Monday, 23 May 2016

(Part D) Islands in a TIme of Civilizational Decline: Conclusions

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to develop quite a few points to reasonable length, and to finish the whole essay off (in this, its fourth installment).

Revision history:

  • UTC=20160524T0340Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo managed to bring the upload to a state of reasonable stability, after many whitespacing (or similar) problems at the server. 
  • UTC=20160524T0000Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version (and planned to upload in the ensuing four-hour interval, without formal documentation in this revision history, minor revisions, as versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, ... .

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in this essay. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

5. Canada's David Dunlap Observatory and Park (DDO&P): Prospects

Only a cursory effort is needed to imagine the positive future that awaits DDO&P, as an island of cultural conservation, when or if the DeGasperis and Muzzo families repent of their current mean, Donald-Trump-worthy (in Estonian, donaltrumplik in the nominative singular, donaldtrumplikud in the nominative plural) subdivision plans.

The restoration of their felled forest, through citizen action, would (will?) be a tangible sign to all of Canada what ordinary citizens can do when governments leave them alone to get on with the job. Here, in duly redacted form for safeguarding of privacy, are my case notes regarding pledges of tree-planting labour which I already assembled around 2012:

((ITEM WHEN="20120910T1330Z"))
__following is my private record of tree-planting intiative,
as updated 2012-09-10 before start of OMB hearing,
on strength of phone call(s) and/or voicemail(s):

* "Person 1" has as of 2012-09-08 pledged 200 hours
of tree-planting labour.

* "Person 2" has as of 2012-09-08 pledged 100 hours
of tree-planting labour, and indeed
already has tree-planting experience.

* "Person 3" has as of 2012-09-08 pledged 25 hours
of tree-planting labour.

* "Person 4" has as of 2012-09-10 pledged 25 hours
of tree-planting labour.

* "Person 5" has as of 2012-09-10 pledged 25 hours
of tree-planting labour, with the remark
that additional hours may be possible.

* "Household A" has as of 2012-09-08 collectively pledged
25 hours of tree-planting labour.

* "Household B" has as of 2012-09-10 collectively pledged
20 hours of tree-planting labour.

That makes a total of 420 pledged hours.

Identities are as follows:

* Person 1 = Toomas Karmo
* Person 2 = ((CONCEALED))
* Person 3 = ((CONCEALED))
* Person 4 = ((CONCEALED))
* Person 5 = ((CONCEALED))
* Household A = ((CONCEALED)) and her spouse ((CONCEALED))
  and their ((CONCEALED))
* Household B = ((CONCEALED)) and ((CONCEALED)) (message conveyed
 to me 2012-09-10approx via ((CONCEALED)),
 who remarks also that she has yet to hear
 from ((CONCEALED)) ).

And with rescue of the full 77 hectares, as opposed to the mere 45-hectare rump, a credible case can at last be argued, both in Ottawa and internationally, for UNESCO World Heritage List protection.

DDO&P is an object of deeper international cultural significance than Ontario's sole existing UNESCO site, the (admittedly meritorious) Rideau Canal. The nub of the UNESCO argument, as the federal government will have to develop it in the corridors of Parks Canada for eventual presentation in Paris, is that DDO&P parallels another Canadian UNESCO case, the Joggins fossil cliffs in Nova Scotia. Joggins (it was successfully argued in Paris, in a process culminating with accession-to-List in July of 2008) played a key role in Victorian biology. Its comprehensive-biotope fossils, showing archaic fauna in a botanically convincing context of archaic woodland, figured in the British debates triggered on 1859-11-24 by Darwin's publishing Origin of Species. DDO&P (it must be analogously argued, again in Paris) played a key role in the rise of 20th-century astrophysics, through Prof. C.T. Bolton's discovery there of the first stellar-mass black-hole candidate.

