The Doomsday Clock Strikes Midnight

In these strange and troubled times, I have the great good fortune to live in a rural location and at the heart of a farming community.  I can purchase top quality local produce at my village store.  The farmers tell me that the pandemic has altered their lifestyle not one whit.  I already knew this, because I see them working in the fields every day.  They get up before dawn and milk the cows.  They alter their routine only according to the weather, and how much daylight there is.  Sometimes as I drive home I get stuck behind a slow moving tractor, and I follow on patiently, sending the farmer a telepathic expression of my gratitude that he is putting bread on my table.  I live in the beating heart of Scotland.     

Our refuse collectors are extremely reliable.  Our pick-up day is Saturday.  I have four bins, grey, brown, green, and blue, plus a blue box.  Grey for landfill, brown for garden and food waste, green for paper and cardboard, blue for cans and plastics, and a blue box for glass.  I try to put as little as possible into landfill.  And I worry about the plastics.  How much of it is recycled, how much put into landfill, and how much sent off to some distant land and some dubious mode of disposition?  The idea of sending garbage abroad seems very odd to me.  Should we not be responsible for our own detritus?

I don’t remember there being so much plastic around when I was a kid.  There were brown paper bags for fruit and veg, and grease-proof paper for meat and dairy products.  You could go into a confectioner and order a quarter pound of sweets which would be taken from a large glass container, measured on the scales, and put into a small paper poke.  There was hardly any pre-packaging.  You would ask for a quarter pound of butter, or cheese, and it would be cut from a huge slab, using a wire contraption resembling a garrotte, and then wrapped in paper.  There were no plastic bottles.  Milk came in glass bottles.  A pint would contain about three inches of thick cream at the top.  Bottled water was unheard of.  Now the supermarket shelves are crammed with commodities wrapped in plastic.  The packaging gives you data on the nutritional content and sell-by date of the produce, but does not tell you how to dispose of the wrapping. 

My local general practice is four miles away.  It’s very good.  They asked me to attend last Wednesday, at 11.06, for my first Covid vac.  In the event I got the jag at 11.03.  I was treated with kindness and courtesy and there were no glitches. 

Farmers, refuse collectors, and carers.  One of the thing this pandemic is teaching us, or should be teaching us, is what our priorities are.  Isn’t it extraordinary that the people upon whom we most rely for our very existence are often the people who are the least rewarded?  That should tell us something.

A little under a year ago, I seem to recall that the Prime Minister floated the idea that we avoid any form of societal lockdown and simply “take it on the chin”.  “Herd immunity” by attrition might be the way forward.  It was a callous thing to say and he got a lot of stick for it.  I dare say he was only thinking out loud, after the fashion of President Trump wondering if we should all swallow disinfectant.  I actually followed the presidential advice, though I admit my choice of disinfectant was only the best Islay single malt. 

But what if the world had decided to “take it on the chin”?  Where would we be?  How many would be dead by now?  100,000,000?  How much herd immunity would have been acquired?  Would it have protected us from the Kent variant, the South African variant, etc?  Nobody knows.  It occurred to me, in one of my darker moments, that Mother Nature has grown weary of us and our mission to rape, pillage and despoil her, and to exterminate every other one of her species.  She has decided to bump us off.  Who can blame her?

With this in mind, I did what I usually do when feeling apocalyptic, and reread Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  I may have mentioned The Masque in this blog before, yet it is the quintessential story of our time, and therefore it deserves to be read and reread.  While the country is ravaged by the plague that is the Red Death, Prince Prospero, “happy and dauntless and sagacious”, holds a banquet for a thousand friends in his castellated abbey, cut off from the rest of the world and in defiance of the contagion.  There are seven apartments decorated and illuminated, from east to west, in lurid blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and, lastly, black.  The light illuminating the last apartment is scarlet.  At its westernmost side there is a clock, dolefully tolling the hour, periodically interrupting the masked revellers (it’s a bad taste fancy-dress party), the buffoons and improvisatori, the orchestra, and the dancing.  It is a doomsday clock.

One guest has dressed in particularly bad taste.  He is first noticed just as the ebony clock in the seventh apartment strikes midnight.  He is a mocked-up victim of the Red Death.  Prince Prospero is outraged and unmasks the guest by having his habiliments removed, only to find the disguise to be “untenanted by any tangible form”.  The Red Death had come like a thief in the night.  “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

I suppose every time we are confronted by a threat of this magnitude, we are inclined to interpret it in apocalyptic terms, as the Writing on the Wall.  Thou hast been weighed in the balance, and found wanting.  Yet surely the overarching existential question of our time, is how we can preserve and protect the only planet known to harbour life, and its fragile ecosystem of which we are – for the moment – a part. 

Yet some people are champing at the bit to “get back to normal”.  HS2.  Third runway at Heathrow.  New coal mine in Cumbria.

Buffoons and improvisatori. 

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