Flies in the Ointment – A Parable for Our Times

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”
Thomas Aquinas

In far off Moladavia there was a village called Climatesan.

Now Moladavia was a poor country and most of its citizens struggled in a subsistence economy. But Climatesan was more fortunate than most. Whereas most of the land of Moladavia is resource poor, the folk of Climatesan lived in a quite prosperous area. They had a much greater per capita income than their fellows in other towns and settlements in the struggling country. As a result of their greater wealth they had a few more wells and a few more bicycles. Their huts were more substantial – some even had concrete floors and steel superstructure.

Most of the residents of Moladavia were pretty satisfied with their lot. They were able to look back and marvel how much better off they were than their forebears. The local school was well-attended and they were happy with the growing literacy and numeracy of the village’s children.

The local chief was called Juliano. He was proud of his community but understood he must continue to work at improving the welfare of his subjects if his tenure as chieftain was to be a long one. In order to achieve this he hit upon a marvelous strategy. Moladavia is a tropical seafaring nation. Much of its wealth came from the abundant waters of the nearby ocean. Traditionally its principal currency was the trochus shell. At regular intervals Juliano gathered together a dozen or so citizens and questioned them as to their ambitions for the village and items they believed the administration might provide to improve the lot of the villagers. To encourage attendance each participant was given a handful of trochus shells from the state coffers. Consequently these consultative gatherings came to be called “trochus groups”.

The good citizens of Moladavia were on the whole a contented population. They asked for little from the state but to look after the disadvantaged, the widows, orphans and those without the wherewithal to harvest from the bounteous sea.

Oft times the trochus groups gathered and could provide no guidance for Juliano because of their great contentment. But unfortunately for Juliano all this was to change.

One of the brighter young men, who was called Tan, became obsessed with the issue of hygiene. He read voraciously on the subject and attended conferences in nearby countries to advance his knowledge. He was so passionate about hygiene that he formed a political party to help further the hygiene agenda. He named his party “The Cleans”.

Now many of the trochus groups contained members of the Cleans. After a time they became obsessed with the problem of flies.

“Wherever we go,” they would complain, “we can’t get away from the flies. And everyone knows how flies transmit dirt and germs. And their numbers are growing unduly. We must be rid of the flies.”

They asserted, and it was largely true, that the good citizens of Climatesan were always beset with troublesome flies.

But Juliano wasn’t convinced. “There have always been flies,” he thought. “Ever since I can remember there have been flies.”

“Tan,” he asked, “how do you know there are more flies?”

Tan looked at him contemptuously. “Are you a fly increase sceptic? How could you dismiss the evidence of our best shamans who have been assiduously counting flies for decades?”

Juliano shook his head. He could not fathom how flies could be counted in any meaningful way. But Tan seemed so convinced that he did not question him further.

“Well that may be the case Tan, but what good is there in us reducing the number of flies in our village when those around us do not. Every time a westerly wind blows myriads of flies arrive from our neighbours. If we are to attempt this enterprise we must gain cooperation from them. To act alone would be folly.”

“It does not matter,” said Tan, “what our neighbours do. We must show the way.”

“I disagree,” replied Juliano. “We must seek the cooperation of our neighbours.”

Hence at the next council of chieftains Juliano laid out his concerns. “If we are to lead healthy lives,” he asserted, “we must reduce the number of flies.”

It was hard for the chieftains to disagree, albeit few could see any evidence of an increase in flies. Nevertheless they rallied behind the cause.

“We are not as wealthy as you and your people Juliano,” said one, “but we will do the best we can. I will make a pledge to try and reduce the flies in my precinct by 5%.”

Juliano nodded. It was not a huge amount but it was a start. Similarly other chieftains nominated targets of various amounts according to their capacity. The chieftains felt smug. They had agreed to a nebulous goal with no firm commitment and very little certainty that their contributions could be objectively measured.

Still, buoyed by the outcome Juliano went back to the village and proclaimed, “We shall reduce the flies and it will be all the better because our neighbours have committed to attacking the problem as well.”

But things weren’t good with the neighbours. Their economies weren’t as resilient and for a number of reasons including droughts, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, problems with debt and terms of trade, it wasn’t long before the neighbouring chieftains had forgotten their pledges about flies or because of other pressures the fly problem had been relegated down the order of priorities.

But Juliano ploughed on! He consulted with Tan on ways to mitigate the problem. He looked at ways of killing the flies. His first inclination was to spray all the affected areas with an insecticide that had been proven in other countries called “atomract”.

Tan was horrified. “You can’t do that,” he said. “It has an ongoing residual impact. You must use more natural means.”

Juliano was by now beholden to Tan and his supporters and meekly enquired, “What would you suggest.”

“We need to enlist the help of the natural predators of flies.”

“And what would they be?”

Tan shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I suppose frogs and lizards.”

Juliano, believing he was beholden to Tan, felt he had no option. Soon they began importing frogs and lizards from the neighbouring communities. This had two major impacts.

Firstly frogs and lizards became a commodity in great demand and as a consequence the neighbouring precincts began capturing and breeding them for sale to Juliano’s village. As a result they became very expensive and their purchase began to draw down considerably the village’s coffers.

Secondly the relocation of the frogs and lizards, whilst having some impact on the number of flies in Juliano’s village caused the number of flies in adjoining areas to increase. So when the westerlies blew the flies were more numerous than ever.

But then Tan said, “We have to attack the problem at its source.”

“What do you mean?” asked Juliano.

“Well we have open sewers and refuse tips that enable flies to breed. We must be rid of them.”

