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  • James Tam

Tuning into Man's Last Song

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

I’ve never managed to give a talk according to script. But this is a reasonably close approximation of my presentation at the University of Hong Kong Main Library on 31 March 2016. I discussed the problems of our world today (oh dear) and how simulated hindsight had led me to writing Man’s Last Song

First I’d like to thank the HKU Library for the invitation and excellent organisation. When giving a talk on campus, one never knows who’s in the audience. There could be a specialist present on everything I pretend to know something about. It’s therefore safe to declare my ignorance from the onset.

I don’t read newspapers, and haven’t had a TV since 1982. These days, I rely mostly on books for attitude reinforcement, and the internet for a selective glimpse of current affairs, avoiding distortions and misdirections by the mainstream media as much as possible. That’s why I won’t protest when someone tells me I don’t know what’s going on. I know they’re right. Just that they often don’t know they also don’t know what’s going on.

According to my non-mainstream impression, the world has become dangerously disoriented for quite some time now. Nearly everyone, regardless of race, cultural background, nationality, religious affiliation, intelligence, degree of sanity and political persuasion seems to agree on one thing: There’s something wrong with the way things are headed. They just can’t agree on what, why, and how to rectify. Incumbent “universal values” seem to promote perpetual procrastination over major and pressing issues of enormous consequences, and endless debates over petty and abstract ones. Even without any knowledge in anthropology, I suspect that wasn’t how Homo sapiens climbed to the top of the food chain.

Anyways, it’s impossible to list all the problems. Just that some of them will eventually affect the planet, or, more precisely, the suitability of this planet for human habitation at current population level and rate of consumption.

This reminds me of a talk I once gave on this campus, addressing an environmental event. I think I was Chairman of the Institution of Engineers’ Environmental Division then. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a theme poster displaying a crying Earth with spindly arms sticking out from the equator, rubbing big sore eyes near the United States — a nice touch, though unintentional. Under the weeping globe was the plea in large fonts: “Please save me!” I risked being cynical (realism was already regarded “cynical” then) and reminded the audience that our asexual Mother Earth doesn’t need saving. It’s us who do. If every single human dies tomorrow, this planet will continue its cosmic ballade just as before, spiralling through the Milky Way, immersed in dark matter. No tears shed. We won’t be missed. In fact, as depicted in Man’s Last Song, in the absence of humans, the planet makes a happy comeback. The sky’s blue, full of stars in a moonless night. You can see the bottom of Victoria Harbour, teeming with fish, dolphins leaping.

Though human knowledge is severely limited, it’s nonetheless sufficient to highlight our categorical insignificance in the big picture. We are but a recent life-form on a mediocre planet out of hundreds and hundreds of billions, if not an infinite number. But mysteriously, we manage to disregard these humbling known facts, and remain confidently self-centred. The following excerpt from Man’s Last Song may serve as a reminder. One of the characters John Johnson is wondering out loud as to why the human race is disappearing [P.153]:

This John Johnson is a fighter with a tenacious spirit. He never admits defeat, and has interesting alternative ideas about how humans measure against the grand scale of things. Let’s leave him alone to contemplate for now, and return to humanity’s current problems.

For a while, it baffled me as to why we’re not seeing the existential threats created by ourselves. Isn’t survival important, and the wish to survive instinctual? Plus many of these issues have solutions that seem at least worthy of trying. How can we be so blind? Would a bit of “hindsight” help?

So I said “Let there be hindsight!” And there was hindsight.

From an imagined future, I see our problems stemming from a few main causes. They include over-population, excessive consumption, disproportionate environmental degradation, and dysfunctional politics. Human relationship is also having a hard time catching up with the abrupt lifestyle changes, including incessant distractions and senseless mental assaults.

Population, consumption, environmental friction, and politics are part and parcel of human existence. As long as we live, we’ll need to consume, leaving environmental footprints in the process, just as everything else. Politics is how we organise leadership as a social animal. It’s a reason why we’re the overwhelming species in the animal kingdom. The problem is when these attributes lose balance, becoming excessive and disproportionate, as highlighted by the italicised qualifiers.

