To Have Not

The recession in Europe has hardened like permafrost. The United States escaped by pumping money into the economy, but it hasn’t brought the jobs back. It seems the West is living in some strange dream, as if a mental illness has taken possession of us all.

Churchill said a stubborn man won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject. Guilty as charged, but why does no one talk about limits to growth? It’s truly crazy to conceive of infinite growth, and people know this organically. Every child recognizes it will reach a certain size at adulthood, and that after that, any size increase will be due to weight gains which are usually unwelcome, or to cosmetic surgery.

So leaving aside breast implants and  penis enlargement, we know where we stand. Economies used to be like weakly connected ecosystems, a forest and a field separated by a river. If the river dries, or a bridge is built, that connection becomes stronger. But energy is finite on both sides. There may be a surplus in the forest when animals escape from the dry field, so the forest predators experience a boom, but the deficit is matched on the other side.

Economic growth is calculated in terms of GDP, and its expansion at a constant rate may be determined by a differential equation. The formula is so simple that any tenth grader can apply it. In China, a fifth grader. Banks use it every day to calculate compound interest.

If a small country, with a GDP of two hundred billion dollars (let’s call it Portugal) grows at one percent per year, its GDP in 2112 will be 544 billion. For a stable population, people would on average be 2.7 times better off. Because the formula is exponential, five centuries from now that number is nudging thirty thousand billion. We’d be almost one hundred fifty times better off than we are now.

I don’t think we need to extend this to the planetary scale to understand the model is badly flawed. Fact is, the real concept we should defend politically is carrying capacity, if we were honest with the citizens of this earth.

When a system reaches its carrying capacity, growth is zero. Or rather, it fluctuates around zero. Two quarters of negative growth don’t make a recession, it’s normal. The sooner economics grows up and understands that thermodynamics is behind it all, the better. People will then understand economies can’t grow forever, just as they don’t.

The second point speaks to the fact that the political-economic models apply piecemeal fixes, rather than holistic solutions. When my Rabbit was already quite old, the various docs she consulted gave her remedies for different ailments. At one point, when she wasn’t eating well, her pill intake might have exceeded her food consumption. Mother’s little helpers did not play well with each other, and so the sum of the parts was rather less than holistic.

Pretty much the same happens in the economy, with fragmented tactics for growth, employment, productivity, export, domestic consumption, salaries, and retirement. And it shows.

Yesterday, I met the lady who took care of my mother in her fnal year. She’s hardly working right now, apparently no one’s prepared to pay for care services in this economy. She makes thirty-five euros a month working Sundays. It was night when we met, but she was wearing dark glasses. She took them off to kiss me, and told me by way of explanation that she sees things through a permanent fog. She’s on a three month waiting list for a cataract operation.

I bought her a drink, and she talked and talked. Older people do, they’re lonely. Or else  they clam up. “I’ve tried everything,” she said. “Most recently working for an office cleaning firm.”

Three hours a day, after the office closes.

Seven euros.

“Per hour?”
“No, per day.”

“Better times will come,” she said when we parted. She’s not the crying kind.

Still, Europe is a magnet for developing countries. For all our woes, in relative terms we live well. Just as the U.S. draws immigrants from Central and South America, Europe draws Africans. Arabs too, headed to the former colonial powers. Back in the days of The India Road, it was the Europeans who left, seeking fame and fortune.

The writing on the wall, as clear today as when the chapel was built in 1622. The inscription reads ‘Esta capella de S. Francisco mandou fazer fidalgo da casa del rei nosso sor (senhor) sendo esgr (excelentissimo governador) desta vila anno 1622.’ I love the technique of putting letters inside others.

Th west coast of Morocco bears witness to that exodus. As early as 1486, five years after the Perfect Prince became King John II of Portugal, the city of Mazagão was dominated by the Portuguese. Over the next decades, a fortress was built. The settlement was finally abandoned in 1769, after a treaty with Sultan Mohammed III of Morocco.

The Portuguese left through the Porta de Mar, the sea gate, after rigging massive explosive charges on the main gates of the city. When the Moors forced entry, the explosion destroyed a large part of the bulwark.

For years the city was known as El Mahdouma, the destroyed. When it was rebuilt, it became El Jadida, the new. As part of the permanent diaspora of Portugal, the one hundred sixty-three Lusitanian families did not return home—instead, they were sent to Brazil, where the sister city of Mazagão  still exists today. Every year, it celebrates the feast of St. James, or Santiago.

In this feast there is a reenaction of the battle between the Portuguese and the Moors. Oh, the saint’s full name? Santiago Matamoros, killer of Moors.

If you delve a little more into Brazilian history, you find the tales of Dutch occupation. Dutch influence in the world has been felt only in  trade—there are few traces left of their transit through the nations they once occupied. Brazil? You’d be hard pushed to find somewhere more dissimilar to the Netherlands. Scarcely a word in the language, though Brazilian names like Vanderlei (Van de Leyden) have Dutch roots.

The Dutch were prodigious consumers of alcohol (thus the term ‘Dutch courage’) and in Brazil, this also pitted them against the more temperate Portuguese. A Spanish play from this period quips:

vinistas no son sólo por el vino, que añadiendo tres letras, son calvinistas

Loosely translated, by adding three letters to the Dutch love of the vine, they become Calvinists.

In a scene reminiscent of a bygone era, a pig’s head is carved up and offered round.

In southern Europe wine is rarely drunk without food. Right now, the drink of choice is a poor man’s cup, something called água-pé. Literally foot-water, it’s ‘wine’ made by adding water to the residue of grape-pressing, after the wine itself has been bottled. Whether the ‘foot’ is the residue, or the feet traditionally used for pressing, I don’t know.

I was drinking some of it last night, it’s the feast of Saint Martin—in Portugal, St Martin’s summer is the Indian summer of California. Chestnuts are eaten, each drink has a food, just as each food has a drink.

A terrible band was playing, and occasionally some of the older women danced with each other. The old guys just smoke and chat. They don’t dance, they sit. And drink the water. Little kids running around, shouting and getting in the way.

In the corner, three guys had roasted a pig. One of them saw me and cut a slice off the top of the head, handed it over with his knife. Delicious. In the corner, a rusty wheelbarrow that may well have been the swinehearse. Violating all rules of health and safety. Even more appetizing.

“How long does the head take to cook?”
“As long as the pig!”

Ask a stupid question…

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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