With DDO&P under UNESCO, and (the park now being no mere rump) with adjoining subdivisions safely on the far sides of Hillsview Drive and Bayview Avenue, we will have done something to strengthen the legal and physical boundaries of this cultural island. Further, UNESCO listing will help DDO maintain some level of credibility in the global archipelago of observatories - admittedly, as a minor facility now, when the world is rich enough to afford multiple telescopes in the ten-metre class, in Hawaii and Chile (the biggest of the three DDO telescopes - the largest within Canada -  has an aperture of just 1.88 metres),  and yet as more of a middle-ranking archipelago contributor over the coming decades, when big international telescope projects become progressively less feasible.


I must now focus the relevant minds - especially in the DeGasperis and Muzzo families, whose lawyers will eventually be scrutinizing this week's posting through their loupes - on the contrary case. What happens if UNESCO prospects are disregarded, and international astrophysical opinion is flouted, and the envisaged malign 14-street, 520-or-530-home, donaldtrumplik development goes ahead?

Here it is convenient to adapt, with only minor revisions, material (I adapt both in italics and in plainface) from the work-in-progress which is my

My scenario is predicated on the following assumptions: (a) The inability of world leaders to come to grips with climate upheaval, already evident in the failed Copenhagen talks of 2009 and the toothless Paris-2015 agreement will continue, with little or no relief, up to and beyond 2100. (The well-intentioned 2015 Paris "COP21" is an achievement in modern climate diplomacy paralleling the fluffy disarmament meringues which were the Locarno Treaties, signed in London on 1925-12-01. It lacks juridically enforceable bite. At COP21, nations were left free first to set their own emissions targets, then to fail to meet them.) (b) The tightening of petroleum supplies reflected in the approximate tripling in the crude-oil price over the period from 2003 to 2012 (with a financially catastrophic spike in 2008 to values more than 50 percent above even the elevated 2012 levels) will in this same up-to-and-beyond-2100 timeframe become progressively more severe. Efforts to make up the energy shortfall through "renewable resources", controlled thermonuclear fusion, and the like may conceivably slow this fuel-supply contraction by 2030 or so, but they will fail to reverse it. (c) The decline in Ontario's social well-being evident in 2010, even in 2000, by drawing comparisons against the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s will in this same timeframe continue inexorably, being exacerbated by bigger and bigger economic upheavals (by depressions, and perhaps also by currency inflations) as the degradation in Ontario's fuel supply and climate deepens.

Readers interested in exploring these assumptions further will be helped by the following short biblography: Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars (2008); James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency (2005), and his updating Too Much Magic (2012); and John Michael Greer's The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), and his subsequent, cognate, books of social criticism, along with his weekly blog (in a server space rather opaquely named

Passing for the moment over the eventual pauperization and brutalization of our communities, over the eventual descent of whole streets and neighbourhoods and regions into Brazilian favelas, I take for the moment the short term, the next couple of decades. For my first bite of the ever-so-sour cherry, I look out only to, as it might possibly be, the end of the Twenties and start of the Thirties.

No doubt the next couple of decades will see the survival of the magnificent main building, with its brass and marble, and also the survival of the main dome, and in addition the survival of the circa-1864 Director's House.

Here is what survival is likely to mean if, contrary to first-day-of-lectures principles from environmental ethics, the DeGasperises and Muzzos succed in building over five hundred units of housing as planned (with rowhouses at Bayview, and McMansions or McChâteaux near the main telescope dome, on Hillsview Drive). It is not nice:

A park of lawn, trees, garden, meadow, and woodland covers most of the entire western half of the Trapezoid, from the railway line until a little east of the Radio Shack. The 2007-era DDO gardening is retained, even greatly expanded, with the 2007-era private beds at the Director's House now added to the public domain. The southwest-corner savanna, despoiled of its trees by the developer (who pleaded guilty in Municipal Court in Richmond Hill around 2010), is now treed densely. And it is at last possible to walk south past the Director's House, unchecked by that sinister Cold-War-Era chainlink fence, into the Panhandle, and thence south through the Solar System Park to the Elvis Stojko Arena. On first inspection, much seems well.