These attributes are intertwined, each being a cause as well as consequence of the other. They cannot be tackled in isolation. Technological progress increases life expectancy, which boosts population. An expanded humanity needs more resources, especially when a peasant dominated population evolves into a middle-class one. The middle-class characteristically wants (not just needs) “things”, in order to feel secure, more and more and more secure, and to emulate a fantasised opulent upper-class. Exploitation of resources, now driven by desire rather than necessity, grows prodigiously. Pollution follows proportionally. Once this process is in motion, it’s hard to slow. Consumption must grow with the population to keep people occupied, or they’d get themselves and each other into trouble. So activities are created for the sake of activities, in order to maintain economic growth, in order to sustain a larger population. It’s a vicious cycle.

A main character in Man’s Last Song, Ma Yili, compares this senseless “prosperity” to a Hole Digging Economy. He sees the modern economy as essentially “I dig a hole in the ground, and you fill it back up.” To dig faster than you fill, I hire more hands, and come up with digging machines. You do likewise, and invent filling machines in response. Workers, engineers, researchers etc. on both sides work hard to come up with faster means to dig, or fill. They are supported by accountants, controllers, HR managers and other corporate functionaries. People are now given stressful careers, competing with each other. With their income, they raise families, which need housing, schooling, transportation services, and so on.

From a hole which exists only part-time grows a vibrant economy.

As mentioned, the economy must keep up with population growth. In a capitalistic system, it should preferably grow faster than the population for a “healthy” return, at the expense of social and personal health. Not long ago, wastefulness was a bad thing across all cultural divides. It’s now encouraged systemically (though discouraged officially) because it’s good for the economy.

The Hole Digging analogy may seem absurd. But the principle is not. That leads me to the question of traditional work ethics in the modern world. When crouching in the corporate world, I was constantly amazed by the amount of pointless work in circulation.

Documents chopped VERY IMPORTANT and CONFIDENTIAL were rarely so. Big corps dynamics can be more surreal than a Hole Digging Economy.

Industriousness is a noble trait. But when we are way past the point of necessity, habitual hyperactivity becomes questionable. For example, if we can eat maximum ten tonnes of rice in a life-time, but have accumulated a hundred, even thousands, what should we do? Share it with those who don’t have? C’mon, even commies don’t do that anymore. We invest the surplus in more activities instead, in order to accumulate more, thereby consuming more resources to dig (or fill) more unneeded holes, causing more pollution. We even set targets for these investments, and get stressed when they are missed.

Unnecessary activities satisfy our primal instinct to accumulate. But they have turned into an unnoticed social disease — a collective mental disorder. A key puzzle is that they benefit nobody. The grumpy overworked cannot live long enough to enjoy a fraction of the excessive returns. The kids who inherit surplus wealth in a wounded world are denied their dreams, goals, and the fulfilling experience of struggling to find one’s place in society. We therefore seem more stupid than greedy or selfish. That’s why I like to refer to ourselves as Homo sapiens — the thinking monkeys — with a touch of irony. But irony, like natural resources, is often wasted.

Perhaps I’ve neglected one thing. Humans are famously resourceful. We are good at solving problems we’ve created. We always fill the holes we’ve dug, even overfill them into little mounds. But the complexity of today’s prodigious problems are unprecedented. Fixing them requires long-term vision, consistency, adjustments, and difficult trade-offs. Knowhow and innovation are not enough to solve problems such a global warming. But politics — an art which once had something to do with governance and planning — have become short-term, fickle, and demagogic, led by smooth-tongued opportunists who can’t see beyond the next election even on tiptoe. Most of them are also legal experts with only a foggy idea about high-school physics. Real leadership has become unpopular. So the problems persist, growing at a “healthy” rate.

Our present, as viewed from the future, is mind-boggling and terrifying.

Fortunately, there’s always hope in story-land. That’s what stories are for. But first I have to make one up, one that allows me to examine today with fictional hindsight. That’s when I realised “hindsight” does not necessarily depend on time. It depends more on situation. I could go a thousand years into the future. If the situation hasn’t changed, hindsight would be limited. Only by changing the human situation dramatically can I backtrack in time from the future to exercise 20/20 vision.

