A fascinating insight and a reminder, courtesy of Alistair Cooke
Jeannie recently gave me the book Alistair Cooke’s America. The book was published in 1973 and was born out of the scripts that Cooke wrote for the television series America: A Personal History of the United States shown in both countries in 1972. I can’t recall when I first started listening to the BBC Radio programme Letter from America, broadcast by Cooke, but it was a long time ago considering that the 15-minute programme started to be broadcast on the BBC in March 1946, just 18 months after I was born!
Anyway, the motivation to start into the book was born out of a desire to know a lot more about this new country of mine. But quickly there was a fascinating detour.
Early in Chapter One, The New-found Land, Cooke writes of the consequences of the Turks capturing Constantinople:
In 1453, there was a decisive turn in the centuries of warfare between the Christians of Europe and the Moslems of Asia. Their common market, bridge, and gateway was Constantinople, our Istanbul. In 1453, the Turks conquered it, and in so doing shut off the commerce between East and West, the exchange of cloth, leather wines and sword blades of Europe for the silks, jewels, chessmen, and spices of Asia. All things considered, the stoppage was much harder on the court treasuries of Europe that those of Asia and, in one vital item, harder on all Europeans. That item was spice.
Cooke then writes about historic change often being caused by the denial of a simple human need. Shortage of water, total absence of timber for the Egyptians since the time of Solomon, for example.
What I hadn’t realised that for Europeans, spices were regarded as “fundamental to human survival”. That was simply because in the 15th century spices made food edible. Cooke writes,
Even in rich houses, the meals came putrid to the table. (Dysentery, by the way, seems to have been considered through most of the last five centuries a hazard as normal as wind and rain.)
Think about that the next time you reach for the pepper!
That led me to think about the enormous benefit that electricity and therefore domestic refrigeration has had on the health and life expectancies of mankind. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the consequences of a widespread loss of electricity for, say a week, let alone a few months.
Patrice Ayme wrote a guest post for Learning from Dogs that was published on the 26th. In it he wrote,
But then, after an auspicious start, Mars lost most of most of its atmosphere (probably within a billion years or so). Why? Mars is a bit small, its gravitational attraction is weaker than Earth (it’s only 40%). But, mostly, Mars has not enough a magnetic field. During Coronal Mass Ejections, CMEs, the Sun can throw out billions of tons of material at speeds up to and above 3200 kilometers per seconds. It’s mostly electrons and protons, but helium, oxygen and even iron can be in the mix.
The worst CME known happened during the Nineteenth Century, before the rise of the electromagnetic civilization we presently enjoy. Should one such ejection reoccur now, the electromagnetic aspect of our civilization would be wiped out.It goes without saying that we are totally unprepared, and would be very surprised. Among other things, all transformers would blow up, and they take months to rebuild. we would be left with old books in paper, the old fashion way. A CME can rush to Earth in just one day. (Fortunately the Sun seems to be quieting down presently, a bit as it did during the Little Ice Age.)
So let’s just hope and pray that our continued interest in spices remains a flavouring desire and doesn’t return as a critical need for human survival.
By Paul Handover