Monday, 22 April 2019

Foresters’ Cough: A Fable


Once upon a time, there was an island. On which, there were two realms, each ruled over by a king. On one side the ruler was King Nick, of the O’Hell dynasty. And on the other, King Dopo, of the house of O’Whinger. They were totally different characters; and they had completely different approaches to ruling.

King Nick was an individual. He knew how lucky he was, to have been born a king. He had been trained as a mathematician, so he thought from the bottom up. He knew he was fallible, but he always strove to be rational and objective. When opposing points of view were presented to him, he sought to look at both sides, compare one with the other, and work out which was closer to right. When one of his advisors asserted something not sufficiently backed up with facts, he liked to reply: “Prove it!” And when someone admitted that they didn’t know the answer to one of his questions, he often asked: “What would it take to find out?”

He was a strong supporter of the precautionary principle: “Look before you leap,” or even “First, do no harm.” So, he was always reluctant to intervene in the affairs of his subjects, unless he had reason to be pretty damn sure the effects would be positive.

King Nick cared about his people – the human beings over whom, by some chance, he had been “elected” to rule. Not only in the singular – “the people.” But even more so, in the plural: “people.” Persons. Individuals. He had a very strong ideal of justice: everyone deserves to be treated as he or she treats others. Of course, he didn’t care much for criminals or political operators – “I’ll give them what they damn well deserve” was one of his favourite sayings. But if people didn’t do bad things to others, he let them get on with their lives in their own way.

As a result, the economy flourished, and King Nick’s people were happier than those in other realms of the time. Moreover, Nick took only such payment as was necessary to support his own role as Chief Justice, his assistant judges and support staff, his advisors for the time being, a few Sheriffs to deal with those violent criminals that were too dangerous for ordinary people to arrest, and such a militia as might be necessary from time to time. And he never re-distributed wealth, except to make wrongdoers compensate the victims of their wrongs.

King Dopo, across the border, might have been a nice person, if he hadn’t been a king. But he was a top-down thinker, and he had his own dogmas. One was that the collective was everything, and individual freedoms, rights and desires meant nothing. Dopo called this idea “democratic socialism.” Another was… because he had been born a king, that gave him a right to rule.

Dopo had a restless mind, and a fiery imagination. Having been trained as a biologist, he loved animals, but he didn’t like people very much. He thought that people were naturally bad; and that most of them never grew up. He also thought he knew everything there was to know about the world. That meant, that every time he had a new brainwave, he conceived a desperate urge to try it out on his people. Regardless of the consequences to those people; for Dopo believed that “the king can do no wrong.”

Moreover, when presented with an issue, Dopo only ever looked at the bad consequences, never the good. His interpretation of the precautionary principle was: “If something bad might happen, I must act.” He never looked at the other side of the issue, or at the damage his actions might cause. Nor did he ever accept responsibility for that damage when it happened.

King Dopo fawned on those among his advisors, who told him what he wanted to hear. He called them “experts,” and elevated them to the highest positions. And, on the promptings of those “experts,” he made laws. Lots of laws. Most of them, bad laws. For the advisors spent most of their time scheming how they could fool Dopo into supporting their own interests. The rest of the time, he spent indulging himself with his own pet projects.

And Dopo taxed his people heavily. Not merely for courts, police and militia; but also, for his pet schemes, and for his advisors and their ever-growing cadres of bureaucrats, propagandists and hangers-on. So, the people of Dopo’s realm were subjected to rigid rule, in which taxes went forever up and up, and relief – let alone progress – was out of the question.

But to give him his due, Dopo wasn’t a warlike king. King Nick, who wasn’t warlike either, had chosen simply to let him be. And the kings from other islands were put off by the stories of his terrible taste in colour. When in military dress, Dopo’s subjects wore, and carried shields of, a mixture of bright red and green so disgusting to behold, that enemy soldiers who saw them felt an overwhelming urge to be physically sick, and soon recused themselves from the battlefield. Thus, although life for people under Dopo’s rule was dull, depressing and draining, his realm endured for decades without a revolution.


Some years before, vast deposits of oil had been discovered in Nick’s realm. The people had soon found many uses for this black, sticky, flammable stuff. They used it to heat their homes. They used it to make chemical products. They used it to drive their (steam) engines. They developed steam ploughs and steam seeders. The effect of these innovations was to free up much of the labour force; who then went to the towns and cities, and started making other products which were in demand in Nick’s realm and in others. They built oil powered ships to transport their wares to other islands, and steam carriages – running on specially constructed tracks – to transport people and goods within the realm. And so, Nick’s realm became a great manufacturing and trading power, and his people prospered ever more.