In this frame of mind, the setting of Man’s Last Song began to take shape.

The reference year is 2090. After decades of universal sterility, the human race is dying out, facing imminent extinction. The youngest man alive, Song Sung, a Hong Kong Eurasian, is already 42. The situation might sound farfetched. But as one of the protagonists points out: “Statistically, human existence is a miracle. Once existence has happened, eventual extinction is certain. If not because of this, it'd be because of that. Only a matter of time.”

Another character speculates the cause of universal sterility as follows [P.109]:

“The atmosphere is a thin crust of the planet, proportionally like the skin of an apple. Something that humans had been jamming into it for decades, perhaps centuries, suspecting no harm, accumulated quietly. Parts per trillion became parts per billion. Parts per billion became parts per million. Obliviously, breath by breath, our mysterious and fragile reproductive systems were nibbled at, eaten alive by our own waste.”

Is that beyond the bounds of possibility? Not really, if you have my confidence in how little humans know.

But my engineering training wouldn’t allow me to just go ahead creating scenes and dialogues in a dying world. I had to check the numbers. So I simulated a simple but possible death-curve of humanity due to infertility. To my surprise, and probably the disappointment of eschatologists and movie makers, it doesn’t look apocalyptic. An infertile world would remain over-populated for decades after the last baby has been born. In this end-time scenario, people will most likely continue going to work from nine to five, rather than watching dragon-fights and demonic duels from the balcony. Jobs still need to be done in an ageing, populous world. Everyone depends on a familiar social order for a living. Society depends on everyone being stuck in the rut to function. The world remains densely populated with old people. Retirement is indefinitely postponed. The energy and incentives to make wars is diminished. I got impatient with this persisting scenario. Live’s too short.

So I introduced “batch reductions” by bringing in another looming threat of the 21st century — pandemics. Life expectancy also plummets as soon as power plants cannot be sustained. I finally got my desolate scenario around 2090, before my protagonists are too old to create drama. Nonetheless, through this exercise, I discovered that an infertile world would wobble in the same old way for a long time before population drops below critical mass. This protracted winding down turns out to be an interesting background story. The number crunching was only to convince myself, not part of the story.

By 2090, the remnants of the human race are living a Stone Age lifestyle. They farm and gather, occasionally defy commercial expiry dates on an ancient can of manufactured food for a treat. Dead neighbours become rotten and slippery, requiring disposal before the dogs get to them first. Dogs are vying for a good position in a brave new food chain, one that their ex-best friends, the humans, no longer enjoy eating at the top as if by birthright.

However, unlike their Stone Age ancestors, these post-modern savages have knowledge and secure shelters. Life is easier. And there are plenty of leftover fine spirits. What do people do when they have time aplenty, and drinks are free? They talk and talk, just like us now. Bullshitting is a fundamental human feature.

To them, we look ridiculous. The once rational and pragmatic Homo sapiens had become petulant and superficial, an unthinking self-endangered species. Through the exchange between two diametrically opposed buddies, some serious questions are raised, and playful answers attempted.

The post-modern savages do face many challenges in their daily lives. Losing one’s dental fillings or spectacles can be disastrous. Things we now take for granted assume new dimensions. What does “love” mean in their circumstances? When public health and emergency assistance are no longer a phone call away, how could they help a gravely injured stranger, someone they can’t afford to care, but don’t want to leave dying alone on the roadside, with hungry dogs lurking around? And how could an ageing parent spare his kid the impossible and heartbreaking task of caring for an old person without help?

Relationships between lovers, friends, father and son, have all changed, adapting to a ruthless reality which our stone age ancestors might have recognised. Wandering in the lonely new world without a future in sight, these post-modern savages wonder about the nature of God, Dao, and existence again. They also debated why yesterday’s people harmed themselves the way they did. They also have to battle with mosquitos, as well as absolute, irreversible, solitude.

It seems like a dead-end so far. And it’s against my amoral principles to contrive a happy ending; but when writing Man’s Last Song, the ending revealed itself, and surprised me. I hope you’ll find it surprising as well, and the discovery enjoyable.

Thank you.

The talk on YouTube

Link to the story

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