Utopia 2184:
Chapter the Second

In Which the Saint and I
Traverse Much Countryside

Ahead of us lay a steadily widening patch of daylight, the far end of the Yew Walk. England! - with the sun bright now, and the Saint conversing easily in my own debased English, as though cheerful enough to shed the brocaded encumbrances of high Tudor idiom. As for those other brocaded encumbrances: while he kept his Holbein robes, they fitted him well in that subtropical heat, as black and flowing robes befit some solemn prince in the shimmering sands of Dubai.

'You really must start,' said he - we emerged now from yews onto a fine open lawn - 'with a look at the Dial.' This was most unexpected. Did he mean the dial of a television receiver?

But in a moment his meaning was plain, as we followed the paving through severely trimmed herbs up the steps on a low terrace. (A scent of sandalwood mingled there with the English propriety of Lavandula angustifolia.) The 'Dial' was a dial in a sense Newton, or even Erasmus, would have grasped, a sundial. And verily a sundial worthy of the practical astronomer's art, a towering instrument in black glass and fine metals, with many a pivot, many an adjustable parameter. 'The year we set here, and here the month, and here the day,' remarked the Saint, pointing to small, exact wheels. The year I knew without requiring further instruction, through the same kindly inward light that told me it was the Feast of Benedict. In a moment, then, I had turned the yearscrew to 2184, the month to 07, the day to 11.

The yearscrew! A great, exquisite brass worm, the first in a train, its finely pitched thread ultimately slewing the base of the two-metre-high mechanism ever so slightly on altitude and azimuth axes to compensate correctly for year-to-year precession.

Precession, I should perhaps add here - all Observatory people everywhere and in all seasons show off - is that slow, stately gyration of Earth's axis that makes celestial bodies shift their apparent positions in our sky, for instance shifting the Sun's spring equatorial crossing-point by on the order of fifty seconds of arc each twelvemonth, as the celestial poles ever-so-slowly circle the ecliptic poles. The effect is, although tiny, relentless. Thanks to precession, native North Americans living 4000 years before Christ beheld the Southern Cross from North Dakota. Thanks to precession, whatever humans may ponder the skies in Anno Domini 16000 are destined to find not Polaris, but Vega, marking the approximate location of the North Celestial Pole. The precession circle repeats itself (or more accurately, comes close to repeating itself) every 25,770 years, and I was much gratified to note that the Dial was built with a sufficiently ample worm, and sufficient play in its foundation mounting, to cover a generous quarter or third of that immense period. If I recall correctly, the gear train allowed even for a few of the more obscure of the ten or so terms in the full precession equation (those are terms making it only reasonably, not fully, accurate to describe precession as a tidy circular movement in the celestial poles): a small regular nutation, or "nodding", in Earth's axis, and a steady secular, nonreversing, tidal drag exerted by the Moon, come dimly to mind.

The work of the second and third wheels was less dramatic, more homely. Their joint action caused the sunlight to pass through the appropriate short segment, hardly more than a pinhole, from a long and judiciously sinuous slit. This little sliver of sunlight, duly selected for the given month and day, in turn fell upon a black-glass plane ruled in silver with curving hour, minute, and second lines. The spacing of those curves was evidently varied so as for any selected day firstly to reduce local apparent solar time to Local Mean (solar) Time - that's LMT, the time told by a fictitious Sun that crawls along the equator instead of the ecliptic, and consequently puts an unvarying twenty-four hours between each pair of adjacent noons - and secondly to convert the LMT of that particular longitude to the LMT of the zero meridian. (That's the meridian through Greenwich. The French once did their best to refer the zero to Paris, but of course Britannia rules.)

Well, as I say, Observatory people do show off when they get the chance.

Both of us stared, entranced, grinning schoolboys once again, as we beheld the tiny sunlight sliver creep forward on the fine black plate: 14:56:56, 14:56:57, 14:56:58.

But then a great anxiety came over me, sharper than any previous trepidation on our already so anxious journey. Here was a dial erected with effort and expense, demonstrating that the Sun will, if handled carefully, tell time to single-second accuracy. Had, then, the steady beat of International Atomic Time been lost in the troubled generations that separated the two ends of the Yew Walk? As the crashing of grids brought darkness and anarchy to the great cities, and a few short weeks later to provincial hinterlands fatally habituated to calling on cities for services, machine parts, telecommunications, and government?

In a regime of rolling blackouts and brownouts, or even of frequency instability, individual generating sets are urgently disconnected from their continental grids as authorities strive to localize damage. Reconnecting a set is not trivial. One might think that once a coal-, gas-, or uranium-fired generating behemoth in, say, Dnepropetrovsk, having demonstrated its ability to bear its load, has duly stabilized at the prescribed European frequency of 50 Hz, a switch need merely be thrown to re-establish the grid connection. One might picture the process as analogous to the opening of a valve to link two water mains. But alternating current is not a fluid. Once the Dnepropetrovsk set is running at its required 50 Hz, its correctly alternating voltage peaks and troughs must be meticulously matched to the corresponding peaks and troughs in the rest of the grid. If there is a sufficiently gross timing mismatch between the two domains of fifty-cycle power, terrible accidents can occur, conceivably to the extent of causing the spinning armatures - in North American electrical-engineering parlance, the 'generator rotors' - to lock, with a consequent destruction of turbine blades. In some possible real-world operational scenarios, bringing Dnepropetrovsk onto the grid proves straightforward. In the worst-case real-world operational scenario, however, the spinning of those vast Dnepropetrovsk armatures must be halted again, then restarted as the faithful slave of the overall grid.

When I write here, 'the overall grid', I imagine that the peak-trough-peak fifty-cycle multiphase rhythm of Kiev, as it were, is already harmonized with Moscow, Moscow for its part already harmonized with great centres further west.

It will, of course, be understood also that Canada and the United States run not on fifty peak-to-trough-to-peak alternations a second, but on triple-phase sixty. We could, in principle, unite the three great American-Canadian grids - with a combined asset value of one million million American dollars, they already constitute one of the greatest engineering works in history - into one supergrid. Because of the century-old 50 Hz - 60 Hz incompatibility, however, we cannot now go further to link Alaska to Russia with alternating current over the Bering Strait.

Oddly, Upper Canada was until the mid-twentieth century itself an island of fifty-cycle current, spinning in splendid isolation from all the surrounding territory. Nowadays, by contrast, it is Québec that maintains a degree of isolation from its North American neighbours, connected to adjacent territory by mere direct-current lines, the engineering seemingly recapitulating Québec's subtle modulations in culture and politics. Odd, some will say. And yet it was that prudent isolation that helped spare Montréal from the dangerous blackout of 2003 August 14.