On the other side of the border, Dopo had bought a polar bear from a king in the far North, and installed it in a specially constructed reservation. This project failed, because the bear escaped from the reservation, and killed about fifty of Dopo’s subjects before being put down. More successful was the heron colony, which Dopo founded in a forest a few miles from his capital. Indeed, the herons – large, vicious, long-beaked birds, up to five feet tall, that lived on a diet of large fish and small to medium-sized mammals – were too successful. They increased so rapidly in size, that they started to eat human children, when available.

Meanwhile, Dopo’s people continued to farm using the ancient methods. The rich used animals to haul their ploughs, while the poor had to yoke themselves up and do all the work themselves. And in winter, they continued to heat their homes using wood. Indeed, it was already noticeable that the forests were becoming smaller in some parts of the realm.

When Dopo heard about the discovery of oil, he was worried. Now, Dopo’s realm also had oil, though not as much as Nick’s. But he worried that this “oil” stuff might be toxic. He worried that it might run out. He worried that it might be unsafe to use. But, alarmed also about the possibility of running out of wood, he did allow a pilot project to be built, a small oil-fired incinerator that burned dried sewage. But this project was a failure. A stuck valve, and a lax attitude to safety typical of the privileged class under socialism, resulted in a mighty explosion and fire, that destroyed half of one of the prettiest cities in the realm.

Dopo issued a Royal Proclamation that the extraction and use of oil would henceforth be banned in his realm. Knowing that the people would not be happy about this, he also put his spinmeisters into action. Their latest slogan, “Burn wood, and life will be good; burn oil, and we’ll all boil,” echoed up and down the land. And the people bought it – for now.


Now it came to pass, that a disease arose among the people on the island. The main symptom was a raw, hacking cough. It was at its worst in quiet weather, during the seasons of Autumn and Winter. The disease was first noticed among the people in remote, heavily forested parts of King Nick’s realm. And so, it was dubbed Foresters’ Cough. Most people soon recovered from the cough, and returned to full health; but a very few of those, who got the cough, died.

Nick, true to his nature, asked one of his advisors to find out what might be the cause or causes of this ailment. The adviser went out to the boondocks, and returned with a suggestion that there might, perhaps, be some association between the burning of wood, particularly in closed spaces, and the incidence of Foresters’ Cough. Nick set up a commission to investigate this. Up and down the realm they went, measuring how much wood was being burned in each place, and how many people got (and how many died from) Foresters’ Cough there.

The Commission wrote a report, and presented it to Nick. Foresters’ Cough was lowest in the towns and cities, where many people now burned oil. And it was highest in the remote forests, particularly among the poorest people. It seemed that there was a clear correlation between the burning of wood and the cough. Some members of the commission suggested that wood smoke was the cause of the cough. Nick, however, was scathing. He said: “Correlation does not imply causation. And what are the physical and chemical mechanisms, by which wood smoke causes toxic effects?” The commissioners could not answer.

Then Nick said: “You have done good, honest work. But there is not enough proof here for me to make any regulations regarding the burning of wood by my people. So, I bid you publish and promulgate your report. Let the people read it, and do each what they will.” He also suggested, to a group of industrialists: “You may want to increase production of your gas masks, to protect those people who cannot avoid breathing the smoke from burning wood.”

Out of courtesy, Nick sent Dopo a copy of the report by personal messenger. As a result – no pun intended – Hell broke loose.

Now Dopo’s treasury at the time was badly stretched, under the ever-increasing demands of the rich and powerful “experts” and their hangers-on. Not to mention the huge, and ever growing, projects he had taken on at their suggestion. And worse, he had recently precipitated the fiasco of the Low Dung Zone.

The Low Dung Zone had been a brilliant idea. Horse dung was obviously damaging to the people; it smelled bad, and they could slip in it. So, Dopo had instituted a swingeing tax on all journeys by horse in the most populated parts of his realm. The “experts” and other cronies were exempted, of course; for when they rode, they were doing so on the King’s business. But far from bringing in the revenues he had hoped, the tax had backfired. Unable to afford to pay the tax, the people had simply stopped making any journeys longer than they could do on foot. As a result, everyone was worse off; even Dopo himself.

