Chapter 16 – Tragedy of the Common World

Rhan was surprised and had to revaluate Claire’s comments when, over the first weekend before the beginning of the spring term, she started to receive emails and to find written invitations in her college pigeonhole, addressed to “Bar”, often without any surname. They wanted her to join groups and societies that befitted a rising university star. Dumas and Esther were obviously passing on her name.
‘So it is you, Miss Rhan! I had a feeling that only you could be this Bar character,’ exclaimed the chief porter, seeing her retrieving and puzzling over her post. ‘You know, I had you down as a rower from the moment you walked through that door with that heavy case. We could do with a university rower or two at this college.’
‘Well, I’m not quite there yet. Maybe next year,’ Rhan confided without denying the porter’s judgement. She turned away, walking from the timber-panelled lodge into the arched gate tower, before she stopped and returned to the porter who was still watching her.
‘Everyone will know soon enough, but I would rather not join Alice’s boat until after Torpids,’ she continued. ‘You see, I am currently enjoying rowing with a Gloucester Hall novice boat. You may have gathered that I have been at the university training camp too, but I would be very grateful if this could be kept quiet. Would you mind keeping this – well, under that fine bowler hat of yours? Just for a few more weeks?’
The porter’s eyes sparkled at the news and the request.
‘I’ll help you buy a few more weeks of quiet, Miss Rhan. I can see why.’ He looked at her intently before continuing. ‘But you must row for the college in the summer, we will really need you. I see that you have some letters from some high-flying friends that could also be good for the college – you know it’s been years since we had a member of this college in the Pink Club – so may I suggest that you consider that invitation in your hand? Your rugby friends wouldn’t be happy if they discovered that you missed the opportunity.’
‘Thanks for the advice,’ Rhan smiled. It felt good having the all-knowing porter on her side, although she had no idea what the Pink Club was.

It was great watching the college reassemble back to life for the start of term. As soon as George had dumped his bag in his room he was laying on Rhan’s bed quizzing her about her time in Sunderland.
At rowing camp, conversations had tended to be exclusively about rowing, and Rhan had missed the lively and wide-ranging debates at university. The first evening in Tom’s room, she enjoyed hearing Danny complaining about his essay on the effect that US interest-rate rises and nationalist policies would have around the world in the next five years. Tom was discussing his essay on the stability of the euro and the impact of Brexit over the coming decade for the UK, while Philip, another PPE student, outlined his politics essay on post-war Europe and its effects on current policies. Fiona complained that the textbooks were not keeping up with recent events, which made research into the next decade very difficult.
The mention of timescales into the 2020s goaded Rhan, but she bit her lip and wondered how any subject could look forward without taking into account the physical world. She said nothing, but brought it up on Saturday evening when she, George, David and Danny were sitting comfortably in the bar opposite the college, where George said Lewis Carroll had frequently sat.
‘I don’t understand the timescales of this university,’ complained Rhan. ‘We pretend to look to the future, but actually look backwards – or perhaps at best the recent past.’
‘Well, try looking backwards,’ George suggested inanely. ‘You’re the one in the window seat with the views of Broad Street and some of Oxford’s best architecture behind you!’ This raised no more than a snigger from David and rolled eyes from Rhan.
‘Well, in economics, two decades can be regarded as pretty soon,’ Danny explained more usefully. ‘If you think in terms of financial instruments, mortgages and the like, they often have a life of twenty-five years. Yet any economic predictions beyond a few years are just guesswork.’
‘But surely,’ Rhan finished her question, ‘it would not be totally beyond our intellect to take account of physical and social aspects that we know will be taking place, due to global warming for example.’
‘It’s hard to factor in knowledge or parameters of any economic or political scenarios,’ Danny argued. ‘I have all this econometric data and graphs of how economies have reacted in the past, but things will have different parameters when looking forward, which makes it bleedin’ ‘ard.’
Rhan wondered if Danny’s Cornish accent had lost its edge, or whether she had now learnt to understand most of what he said.
