Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.

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Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.

Hopium

The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.

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