Foresters’ Cough was also affecting Dopo’s kingdom. In fact, because the people were far poorer, its effects were much more severe than they had been in Nick’s realm. Dopo’s advisers urged him to “act decisively to remove this scourge,” and to “declare a public health emergency.”

Dopo liked what he heard from his sycophants, so he acted. He banned the burning of wood, throughout the kingdom and with immediate effect. The ban would be enforced by mounted squads of Wood Police, staffed by the most violent, vicious and unthinkingly obedient scum in the realm. And as always, Dopo and his buddies would be exempted from the ban.

Dopo issued the relevant Royal Proclamation. Then he scribbled a note to Nick thanking him for the report and outlining what he was going to do, and gave it to the messenger. Next, he gave his spinmeisters instructions for a change of course. To Full Astern, indeed. Now, the slogans that poured out of the spin machine included “Save Our Forests!” and “If you burn wood, you’ll soon be coffin’!”


When the messenger returned to Nick’s palace, Nick read the note from Dopo. Now, the season was already Autumn. And Nick’s weather forecasters had predicted a hard Winter. Nick, unusually for him, took immediate action. He gave orders for a force to be sent to the border area. “Methinks we’re going to have a refugee problem,” he said to the messenger.

Nick’s forecasters had predicted well. The weather became cold, then colder, then coldest.

Meanwhile, in Dopo’s realm, the Wood Police galloped around looking for people to punish for burning wood against “the law.” The punishment was incineration of the people’s houses, along with everyone in them. As the great majority of the houses were made of wood, the effect was actually to increase the amount of wood smoke in the air – a subtlety that had been entirely lost on Dopo.

The weather grew colder, and it snowed profusely. Dopo and all his closest cronies withdrew to his Winter Palace, next to the heron colony. There, they burned huge quantities of wood to keep themselves warm. They thought they were safe, because they had bought a job lot of the latest designer gas masks from the manufacturers in Nick’s kingdom.

Cold, hungry and angry at Dopo, the people got up and left en masse. Those who lived near the coasts took to ships. Some sailed south, seeking softer seasons. Some sought sanctuary with kings on neighbouring islands. The rest took such provision as they had, and embarked on the long trudge towards the border of King Nick’s realm. Except for a few of the relatively rich who owned mules, they had to leave their horses behind, as they could not carry enough fodder for the journey, and no grass was available because of the snow.

Even the Wood Police had grown tired of Dopo. They stole the few ships which remained in the harbours, and set off to sea. Since only a few were seamen, many of them perished. But historians tell us that the Wood Police founded the first of the many colonies of pirates, which would so plague sea trade in the region over the next century or so.

When the caravan arrived at Nick’s border, the border guards were friendly, but would not allow them across the river which separated the two realms. “Settle yourselves on the other side of the river,” they said, “and nominate twelve of your number to form a delegation to King Nick.”

The delegation, once admitted, travelled to Nick’s capital by steam carriage. All agreed that it was warmer, smoother and much faster than even the finest coach-and-four. Nick received them cordially, and said: “I will issue a proclamation, that all who are willing and able to give should send to the border food for you, to help you through your immediate emergency. After that, all the help we give you, you will have eventually to pay for. But that should not be too hard for you, because Dopo’s realm has ample deposits of gold. And I’m sure our financiers can work out a payment plan for you, which is acceptable on both sides.”

Nick appointed a viceroy, to go back with the delegation to their camps on the other side of the river, and to lead them in integrating into industrial society. There were few trees in the immediate border area. So, Nick also sent engineers, to teach them how to find and extract oil – for there was oil on Dopo’s side of the river, too – to keep them warm through the winter.

By February, back at the Winter Palace, the supply of wood was running out. Dopo sent a group of his cronies out for more, but they came back bemused. There was not a single human being to be seen in all of the area. “Cut it yourselves, then,” ordered Dopo. But few of the “experts,” propagandists and the like had any knowledge of forestry. The efforts to gather more wood were slow, noisy and doomed to failure.

The last days of King Dopo are not recorded in the annals. But there is a theory, which some ascribe to King Nick himself, that alerted by all the noise, the hundreds of huge, hungry herons – now, each big enough to devour a grown man – got him. And all his cronies, too. And then, the herons all died of food poisoning.

On the first day of Spring, King Nick travelled by steam carriage to the border. He walked across the bridge, conferred with his viceroy, and then said to the assembled multitude: “Those of you, who wish to settle on this side of the river and trade with us, are free to do so. For the rest of you, it is time to go home.”

And they all lived happily – not to mention freely and prosperously – ever after.

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