‘Well we know how temperatures have risen over the past century or so, and that they are likely to follow carbon dioxide levels on an exponential rise,’ David contributed, yet again aligning himself with Rhan, much to her relief. ‘You can bet your life that temperatures are going to carry on rising – the only issue is how steep the curve will get. Anyway, the physics is way more predictable than economic trends for inflation, deflation, stagflation, whatever, which depend on human interventions.’
‘No one agrees, so it’s not predictable, David,’ George contested, but David continued ignoring George’s point.
‘The one thing we can be certain about is that once it’s too hot for wheat in Siberia and Canada, it’s time to factor in major inflation in food prices around the world. Wars could presumably break out anywhere after that. So, Danny, any meaningful forecasts should include the toxic mix of migration and harvest failures, which might start any decade from now.’
‘Or even just a few years from now,’ Rhan added
‘Danny can’t start adding crap no one believes!’ George protested. ‘You cretins need to understand that no one wants to hear stuff like that.’
‘You can’t deny that even California, the fruit bowl of the United States, is in trouble!’ David almost shouted back. Rhan looked round and was relieved to see that no one seemed bothered by their discussion.
‘By 2030, what will they say about this decade and our selfish destruction of the atmosphere?’ Rhan asked more quietly. ‘I agree, by 2050, wars will be about famine, civil strife, and culling immigrants rather than the power struggles of the imperialist powers or whatever Tom said. There will be no heroes, medals or gratitude…only shame.’
‘What would we do without Tom’s perspective?’ George muttered, smiling.
‘Yeah, the “wreckers” was what the young called the older generation in one book.’ David was now clearly trying to provoke George. ‘Let’s face it – we might even be involved in intergeneration wars. Can you imagine anything worse? We are almost certainly going to have wars between “greens” and “rednecks”. There are many states and countries that will fight to the last drop of oil to have the right to destroy themselves and the rest of the world, rather than admit that their oil should not be turned into carbon dioxide.’
‘Oh come on,’ interjected George. ‘I can’t and don’t want to try to imagine one war, never mind what you have in mind. You’re in Oxford. How can you foresee anything worse than even more steel and glass architecture or extra admissions from students like me from state schools?’
‘Well we don’t want more of your sort, George,’ laughed David. ‘But there are none like you anyway!’
As if summoned, a peal of bells could be heard from outside the pub, particularly by Rhan, who sat on the sill. She glanced out at the darkening spring evening. Cars had departed from their parking bays, enabling a better view of the wide street, lined by a mix of different buildings – some grand, with intricately carved stonework, others with older, cottage-like simplicity. Yet above the buildings, there hovered Oxford’s famous towers and spires, some of which were now awakening for the pre-Sunday bell-ringing practice. A range of peals could be heard breaking out throughout the city. Her grasp of the conversation lapsed as nearby bells, possibly from All Souls, ceased for a second or so. There were others to be heard from further off; notes beyond notes, she thought.
‘It’s great to be back,’ Rhan said contentedly. ‘I love this time of the week, with the bells.’
The others smiled and for a few minutes calmed the argument that had continued without her involvement, until Rhan stirred the pot again.
‘Is it just because I was brought up expecting the worst that I can imagine chaos and conflict here in Oxford without difficulty? Aleppo’s beautiful medieval quarter would have made Oxford look brash, but it doesn’t take much to turn tranquil courtyards and towers into defendable hellholes. It would only take a few years of drought or floods. War reduces everything and everyone to the basic struggle to survive, and vice versa. Even here your precious port wine would be drunk to anaesthetise the horror, rather than to finish a good dinner.’
Most of the group chose that moment to take a drink. The conversation had suddenly turned rather personal. However, David soon had a new perspective.
‘Ah, exactly, the Middle East wars have already involved either containing and besieging towns or driving people away,’ said David. ‘With such high populations around the world, we could have a situation where people can be driven from A to B. They in turn push people from B to C, but C then drives them on to D.’
Bells from a nearby college – Trinity or Balliol, thought Rhan – inappropriately chose that moment to strike up a joyful and triumphant cascade of bells.
