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In October 2010 we travelled to three countries in the Middle East: Egypt; Syria and Jordan. While in Egypt we took a Nile cruise, effectively an organised tour package complete with guide, but otherwise we travelled independently: by cab; rental car (in Jordan); bus; train and plane.

On the way there we had stopovers in London and Budapest to visit friends.

The impact on me was to reassert the depth, complexity and colour of this seminal part of our history and civilisation. In particular this is the cauldron in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam were created, together with much of our science, language and mathematics.

The history of technological development is also recorded from the Stone Age (upper Palaeolithic and early Neolithic), through weaving and pottery making to smelting copper, tin, gold, silver and bronze then to iron. We see the invention of the light spoked wheel, leading to the development of chariots in warfare; advances medicine; sailing; and civil engineering; each technology advance supporting or symbiotic with changes in social structures and agricultural and manufacturing methods.

In this respect the museums were very useful to essential, in interpreting the numerous ruins, remains and layers of successive cultures. I was very grateful for first having visited the British Museum and the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, both sophisticated modern institutions, well laid out and documented, before arriving in Egypt and then for a day in the more chaotic but vast Egyptian Museum in Cairo, before setting out to try to put everything we saw into context.

 

egyption museum
Egyptian Museum Cairo

There were also unexpected gems along the way like the museum on the Citadel in Amman, Jordan (once Rabbath Ammon then Philadelphia, named after Ptolemy Philadelphus during Greek rule) that, with archaeological contributions from Sydney University, contains ceramic statues over 8,000 years old as well as earlier Neolithic tools and a good sample of early bronze age and iron objects, all the way through Greek and Roman periods (a lot of glass). Most of these were found locally in the midst of the Roman, Christian and Islamic ruins. The Museum even contains sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other museums were disappointing like the one in Damascus, with some interesting objects but largely closed for renovation.

Together the remains of past human activity build a picture of mankind’s progress from early Homo erectus and Neanderthal hunter gatherers in Hungary; the arrival of modern Humans; early settlements around ten thousand years ago; the evolution of agriculture; the development of increasingly sophisticated technology and weapons; the rise of kings, warriors and priests, resulting in increasingly grand palaces; fortifications; temples; and mausoleums.

The remains of grandest of these early human political and power structures are in Egypt, attesting to the enormous wealth of the Nile region before the micro climate changed, reducing these lands and the communities they support to the, often abject, poverty we see today. Perhaps these climate changes were anthropogenic as a result of overpopulation, early agricultural practices and over-exploitation of the cedar and other forests but these were undoubtedly contributed to by natural climate change as the world emerged from the last ice age; a lesson for the present time?

Despite their builders' hubris and unrequited commitment to their gods, these huge constructions have long since fallen into ruin. But the ideas they embodied have not. As many scholars have noted, these early perceptions of man’s central role in the universe and his intimate interactions with his gods have flowed on, intermixed with those of Greece, Rome and northern Europe to produce the dominant religions of today, as well as the many flavours of those beliefs and intellectual fabrications.

View an interesting academic discussion of these origins and interactions: Science, Magic and Religion

These religious ideas have supported subsequent grand construction projects all the way to the vast and beautiful cathedrals of Europe and for at least ten millennia endorsed the divine right of kings to rule and conquer. They also fostered and supported civilisations and cultures capable of subtle ideas, beautiful art, and one imagines, music. Today the Middle East contrasts dramatically with London and Budapest.

 

 

budapest-bridges
Budapest on a rainy day [1]

In Britain and Hungary cities are resplendent with the culture of the modern era: from classical to modern painting, music and theatre.

Watch Slideshow: London Tate Modern St Pauls

 


tatemodern
At The Tate Modern, London – a hive of activity and interest

Bookshops and music retailers dot the retail areas as do specialist interest retailers of all kinds. There are numerous world leading universities and a high proportion of the populous are graduates.

It is possible to imagine that the ancient civilisations of Egypt, at the forefront of contemporary life, also supported or tolerated a wide diversity of cultural activities and beliefs. But just as the region is now desertified and impoverished, so much of it is in stark cultural contrast to the streets of London or Budapest. While there is a grand new, very modern library in Alexandria, most of the city is in an advanced state of decay. Cairo is bursting at the seams with overpopulation.

The arts across the region appear to be rooted in the past, particularly in religion. This is not surprising as Egypt has seen better days. Clearly there was something of a boom in wealth during the last century with many opulent buildings constructed across Egypt. But now most of these are in decay or even collapsed. The population has grown the point of un-sustainability and many of the younger generation are unskilled. Egypt has the lowest literacy rate in the Middle East mainly due to the poverty a large part of the population and the lack of education for girls.

