“This is Jenny. She and her family are having a picnic at the foot of a volcano. Oh no! The volcano has erupted! What do you do now Jenny? That’s right. Duck and cover. What do you do Jimmy? Duck and cover. Duck and cover!” – South Park
Thankfully the volcano killed off the giant ice crabs.
On July 17, 1315, Roul returned to his home from a hard day’s farming. He was very tired. He was dirty. He didn’t rank highly on the social scale – he was a serf, and could be bought and sold with the land he lived on. They didn’t call Roul a serf – his social class was called “villeins” in the local language of northern France.
I was very cold – especially strange since it was July. The sunsets, when Roul saw them, were more colorful than any he remembered in his life – he was 28 – but the weather was cold, and wet. At the best of times his wheat harvest might produce seven seeds for each one planted. Subtract saving one seed for next year’s planting, 10% of them for the Church, and 50% of them for the Lord whose land he farmed and taxes and out of each 14 seeds in a good year Roul could keep, at most, five for eating and trading. In 2015 the same field, plowed using modern machinery, planted with hybrid seeds, and with fertilizer levels closely monitored would bring over 30 seeds for each one planted.
But Roul could see none of that. His life was smaller. Not only was a tractor unimaginable, but the amount of real wealth it represented would be greater than the wealth of an entire province in 1300’s France. His income was small. But combined with the barter they got for his wife’s sewing, it was a good, but very tough life.
This year? This was the worst year he had ever seen. And the old graybeards in town said that they had never seen a year like this – ever.
And they hadn’t. The Medieval Warm Period ended around 1300A.D., with temperatures greater than today’s during much of that time, quite optimum for growing plants during the long growing seasons and the population of Europe had expanded. But the Warm Period ended.
But 1315 was even more special: Mount Tarawera erupted. Although Tarawera was almost exactly on the other side of the world from Roul in what would be named New Zealand by Dutch navigator Abel Tasman 320 some years later, its impact on his life was profound. The volcanic dust and ash filled the atmosphere and cooled the Earth for more than two years. The Great Famine followed. Over the next seven years at least 5% (and perhaps as many as 12%) of all northern Europeans died. The world for them contracted and became hungry, mean, and criminal. The Black Plague found easy purchase in the wasted land. The combined impacts of famine and disease caused Europe to experience a significant depopulation during the 1300s, which led to labor being more valuable, which led directly to the values that formed the Renaissance. The birth of modern culture was forged in famine and pestilence.
But we were talking about Roul.
In the bitter cold of winter of 1315 and 1316, Roul and his wife, Cateline resembled hibernating bears more than a farmer and wife in the prime of life. During the intense cold of the winters, they spent most of their time huddled under blankets on their straw bedding trying to do as little as possible to conserve every bit of energy – the harvest had been poor and food was in very short supply. Most days they got up to do the minimum of chores required, and ate very sparingly.
Roul and Cateline didn’t starve. It was a near thing. But the society they saw a decade later scarcely resembled the one that they had left behind in the spring of 1315.
So, how far have we come as a civilization? Right now hunger is still a world problem, but hunger is less prevalent now than at any time in recorded history. Ever. Obesity, however, is as bad as it has ever been, and been getting worse. Stupid Skittles®.
I’ll admit, some dead Roman was right when he said that a pleasure repeated too often becomes a punishment. But being fat is still way better than starving to death. Like a joke The Mrs. loves:
A guy was talking to his dog. “No more food for you, or you’ll get fat.”
The dog responds, “Fat? What’s that?”
The guy: “It’s when you eat and drink too much and sit on the couch and don’t exercise and gain a lot of weight.”
The dog: “Ohhhh, that sounds good. Let’s get fat.”
What people really want is to sit on their couch, eat chips, drink beer, play video games, and look like The Rock after a particularly challenging workout. And there are billions of dollars available to anyone who can make that happen. And people are working on it right now: The Exercise Pill.
They even found one that was awesome: GW501516. Sexy name. All the cool kids call it 516 (really). In the subjects that the scientists gave 516 to, they found that nearly immediately exercise endurance went up by double digit percentages. They lost weight without working out any more than usual.
A perfect pill! With 516 you could have it all. Endurance, an athletic bod, and lower weight. 516 even released the hormones and all the good stuff associated with strenuous exercise.
So, where can you get some?
Well, your doctor won’t prescribe it for you because all the test subjects came down with megasupereverything cancer. Whatever 516 did, it really did a number on the test subjects, giving them every cancer one can imagine.
Thankfully they were mice.
But people are taking 516 right now, body builders and dudes looking to lose weight while getting strong. Seems like you can buy the stuff, it’s just not approved, and it has been banned by multiple sports (I think there’s a Lance Armstrong joke in there, but I’ll skip it). So you can get it, but you’re not supposed to take it, just like animal antibiotics, which people do take, since they can skip going to a doctor and just get the stuff online.
Work hasn’t stopped on bringing 516 (and some other exercise pills) to market, but they’re hoping with 100% less cancer, and the New Yorker (LINK) has a pretty good article on it. I won’t spoil the ending. Okay, I will. We don’t have an exercise pill.
But . . . should we? I guess that, from a perspective of having people live healthier lives, I’ve got to say, yeah, we should. But the very discipline required to keep and maintain a weight, the hard work, the sacrifice, isn’t that part of what makes us stronger, so when life is tough, we know we have the internal strength to stand up to challenges?
All that sounds like work.
They’ll have a pill for willpower and inner strength, won’t they?