‘Which one of those letters is Calais?’ George asked, also trying to keep the subject light-hearted. Yet Rhan was being whimsical and David was needling, while Danny listened but could not help making the logical suggestion that made everyone chuckle.
‘You sure C wouldn’t be for Calais, by any chance?’
‘I thought George was going to ask which pint I was drinking,’ David said wistfully, looking at his empty glass.
‘Well,’ Rhan contributed to the main discussion. ‘That is what effectively happened to my family and friends in Syria. My parents and grandparents had already fled from two wars before I was born. My sister and I were pushed out by a relatively internal conflict…could A stand for Aleppo?’
‘Ah yes.’ David grasped the development of his theme. ‘Rhan’s former friends have been forced from Aleppo, have crossed into Turkey, paid their last money for a rubber dinghy to Greece and have then had to walk most of the way to Calais. Death appears to mean little if there is a chance to move from C to D, Calais to Dover, the Promised Land!’
‘Humph,’ Rhan snorted. ‘We seem to have lost the sequential displacement of peoples with my more personal exodus. There will be no perfect sanctuary once major displacements kick off. Syria and Brexit are only just the initial ripples, with the rise of protectionism and nationalism. It frightens me. Everyone will blame everyone else and countries which contributed least will be expected to die first.’
David had now warmed to his apocalyptic subject. ‘The wars in Africa show how future warfare will be. The aim will be to wipe out a population, just so they don’t need food. They’ll use armies of children like the Lord’s Resistance Army. As I was saying before, there will be civil wars with young fighting the old. The young will recognise that the older generation have knowingly ruined the planet, allowing so many to spend their life in retirement jetting to exotic holiday locations, knowing the irreparable harm it would do. It will be like Mao’s Cultural Revolution – intergenerational conflict. Euthanasia here we come.’
‘So you’re suggesting that those approaching sixty-five will need to cross to Ireland to live out their life?’ teased George. ‘It’ll be like Dignitas in reverse. But Danny, why don’t you point out that the older generation have the money and most of the votes, so who’s going to suggest killing off the rich, no matter what the cost may be to others? The young are all in debt and the old have their pensions. Nothing will happen soon.’
David rattled his empty glass on the dimpled surface of the oak table at the mention of money and debts.
‘Britain is currently the end of the line for migrants,’ Rhan said, taking the conversation back a peg. ‘There is nowhere else to run to once at D, on our doorstep, in Dover. All around the world fences and defences are already going up against migrants and the stakes are increasing. It’s all so horrible.’
‘Sorry, but safety and climate change are incompatible,’ George sighed, confusing everyone by his inconsistent approach. ‘Yet the UK is one of the safest countries, so you two are in a dark place looking for trouble at the beginning of this term. OK, yes, it’s my turn for the drinks.’ He stood up to extract his wallet.
‘But you still think the older generation have the right to ruin the world because they have the money?’ demanded David in exasperation. ‘Should the rich be allowed to carry on jetting off on Saga holidays, just because they can afford it, have the time and don’t give a fuck about anyone else?’
Rhan nodded encouragingly, now seeing where David was going with his generational war. She collected the glasses for George, who delayed heading to the bar to express his worry.
‘It’s not just the old. Just think of all the tourists in the streets outside. Most are young. How many of them would worry that their flights from across the world will contribute to the death of others? Almost all the carbon from emissions that we put into the atmosphere will be hanging around for hundreds of years, affecting generations to come, but who wants to limit their lifestyle now and take responsibility for their actions…or inaction?’
Rhan and David glanced at each other, wondering why they were struggling to appreciate George’s approach, which had been cynical but was changing to fatalistic with each sentence. George was engaged at last, especially as the barman had disappeared from the little counter, so the drinks were on hold.
‘The owners of oil wells would need to have them forcibly shut down, as you say,’ George continued. ‘But young people will also have to make some unwelcome sacrifices themselves to secure their own and their children’s future. But would they do it?’
‘Not many, no,’ Danny replied, minimising his input.