Admittedly, there are now many hundred, perhaps even two thousand, people living on that part of DDO&P that used to run eastward from the Radio Shack to Bayview. But why does this matter? How many of those interested in DDO astronomy, as opposed to mere exercisers-of-dogs, used to venture east of the Radio Shack anyway?

And is it not to the benefit of the preserved rump of the erstwhile DDO&P that in the southeast corner, the ancient wetland is intact, with only a new "stormwater management pond" signalling change, and with a thin "wildlife corridor" of scrub actually linking the wetland to the preserved rump?

But damage is apparent to field naturalists. The two deer herds are much reduced, or gone; the coyotes, accustomed as they were to feeding on voles and other small creatures in the east of DDO&P, are much reduced, or gone; even the summer lepidoptera, and the birds, are not what they were.

And the newly dug "pond" is of course less a pond (a welcoming habitat for salamanders, for frogs) than a settling tank or stormwater sump. Its brew of dissolved road salt and suburban-garden fertilizers does well if it supports some cattails, some algal mats, or a little duckweed. One might measure the pH there, one might gauge the quantity of suspended sediment by taking clear-bottle samples there. One would not, however, venture there with one's fishing rod. 

Ominously, that sump needs periodic maintenance, as a bridge or a dam does. For a while, the funding is available. 

Further, ruinous damage is apparent to such friends as the night sky may still possess in urban Ontario. Where the lawns by the main dome were once illuminated evenly, steadily, by unwelcome scattered light from distant streets, now the streets come up close. At Hillsview Drive, McMansion-scale lots come in some instance or instances even to within 150 metres of the main telescope dome. Only a modest grove purports to isolate such homes, with their porchlights, their yardlights, their upstairs-bedroom-lights, and their Christmas decorations up to roof level, on the one hand from the the main telescope on its modest knoll, and on the other hand from the two telescopes in domes perched high on the Administration Building roof. 

As we stand on the dome steps looking east ninety minutes after sunset, we see not just the general sky-glow familiar to, and deplored by, friends of DDO&P since the 1960s, who have long contrasted DDO&P conditions with the proper celestial glory of, say, Caledon at the edge of the Greater Toronto Area. No: that glow, bad though it was, left one still with a tranquil sky, and a view down to feeble eta Cassiopeiae and the feeble third of the four stars in the Little Dipper bowl.

(The fourth bowl star was, I imagine from the 1960s or 1970s onward, admittedly a lost cause for the not-very-outstanding retina at DDO&P, even on a moonless night. And the Milky Way at DDO&P has for some decades borne admittedly scant relation to what one gets in Caledon.) 

What we see now is something new, and strange, and sick-making. It is an unsteady glow, like an incipient aurora borealis, pernicious for stellar spectroscopy, and I think worse still for stellar photometry. The photons come from intermittently surging illuminants, notably motorcar headlamps, concealed behind screens of trees, but all the same scattered to our retinas from inescapable atmospheric particulates. 

The demonstration, I might interject, is an easy one. Have a friend shine a pulsing light skyward from behind a thick hedge, the bulb concealed from your view. No matter how good your hedge, your friend's light will imprint a pulsing footprint glow on your air itself, even if your air is quite free of visible mist. The glow will be inescapable in an urban environment, though you might avoid it if you happen to be in deep countryside, with the air dry and free of dust - for instance, I conjecture, if you were attempting this experiment on Australia's arid Nullarbor Plain, a couple of hundred kilometres east of Kalgoorlie, on a night when wind happens not to be making the desert grit fly. In modern cities, much of the inescapable particulate matter is soot, from vehicle tailpipes.

It is in a property developer's interest to promote anything that adds cachet to a subdivision. Serious astrophysical research being now unappetizing in the sick pseudo-aurora, there remains infotainment, and this the developer is willing, is even keen, to promote. So within the main dome, people line up to get feeble eyepiece views of cliché gee-whizzes like M57. And within one selected part of the largely "repurposed" Administration Building, astronomy lives on through talks and films. 