Why does our popular culture display so little curiosity about the marvels that sustain it? Will it be when the machinery is ruined beyond repair that people finally grasp its sublimity? As the Anglo-Saxon author of the 'Wanderer' poem grasped the sublimity of tottering Roman walls, calling them the work of giants?

And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
Until bereft
Of citizens' clamour
The old work of giants
Stood idle

It is curious that, with England's Dark Ages so linguistically remote from us, the last two lines in that Old English text should nevertheless leap out with transcendent clarity, almost like some voice from many centuries later, when England's Renaissance was dawning:

Eald enta geweorc
Idlu stodon.

Let us suppose, at any rate, the grid, in Kiev and Moscow and the centres toward the European west, to be stable, with only Dnepropetrovsk now waiting on Kiev's baton. A problem remains. The very task of stopping a set is nontrivial. A generator will be damaged if its load is suddenly disconnected. In the worst-case scenario (the one calling for the complete halting of the armatures), the authorities must, then, lighten the load on their Dnepropetrovsk behemoth incrementally, first darkening this suburb, then that central business district, first these aluminium smelters, then those hospitals, over perhaps a twenty-four hour period, until at last the full load has been shed, thousands of densely populated square kilometres now ever-so-carefully darkened as a prelude to what the restive populace must be persuaded is the restoration of service.

Blackouts. When power is cut for more than a few hours, downstream facilities begin their diverse deaths. Chemical retorts are wrecked by cooling, stocks of food and vaccine by warming. Telephone exchanges, Internet routers, Internet nameservers, continental voice-and-Internet backbones are brought down slowly, as stubborn backup power supplies finally fade away. Mines flood.

Blackouts. In the Brezhnev era, a Leningrad subway tunnel experienced a failure of pumps. It was later found cheaper to drill a new tunnel than to restore the flooded one.

Had the steady beat of International Atomic Time been lost as the first mobs pillaged, in the shocked realization that Gorky, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles were dark for good? Or had the clock vaults failed later, as the few who had survived a military free-for-all emerged from underground in reckless disregard even of ebola and smallpox, of cobalt 60 and strontium 90, scavenging what remained of the infected and irradiated administrative apparatus of the highest commercial, political, and scientific centres? As the last gunshots, for instance, rang out in such radioactive ruins as binoculars might reveal to a militiaman perched on the stump of the Statue of Liberty?

Timekeeping is a fragile art. Humanity keeps its master clocks through the collaboration of a few tens of 'timing centres', each containing a few excruciatingly precise atomic clocks. It must be so, for the finest possible sundials on our irregularly rotating planet achieve at best second accuracy, not the millisecond tolerances demanded by real engineering.

How excruciatingly precise can those clocks be? In my own lifetime, the instrumentalists were delivering stabilities equivalent to plus-or-minus a couple of seconds over some millions of years. Further, they were holding out the prospect of oscillators stable to the equivalent of plus-or-minus a couple of seconds over ten or fifteen thousand million years. Ten or fifteen thousand million years: that's the time elapsed since the Big Bang.

Thomas Stearns Eliot.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and the Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

Thomas Stearns Eliot. The Abbey, Poets' Corner. Memorial stone black, like a diamond or lozenge, if I recall correctly. But my recall is rather notoriously imperfect, and I haven't been to London in years.

Inscription on the stone (this I know): 'The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.'

Had these so-vital centres, I asked myself, in some long-past month of public terror been abandoned? Was the craftsmanship of the Dial testimony to the loss of something beyond price - the loss of our physicists' chronometric base?

In smiling answer, the Saint pointed to our feet. And there it was, faint yet visible: beneath twenty centimetres of solid glass, a liquid-crystal display showing International Atomic Time, TAI. And beside TAI, Universal Coordinated Time, UTC.

The metrologists of the later twentieth century designed UTC never to deviate by more than a second or so from the LMT-at-Greenwich that would be the product of a sundial incorporating the most exquisite possible corrections - from, that is, the astronomical LMT-at-Greenwich that before World War II or thereabouts was the most uniform timescale available. Specifically, UTC was defined in terms of an often varied, ever-so-carefully announced, offset from TAI.

Under the two rows of numbers just mentioned appeared, as was appropriate, the exact current TAI-UTC discrepancy, reflecting the current turning of our lamentably wobbly planet.

It's an awkward wobble, requiring the authorities to adjust the TAI-UTC offset by as much as a second a year. 'Look out, everyone: we're going to insert a leap second into UTC next New Year's Day.' That's the sort of announcement the various national authorities make in chorus, on the strength of alerts from the Bureau international des poids et mesures in Paris.

Accompanying this encouraging display was a bronze-engraved fragment from the Poet. It was a line fragment I could, this time, construe simply from memory of my old teacher:

Haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

'These things, too, will one day be pleasant to remember.' (They'd cheerily omitted the word with which Virgil started his line, 'forsan', 'perhaps'.)

My Latin professor. Melbourne, 1982. Hard, sharp, funny. Betts, of course, at Monash University, where I was temporarily on faculty as a logician.

Melbourne has, since at least the days of the pterodactyls, rejoiced in an enormous and upscale department store, Myers. Decades before Professor Gavin Betts, I presume before World War II, Myers held a particularly pretentious sale. The executive responsible, wishing to invest his proceedings with a certain snob value, phoned up a Latinist at the closest university to ask for a motto he might put onto a front-door banner. Easy, said the prof: write 'CAVEAT EMPTOR'. And it was even so. A vast banner, thus inscribed, welcomed shoppers. Now and again, the executive would get odd looks from some Melbournian - some odd comment, asking what the motto meant, or even suggesting that he make inquiries into its exact meaning. Feeling at length uneasy, the manager phoned the academic - here's the part you have to imagine said in broad Strine, in the Cockney of the extreme latitudes - 'Eh, that motto, eh? What's it actually MEAN?' The professor-consultant set his manager-client's unease to rest: 'Ah, yes, that motto. CAVEAT EMPTOR - for, ah, the discerning purchaser.'

Since Betts told the story, it must be true.

'But how,' I asked, 'did they keep the master clocks for calculating International Atomic Time, from which Coordinated Universal Time is a judiciously adjusted byproduct, running in all those decades of barbarism? Who manned the chronometric gates? The United States Naval Observatory?'

'But you know, or at least can guess, the answer to that one ...'

'Not the American Navy, then, and I suppose a fortiori not the weaker Royal Navy.'