‘And to shut the oil fields or to stop the hordes – what about nuclear bombs?’ George couldn’t help asking, even as he picked up the empty glasses when the barman reappeared. ‘Would the moral issue against them still apply in the type of wars that you were talking about earlier?’
‘No, not really.’ David ploughed on through his nightmare. ‘Not if they halt those coming to grab your land for even a few months. Appalling isn’t it?’
‘Well, if you don’t mind,’ Danny sighed, ‘I may give your fine words of wisdom a miss along with that long-promised drink – but don’t worry about it. You owe me, George.’
As Danny headed for the door, his serious tone and broad Cornish accent left them all laughing at themselves and their surreal discussions.

At supper one evening in the second week of term, Rhan was surprised to hear Josh, who was doing English, discussing something to do with mass extinction a few places from where she sat on a bench with Tom. She started listening, but then found that Josh was covering a very different subject.
‘…whether poetry was affected by knowledge of mankind’s ability to forsake moral norms. There is an argument that poetry was changed forever by the Holocaust.’
Josh was using a ponderous tone, even with his friends, which made Rhan think how destined he was for an academic career. She still found the subject vaguely interesting.
‘The argument is that that once poets discovered how dreadful man could be to man, then poetry could never be pure and simple again. It’s an interesting hypothesis that is substantiated by many collections of work.’
‘Can I just ask?’ interrupted Rhan. ‘Have you ever considered the next mass- extinction and whether that might affect literature?’
‘What next extinction?’ Josh seemed pleased to have the English debate interrupted by the female engineer, but either could not understand her question or was deliberately being obtuse.
‘Well,’ Rhan said, looking up at the huge timber trusses above the dining hall, ‘there are many scientists who point out that overpopulation and global warming together mean that large parts of the world are already being made effectively uninhabitable. Isn’t this a moral issue right now?’ There were blank looks, so she felt forced to continue. ‘I used to enjoy reading, but fiction and even historical literature seems trite compared with the march of reality here and now. Has anything associated with climate change filtered into literature yet?’
There was a supercilious smile from someone across the table whom Rhan did not know, and whom she decided she did not need to know.
‘I suppose one would expect a step change in poetry,’ Josh replied. ‘I mean, we could wander around picking peaches and grapes and holding debates in the town square, once we reach the climate conditions for Hellenistic paradise in Oxford.’ He was clearly trying to wind Rhan up with the delights of global warming.
It dawned on Rhan that her views on climate change were starting to be known around the college and that very few felt inclined to support her concerns. She therefore merely smiled and expected the conversation to end. However, after an awkward pause, Josh continued.
‘I presume you’re asking about dystopian literature?’
Rhan gave a look that she hoped said ‘of course’, so that she didn’t need to admit she had no idea what he was talking about. It worked, as he continued anyway.
‘Then you need look little further than Cormac McCarthy and his book The Road. It brilliantly portrays a doomed world and those in it attempting to survive a day at a time.’
‘And yet, it may not be global warming,’ said the girl who was sitting next to Josh. ‘It’s made very clear in the narrative that the disaster is not climate change.’
‘One can write about something while masking the underlying theme, don’t you think?’ Josh argued in his pompous manner. ‘Then there is Ballard and The Drowned World. And Harry Harrison wrote Make room! Make room! It was set in a world of excessive population and made into a film in the early seventies, called…Soylent Green. The film version was actually set in a world that was suffering from acute climate heating, to the extent that nearly all trees had died. The last surviving populous had been relocated to the remaining over-packed cities to enable the dwindling areas of viable countryside to maximise the production of food. I believe you will find the film particularly relevant, Rhan.’
Rhan was uncertain whether she was being patronised or not, but she had to admit that Josh suddenly appeared to have very appropriate theoretical knowledge of the issues.
‘What was that film? Soy-something Green?’ Rhan asked, aware that almost the entire table was listening to their conversation, give or take minor interruptions for requests to pass water or vegetables.
‘Soylent Green,’ Josh repeated emphatically. ‘Charlton Heston played a police cop investigating the murder of a politician who’d lost the will to live. The police investigator’s elderly assistant similarly opts for euthanasia. It’s one of cinema’s most beautiful death scenes.’
