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Useful And Fantastic: History's Bicycle Syndrome

Val Yule looks at the follies of human history from a new angle.

People learning to ride bicycles find the trickiest part is learning how to get off. The faster you are riding, the harder it is to stop without crashing.

This Bicycle Syndrome helps to explain why so many civilisations in history have crashed. They could not stop their bicycles in time.

The Greeks and Indians saw the Wheel of Fortune operating in history. There are also other wheels. Easter Island is our microcosm of a culture that got on a bicycle it could not get off until it had chopped down its last tree, through its grandiose statue building. Then the people could build no more canoes to go fishing or to sail to seek rescue.

Tonga is another Pacific microcosm today. Its population has risen so rapidly that it cannot support itself. Up to 70% of its income now depends on the earnings sent back by their expatriate workers. So big families are useful to have, because then you have more children to go overseas to earn income for you. So then Tonga becomes more overcrowded and unable to support itself. The Philippines rides also on that sort of bicycle.

Unless the Bicycle Syndrome is recognised, poverty can never be made history in many poor developing countries. The Bicycle there is that large families are sensible when you are poor and there is no social welfare for your old age, and children are liable to die, and extra hands can help you. It seems sensible to have a large family to try to ensure that some of the children will survive, and that some at least will can care for you in a network of mutual help. But today when most of the children do survive, thanks largely to Western medicine - where is the land for them? Where is the water? What happens to the trees and the jungles? In the poorest countries, population growth is increasing more rapidly than any aid can keep up with.

For various reasons the West cannot imagine not trying to increase its own population growth, and so it cannot in honesty tell any other peoples to have only the children they can rear. It cannot help with the social justice and the family planning that might help prevent Malthusian disaster in the future, as the world becomes one big Easter Island. And like Easter Island, unable to send out canoes to find somewhere else to expand to.

The West is riding its own bicycle, which is economic growth that must not stop. As a former Premier of New South Wales said, ‘What is the use of stopping climate change, if it ruins the economy?” We cannot stop economic growth until we are completely out of resources to feed it with. We have to have continuing growth in the property market, although it keeps most people bearing life-long mortgages. We have to have planned obsolescence in electronics as well as progress. For the sake of jobs, we have to make things we do not want, and that means we have to have advertising to persuade us we do want them.

Why must we all ride bicycles we cannot stop?

Seeing the mess people get into, St Paul came up with the idea of Original Sin, that everyone is born with it, and Christians hoped that if they repented, they might get divine forgiveness and be helped to sin no more. Edward Gibbon concluded that history was a record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. The follies perhaps predominate, and the most foolish part about it, is the next generations never learn from them. Perhaps the matter is more Original Stupidity. It does not even seem to be a matter of IQ. Few of us seems to be free of this bugbear of Original Stupidity - but if we recognize this and repent - how can we be forgiven and go and mess around no more?ycles when we find they are taking us wrong directions, faster and faster?

Can we each one of us take off our blind-fold to our potential for stupidity, and look for the cold light of reason, to shed the blanket of self-interest, to listen to others, to be able to say, Sorry. To find out if our bicycles have brakes, or steering wheels, or at least gears, as we go tearing round the next blind corner.


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