'Indeed not. Useful work can, however, be done in the metrology institutes of, shall we say, some Bulgaria, some Argentina, even during (perhaps particularly during) the great upheavals, even under smallpox, even when brigands deploy their suitcase fission bomb in Washington, not far from the Naval Observatory ...'

'And in the monasteries, perhaps, which I presume were by no means empty in those dark decades?'

'Monasteries abounded, of course. But monasteries with clock vaults? What a positively ... Byzantine ... conception!'

We both laughed.

Then the Saint continued, gravely, reflectively, 'And yet, you know, oddly enough there were certain strangely inspired Mothers Superior who kept certain hydrogen masers running at the height of the storms ...'

By now I knew the Saint well enough to know that his deeper gravitas tended to be the outward and visible sign of some fairly riotous inward humour, some pretty awful schtick in foro interno, some appalling Jack Benny in pectore. It was thus a reasonable bet, I decided, that the Saint was in this matter not innocent: the racing horse, as it were, but in plainer language some mission-critical hydrogen maser or rubidium fountain, had been smuggled past what we might call the Sixth-Form staircase at the hour of what would otherwise have been a quite painful breakdown in chronometric law and order - had been smuggled past a fiercely prim contingent of Old Girls, so to speak, and past a more than moderately awkward School Chaplain - had in the final analysis been smuggled in, in all its softly ticking physicality, on the strength of dubiously appropriate intercessory prayers persuasively whispered into the ears of the very highest authorities.

'And so just now,' I said, marvelling at the tiny sliver of sunlight crossing silver ruling upon silver ruling with the plodding determination of worker bee on honeycomb, 'we passed 15:00:00 Greenwich Mean Solar Time.'

'And so, of course, 16:00:00 British Summer Time in the long days of July, in 2184 even as in your lifetime ... When I walked this earth in Tudor days, ale, not tea, was the rightful English brew: but you, I think, as a man of the third millennium, really would call it tea-time.'

Following the Saint's gesture, I saw a simple sign chiselled into granite in that fine park. It betokened, I knew, some profound reversal of the twenty-first century idea that it is the public that is to be squalid, the private that is to be affluent: 'Public Tea Facility: 50 metres. By Authority, HRH the Duke of Kent.' Minutes later, we were munching on public date squares from a public snack dispenser, drawing our hot water from a tiny public samovar kept on the boil by a public hydrogen jet (so hot, so dimly blue), sipping milkless and sugarless Darjeeling from public stone bowls that the Saint had thoughtfully disinfected with his own private antibacterial wipe. He'd extracted the wipe nonchalantly ('the Plague, you know') from his coin-pouch.

'A Rhode Island Darjeeling, so much superior to the crude leaf our Kentish soils now yield ...'

'Kent imports its sustenance, then?'

'A few delicacies, rather, to supplement its self-sufficiency. On sailing vessels of a mathematically advanced design. But come, there's plenty of daylight left for you to see some fields.'

As we drained, washed, and stowed our tea-making gear in the bins duly provided by His solicitous Royal Highness, the Saint explained that our path would lead to a simple buffet dinner in one of the 'artisan towns', a few hours' walk to the north. He named the town - Faversham, it perhaps was; but for the specific lessons to be conveyed in this narrative, the name is of slight importance.

In a few minutes, the blazing sun now lighting our left shoulders, we passed out the ornate gates of the Dial Park into more prosaic country. Before us stretched a panorama of greenhouse-epoch, post-petroleum English agriculture, every square metre an intense Malaysian green. Parts were cultivated with a Japanese ferocity, as traditional paddies. Other, still more interesting, parts were cultivated in a manner unfamiliar to my archaic eyes, with plants arranged into symbiotic systems so as to minimize mulching, fertilizing, and tilling.

Permaculturists create not monocultures, but communities, or "guilds". Not the least important element is the soil itself, the shallow ocean of sand, clay, humus, microbes, worms. Above that darkly fecund sea, the plantings sometimes achieve a startling beauty, however utilitarian their purpose. A narrow walkway may, for instance, form a keyhole into a vegetable guild. You walk into that little cul-de-sac with, I imagine, a complexly compartmentalized harvesting basket. You turn, as I imagine it, from left to right through three hundred degrees or more at walkway's end, discerning a small, complex yield amid your complex verdure. Here, perhaps, at the eight o'clock position in your scan, you find half a litre of berries, ready for your soft and supple raking comb. There, perhaps, at one o'clock, are nasturtium leaves, ready to add sharpness to an otherwise bland salad.

People have been developing permaculture since the late twentieth century in diverse places. I gather Australia is something of a leader. Tough, low-key people.

All was still, save for the occasional drone of a beetle or dragonfly, all was in growth and fruition. An explosion of weeds at the roadside, not to mention the frequent nibbled and yellowing stalk in the paddies, suggested that horticulture now proceeded without poisons. With shame I recalled my own petty, cowardly, chemical wars against Observatory leaf-cutters.

Here and there the sought-for symbioses were failing. In one field was a sudden patch of something suggesting genetic engineering attempted and botched, maybe generations ago: dandelion growths, with the familiar leaves, and yet throwing out runners as strawberries might. In another, a runaway patch of some grotesque creeper, not unlike the briar that infests Nova Scotian lowbush blueberries if given the chance - but with strange, horny excrescences for thorns, almost as though the sad, useless thing were groping toward the synthesis of chitin, even cartilage. Most alarmingly, a large patch in one paddy abandoned utterly, with a hand-written sign: BLACKWORT SPOREZ! MAX BIOHAZARD!! DONT DIG HERE!!

'Like the dykes of old Holland,' said the Saint. 'Even here, in one of the more carefully patrolled counties in Europe. Farmers struggle every week of the year, learning and relearning, the hard way, that even fanatical vigilance is no guarantee. Their efforts notwithstanding, they'll lose a polder, if you get my meaning, from time to time, as monstrous genes crash through. But ... here, look at this now. Sunlit uplands, what?'

Those last, happier, words were in parody of the old British officer corps. And there it was, as we crested the next rise - a prodigious array of photovoltaic panels erected over soil presently too ruined to bear crops. And rising from the midst of those silicon modules, like a sporophyte above the creeping, yet vigorously photosynthesizing, gametophyte of the infant fern (so intriguingly does our more thoughtful technology echo primordial botany) one of the predictable large-scale wind machines. A homungous wind machine, its design scarcely altered from my own lifetime, its spinning propeller recalling airscrews from the Spitfires of those desperate summer weeks thirteen years before my birth.

Prime Minister, addressing House of Commons. 1940 June 18.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour.'

Churchill. As a schoolboy, he had declared that one day he would defend all London against some foe.