‘Well, once we move into films, there’s James Cameron’s Avatar,’ the girl next to Josh added. ‘That was about the mindless stripping of world resources. It had a major impact, but more for the filming than the underlying message.’
‘So have such subjects taken over science fiction?’ Rhan asked, glancing at Tom, who had so far remained quiet, despite his usual interest in books and films.
‘Well something has,’ Tom said finally, making the effort to join in. ‘The books you mentioned, Josh, were all produced decades ago. Nothing good, in my opinion, has been published recently; it’s all science fantasy.’
‘We were discussing poetry, not science trash!’ Josh exclaimed with an exasperated smile. ‘Who let these nerds and political hacks into the conversation?’
Tom stepped into the argument, allowing Rhan to duck the limelight.

In her alternative Looking Glass world, as she thought of it, “Bar” was again training early in the morning with the Gloucester Hall ladies’ Novice Eight, but she now also had two afternoons a week with the university junior squad. She read news articles under headings such as “Stormy Conditions for Oxford Rowers”, which covered the rift in the Women’s First Eight and the dropping of Cat and another international rower from the squad, but that seemed like another world to Rhan. Her life was nicely full, but global warming was constantly at the front of her mind. Nothing else seemed so real and dominant.
She wandered around both the commercial streets and the more bohemian quarters, searching the second-hand and new bookshops for reading material on climate, but found remarkably little of interest other than the range of fellow browsers. Some were definitely university students or academics, while others were clearly locals or tourists.
In the more general bookshops, the sceptics usually had the shelves to themselves and these were mostly vitriolic books by doctors and non-scientists; they aggressively attacked every single concept of climate change. Rhan puzzled at how bookshops could make money from denial books if there was so little information available about the real problem for them to argue against. She took the plunge and purchased a book entitled A Farewell to Ice, since that had been George’s initial lead and the decline in Arctic ice had disturbed her the most.

Rhan’s next attempt to discuss global warming came in the usual setting of Tom and Danny’s room, on a wet afternoon after PPE tutorials, with Tom, Philip, Fiona, and two other girls whom Rhan hardly knew. Danny was not there, but George witnessed the event. It was a painful lesson.
There was an economic discussion over the pros and cons of inflation or deflation. In a slight lull in the conversation, Rhan turned the conversation to the theme that she wanted to discuss.
‘As far as I can make out, economics is a subjective system that can be altered by changing attitudes or by removing or printing money. On the other hand, economists and politicians feel able to reject the laws of physics, as though nature would respect majority opinion. Which would be easier to deal with in ten years’ time – rampant inflation or rampant temperature rise?’
‘Well the Stern report was pretty emphatic on that subject,’ Tom said, happy to divert the discussion. ‘It must have been written a decade or so ago, but Stern pointed out the economic logic of starting to reduce climate change to cut the huge bill in decades to come.’
‘But since then, the economic and political consensus has been that it’s just not worth it,’ Fiona’s friend, who was wearing bright yellow Wellington boots, put in. ‘After discounting the investment that would be needed now, it works out cheaper to leave any investment until it’s absolutely necessary, which may or may not be in decades to come. Future generations tend to be richer, so they should be better able to afford the price of action than us. Besides, future generations may be in a better position to see if any action is really needed, or not.’
George said nothing. There was an awkward silence. Rhan had been startled to hear that the economic arguments were so well rehearsed.
‘Well,’ Rhan suggested slowly. ‘Surely we are the future generation?’ There was another pause before Philip came back at her.
‘Yet there is no certainty that it will get much worse is there?’
‘Yes, who’s to say it will happen?’ Fiona demanded.
‘Because we are adding heat!’ Rhan explained, exasperated. ‘If you have a body and add more energy that cannot escape, then it heats up. Clear and simple! Just look around at how the temperature is already shooting up. It’s not going to stop suddenly – not unless our generation can reverse the problem. And we have no idea how to recapture carbon from the atmosphere in a meaningful way.’
