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‘Yes, very good. Red line, Bethesda stop. I can give you directions from there.’
She got out her calendar, checked the coming weeks. Very full, as always. ‘How about a week from Friday? On a Friday we’ll be able to relax a little.’
‘Thank you,’ Drepung said, ducking his head. He and Rudra Cakrin had an exchange in Tibetan. ‘That would be very kind. And on the full moon, too.’
‘Is it? I’m afraid I don’t keep track.’
‘We do. The tides, you see.’
THREE Intellectual Merit (#ulink_eb122f00-5a95-5fb0-b918-d88c0243973b)
Water flows through the oceans in steady recycling patterns, determined by the Coriolis force and the particular positions of the continents in our time. Surface currents can move in the opposite direction to bottom currents below them, and often do, forming systems like giant conveyor belts of water. The largest one is already famous, at least in part: the Gulf Stream is a segment of a warm surface current that flows north up the entire length of the Atlantic, all the way to Norway and Greenland. There the water cools and sinks, and begins a long journey south on the Atlantic ocean floor, to the Cape of Good Hope and then east towards Australia, and even into the Pacific, where the water upwells and rejoins the surface flow, west to the Atlantic for the long haul north again. The round trip for any given water molecule takes about a thousand years.
Cooling salty water sinks more easily than fresh water. Trade winds sweep clouds generated in the Gulf of Mexico west over Central America to dump their rain in the Pacific, leaving the remaining water in the Atlantic that much saltier. So the cooling water in the North Atlantic sinks well, aiding the power of the Gulf Stream. If the surface of the North Atlantic were to become rapidly fresher, it would not sink so well when it cooled, and that could stall the conveyor belt. The Gulf Stream would have nowhere to go, and would slow down, and sink farther south. Weather everywhere would change, becoming windier and drier in the northern hemisphere, and colder in places, especially in Europe.
The sudden desalination of the North Atlantic might seem an unlikely occurrence, but it has happened before. At the end of the last Ice Age, for instance, vast shallow lakes were created by the melting of the polar ice cap. Eventually these lakes broke through their ice dams and poured off into the oceans. The Canadian shield still sports the scars from three or four of these cataclysmic floods; one flowed down the Mississippi, one the Hudson, one the St Lawrence.
These flows apparently stalled the world ocean conveyor belt current, and the climate of the whole world changed as a result, sometimes in as little as three years.
Now, would the Arctic sea ice, breaking into bergs and flowing south past Greenland, dump enough fresh water into the North Atlantic to stall the Gulf Stream again?
Frank Vanderwal kept track of climate news as a sort of morbid hobby. His friend Kenzo Hayakawa, an old climbing partner and grad school housemate, had spent time at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before coming to NSF to work with the weather crowd on the ninth floor, and so Frank occasionally checked in with him, to say hi and find out the latest. Things were getting wild out there; extreme weather events were touching down all over the world, the violent, short-termed ones almost daily, the chronic problem situations piling one on the next, so that never were they entirely clear of one or another of them. The Hyperniño, severe drought in India and Peru, lightning fires perpetual in Malaysia; then on the daily scale, a typhoon destroying most of Mindanao, a snap freeze killing crops and breaking pipes all over Texas, and so on. Something every day.
Like a lot of climatologists and other weather people Frank had met, Kenzo presented all this news with a faintly proprietarial air, as if he were curating the weather. He liked the wild stuff, and enjoyed sharing news of it, especially if it seemed to support his contention that the heat added anthropogenically to the atmosphere had been enough to change the Indian Ocean monsoon patterns for good, triggering global repercussions; this meant, in practice, almost everything that happened. This week for instance it was tornadoes, previously confined almost entirely to North America, as a kind of freak of that continent’s topography and latitude, but now appearing in east Africa and in central Asia. Last week it had been the weakening of the Great World Ocean Current in the Indian Ocean rather than the Atlantic.
‘Unbelievable,’ Frank would say.
‘I know. Isn’t it great?’
Before leaving for home at the end of the day, Frank often passed by another source of news, the little room filled with file cabinets and copy machines informally called ‘The Department of Unfortunate Statistics’. Someone had started to tape on the beige walls of this room extra copies of pages that held interesting statistics or other bits of recent quantitative information. No one knew who had started the tradition, but now it was clearly a communal thing.
The oldest ones were headlines, things like:
World Bank President Says Four Billion Live on Less Than Two Dollars a Day
America: Five Percent of World Population, Fifty Percent of Corporate Ownership
Later pages were charts, or tables of figures out of journal articles, or short articles of a quantitative nature out of the scientific literature.
