If we don’t stop kicking the planet in the guts, one day it will kick us back. A comment that was already banal five years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have identified Covid19 as the kick in question and what astounds me is how intelligent, how compassionate and gentle it is. Not the biblical plague many of us expected, but as gentle and effective as Mr Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch.
I will come back to the intricacies of the design, but first I have to declare myself a believer. I don’t attempt to describe what I believe in, or even give it a name, because language is too limited a tool for the job. But part of what I believe, based on what I observe, is that the planet is being protected as a place of human habitation, mainly from humans themselves, just as a mother protects a young child from actions that it is not yet able to recognise as dangerous. Even to the extent, when all else fails, of giving the child a corrective smack. Years ago I recall a friend smacking her two-year-old on the leg because he persisted in running across a busy street. She was resolutely opposed to corporal punishment but had realised that no other effective remedy was available. She couldn’t lock the kid up 24/7 and it had become a game for him. The hard slap on the leg worked.
So now that force, whatever it is, has slapped us.
Why do I think we are being protected from our own worst impulses and actions? Because, looking over the purview of recent history, an era when the powers of states had reached the potential to encompass the globe, I see at least two examples of critical moments that turned the course of history away from the triumph of evil and planetary disaster.
The first happened at Dunkirk. Almost the entire remaining allied forces were backed into a corner on a French beach, defenceless, and the unstoppable forces of the blitzkrieg were racing to finish them off. I will simplify what was a slightly more complex situation – in fact a number of separate pivotal and simultaneous events took place and significantly, every one of them tilted the odds back in favour of the stranded army. Panzer General von Rundstedt, poised to hammer the expeditionary force to pieces, simply stopped 15 km short of Dunkirk. History has given at least three different reasons for this, none of them particularly compelling.
At the same time a British patrol stumbled in the way of a German staff car and killed the driver with a pistol shot (note: an extremely unlikely event). An officer fled the subsequent crash, leaving a briefcase containing the German plans for attacking the remaining active troops further up the coast. Effective countermeasures were immediately taken.
Then the weather moved in to complete the good fortune. For day after day the Channel remained as smooth as glass and a huge rescue flotilla of naval vessels and hundreds of small boats evacuated the 335,000 stranded men. It is rare, very rare, for the Channel to stay that calm for that long.
If the Dunkirk rescue had not happened, Britain would have been wiped out as a free country. Churchill, only days in office, was surrounded by ministers keen to appease Hitler, believing that the English and the Germans were natural allies. With the army gone they would have sidelined Churchill and gone cap in hand to Hitler. It would have been a surrender on the knees – we don’t have to guess who would have ended up fully in charge. With Britain out of the war and the US not yet in it, Hitler would have won in Russia and moved on to a probably successful invasion of the US. The Nazi thousand year Reich would now be 80 years young and going strong.
The number of discrete pieces of good fortune that rescued Britain and the world at Dunkirk are simply too many, and too heavily against the run of play, for me to believe they were blind luck.
Take a good look at this man – he saved the world. Literally. His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, intercepted on the 27th of October 1962 during the US blockade of Cuba. Showered with depth charges, B-59 was forced to the surface. The Yanks believed it to be conventionally armed; in fact it carried a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo which the Captain and Political Officer prepared to fire, mainly to prevent the technology falling into US hands but also because, after days in radio isolation, they thought that the expected nuclear war had broken out. Protocol required all three men’s assent. Arkhipov dissented and maintained his opposition during a raging argument, two against one. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr described this as ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’. That nuclear strike would, without a shadow of doubt, have triggered nuclear armageddon.
Once again, we are looking at an extremely unlikely event. Arkhipov may have been the second-in-command on the B-59 but he was also the commander of the entire flotilla. You did not rise to the upper echelons of any Soviet organisation by being a maverick or by having a sensitive conscience. And yet, there he was when the planet needed him.
Of course, those two facts alone are not enough to convince me that we are being protected from our own worst impulses. There’s much more and I’m not actually trying to convince anyone. Just sayin’, as they say.
Now to Covid19. Those of us who have thought that the planet wouldn’t take being trashed sitting down have tended to mutter darkly about plagues and pestilence on a biblical scale, like the bubonic plague, for instance. Vast numbers of human dead. Not merely warned but forced to stop the carnival of devastation. But Covid has done it. Carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted. Many of us have recently taken a moment to reflect that we have probably taken our last quick break to the Greek Islands, or the Canaries, or Marbella. Furthermore, I doubt the residents of Venice, of Barcelona and Dubrovnik, are just going to throw their doors open when this is all over. The planet, Gaia, whatever, has shown us what peace and quiet, the end of the rat race and runaway consumption looks like and by God it is good!
Note how clever the design has been. It has been exclusively rich nations which have been hit hard. Most poor countries lie between the two tropics and the virus does not flourish in temperatures above 25ºC. Some of those nations are quite serious polluters but out of the sheer weight of population, not because their citizens are running round in big SUVs and flying around the world for their holidays. It’s us rich buggers who have been given the hard word.
And all this achieved at a cost, not of 50% of the population, nor even 5%, but at levels well under 1%. If this is design, it is wonderfully elegant design. Compassionate design.
The lady sure knows her business.
POSTSCRIPT MAY 2021
Seems I was wrong, mostly. The system is already cranking itself up to flood the skies with planes. But not entirely. We recently took a trip home to NZ. (Yes, I know. But a close family member had recently been diagnosed with serious cancers.) We travelled around a country with no foreign tourists; New Zealand’s biggest industry had ground to a halt, but strangely the national economy was doing quite well. At much-visited spots like Cape Reinga and Paihia, places that on a normal day would be teeming with tour buses disgorging hundreds or even thousands of visitors taking selfies for all they were worth, we joined friendly, modest-sized crowds of locals enjoying their heritage at ease, delighting in the absence of throngs. All the tourism was local but there was quite a lot of it. Following the crash of the campervan industry many companies have sold off their stock cheap – it seemed that every pensioner in NZ was on the road in their newly-acquired vehicle. It was lovely. NZ, at least, seems unenthusiastic about throwing open its doors again. In the Covid-free country vaccination is proceeding slowly. There’s no need to hurry – tourism businesses aside, no-one is itching for the return of the hordes. Now the government has decided that it will support initiatives to help tourism magnets like Queenstown find other sources of income. They may even regulate numbers of overseas visitors. We have had a chance to realise that magic spots like Tane Mahuta, the country’s largest kauri tree in Opoua Forest, belong to us. Having to queue with many hundreds of people, most of whom will barely glimpse that wonder through the screen of their phone, is just not OK.
Dare we hope that we are not alone in this? Fingers crossed.