Between the World Wars, he had suggested that humanity would one day learn how to destroy a whole city with the blast from some grapefruit-sized device.

On 1953 January 1, he remarked to his Joint Principal Private Secretary Sir John Colville that by the 1980s, communism would disappear from Eastern Europe.

And yet the soldier from Chartwell had not, in his prophetic powers, foreseen this, could not really have been expected to foresee this: he could not in all fairness have been expected to foresee that the world beyond the fall of the Soviet Union, two and three generations beyond his Battle of Britain, would face a trial beyond Hitler's megalomaniac capabilities. That trial was the radical, ruinous collapse of global engineering infrastructure, in the final analysis through a cessation of the usable energy supply - a cessation consequent on a failure of the public imagination in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

Why had 1980s Ronald Reagan so demonstratively taken down the solar collectors mounted on the White House roof by 1970s Jimmy Carter? Why were so few countries in the 1990s keen to follow the lead of Denmark in developing their abundant offshore wind resource, in years when cheap petroleum made the tools of development affordable? Why had the public imagination so signally failed?

In the most mundane terms - but this is perhaps more to restate what needs explaining than to explain it - the failure was a failure of curiosity. Here, for instance, was a strange thing, a marvel unto our eyes: a little box with glowing coils heating a room, drawing 1500 watts from the public utility - doing, therefore, in a sense made precise in Victorian mathematical physics, the work of two horses. Why was nobody curious about the mechanism behind this odd little domestic miracle, so aptly called in Britain the "electric fire"? Or why was nobody curious about that other miracle, the one allowing a tiny so-called "motor" (the Latin so apt, so scholastic) to turn tomatoes into juice, whining with the fury of a large, tormented beast - performing for fifteen passionate seconds the work, if not of two horses, then at any rate of a most industrious donkey?

This talk of animals is no metaphor. Rather, it's a matter of calculation, of first derivatives, of rate-of-energy-with-respect-to-time. Power, canonically measured in watts, is the rate of producing or consuming energy, canonically measured in joules. The joule is the energy delivered in one second by a one-watt source. And the joule, for its part, is the energy absorbed when you, standing still, get thumped by a two-kilogram mass travelling at exactly one metre per second, or alternatively by a one-kilogram mass travelling at exactly square-root-of-two metres per second. Or, to take another example, the energy expended when you lift a hundred-gram mass near the earth's surface to a height of approximately one metre, or alternatively lift a kilogram mass near the earth's surface to a height of approximately ten centimetres.

The little electric juicer, with its "motor", draws perhaps four hundred watts, or just over half what the Victorians were pleased to call one "horsepower". In fifteen seconds, it thus expends four hundred times fifteen, or six thousand, joules. Enough energy to hoist a hundred grams about six kilometres high.

Our colossal expenditures on energy become particularly evident when we consider the contraptions that give us our heat. You desire, let us say, to warm up a litre of cool water, drawn from your well at a temperature of ten degrees Centigrade, to the modestly tepid temperature of twenty degrees. How much energy does that take? Six thousand joules, perhaps? No, forty thousand. To take that same litre from ten degrees to just below one hundred degrees Centigrade, as is required for making good tea, takes nearly four hundred thousand joules - the work delivered by a horse acting for five or ten minutes. To boil away the water in that scalding hot tea kettle (let's imagine it to have attained a temperature of 99.9 degrees), as we would have to in generating steam for a turbine, takes an additional investment of over two million joules. We can see from everyday culinary experience that the additional investment is daunting, since a kettle of cool well water on a hot stove reaches the boiling point quickly enough and yet takes a long time to boil away.

The must fundamental physical query a thoughtful visitor from bygone centuries would have raised on seeing our machines is this: at what ultimate cost in labour had that fanciful apparatus been procured? What legions of slaves had wasted their lives smelting copper ores to make those so-powerful magnetizing and heating coils? What still mightier legions had had their lives blighted by putting together the vast armatures that were now so merrily spinning, well beyond the city limits, to generate the requisite currents?

The answer to this hypothetical query was troubling. We were sometimes told in the early twenty-first century that "market forces" would solve our energy problems. We were assured that as petroleum prices rose with the passing of the Hubbert-curve extraction peak in 2005 or 2010 or 2020 (or whatever), there would be an "economic incentive" for the development of "alternative energy sources".

It is essential for my narrative that we examine this assertion regarding the eventual efficacy of market forces, exposing it for the fallacy that it is.

Suppose the price of petroleum to rise to an alarmingly high USD100 a barrel. For some time, such a price rise will stimulate the further extraction of petroleum, as previously uneconomic reserves become rewarding objects of exploitation. Petroleum, however, must be burned for petroleum to be extracted. Pumping rods must, for instance, be set into oscillation. More fundamentally, petroleum must be burned to create and transport the very machinery of petroleum extraction. A rise in the price of petroleum will for some time stimulate the increasingly vigorous exploitation of marginal reserves. Eventually, however, a point will be reached - and senior, independent petroleum geologists say it will be approached well before the reserves are depleted - at which the quality of the reserves falls so low as to require burning a barrel of oil to extract a barrel. At that point, extraction will cease, no matter how high the price of petroleum may be driven, whether by "market forces" or by government fiat. Let the price of a barrel now be not USD100, but USD1,000, or USD1,000,000. Still there is no point in extracting the oil, since the exercise has a net energy yield of zero.

It will be asked: what, then, of alternative energy sources? These can, must, and will be developed. But here, too, there is a price. With the technology of the early twenty-first century, a village-scale wind turbine (a structure the height of, perhaps, a ten-storey block of flats) is erected with cranes burning petroleum fuels. Petroleum is burned earlier in the process, too, in transporting turbine components and construction crews to the windfarm site. More fundamentally, petroleum is burned in the very process of turbine manufacture, as the great blades take shape on the factory floor.

Wind-turbine manufacture can, must, and will proceed, even as petroleum supplies dwindle. However, as the price of hydrocarbons begins its catastrophic ascent, the price of key inputs to turbine manufacture - the petrol for the workers' buses, the heat for the factory floor - will rise in proportion. Although the turbines will be built, in vast numbers, our inaction in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s will now make their construction a battle against increasingly severe odds.

Natural gas? Its peak is not far off, less than a generation past the Hubbert peak of petroleum. Soon the wind-turbine manufacturers will, like all manufacturers, face not problems with their petroleum inputs alone, but outright electric power shortages, as gas-fired generating sets are unable to procure sufficient gas. It will, I presume, in those days be clear to everyone that, the remaining petroleum reserves now being useless, getting gas will require the burning of gas. For a while, burning a cubic metre of gas, say in LPG-driven machinery, will suffice for the extraction of many cubic metres of gas. Eventually, less than a human generation after the corresponding scenario has eventuated for petroleum, the quality of the reserves will fall to a level at which extracting a cubic metre of gas requires burning a quantity approaching a cubic metre. Then extraction will cease.