For such a large country there is little evidence of any significant contemporary art culture, although there is a popular music industry and in some areas internet and phone pornography. Our TV in Cairo had 61 religious channels including a lot of ‘born again’ stuff from America surprisingly interspersed 33 for phone or internet sex. Maybe this is a subtle population control measure to offset the ‘go forth and multiply’ message of the others. This formed the vast majority of the channels, sharing the spectrum with a handful of channels for movies and games shows and half a dozen for news, mainly from Europe. Several channels were blocked. Goodness knows what these had on them[2].


Syria has many of the features of a police state having been under Emergency Law since 1962. Pictures of the President, Bashar al-Assad, adorn almost every building, public and private. They are still getting over being attacked (they believe unprovoked) by Israel in 2003 (alleged terrorist training centre) and 2007 (nuclear reactor) and the earlier Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Border security is tight and men dressed like Mormons with suits concealing guns prowl the city. And bus staff wants to know a bit too much about one’s movements. Despite this, Damascus was generally the most pleasant and interesting city we visited. Amman is the most conventionally modern city, with the best hotel we had in the region, was but it lacks the charm of Damascus.

Jordan and Syria have compulsory education to middle school and high rates of school attendance. But throughout the region general education seems to be rudimentary at best: hardly anyone can read a map, including the car hire representative and the concierge in Amman, who although fluent in English, was unaware of the existence of the museum at the Citadel.

In Egypt cab drivers, particularly of black and white cabs, are generally illiterate and navigate, as in India, by known landmarks or the ‘drive, stop, and ask directions method’. Once you have your bearings you need a map and to be able to direct them yourself or simple journeys can take hours.

Our University trained Egyptian guide on the Nile tour could not even guess at the age of the limestone in which the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are carved. It seemed to be something he had never considered. I asked if they had started by exploiting natural limestone caves an idea he completely dismissed.

But a quick look at Wikipedia revealed: ‘The tombs are located in the alternating sandwich of dense limestone between other sedimentary rock (which form the cliffs in the valley and the nearby Deir el-Bahri) and soft layers of marl. The sedimentary rock was originally deposited between 35 & 56 million years ago… The builders took advantage of available geological features when constructing the tombs. Some tombs were quarried out of existing limestone clefts, others behind slopes of scree, or were at the edge of rock spurs created by ancient flood channels.‘

tomb
The tomb of Twosret and Setnakhte - from the web – no photography in the tombs

He also wanted to argue that the Rosetta stone is in the Louvre in Paris even though I insisted I had just seen it in the British Museum in London, and he claimed ancient Egyptian gold was more pure than modern gold at 35 carets. He was genuinely shocked on another occasion when it was mentioned by our fellow Australians on board the boat that many people in Australia are not religious, replying ‘but God made the world’. To which he got the obvious response ‘then who made God’. At that point his distress became obvious saying: ‘that is an illegal question’, so we quickly changed the subject.

The status of women in the culture of the Middle East is well known, but it appears to vary from place to place. Women are never numerous in public, among a relative sea of men and most have scarves and or veils. But in the cities head scarfs are not universal, even among locals. Elsewhere the only adult women exposing their hair are foreigners or Christians. Christians constitute a sizeable minority throughout the Middle East of around ten percent. There is a Christian ghetto in Damascus. Our Egyptian guide was interesting on the subject of veils. He is engaged to be married to another guide but expects her to be veiled, and presumably to give up her job, when they marry. He told us that until marriage a woman should obey her father’s wishes as to the veil but after marriage, her husband’s. If she is beautiful he will not want other men to be looking at her lustfully, but if she is plain this won’t be an issue.

 


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Travel

Cambodia and Vietnam

 

 

 In April 2010 we travelled to the previous French territories of Cambodia and Vietnam: ‘French Indochina’, as they had been called when I started school; until 1954. Since then many things have changed.  But of course, this has been a region of change for tens of thousands of years. Our trip ‘filled in’ areas of the map between our previous trips to India and China and did not disappoint.  There is certainly a sense in which Indochina is a blend of China and India; with differences tangential to both. Both have recovered from recent conflicts of which there is still evidence everywhere, like the smell of gunpowder after fireworks.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

The Wedding Party

January 29th 2011

 

See some of it on YouTube (some websites may block this)...

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency

 

 

 

emergency
/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.

 

 

Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.

 

 

Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'

 

 

My copy of The Limits to Growth
 

 

Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.

 

Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
1)
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 

 

Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.

 

 

The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.

 

 


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