Against all odds: the implacable in pursuit of the improbable

Abstract:

The lost causes that people pursue encompass a wide variety of issues, from world government and Esperanto to efforts to reduce the average size of human beings. In some ways lost causes say more about the human spirit that more rational pursuits do.

Full Text:

The advertisement, spread over two pages in The New York Times Book Review, bore a headline in bold black letters: “THE FOUR STEPS TO ABSOLUTE PEACE.” The four steps were said to be fleshed out in volume nine of the Selected Works of Prof. Dr. Hisatoki Komaki–Komaki being identified as the chancellor of the International Center of the Earth Environment University Roundtable–but the advertisement itself helpfully offered a precis.

The first step is “Peace Between Mankind,” which means world disarmament. Target date: now. Second is “Peace Between Men and Animals,” which will require “total abolition of meat diet, animal experimentation and insecticides.” Target date: 2050. Third is “Peace Between Animals and Animals,” which will involve “control of the population of wild animals, fishes and insects, without mutual killing and pain.” Target date: 2099. Fourth is “Peace of All Beings of the Whole Universe.” Target date: actually, no date was specified. This one could take some time.

Next to his own small picture in the Times advertisement Komaki placed a small picture of the late Linus Pauling, the chemist and Nobel laureate, who was the honorary chancellor of the Roundtable–as if to say, “And you wondered whether to take me seriously?!”

* * *

Zealous and naive, idealistic, in many cases cheerfully heedless of their probable irrelevance–such are the people who undertake one of the most characteristic of human endeavors: the pursuit of lost causes. The pursuit of a cause when all evidence suggests that it is doomed embodies the human condition in full array, from nobility through tenacity to futility. George Santayana, in his essay “The Suppressed Madness of Sane Men,” wrote of the “passionate, fanciful, or magical” elements in the human psyche that sometimes get out of hand, “flaring into all sorts of obsessions” so as to “baffle rational ambition.” But he went on to observe that we should give those elements our attention, because they sometimes offer insight into human aspirations that rational ambition doesn’t. At some level most of us understand this, I think, which is why crowds gather at Speaker’s Corner, in London–and why anyone might pause to read the words of Prof. Dr. Hisatoki Komaki in an advertisement.

Of course, most defenders of lost causes set their sights a little lower than Komaki has. After him, on the next lower rung of the ladder of ambition, come the believers in world government–members of organizations like the World Service Authority and the World Federalist Association. One of the things hampering the one-worlders, apparently, is that they’re split into several camps, among them the not-an-overnight-process camp and the one-fell-swoopists. Divisions like this, I’ve discovered, are a major feature of lost causes. They are present to an even greater degree among the proponents of a global language, who hope to facilitate international communication and perhaps, therefore, foster harmony. Esperanto, invented in 1887, is the best-known global language, but linguistic and ideological disagreements have given rise to scores of others: Glosa, Interlingua, Novial, Occidental, and Volapuk, to name but a few. At some point in the next century the number of invented languages will probably overtake the number of surviving natural languages.

Among those who remain content to speak English there are many proponents of simplified spelling, which has been a lost cause since the first simplified system was proposed, in the sixteenth century. Over the years many systems have been devised; a newspaper in Canada, the Times ov Toronto, is today published in one of them, known as Kanadan. Another system, called New Spelling, would start the Gettysburg Address like this:”Forskor and seven yeerz agoe . . .” Again, competition is a problem. As one frustrated nineteenth-century simplifier, Isaac Pitman, wrote in The Phonetics Journal, “We have long known that it is impossible to induce the inventor of any scheme of reformed spelling to support the scheme of any other reformer.”