Alberta's tar sands, as a replacement for conventional petroleum? The hydrocarbon-extraction process uses not boiling water alone, but, significantly, storage ponds. A reasonable contribution to world demand from those Athabasca tar sands requires a storage pond with the surface area of Lake Ontario.

Coal, as a replacement for natural gas? The mines are now progressively harder to work, the ratio of energy invested to energy realized now progressively less favourable. Although coal reserves are large, the reserves that can be exploited at a favourable ratio of energy output to energy input are said to face exhaustion in the twenty-first century. Exacerbating the problem are the material characteristics of coal. Coal, being a solid or at best a slurry, is harder to transport than hydrocarbon liquids or gases. More fundamentally, we get less energy from a given mass of coal than from the same mass of petrol or diesel. It was no accident that whereas diesel trains in the late twentieth century could, without commercial ruin, be run at speeds on the order of two hundred kilometres an hour, the crack London-to-West-Country coal-fired trains of late Victorian England were driven at around eighty kilometres an hour. So with coal we face a repetition of the petroleum and gas scenario, with a less tractable material.

Admittedly, desperate governments will do their best with coal, in the end throwing literally to the winds their efforts at halting global warming, so long as some coal fires can still keep some generator armatures spinning.

Just as governments will do their best with controlled nuclear fission, in the end choosing to ignore the fact that when it is nuclear fission that sustains the power grid, enormous energies need to be spent if wastes and worn-out reactor parts are to be disposed of safely. Enormous because 'safely' in this case means 'for a period of time easily twice the present age of the oldest written human records'. At the final collapse of conventional industrial society, then, we shall have not only nuclear-weapons anarchy, but a residue of inadequately protected nuclear dumps, the last vestiges of what the 1950s hailed as Atoms for Peace.

There remains, as a means of turning the armatures of the generating sets (conceivably to facilitate the manufacture of wind turbines, but more plausibly to render those turbines unnecessary), controlled nuclear fusion. Fusion is a technique yielding far fewer long-lived radioactive wastes, proceeding in imitation of the fires at the cores of stars. One of my closest friends in Britain in the 1970s did his doctorate under an arrangement with "JET", the Joint European Torus, investigating shock waves in the unimaginably hot plasmas which controlled fusion is to manipulate. The controlled-fusion community now looks beyond JET, to ITER. At http://www.jet.efda.org/pages/faqform.html#4007 the JET-and-ITER people in the summer of 2003 were saying, 'It is ... anticipated that a working, electricity producing reactor should be operational in 2040-2050.' My guess, admittedly only a guess, is that we're thus a long way off from even a mere commercial pilot plant, showing concepts to be practicable. Meaningful market penetration is a step beyond that. My guess (again, a mere guess) is that we'll run out of time, the energy crunch eventually becoming too severe to let government supply the ITER developers with the tools that can alone keep their gigantic project moving.

Theology offers a more far-reaching explanation for the turn-of-the-millennium failure in the public imagination. Humanity had in my own lifetime disengaged itself from nature, huddling more and more in great urban warrens, conceiving itself more and more as the master of nature, less and less as its faithful partner or faithful steward.

The partner and steward models are subtly different, although both in their way intellectually respectable. Our theology will make humanity the partner of nature if we either consider the cosmos to be without an element of divinity (the Marxist position) or to be itself divine (Einstein's position). Our theology is liable to see humanity as the steward of nature if, taking our overall lead from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we conceive the universe and God to be separate. In those three traditions, and in some others also, the physical cosmos is pervaded by a radical contingency, being ultimately the product of a joyous, loving Intelligence that chose to create matter while remaining free to choose otherwise.

Littlewood, referring obliquely to the academic curriculum: 'Before creation God did just pure mathematics. Then He thought it would be a pleasant change to do some applied.'

It is an easy, albeit not an inevitable, development of the God-as-creator position to regard humanity, and indeed whatever abstraction-capable biological intelligences there may be in the Earth's oceans (the porpoises? the singing whales?) or on remote planets, as possessing a special status in the cosmos. On this line of development, the intellect of Homo sapiens and cognate language-using creatures in some dim way mirrors the abstraction-rich mind of God, conferring on such creatures special duties. Among those duties are duties toward the cosmos itself, at least for those language-using creatures blessed with tool-making organs like hands: a duty to experiment and understand, so as to mirror faintly even the mathematical understanding possessed in full and perfect measure by God; and (still greater than the intellectual work just mentioned, because more immediately grounded in love) a duty of stewardship.

It is again an easy, albeit not inevitable, development of this line of thought to envisage stewardship as in part a creative responsibility, enjoining us to mirror in our own dim and creaturely manner the free, mirthful creative play of God's Mind. On this further possible line of reflection, we not merely are to protect and nurture, but also are to develop and enhance, our locality - perhaps not through the more reckless of the exploits currently foreseen for genetic engineering, but very plausibly through at least such time-honoured activities as artistic gardening. Or again, through the domestication, in a literal translation of the Latin root the "taking-into-the-home" (the befriending) of various abstraction-incapable animals, leading those beasts into a kind of fulfillment unavailable to them in the wilderness.

Who, on looking into the eyes of a properly reared dog or horse, has not detected there the hint of a special nobility, of a loyalty and truth attainable only by the simplest individuals in our own species?

The creative work, to be regarded as a mirroring of the primordial and ongoing creative work of God, is on this line of reflection to be informed by a notion of advance on which progress is measured by criteria not at bottom economic. The material economy is for its part to achieve a merely steady state in place of its current catastrophic expansion.

On an optimistic view of human nature essential to a properly Catholic "anthropology", and yet by no means the exclusive preserve of Catholicism, even our oddest drives embody something constructive. While deploring war and insisting with Dorothy Day on the strictest pacifism, that broad, cheery school sees in the warrior spirit a dim striving toward legitimate ideals of public honour and public service. As it deplores war, so it deplores the excesses of commerce - adding in our own day, in the columns of, say, Utne Reader, fresh voices to a historical chorus that has included on the Catholic side G.K. Chesterton and E.F. Schumacher, and on the non-Catholic side Henry David Thoreau and 1930s-through-1980s homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing. But just as this broad and helpful school discerns a certain nobility even in, say, the old Japanese samurai or the contemporary American Marine, so it discerns something positive even in the arcade-game programmer, in the day trader, in the fashion columnist, in the purveyor of exquisite motorcars or Milanese handbags.