(Of course there are going to be films - good films, brilliant films. They are going to be films at the level of technical excellence you get in Canada's major museums, for instance on that huge "Oceans of Hope" screen,  with those dauntingly bilingual or multilingual headsets, in the Pier 21 museum-of-immigration in Halifax. Since we cannot engage in an authentic way with the sky, let us use cinema. It is astonishing how cinema can generate in the cinema-goer the impression of having learned something deep, even though one month after the screening nothing comes to the recall-seeking mind beyond two soundbites and four seconds of video. - As for the promotion, folks, don't take my word for it. Check out the developer's own language, at "Here you’ll live closer to the stars than you ever thought possible while enjoying the world-class amenity offerings of one of Canada’s finest living destinations. Give your family space to live, and space to learn." Better yet, take up the developer's offer, and register for e-mail updates on the project - taking care to adhere to all the legal conditions, which require you to be "sole holder and user" of your proffered e-mail account. - More fine language is on view at the developer's main site, As I have already noted on this blog, drawing the necessary connection with the envisaged wetland destruction in North Gwillimbury, the thing starts with the headline  "BRINGING LIFE TO LAND," set against a fine backdrop photo of a wetland twilight.)   

Among the real-astrophysics work that should take off, and yet is scared away by the buzz of infotainment, is the hard and earnest "citizen science" described at

We may now finish off our sour fruit by moving the narrative into the deeper future, toward the Nineties and the year 2100, or even a little beyond:

Later, as times get worse, the social development evident by 2000 or 2010 in Brazil reaches Canada. The wealthy live in gated communities, for the most part close to Toronto's business core, in such places as Soho and Cabbagetown. Their electricity stays on for twenty-four hours a day. Their homes are artificially cooled in the increasingly brutal summers and artificially warmed in what used to be considered winter. The more outlying parts of Metro Toronto, such Davisville, Eglinton, and Agincourt are less happy. But here, too, selected municipal services remain.

The real Brazilian favelas are in the outer suburbs, notably in Richmond Hill.

The DDO&P favela is better than some. Here, at least, two thousand people have the rump of an erstwhile park to their immediate west, not demarcated by any major intervening street. With no street to be crossed, it is easy to dump what bedsprings may have to be dumped, to toss whatever improvised biochar-burning cookstove may have disappointed them by rusting through. They have even enough erstwhile lawn, in an epoch of climate change, to occasionally repay foraging for February dandelion greens.

The favela is on the now severely potholed Bayview Avenue. For the little cul-de-sacs of McMansions, or McChâteaux, reached from Hillsview Drive, there are gates, and behind the gates lots of expensive solar panels. 

(Unless, indeed, the rioting gets really bad, in which case those cul-de-sacs will have to be abandoned to looters, their sometime inhabitants now taking refuge in the enhanced security of Soho or Cabbagetown.)  

The "stormwater management pond" is  going or gone, its maintenance long abandoned, its leakage now accelerating, its leakage and overflow now cutting the first little gullies through what used to be a post-glacial wetland. In another fifty years, the gullies will be bigger. 

With grid electricity rationed for all the but privileged, light pollution is not the problem it used to be. These days you can actually stand at the ruins of the Great Dome and pick out half the Milky Way. People say the sky actually gets a little darker from one year to the next, as Ontario's fuel supply gets tighter.

Is there still a University of Toronto? But of course. An institution embedded in the cultural and economic and political life of Upper Canada can no more die than the Family Compact, so vainly opposed by those earnest 1837 rebels, can die. Like the Family Compact, the University bends and turns through the decades of Peak Oil and Climate Change, morphing first into this odd shape, then that, its 1935-era incarnation as a bastion of the British Empire and its 2010-era incarnation as a business corporation two passing phases in a protracted and complex history. 

Not for nothing do our University's arms bear the motto Velut arbor aevo ("Like a tree in the epoch," i.e., either "Growing mightily as time passes" or "Enabled by the passing of time to grow mightily"). I think of this particular tree as an arboreal monstrosity - indestructible, timeless, its twisted branches hard as ebony, and not lacking in thorns.

