being carbon emissions from fossil fuels that clouds numerous other externalities such as mineral extraction limits, overfishing, biodiversity losses or even noise pollution.
Our challenge is to move from Alpheus' lustful thoughts of mingling waters to the purity of Arethusa's fountain before we flood the earth, with ourselves.
[Arethusa (2:49), graphic – Havasu canyon, Arizona USA]
Ceres, happy again to have her daughter,
Returned to Arethusa, curious
To learn why she ran from home, and just how
She became a sacred fountain.
I could hear the river-god, Alpheus,
Blindly casting about -
Twice he almost trod on me
Where I crouched under deep weeds.
"Arethusa!", he kept shouting, "Arethusa!"
As if I would answer!
You can imagine what I was feeling -
What the lamb feels when the wolf's jaws
Are ripping the edge of the shed door.
Or what the hare feels
Peering through the wall of grass blades
When the circling hounds lift their noses.
But Alpheus persisted.
Circling the clump of mist, he could see clearly
My track that had gone in had not come out.
When I understood this
A sudden sweat chilled my whole body.
It streamed from me.
It welled from my hair. It puddled under my feet.
In the time it takes to tell you this
I had become a spring, a brisk stream,
A river, flowing away down the hillside.
But the river-god recognised me.
And he too dissolved his human shape,
Poured himself into his true nature
And mingled his current with my current.
[Hughes (1997), "Arethusa", selection from pages 68 to 71]
[Graphic – Metamorphoses]
VII. Sustainable Commerce & The Long Finance
For millennia, money has been society's most powerful tool for making decisions across time and space. Yet like "The poor Babel fish [in The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy], by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, [money] has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." [Adams, 1979, page 50] Some would turn from mankind to the macabre, the four horsemen of the apocalypse – death, famine, war, pestilence. When you think about the thousands of species, possibly over 100,000 per year, that go extinct, it's ironic to realize that the extinction of just a single species would solve the sustainability problem.
Can we use markets to build a society that is clearly better off, as measured by I-PAT, but without an increase in goods we can touch and feel? As we move from a false picture of Dorian Gray to a true picture of the cost of change, will we genuinely value environmental sustainability enough to vote in politicians year after year who tell us that we are working harder than ever "and GDP rose 3% this year", but we can't feel the difference in an improved standard of living? I can only wonder.
Everyone has their favourite fixes (including me), but one question we should be asking far more stridently is "how would we know when the financial system is working?" Permanent solutions need permanent questions, such as "how do we fund a forest" or "can a 20-year-old responsibly enter into a financial structure for his or her retirement?" Such questions raise hosts of related issues. The computer scientist Danny Hillis posed a good question in 1995, "how could one build a clock to last 10,000 years?", leading to the Long Now. Another venture with long-term aims is Carlo Petrini's Slow Food movement. Perhaps we need a Slow Finance movement or, my favourite, a Long Finance Foundation.
Once you look at the problems involved in Long Finance, you realise that many of today's sustainable finance issues arise because society's core, global risk/reward transfer system, finance, doesn't yet have enough diversity to deal with the long-term. There's a line in "All of Me", a Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin film, "If there's anything I can do to help, you're in deeper trouble than I thought." With wicked problems the entire world is involved; no one person could be an expert. Even not taking a choice is a choice. Thus you too, the Gresham audience, have a key role in long-term solutions. Carpe diem, seize the day, change the scale and remember three things:
- Attaining a sustainable environment and attaining a sustainable economy are the two big problems of our time, and go hand-in-hand;
- We can but hope that these problems are solvable;
- We must all either seek or create a role for ourselves in moving towards sustainability.
Competitive markets can make the world a better place, but equally markets are social tools requiring design, oversight and justice to meet their objectives. C P Snow's core idea in his influential 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures", was that lack of communication between the sciences and the humanities interfered with solving global problems. I don't know whether the scale change moment awaiting us in Commerce will be art, science or comedy, AH, AHA or HAHA, but I do know that we need to get our financial and economic systems working for sustainability. We must bridge the divide between those who believe in markets and those who don't to move to more subtle positions where we can start to solve global problems.
Whether it's Ovid or the Yì Jīng (易經), the Chinese Book of Changes, we've known for millennia we must transform ourselves. Yes, it's a complex world where the falsifiable consilient complex economic deity of evolving choice gives ambiguous, changing answers on commerce. We need systemic awareness and competition among ideas similar to that which characterised the Enlightenment period from which Gresham College emerged. Sometimes I've wondered whether Shakespeare took the opportunity to come to this Tudor Open University and, if so, might have chaired, opened or closed a Commerce lecture [Jacques: As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, lines 139–143]:
All the world's exchange,
And all the men and women merely traders;
They have their wares and their merchandises,
And one man in his time plies much commerce,
His acts being short changes.
But the last word on sustainability, surely, must go to Publius Ovidius Naso on the anniversary of two millennia of the Metamorphoses:
tempus edax rerum [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, line 234]
omnia mutantur, nihil interit [Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, line 165]
time, the devourer of all things,
everything changes, nothing perishes
[Graphic – transformation]
1. ADAMS, Douglas, The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Pan Books (1979).
2. BRITTEN, Benjamin, Six Metamorphoses After Ovid, Boosey & Hawkes (1952) [see also Britten: Six Metamorphoses After Ovid: Anatomy Of A Masterpiece, Opus 49 (1951) – Study CD, Tracks 1-6, Metamorphoses – George Caird [13:29] British Broadcasting Corporation, Oboe Classics, 2007].
3. HUGHES, Ted, Tales From Ovid, Faber & Faber (1997).
4. HUMPHREYS, Christmas, Zen Buddhism, Unwin Paperbacks (1984, originally published 1949).
5. KLARMAN, Seth A, Margin Of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies For The Thoughtful Investor, Harper Collins, 1991 -
6. KOESTLER, Arthur, The Ghost in the Machine, Penguin Books Ltd (1967).
7. NASO, Publius Ovidius, Metamorphoses, (circa 8)
8. SACHS, Geoffrey, Common Wealth: Economics For A Crowded Planet, Penguin (2008).
9. SNOW, C P, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press (1998, originally 1959).
10. Latin - http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid.html
11. English – Edited and translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve and other eminent hands (1717) -http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.mb.txt, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html
12. English - Translated by David Raeburn, Penguin (2004).
© Professor Michael Mainelli, John Harle and William Joseph, 22 June 2009