The drive for urban sophistication must be as old as Sumeria. Oh puh-leeze, they said on the Euphrates and Tigris, not terra cotta dining plates in this winter festival, yet again: that is sooo excruciatingly Hammurabi, sooo yesterday, so positively Epic-of-Gilgamesh. This winter everybody dines off bronze.

So primordial a drive, argues this school, must be appropriate material not for extinction, but for liberation and redemption.

In what might that redemption consist? On the theology of stewardship, humanity's longer-term duty is to create something sophisticated, urban, urbane, adding to the innumerable beauties of nature the special beauty of high scientific and artistic civilization. Adding them in a manner in part serious, but in part informed by that spirit of playful bravura which has since the dawn of history been a distinctive note of commerce. As it might be, not bloatware from Microsoft, but some new and timeless thing in computing that attains beauty through mathematical foresight, through economy of means; as it might be, not a carrying-bag from Gucci, but one whose charm is made the more authentic, whose value in the marketplace is driven the higher, for its embodying the artisanal traditions of a specific tribe and region.

Ours, however, was a humanity that had in the final frenzied hubris of its Fossil Fuel Hours contemplated a different thing. Its ideal was not the stewardship of the local, but the economic exploitation of the distant, even of worlds beyond Earth.

We'll launch somehow, yes sir. We'll get that lox, that solid propellant, that hydrazine, from somewhere. Once we get it, we'll mine the asteroids. We'll find the funding for building something way, way bigger than the International Space Station, yes ma'am, no doubt at all there ma'am.

On this more far-reaching line of thought, the fault runs deep, in attitudes born before the Fossil Fuel Hours really dawned, born not long after the Renaissance. I'll have occasion to return to this line of thought later, most briefly, when I recount my last moments with the Saint.

Here had been a theme looming in my own lifetime, a clear challenge to my own people to make their own time the 'Finest Hour'.

St Paul's Cathedral, the funeral. 1965 January 30. I watch in Canada with Dad. (I seem to recall that in the absence of adequate satellite links, they made a film, then jetted it over the Atlantic to Gander for urgent, if delayed, telecast over the North American networks. By then we had a television.) The announcer, 'And on the left of your screen ... the catalfaque ...' Tears down Dad's face. The London mourners - royalty, Eisenhower, the crowds - singing Bunyan's words beneath Wren's dome:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither:
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

The excellence of Churchill: in what did it consist? That he was a soldier is not to his credit. And yet there was a greatness there, paradoxically amid military trappings. It was the greatness of one capable of eliciting an open-eyed optimism from the masses when their situation was desperate, simply by communicating clearly the essentials of their desperate situation.

The excellence of Britain: in what may it be seen, apart from the effort collectively put forth in 1940? In collectively dismissing Churchill from office at the General Election of 1945.

The shadows lengthened as the sun slowly subsided toward the horizon haze. Land outside the public parks was too precious, evidently, to support large groves of trees. But there was shade from the occasional windfarm on our trek, from many a hay rick, from many a composting tower or hydrogen tank.

The storage of power is one of the most daunting of all problems in electrical engineering. For the most part, the twentieth-century grid did not try to store power at all, but merely kept a so-called 'spinning reserve' in its armatures, running the turbines more than was required to service the currently connected load. In addition, the twentieth-century grid kept certain of its generators motionless but on standby, ready to be set spinning as demand increased. The starting and stopping of those discretionary behemoths was scheduled, nay, choreographed - on the exact execution of the ballet depended the safety of hundreds of millions - in the light of logs from past daily, weekly, and seasonal demand cycles.

With the dependence on the grid, and the concomitant dependence on both spinning reserves and standby generating sets, came a security exposure without precedent in military annals. Jet aeroplanes hijacked with box-cutters? The great risks lay, rather, in the plastique, the Semtex, at the transmission lines, with some skillfully designed sequences of terrorist detonations in the remote and unpatrollable Canadian wilderness darkening Manhattan, then darkening Manhattan again, then again and again and again, perhaps only for hours at a time, but with ultimately maddening repetition.

A few in the 1990s yearned to take their homes off the grid. Living off the grid, however, meant that power had to be stored, allowing loads to be serviced when sunlight and wind were absent. In those days, storage was achieved through banks of lead-acid batteries. Such batteries had even under the best of operating conditions a fixed lifespan, and in addition could have their lives cut short by excessively deep discharging.

With the advent of effective hydrogen fuel cells after the 1990s, the engineering constraints became milder. Now power could be stored at sunny and windy times by passing direct current through water, to yield hydrogen gas, and retrieved in the dark and calm hours by burning that same hydrogen in fuel cells, with harmless water vapour the sole combustion byproduct. The possible leakage of hydrogen from poorly maintained equipment into the surrounding atmosphere posed risks to climate which were, it was hoped, orders of magnitude less grave than the risks from twentieth-century carbon-dioxide and methane emissions.

Soon, of course, there was much hyperbole on hydrogen. The George W. Bush administration talked up the emerging hydrogen economy in a way that downplayed the need for procuring hydrogen, very possibly to the gratification of hydrocarbon interests. (Hydrogen can be procured, wastefully, from our precious reserves of natural gas.) Others posited hydrogen procurement from electrolysis indeed, but from an electrolysis whose unavoidable electric-current input was delivered by a manyfold-expanded nuclear-power sector. These analysts failed to ponder adequately the energy cost of a nuclear facility over its entire life cycle, from energy-consuming fabrication to eventual energy-consuming disassembly. (The world had, at any rate as of 2003, essentially no experience in the commercially successful decommissioning of commercial water-cooled nuclear power plants.)

And a New Scientist writer claimed that America's motorcars, once converted to fuel-cell propulsion, could be plugged back into the grid, meeting America's power requirement. To this vision a letter to the editor, published in the New Scientist of 2003 September 6-to-12, made the following sane reply: Hydrogen must be procured, say by electrolysis of water, before it gets burned in a fuel cell. The kernel of physical truth in the vision is therefore just this, that some enormous electrical-energy input (conceivably, suggested the letter writer, two times the current American grid capacity) will be required to run the current American automotive fleet after its conversion to fuel cells.

Hydrogen can in a sense save us, as lead-acid batteries cannot. What it will not save is anything even remotely resembling our present style of energy consumption.

Under our feet, the slanting sun now threw the pavement into sharper relief, and I noted with approval the character of the great road bricks: slabs, or perhaps deeply buried cubes, formed from rubber, from plastic, from milled concrete, even from milled and pulverised circuit boards or window panes, formed from all the not-otherwise-useful detritus of the expiring Fossil Fuel Hours.