The roster of lost causes is always growing: the return of the gold standard, keeping English out of French, statehood for the District of Columbia, the Latin Mass, Basque independence, maglev trains, the Chicago Cubs. There still exists a Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Sometimes, to be sure, one suspects that the lost cause is not meant to be taken seriously. A group in Ukraine, for example, has been lobbying without success for a monument in the city of Lviv to a native son, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the centennial of whose death is being marked this year; Masoch’s tastes, as revealed in his novel Venus in Furs (1869), led to the coining by Richard von Kraft-Ebbing of the eponymous term “masochism.” (The Lviv city council is determined to frustrate the effort, which could, given the context, represent an odd sort of victory for the Masoch forces.) In England a group formed as the result of a letter to Cardinal Basil Hume from a former Argentine ambassador to Thailand is pressing ardently for the canonization of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. If, improbably, the group succeeds, then we might entreat Chesterton to assist Saint Jude, who has long been considered by some Christians to be the patron saint of lost causes, although no one really knows why. Perhaps it was Saint Jude who came up with the idea of trying to create a U.S. professional soccer league.

* * *

One man who is in deadly earnest about his lost cause–a cause that rivals Komaki’s in its conflation of hopelessness and ambition–is Thomas T. Samaras, a management consultant and engineer who lives in San Diego. Samaras believes that the typical human being should be about five feet tall and should weigh about 110 pounds, and he has a plan to achieve this objective.

The thinking behind the plan can be found in Samaras’s book, The Truth About Your Height, which has a lot to say about the global consequences of the continuing increase in the size of the average human being. Owing to improvements in diet and public health in many countries of the Western world, populations have been growing an inch per generation for the past century and a half. The typical Japanese youth has grown at an even faster rate–by as much as five inches during the past forty years alone. In Third World countries people are also beginning to register gains. Along with gains in height, people worldwide are gaining in the amount of weight per inch of height.

Assume, Samaras writes, that the human population remains constant at about six billion but the average weight of a human being grows from 140 to 175 pounds. That represents a 210-billion-pound increase in biomass, which is in many respects the practical equivalent of a 25 percent increase in population, without any actual population growth. And of course there will be population growth. Imagine, then, the consequences of greater human size for the consumption of food and energy, and for the production of waste. Imagine having to clothe an amount of additional human body-surface area larger than Texas.

Given these realities, Samaras is urging the human race to embark on a program of long-term shrinkage. As he rightly observes, in a world whose resources are finite “a reduction in the size of people is equivalent to increasing the size of the earth and all its features, including the resources available.” Samaras has been lobbying for action for more than a decade. He would like to see nutritional scientists “develop a low-calorie, low-fat diet for children that will allow parents to control growth without any harmful effects on the child’s mental development and physical health”–a diet, theoretically possible, that could eventually reduce the height of the average human being worldwide by six to eight inches.

No progress has been made yet. During the years since Samaras began his campaign, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, the weight of the typical American in the age group twenty-five to thirty has in fact increased by ten pounds. Earlier this year, in what is surely a portent, the town of Porirua, New Zealand, which is faced with a worsening shortage of cemetery space owing in part to the increasing size of graves, felt compelled to impose a 30 percent surcharge on grave plots above a certain size.

* * *

It is as hard to argue with Samaras’s analysis of the basic biomass problem our species faces as it is to think that his worldwide rollback program will ever happen. And yet it must be admitted that just as there have been some historical sure bets that ultimately turned into lost causes (dinosaurs, Thomas Dewey, term limits), there have also been some lost causes that were ultimately won. The United States seemed like a lost cause at Valley Forge–and never mind that it sometimes still seems like one today. The abolition of slavery once seemed like a lost cause in Alabama, but last year the state legislature actually got around to taking slavery formally off the books. The fight against communism once seemed like a lost cause. So did the fate of the Houston Rockets at the beginning of last season.

Surely it is this that sustains the Komakis and the Interlinguists and the partisans of Masoch: the knowledge that every once in a while, against all expectations, destiny moves a lost cause into the win column. I doubt that I’ll be around to see The New York Times adopt simplified spelling, much less to read a headline blaring the news about the onset of PEES OV AUL BEINGZ OV DHE HOEL UENIVERS. But it is somehow reassuring to know that a habitable space exists between improbable possibility and probable impossibility–a space where potentiality is infinite.

>>> View more: Confessions of a cyclist