Is there, in so obstinately perennial a university, still a Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics? How could there not be? 

In the Department, they still have some dim memories of how things used to be, when professors and graduate students were able to fly (quite literally airborne, in the manner of our gated-community warlords from the Year of Grace 2100 or 2110) to the great telescopes of South America. Back then, they felt so little need for a local DDO that they sold it off, let it go, dumped it onto what used to be called the "property market". Now the Department realizes, in its more introspective moments, how large an opportunity got sacrificed. 

But it is perhaps some consolation that astrophysics research conditions are better elsewhere. U Vic still has access to the old Dominion Astrophysical Observatory telescopes, at the southern end of Vancouver Island. One can always try applying for a few nights of telescope time out there, as a U of T guest observer.

Conveniently, the railway continues at this stage in the ongoing decline to trundle its "Train Number One" from Union Station out to British Columbia, many times a month. Those tracks skirt DDO terrain just as they did in the old days, when academics were airborne.

6. Conclusion (I): Islands and Edge

A principal feature of the island metaphor is the Boundary. If an island is thought of in two-dimensional terms, this becomes an edge, a closed curve traceable with pencil on map. 

Actual geographical islands tend to present a sharp transition between water and land. Perhaps there is a gently sloping ribbon of sand and pebbles, partly dry and partly damp. In the freshwater case, the damp margin is only a few centimetres wide. In the marine case, the margin is typically of a more generous width, varying from hour to hour as current tidal circumstances may dictate. 

Perhaps, on the other hand, there is a more dramatic transition, as when some metres of cliff drop almost along the vertical, to a line of churning whitecaps and blowing spray.

It is clear what are the equivalents, for those polities which are so-to-speak islands, of beach and cliff shore. In discussing Constantinople-cum-Byzantium on 2016-05-03, I noted the clear sense of transition, of crossing an edge or a bounding curve, that is said to confront the traveller even today. The entry of the would-be pilgrim to Mount Athos is apparently regulated by a kind of carnet de passage, bearing Byzantine heraldry, and couched in legal language current before 1453. 

The case of Israel (a polity I likewise discussed on 2016-05-03) is no less dramatic. 

I have never had the good fortune to visit Israel, and my now-rare forays into aeroplanes have never taken me to "El Al Israel Airlines Ltd". Nevertheless, I can imagine something of the El Al experience by extrapolating from my two Finnair crossings, in 1990 and 2010, from Toronto-Pearson to Helsinki-Vantaa, on my way to Tallinn. 

With the plastic dinner tray and the plastic teacup cleared away, and with everything in the vast cabin quiet, and with the sky perhaps still dark, a sense of Transition settles in. The moment arrives with possibly even a certain suddenness. At that time - as it possibly can be, at that instant - one feels mentally no longer on the western (the "New World") side of the Atlantic. 

I like to think that Death itself must be similar.  

A key founder of the IDF was a West Point graduate, and in his earlier US Army capacity a close observer of liberated Dachau, David Daniel "Mickey" Marcus (1901-02-22/1948-06-10). Colonel Marcus was described posthumously by David Ben-Gurion (so one reads at as "the best man we had". Upon his death in the context of something called the Jerusalem Road Battle, the following quotation, of unknown origin was found in his wallet. The quotation was printed in 1951 by The Reader's Digest in its 30th Anniversary Reader, on p. 353: 


I am standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until at length she is only a ribbon of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side say, "There! She's gone!"

Gone where? Gone from my sight - that is all. She is just as large in mast and hall and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight - to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, "There! She's gone!" there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, "There! She comes!" And that is Dying. 

So on Finnair, then, as on El Al, and on every airline burning kerosene in reaction motors, there is the steady roar of turbines, blended with the rush of a wind of about five times hurricane speed. Inside the fuselage are warmth, light, and breathable air. Outside is Antarctic cold, and a barometric pressure dramatically incompatible with mammalian health. 