The room was split, four to one against Rhan, with George and Tom trying not to get too involved. George finally felt obliged to support Rhan.
‘Well, Rhan has a point. The laws of physics are much more defined and definite than any economic laws.’
‘Yet there are scientists who would argue that you’re completely wrong,’ Fiona’s friend with the wellies said, who was clearly not willing to give up. ‘So, we may as well ignore the issue until it’s sorted one way or the other.’
‘An interesting strategy,’ Rhan pointed out. ‘Surely, the philosophical question of the age is why this generation is not prepared to demand a halt in the mad rush to mass extinction. Why would we prefer to risk destruction rather than go green?’
There was a groan from Philip. ‘Come on Rhan, not everything and everybody needs to be involved with bloody climate change. It’s not just a black and white issue!’
Rhan caught unspoken exchanges between Fiona and her friends, including the one with short, blonde hair who had so far not spoken.
‘Sorry,’ Fiona said, grabbing her file. ‘We have to go.’
With that, the three girls got up and walked out.
‘Sorry Tom. I drove away your fan club,’ Rhan said gloomily in the shocked silence. ‘I hate to admit it, but George has a point; most people simply do not want to care.’
‘It’s the Tragedy of the Commons,’ Tom explained, smiling.
‘What is?’ asked Rhan, glad of something to cover up her social ineptitude.
‘Take a village that has a common,’ Tom explained. ‘An area of land that is shared, so that each household is entitled to feed up to three cows on that common. The problem is that if every household has three cows, then the common will become over-grazed. The grass cannot grow and the cattle will trample the turf to mud. If they all cut back to just two cows, then there would be enough grass and they would all manage to survive, even if everyone went slightly hungry. But each villager wants the benefit of grazing a third cow, while hoping that everyone else will see sense and graze only two. The result is that no one is prepared to yield from their perceived rights, all the grass is destroyed and all the cattle die from lack of grass. Everybody has to move away or starve. That is the Tragedy of the Commons.’
‘Very apt!’ Rhan said, brightening a little, but still aware of how quiet it was in the room. ‘But with climate change we can’t move to a different village and the atmosphere will be ruined for the foreseeable future.’
‘And sorry Tom, but that’s so ancient history,’ Philip chided. ‘It has no relevance to our current world. No one believes in food shortages anymore, except perhaps Rhan, and no one here grazes cattle or has problems with muddy fields. So the fable loses its impact. I have a better version.’
Rhan had been angry at Philip’s denial of global warming, but after the drama she felt grateful for his cheerful interjection.
‘I had a year off,’ he started. ‘I worked some of that time in a small office that had a lawn at the back where the staff parked their cars in dry weather. For ten years or so they played badminton on the lawn in the summer and used it as extra parking space when they could. As office junior, one of my tasks was to mow the grass, which I quite enjoyed. Then over the winter, the staff decided that they needed to be able to park on the grass, no matter how wet it was – they were fed up with walking down the street and paying some small sum to park for a day. Within a few weeks, it became a muddy quagmire, complete with an almost full-time puddle just in the entrance. Eventually, they all had to agree that no one could park in wet weather until the grass regrew, and of course, it never really recovered. So, for the sake of a bit of restraint they lost their car park and their badminton court and I had no grass to mow in the spring. That’s the real Tragedy of the Commons!’
‘Yeah, OK,’ Tom conceded. ‘You’re probably right – in our society parking is of more concern than food. In a communist society, we would educate people away from the selfish approach and people would learn to be happy taking only what they needed, rather than what they wanted.’
‘Anyway, I get the point,’ Rhan said, sighing. ‘Society is capable of being selfishly destructive.’
‘But my Yorkshire village is worse than that,’ George added, just as they clambered to their feet for supper. ‘No landowner will agree to any improvement that will make him a pound a week, if he thinks that his neighbour might be making two pounds a week.’ As they clattered down the timber stairs, he completed the relevance of his point. ‘It means that no one can drain land or install hydro-electric power on a stream if it’s a boundary. There’s always a reason not to do something to save the planet.’