I must not leave you with the impression that we were alone on that road, as a pair of walkers might be on the bleakest Yorkshire moors. Every few minutes would see a fresh cyclist. Occasionally, too, some passenger vehicle would pass, honking apologetically, at a modest thirty kilometres an hour, almost noiseless on its soup-plate tyres, a hydrogen-economy Morris Minor gently puffing water vapour, some scion of the Kentish elite at its expensive little electronic controls.

After the second such conveyance passed in an hour, I asked the Saint, 'Are there no freight lorries, then? And where, in all this verdure, are the farmers?' - 'You forget, or else you cannot do the computation, in a head so ill-equipped for the quantum mechanics even of fourth year in the University of Toronto: what day is the Feast of Benedict in the Year of Grace 2184, by your modern, refined, Gregorian reckoning?' Though I could not figure it out, and had to my shame to be told, the day was a Sunday.

That made good sense of what we saw next. For in a moment our road made a bend round a rice paddy, abruptly revealing engineering workers on a modest rail line, swinging hammers, as might be expected on an early Sunday evening when rail traffic is halted or light.

I gazed with interest on the tools of those five lads: some calipers, but nothing like a micrometer (so tolerances could not be too exacting, or speeds too fierce, at least on this particular line); a curious hacksaw, fitted, perhaps, for cutting some exotic new material, such as a ceramic or a carbon fibre; a patient Percheron horse, of all beautiful creatures, with electronic gear protruding from capacious hanging bags. Above all I recall an assortment of picks and hammers, of a type that must have been familiar enough to the more highly skilled of the railway navvies in Prince Albert's day.

Hammers were swung, spikes driven home, to ribald song: 'And his secret desire/ Was a boy in the ...'

'I couldn't for the life of me imagine what one might find to rhyme with "desire",' lied I, irrationally trying to spare the sensibilities of the Saint, or perhaps rather to calm my own anxieties, as I recalled a scrap of workmen's song from 1970s Oxford. A thirteenth-century parish steeple gleamed impertinently in the late sun from the far side of what I took to be a canegrass-and-papaya permaculture.

'You know,' he gravely replied, 'Kent now has an Internet site that broadcasts, twenty-four hours a day, one thousand four hundred forty minutes each and every day, three hundred sixty-five days each and every non-leap year, nothing but Byrd and Tallis?'

Still the shadows lengthened, and the sunlight reddened, as we paced forward on our long way to town and supper. I felt a pang of melancholy as the now-slanting rays brought our pavement into ever sharper relief, picking out not the usual rubble alone, but in one spot an actual plastic card with magnetic strip, such as might once have been used at some banking machine or security checkpoint.

Digital Equipment of Canada, twelve months or so, 1994 summer to 1995 summer. University of Toronto Professional Experience Year.

The firm is rotting, its fine thirty-two-bit VAX minicomputer (Virtual Address eXtension; if you want to be chic, you refer to those machines in the plural as VAXen) a decade behind the times, its VMS (for cognoscenti, the 'Vomit-Making System') a clumsy, pipeless, single-shell, albeit "secure", substitute for Unix. I rumble at high speed into the York Mills subway station morning upon morning, Saturdays often not excepted, the days between Christmas and New Year's most emphatically not excepted, taking pay in lieu of vacation. In the eyes of the law, I am a contractor, not an employee. A contractor struggling to administer the Polycenter Security Compliance Manager and upgrade our in-house security tool, none too adept at Digital Command Language or ANSI C. Yet under one of the best bosses in all of information technology.

They know at Corporate, in a certain corner of the United States, that my boss is darn good, know that they can pile onto him the work of one and a half managers, know that he'll get it done somehow over a DECnet link from home after putting the kids to bed.

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

A few years later all gone, of course, Digital swallowed by Compaq, Compaq in turn swallowed by HP. HP is for its part strong enough to survive for quite a while, as the twenty-first century advances.

Yes, security, "security". We have electronic locks at Digital, we have cards like that card in the pavement. Nothing as crude as metal keys for us, no sir. Metal keys, those are for backwaters like the Observatory.

And again the sharp pang of sorrow: over the next rise in our progress over green hills, some little Thatcherite shopping mall now clumsily converted into storage sheds for sacks of rice and sago.

And worse, a kilometre later, a whole hamlet turned into a quarry for glass and copper, house walls ripped open for their precious pipes and wires. A quarry serving an evidently technically literate, but numerically reduced, Kentish populace.

Would there be anything still more remarkable on this road? The Saint broke in on my unvoiced apprehensions: 'No, no rabid dogs, no brigands. But our countryside is about to narrow to a corridor through one of Kent's last remaining Special Enterprise Zones.'

'A corridor through a Special Enterprise Zone? Are we then, excluded from the Zone?'

'Say, rather, that the Zone excludes itself from us. Say, rather, that it willingly shuts its doors on all the ordinary and time-hallowed affirmations of life and truth and joy and manual skill.' The Saint spoke with a grimness I had not yet seen on his genial face, and which, God be praised, I was not to see again.

Bare minutes later we espied the first of six dark chimneys leaking smoke from furnaces, the odour cutting sharply into what had hitherto been a sweetly muggy breeze. (It was conceivably an odour from a mix of benign, renewable, cool-burning agricultural-waste flames with the hotter combustion of some low-quality coal slurry, a last gleam from a photosynthesis antedating the dinosaurs. The last proceeds, in the words of 1990s energy analyst Thom Hartmann, from 'ancient sunlight'.)

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

As we pressed on in the early-evening glare, our way was bordered, left and right, by high chain-link fencing of familiar design. Familiar, too, seemed the eventual streets, visible through the chainlinks as great ribbons of concrete or bitumen, obscenely lit (the sun was still ten or fifteen degrees above the horizon) by prodigal electric fixtures. Here and there the townscape was enlivened by stretches of neon signage: 'Casino', 'Floorshow 24/7', 'Quake! Doom!!', 'Nike'. Over our heads ran concrete overpasses decorated not in swastikas and hammers-with-sickles alone, but with emblems of fresh horrors not known to me, and with slogans communicating unfamiliar communal hatreds. (Who was Filipov? Why was it important to SMASH Filipov NOW? And what was the Freedom Squadron? - 'Freedom Squadron breeds and rocks!!' 'What do we want? Freedom Squadron! When do we want it? NOW!')

