The price of civilisation

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By Leonart Matthias

The price of civilisation is high.  Nonetheless, nations, families, and even individuals, consider no price too high to satisfy the thirst for this status, or what is perceived to be civilisation.  Nowhere on the planet is this statement more expressed, and this concept more arrogantly flaunted than the edifices on the Giza plateau in Egypt.  The Great Pyramid, one of the structures on the plateau, is said to be the largest single manmade structure.  According to Herodotus it took some twenty years to construct, but it’s the sheer scale of construction that is mind-boggling.  The pyramid occupies about 13 acres on a platform so level that there is no corner inclined more than one inch above another; it consists of about 2.3 million blocks, each averaging 2.5 tons with some as large as 50 tons. It was exactly aligned to the cardinal points prior to the supposed invention of the compass.

Theories abound, but no one is certain why the pyramids or sphinx on the Giza plateau were built, so it would be unreasonable for me to comment whether the architects went to the extreme in planting, what we regard, as evidence and clues of a glorious civilisation.  But somewhere along the way, the ancient Egyptians lost either the impetus, the rationale, the will or know-how to continue the process; but progressively built on a less grand scale, punctuated by sparks of resurgence, until eventually, the skill, grandiosity, precision and technology disappeared without trace. 

For decades, this has puzzled many scholars, and understandably so. How could the inheritors of this great estate allow it to so degenerate? Does it have implications for our civilisation, and how could it have been prevented? Or is there any truth in what Plato documented from an Egyptian priest regarding Atlantis: that a periodic cycle of catastrophe referred to as a “… periodic scourge of the deluge…” that afflicts the earth and “…spares none but…the uncultured, so that you have to begin again like children in complete ignorance”?  Or alternately, could it be that the price of civilisation got too high?

These thoughts, these questions, have occupied my mind lately. Not so much because of Slavery, Free Coloureds, Prince Klass — or any of these topics I have been writing on lately, but because of recollections of our island Antigua.  I seem to recall a period in recent memory when we possessed much of the attributes by which we considered ourselves cultured.  Even as children (I have to speak as a child on this era) we used to debate, discuss and resolve issues, rather than resort to violence, and adults did the same. These were days when a sense of nationalism and institutions worked through communities for the development of the nation as a whole. 

Aedes Aegypti – I still can remember the name of the dreaded mosquito that arrived on the island in the early seventies. Just the way the name was spoken by the numerous lecturers that came to our primary school instilled a lasting sense, that mosquitoes were not to be treated lightly, especially this strange one that was described as having white specks.  With graphics and other demos, we were taught what we could do to play our part.  I can remember the interest and energy that every child would put into seeking out tyres and empty containers to make sure they were dry. 

Easily, I can remember the days in Antigua when inspectors went throughout the island diligently confronting conditions conducive to mosquito and rat breeding.  Even a sardine can or a wooden Bryson’s bottle case, or bottle covers strewn carelessly in the yard, were treated as today’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Beside the clandestine sheet of paper on which the property was graded, the inspector also carried a bag of artillery like ‘millions fish,’ kerosene, rat bait, and a grainy stuff they also put in water to assist them in battle. Drains were swept daily and were weed-less; the man that did this job in our area smoked his pipe and ate breakfast on our steps every day. Areas like Villa, Radio Range and Sutherlands fascinated us. We would gawk and drool at the houses, admire the layout of the community, and almost bathe in the sense of glee that loitering through these areas gave us. The sports facilities in Villa were unrivalled.  But that was then. 

Villa has deteriorated beyond significance.  Dismal, unpainted, weather-beaten, ramshackle houses are rented at prime rates to immigrants while the former owners have fled.  Shrubs and grasses sprout from water-stagnant drains, and the same dreaded mosquitoes bite unchecked, barefaced and in abundance.  The sports facilities are not only underutilised, but lie derelict. The question again: how could the inheritors of such a great estate allow it to so degenerate?

This situation is not unique to Villa.  Former pristine districts are abandoned; rampant ghettoes are sprouting up everywhere; burnt out houses are common; rubbish clog drains, litter adorns streets and hang in trees.  Antiguans are fleeing in droves, and it would be unreasonable to accuse their replenishment of lacking nationalistic commitment. 

Why are Antiguans fleeing?  To me, it seems they are seeking civilisation.  I say this because Antiguans do not emigrate to areas that they consider just as civilised as Antigua.  They do not go to Budapest where dogs roam the streets just as freely. Antiguans do not emigrate to Calcutta where cows intermingle with speeding vehicles as they do in Antigua.  Neither do they travel to Deshnok where rats laden with murine typhus have religious immunity. They migrate to places like Canada where neither dogs nor cows roam the streets; and where, believe it or not, there is a province that has been declared rat-free for  over fifty years.  The province, Alberta, is no small province either (248,800 square miles), especially when compared to Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean (41,000 square miles), Guyana the largest member of Caricom (83,000 square miles), and Antigua, one of the smallest (108 square miles). 

The effort to rid Alberta of rats was remarkable. Bureaucracy was pushed aside in favour of pragmatism and the will found a way. The responsibility for rat control was put into the hands of local governments and was supervised and enforced by citizens. Hundreds of inspectors swarmed the Province with sweeping powers to enter and search – powers that were not even entrusted to law enforcement.  They checked however, to ensure that the law was enforced; that persons were storing foods in appropriate containers; that no conditions existed that were conducive to rat infestation. This was complimented by an election-like media blitz to vote out rats. Meanwhile, a SWAT team set traps and poisons in an efficient elimination process. The penalty for raising or harbouring rats was CDN $5000.00 or sixty days in jail.

Antiguans love civilisation like no other. But inexplicably, suddenly, we have aborted the process here and are stampeding to other countries to seek and maintain it. But what would be the reaction if a government, blue, green or red, imposes the same conditions that were successful in Canada to eliminate, for instance, mosquitoes, stray dogs, rodents and loose cattle from Antigua?  That is, the same conditions that we abide by when we flee to Canada: inspectors with sweeping powers, sixty days in jail for raising mosquitoes, five thousand dollars for harbouring rats, election-type media blitz. Waste of money, some would say. Others would object and complain that the price of civilisation, is too high.  But the nation, however, is now paying a much higher price through the leave-en-mass solution, the result of which, in time to come, may leave our descendants wondering: how the inheritors of this great estate could allow it to so degenerate?

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