When Frank went by on this day, Edgardo was in there at the coffee machine, as he so often was, looking at the latest. It was another headline:
352 Richest People Own As Much as the Poorest Two Billion, Says Canadian Food Project
‘I don’t think this can be right,’ Edgardo declared.
‘How so?’ Frank said.
‘Because the poorest two billion have nothing, whereas the richest three hundred and fifty-two have a big percentage of the world’s total capital. I suspect it would take the poorest four billion at least to match the top three hundred and fifty.’
Anna came in as he was saying this, and wrinkled her nose as she went to the copying machine. She didn’t like this kind of conversation, Frank knew. It seemed to be a matter of distaste for belabouring the obvious. Or distrust in the data. Maybe she was the one who had taped up a brief quote, ‘72.8% of all statistics are made up on the spot.’
Frank, wanting to bug her, said, ‘What do you think, Anna?’
Edgardo pointed to the headline and explained his objection.
Anna said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe if you add two billion small households up, it matches the richest three hundred.’
‘Not this top three hundred. Have you seen the latest Forbes 500 reports?’
Anna shook her head impatiently, as if to say, Of course not, why would I waste my time? But Edgardo was an inveterate student of the stock market and the financial world generally. He tapped another taped-up page. ‘The average surplus value created by American workers is thirty-three dollars an hour.’
Anna said, ‘I wonder how they define surplus value.’
‘Profit,’ Frank said.
Edgardo shook his head. ‘You can cook the books and get rid of profit, but the surplus value, the value created beyond the pay for the labour, is still there.’
Anna said, ‘There was a page in here that said the average American worker puts in 1950 hours a year. I thought that was questionable too, that’s forty hours a week for about forty-nine weeks.’
‘Three weeks of vacation a year,’ Frank pointed out. ‘Pretty normal.’
‘Yeah, but that’s the average? What about all the part-time workers?’
‘There must be an equivalent number of people who work overtime.’
‘Can that be true? I thought overtime was a thing of the past.’
‘You work overtime.’
‘Yeah but I don’t get paid for it.’
The men laughed at her.
‘They should have used the median,’ she said. ‘The average is a skewed measure of central tendency. Anyway, that’s …’ – Anna could do calculations in her head – ‘sixty-four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars a year, generated by the average worker in surplus value. If you can believe these figures.’
‘What’s the average income?’ Edgardo asked. ‘Thirty thousand?’
‘Maybe less,’ Frank said.
‘We don’t have any idea,’ Anna objected.
‘Call it thirty, and what’s the average taxes paid?’
‘About ten? Or is it less?’
Edgardo said, ‘Call it ten. So let’s see. You work every day of the year, except for three lousy weeks. You make around a hundred thousand dollars. Your boss takes two thirds, and gives you one third, and you give a third of that to the government. Your government uses what it takes to build all the roads and schools and police and pensions, and your boss takes his share and buys a mansion on an island somewhere. So naturally you complain about your bloated inefficient Big Brother of a government, and you always vote for the pro-owner party.’ He grinned at Frank and Anna. ‘How stupid is that?’
Anna shook her head. ‘People don’t see it that way.’
‘But here are the statistics!’
‘People don’t usually put them together like that. Besides, you made half of them up.’
‘They’re close enough for people to get the idea! But they are not taught to think! In fact they’re taught not to think. And they are stupid to begin with.’
Even Frank was not willing to go this far. ‘It’s a matter of what you can see,’ he suggested. ‘You see your boss, you see your paycheck, it’s given to you. You have it. Then you’re forced to give some of it to the government. You never know about the surplus value you’ve created, because it was disappeared in the first place. Cooked in the books.’
‘But the rich are all over the news! Everyone can see they have more than they have earned, because no one earns that much.’
‘The only things people understand are sensory,’ Frank insisted. ‘We’re hardwired to understand life on the savannah. Someone gives you meat, they’re your friend. Someone takes your meat, they’re your enemy. Abstract concepts like surplus value, or statistics on the value of a year’s work, these just aren’t as real as what you see and touch. People are only good at what they can think out in terms of their senses. That’s just the way we evolved.’
‘That’s what I’m saying,’ Edgardo said cheerfully. ‘We are stupid!’
‘I’ve got to get back to it,’ Anna said, and left. It really wasn’t her kind of conversation.
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