How does Finnair manage to fly at all, at these altitudes? And yet one of the miracles of current aero-architects is their ability to perform the requisite mathematics - at any rate for laminar, non-turbulent, flow; and if not analytically, through explicit closed-form solutions of the differential equations, then at any rate with numerical modelling. Back in the days of Britain's Vickers Viscount, those designers must have worked with slide rules and adding machines. Nowadays, their numbers are manipulated on silicon hardware itself configured, on the scale of a few tens of nanometres, to a mind-numbing intricacy. On the CPU chip and its companions, we have, as a thing almost unique among human artefacts, a complexity rivalling the dizzying complexities of DNA and Messenger RNA. It is a mathematical complexity worked not at the level of differential equations, but at the mathematically more fundamental, and in its elemental reaches easy, level of Boolean algebra. 

I have been told that people in the cabin at this special Time of Atlantic Transition, flying El Al from the New World to Israel, have been observed singing Hatikvah. (Kol 'od balevav penimah ...:  In the  translation at, "As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,/ With turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,/ Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost...") Whether it is literally true that Hatikvah is on occasion heard at this midpoint of the flight, I cannot say. Conversation is a notoriously unreliable information source. But it is one of those possibly fictional things for whose truth one yearns. 

It is of course true that Hatikvah is on occasion heard later - not at the Time of Transition, but during Final Approach, or at the time of Reverse Thrust, when tyres spin furiously on the long runway paving. 

Or perhaps it comes, when it does, by preference in those placid, safer, moments, when fuselage is being brought up to terminal, and crew and passengers are breathing easily. 


The boundaries in cultural space recall not only the edges, or "closed curves", bounding (cartographically two-dimensional) islands, but additionally the bounding surfaces ubiquitous in biology, in three-dimensional space.  

Here, for instance, is a locus of frantic activity, the cytoplasm of a cell, with its various, seemingly free-floating, enclosures. Around the tiny approximate-ellipsoid which is a chloroplast is a membrane, and around the sausage-like mitochondrion is a different kind of membrane. And around the approximate-sphere nucleus is a membrane of a third sort. In each instance, the membrane effects a sharp, biochemically critical, transition between an Inside and an Outside. In each instance, molecular departures and arrivals are regulated with all the fierce precision of El Al airport security. 

And here, on a much larger scale - a scale so large as to be accessible not just to the electron microscope, but even to the humble high-school tube, with its sequence of small glass lenses - is the boundary of the cell itself, the entire, vast, "cell wall". 

On a still larger scale, there are equally remarkable bounding surfaces. There are, for instance, the palisades of cells comprising the upper and lower surfaces of a leaf, regulating among other things the intake of carbon dioxide and the expulsion of water vapour. Or, again, there is that strangely busy world of bark: a world of dead cellulose, harbouring extraordinary living things, such as the fungal-algal partnerships which are lichens.  

It seems to me that the more successful of the several tens of thousands of post-1944 free-world islands of Estonian culture were those in which edges and boundaries were well demarcated. In the cell, when bounding membranes cease their activity, death impends. The same is true of failing boundaries in the cultural sphere. it is one thing (as I explained in my posting of 2016-05-10) to select coloured bulbs for the Christmas tree, so as not to stand out from one's Anglo neighbours. It is a different, and in an almost biological sense healthier, thing to select white bulbs, in reminiscence of Christmases at home, in the placid days when only the occasional lone ranter was predicting Soviet occupation.  

7. Conclusion (II): Islands and Archipelagos

What is the probable future of England, some centuries from now, as not the ice sheets of Greenland alone but even of (some of? much of? all of?) Antarctica disappear?

Published calculations, which I think I have for my part seen simply in National Geographic, for a full-melt scenario suggest some tens of metres of North Sea rise. At that point, much of those ancient upland nations, Scotland and Wales, will remain amenable to conservation. In England, on the other hand, much will be lost for all of human history.

London will be an early casualty, perhaps even by 2100 or 2150. A glance at Wikipedia statistics, over the last several decades, for closings of the Thames Barrier indicates what might lie ahead. In the 1980s, closings were undertaken only a few times a year. Now, however, their frequency has risen, to perhaps a few times monthly.