'Over there,' said the Saint, and I followed his outstretched arm. There I saw it - men and women, even teenagers, standing in a pit, talking into cellular telephones or shouting at some bourse attendant, waving their trading chits, their faces hot with passion, in pathetic contrast to the analytic voice carried to us from some loudspeaker by the foul breeze: 'In Tokyo, carbon emission-reduction credits have opened mixed in light trading. Although Sydney and Auckland are firmer, sentiment is cautious in Taipei, in advance of an anticipated half-percent ... '

Yet the Saint smiled broadly as, just three kilometres later, the chain-link fences ended. Surely, I had thought on entering that corridor-through-purgatory, this town will run on. It in fact stretched for all of a half hour's brisk walk - no great city by the standards of my own lifetime, a mere localized tumour on orderly farmland. 'You must know,' the Saint murmured, 'that we have artisan towns in Kent now, and living alongside them we have entrepreneurial towns, and one year the entrepreneurial towns shrink a little, and the following year they again shrink a little, and entirely on their own volition they keep drawing their fences inward.' And then more to himself than to me: 'And people tell me that in many an English county the Special Enterprise Zones are as good as gone already, and that even in London the chainlink hardly reaches a half mile upstream from the stumps of Tower Bridge ...' He paused, as if recovering his customary good cheer with an effort of will: 'Further up the river, of course, at Westminster, we have friars again, you know.'

As though punctuating the Saint's words, a gate clanged in the chainlink a few hundred paces behind us. A young woman left the Special Enterprise Zone to head south, perhaps to seek out the Dial, perhaps - here I speculate - first to squint at haze-dimmed stars in that fine park, then to enjoy a predawn cuppa through the munificence of the Duke of Kent, and finally to make her way, as Monday's ruddy dawn broke, to new poverty and new liberty in some artisan Channel Port. As I watched, she hurled some "smart" card over the chainlink, to the ineffectual barking of a guard dog on the inside. My companion turned to wave cheerfully to the young lady. And she, for her part, was already stripping off her scarlet shopping-mall or trading-floor blazer, ready to fling it, too, over the fence to the frustrated mastiff.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.

'So how is it,' I asked, 'that land gets reclaimed upon the retreat of a Special Enterprise Zone?'

'It's the reverse of that sad process we saw everywhere in my own day, when the great lords, even the abbots, enclosed the hitherto communal land. For my remoter ancestors, much land - if not all of it, at least enough to matter - was kept as a public common. You see those goats?'

Some tough goats were nibbling on weeds from the piled rubble of what a few decades earlier, when more merchandise was consumed, had been a shopping precinct.

'They're the start of reclamation. Land is best held in families, passed from parents to children over the centuries. But what families would be willing to homestead such wretched land, choked with building rubble and chemicals? Often as not, in place of a family, some artisan municipality buys it, maybe at Internet auction, from the retreating Special Enterprise Zone, for some low price, setting it aside for mere communal grazing. The very poor and unskilled among the artisans can get some small cash income, if all else fails, by selling milk and hair from small herds. Not a fulfilling life, because not based on a skilled trade: but, well, as it was said, "The poor you will always have with you." '

'And later?'

'Where the land is not too ruined, ecologist cooperatives may eventually approach the municipality with a leasing proposal. Let our team lease these ten hectares from you, they will say, for ten growing seasons, or thirty, or even fifty, and let us see what we can make of it, paying you such-and-such a percentage of our crop as a rent. And then they set to work, ripping up the asphalted car parks, pulling out the buried lead cladding. The extracted telephone cables they sell to some Belgian copper broker, perhaps. Compost they may be able to make for themselves, or else to buy from some cooperative in Sussex. A little rice goes in here, a little ground-nut there. If the ten hectares contain a high ridge, they may hope to harvest even the wind, planting turbines amid their pineapple. A single maximum-size - you could say, village-scale - turbine's five hundred kilowatts might prove worth selling to householders. Should electricity prices not be too favourable at this instant, they can feed the output into electrolysis cells, getting hydrogen for later sale, or for their own tractor engines.'

Commons and enclosure. A grey afternoon in England. The farmer, his goodwife, their four children, their diminutive pony-cart heaped with such chattels as an agricultural family may command in 1520. The better chattels - the pots and fire-irons and bedstead, and of course the pony and cart - they will sell at auction in the town. The pouch of shillings thus realized will suffice to buy lodging and food for some few weeks. After? God will provide, or not. Behind them, workmen from the manor house are already ripping thatch from gable. My lord's fence shall run here, says the shire-reeve, and here, and here.

Commons and enclosure. Linux, though rather ad hoc, met a need. In the 1980s, Unix was an enclosure, propertized. Richard Stallman in Massachusetts thought he saw limitations in proprietary software. He and likeminded programmers founded the "Open Source" movement, donating to the emerging cybercommons first this tool, then that: they developed a text editor, an ANSI C compiler, a command-line interpreter, another text editor, ... GNU, they called their initiative, for 'GNUS's not Unix.' Witty, like the precisian professor's remark that real number e is permitted, yet not required, to be the base of the natural logarithms. Unpack the recursion, and you get 'GNU's not Unix's not Unix,' and then 'GNUS's not Unix's not Unix's not Unix,' ad infinitum.

What was lacking (or, rather, what never seemed to get finished) was a non-propertized kernel. A kernel: core software bringing order and good government to an entire workstation or server. The kernel is the software that coordinates.

At the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds built a rudimentary kernel. Version 1.0 was completed in 1994. He named his creation Linux. Linux rocked, ruled. The suits liked it, started companies with names like Red Hat, sought to make money as consultants even while keeping the source code open, visible in the commons, open to continual peer review. A step, then, in the right direction. Of course people in the know sniffed at Red Hat, installed Debian GNU/Linux instead. Debian GNU/Linux was the Linux distro with the public charter formally forswearing commercial ambition. And the distro with the best formalism for finding, installing, monitoring, uninstalling software packages.

Work on an alternative to Linux continued under the rubric 'Debian GNU/Hurd'. 'Hurd', it was explained in the commons, was short for 'Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons', and 'Hird' short for 'Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth'. 'Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons' thus itself expanded to 'Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth of Unix-Replacing Daemons', which itself expanded to 'Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons of Interfaces Representing Depth of Unix-Replacing Daemons', ad infinitum. Witty.

The wider significance of the 1990s cybercommons did not escape the notice of social commentator Jeremy Rifkin. Here, he wrote, was a model for the creation of a new energy-distribution infrastructure. He published The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth at J.P. Tarcher/Putnam on 2002 September 12. Rifkin's work was rightly criticized as erring on the side of optimism. Nevertheless, it pointed a way forward, a line of development tenable even for wretched peoples reduced to making turbine and generator parts with such small-workshop tools as may today be found in the world's poor countries.