This sounded like a sound proposition to Juliano. So in the next little while Juliano attended to these issues. Unfortunately he exhausted the financial resources of his village. So the once prosperous village was now poor. But never mind they had various strategies in place to deal with the flies. And yet the flies, the concentration of the ubiquitous flies seemed hardly to have changed. It was some consolation that the village now smelt better.

Juliano wondered what had happened to him. Some time ago he had determined to do something about the flies. His peers in other places had made assertions about their contribution to the issue but they had never delivered on their stated goals. He and his people had made a significant effort to try and deliver a reasonable outcome. They had committed substantial resources but the outcome seemed paltry. There were fewer flies for a time about the village but it only lasted for a day or two and when the westerly winds blew the fly population was restored.

But it didn’t take long for the people to become dissatisfied. All their resources had been used up in trying to reduce the number of flies. The school was falling into disrepair. Many of the communal huts and meeting places needed attention. But Juliano was never aware of the growing discontent because the Cleans stacked the trochus groups. And they had moved on from flies and were now prosecuting a case against the husking of coconuts because of the health impacts of breathing in the fibres.

So it came as something of a surprise to Juliano when he was ousted by Abbama his long-term rival.

14 Replies to “Flies in the Ointment – A Parable for Our Times”

  1. The Cleans certainly managed to effectively highlight the problem. Just a pity they were clueless about a solution or opted for solutions that had side effects that were as undesirable as rising fly counts. Why didn’t anyone consider that living with the flies was perhaps an option?

    In the end it is worth noting that the real problem was solved. The imbalance in the distribution of wealth was addressed. The issue is rarely what it seems.

  2. And as usual, you are right Greg. When as CEO of Stanwell we first started to pursue renewable energy projects we also had a major contract with an Asian company. They were curious about our motivation. They were unimpressed by arguments regarding greenhouse gases and global warming. “We believe,”they stated forcefully, “that this is all a subtrfuge by the Western developed countries to prevent us from achieving the same standard of living as you enjoy!”

    Global warming will never be properly addressed unless we also address the issue of wealth distribution around the world. I know you understand this, because we’ve had this discussion before. Unfortunately many participants in the debate don’t share that understanding.

  3. Hi Ted
    Well I’m confused.
    Cleary something has gone over head as this seemed a parable about the dangers of letting the greens into power?
    Also I would wonder at the comment that this is about wealth distribution.
    Evidently, I’ve been off the reservation for too long:)

  4. Bruno, I should respond by saying parables are like jokes if you have to explain them ……!

    I just believe a carbon tax in Australia, ahead of any significant response by the main emitters (China,USA and India) achieves nothing of significance and threatens our competitiveness. I agree with the comments of the Labor ex-Premier of NSW who is reported to have said that the “Carbon Tax is a disaster,environmentally marginal, economically costly and leading Labor to an electoral train wreck.” As you probaly know, I am not a climate change denier. I believe that it is real – but if we are going to do something about it let’s do something more sensible.

  5. I truly enjoy reading your posts and comments, Ted & everyone, very stimulating. I wondered if you could further embellish the parable that Climatesan stopped using fish entrails, part of the wealth of the region from the sea and an abundant fertiliser, because it attracted flies. More expensive but less fly attractive fertiliser had to be found, however, the entrails could still be harvested and traded off with neighbouring villages, because the flies over there will eventually be dealt with!
    I think Greg is right, this is really about redistribution of wealth and resources, and if history serves any lessons, what can’t be resolved with trade is adjusted by conflict.

  6. Good to hear from you Andrew! I liked your embellishment to the story. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Ok.
    Well it did surprise me that you took that position.
    The Chinese et al could justify doing nothing until their standard of living and thus emissions per capita were in line with ours. It strikes me as a little mean spirited to expect them to take the lead by making themselves less competitive.
    If wealth redistribution is an admirable goal (which I don’t agree with) then our current government policy should achieve that goal.

  8. Don’t get me wrong Bruno, I believe that wealth distribution should be more equitable. And I would be happy to support a plan to achieve a more equitable distribution. It just seems to me that the carbon tax is being promoted as a significant response to climate change – it isn’t. It is also being promoted as having a moderately benign economic impact – which I doubt.

    Even if we agreed that Australia taxing carbon assisted a more equitable wealth distribution, and we did it consciously (which is not currently the case) again the impact would be minimal unless the rest of the developed world joined us.

    But assumiong we were joined in such an intervention by the rest of the developed world, I would still believe that climate change would not be abated because the increase in greenhouse gas emissions by the developing world would surely still be greater than the impact of the reductions of the rest of us!

  9. Wealth redistribution….. a new name but it reminds me of an earlier attempt at a similar goal. It was not real successful either…. They called it communism or the more watered down version, socialism. Despite a valiant attempt it seems to be pretty much a spent force everywhere today. I suppose the current day form is more about addressing the situation on an international level, but don’t forget that if you are on a high income you will pay for a lot more of the carbon cost than the less privileged. Despite this I expect we will all still have more than enough fast food. I have always found it strange that our satisfaction with our current circumstances (personally or as a nation) has nothing to do with what we have and everything to do with what our neighbours have.

  10. Ah, Father Robin – you are back! We all have missed you. I am pleased to know that you were kissed by a giraffe (was there any competition with the Blonde Buddhist) – I am just pleased you weren’t eaten by a lion!

  11. From my observations a warthog can outrun an hungry lion.

    But not a cheetah.

    ‘Sound of crunching bones’

    Favourite animal?

    Elegant Blonde Buddhist.

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