After London falls, what?

An eventual casualty must be the Fens. I imagine, without having checked elevations, that Cambridge, being on or at the edge of Fenland, is in the long run no less doomed than Norwich and Ely.

Oxford and its neighbouring Cotswolds, on the other hand, might persist.

Eventually (when the Baltic has overrun even Tallinn's ancient Upper Town, and the New-Dark-Ages Viking ships dock at or near Tartu), we shall have Estonian traders, in some new Hanseatic League, setting sail for the English Isles.

At any rate, they may well be called the "English Isles" by monkish classicists, who know English, with occasional deformations in their vowels, as today's classicists know Latin. Whatever diverse languages are descended from English as today's Romanian and Italian are descended from Latin will have their own, mildly diverse, phrasings.

The "English Isles", however they may turn out to be in the coming tongues yclept, will stand united, in a network of dialectal close-similarities and dialectal more-distant-similarities and cultural affinities, against their common foe, the North Sea. The ensemble of those islands - from today's Cotswolds, today's Yorkshire moors, today's Dartmoor, whatever - will be an archipelago at once physical and cultural.


In writing on 2016-05-10, I was at pains to note the significance of the archipelago in the one cultural diaspora I know well.

The significance of the archipelago is evident also from a contemplation of monasteries in the one Dark Age most of us know from school and library. It is striking how widely in that age, when travel was next to impossible - when farming folk would hardly over an entire lifetime range more than thirty kilometres from their natal hamlets - monks, books, and reputed holy relics roamed.

An analogous cultural evolution may well occur in the coming dark centuries.

For those pairs of English Isles which are separated by a mere two or four kilometres of tidewater, we can imagine 1939 poet W.H. Auden's "affirming flame" literally incarnated in an easy means of nocturnal marine communication, the Morse blinker.

Over distances that defeat the easy-to-construct Morse blinker (for an observer not on a raised support, the marine horizon is just under five kilometres away), there may well be Morse radio transmitters, in the hands of artisans skilled in copper wiring. If worst comes to worst, radiotelegraphy can be achieved by broadcasting mere static dahs and dits, with "spark". When the Titanic went down in the night of 1912-04-14/1912-04-15, its officers' "spark" was heard all the way from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to Ireland, on a bulky crystal-rectifier set conserved to this day.

We may, however, piously hope that the arts not of glass-blowing and roughing pump alone, but of the more delicate diffusion pump, survive. In that case, the English airwaves of the coming Dark Age will be busy not with the rasp of the Titanic spark, but with the pure beeping of diligently tuned continuous-wave radiotelegraph oscillators, driven by thermionic valves, or in American parlance "tubes". These will be valves from duly equipped workshops, capable of achieving high-grade vacua, and set up in perhaps direct imitation of today's Claude Paillard. We may hope that before the Internet fades away, radiotelegraphy enthusiasts will be taking care to archive, in hard copy, or its successor servers. 

And surely in Continental Europe there will be, in direct imitation of the European Dark Ages we already know, the foot travellers, patiently bearing little packets of mission-critical things - radio parts, books, blueprints (even on microfilm?), lenses, vaccines, seeds - from one cultural outpost to another. Their small satchels will perhaps be embossed with heraldic bearings of institutions still capable, through their lingering cultural prestige, of inspiring deference among local warlords. One imagines, perhaps, one military checkpoint conceding free passage to a foot-courier whose small satchel is embossed with the crest of some United Nations agency, and some other checkpoint equally cheerfully waving through a courier whose stout packet twine is secured by beeswax under Vatican seal.

As a cultural island's boundary offers safety, so does a cultural island's participation in an archipelago offer a belonging, a solidarity, a counterpoint to an otherwise toxic and enervating solitude. From this, no less than from the island's promise of safety-through-boundaries, we may draw a sober hope.

[This concludes the present four-installment essay on islands-in-a-time-of-civilizational-decline. The patience of readers is appreciated.]

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