Taming The Four Horsemen
By Robin Hanbury-Tenison
Radical solutions to defeat Pandemics, War, Famine and the Death of the planet
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I am an 83 year old explorer, who has travelled adventurously in rainforests and deserts all over the world, published well over twenty books on travel and exploration and campaigned assiduously for tribal people and their increasingly threatened environments, especially rainforests.
My theme is that all civilizations collapse after about five hundred years and this is usually due to the overuse and misuse of their land. All the indications are that we are doing it again, only this time on a global scale. I have seen the resulting poverty, conflict, starvation and destruction at first hand and, trusting in the wisdom old age brings, I am emboldened to hold forth on what we should do about it.
I begin with a lyrical description of the rainforest seen at dawn from the top of a ruined Maya temple. This leads me to wonder what went wrong with their world fifteen hundred years ago and whether it has any lessons to teach us. The Maya theme is maintained on and off throughout the book, as their story is fascinating and colourful.
This book is a powerful polemic on what I see as the major threats facing the world today and how they can be overcome. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be made to fit these threats fairly neatly and this gives a shape and continuity to the book.
The White Horse represents Pestilence and so Pandemics, which now seem inevitable. My solution is to devote the vast resources currently being wasted on space research to examine the potential of the minute but even more infinite world of microbes to cure sickness and revolutionise agriculture. My own personal experience of living with many remote tribal societies informs my conclusion that their lives are healthier than ours and that we are poisoning ourselves without understanding how.
The Red Horse stands for War, an inescapable part of the human condition and usually due to poverty and overpopulation. My solution is to promote prosperity and independence for all through providing free electricity everywhere by rejecting fossil fuels and concentrating on clean renewable energy from solar and wind and storage.
The Black Horse spells Famine. Here overpopulation and bad land management are to blame and a radical solution is needed. We have had the knowledge and technology since World War II to control the weather, but scientists have been afraid, with reason, to use them. The time has come for us to grasp the nettle. If we were able to make it rain, just a bit, in desert regions, we would immediately solve much global starvation.
The Pale Horse is Death. Here it is climate change that needs addressing. Geo-engineering will have to be adopted if things start to fall apart and we should start taking it seriously now. Meanwhile, there is so much we can do now by helping to undo the appalling pollution we are inflicting on the planet, especially the oceans.
We, the human race, are the brightest beings ever to have been created. We are infinitely inventive and creative. In spite of all our faults and frailties, I believe that we and our descendants deserve to live, but we must learn both to do so in harmony with all the rest of Nature while at the same time taking seriously our huge responsibility, as the only thinking beings, to make it work.
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Robin Hanbury-Tenison, OBE, DL, is the doyen of British explorers. A Founder and President of Survival International, the global organisation supporting tribal peoples, he was one of the first campaigners to bring the plight of the rainforests to the world’s attention. A veteran of over thirty expeditions, he is a Gold medallist and one time Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society. Among the films he has made for TV are some about the many long distance rides he and his wife, Louella, have made in many countries. They live in a Doomsday manor on Bodmin Moor, where he has farmed for sixty years. His many books include A Question of Survival, A Pattern of Peoples, Fragile Eden, Mulu: The Rainforest, The Oxford Book of Exploration, The Great Explorers, The Modern Explorers, Land of Eagles, Finding Eden and his two autobiographies, Worlds Apart and Worlds Within.
Let us start just before dawn on top of one of the largest, most beautiful and least visited of all the Mayan temples. From up here the world is covered in mist; except for the top of Temple II poking above the clouds. Like a diminutive tropical island, it is a Maya pyramid surrounded by trees floating on an endless off-white sea.
This is Calakmul, the capital of the Kingdom of the Snake, Kaan, once one of the most powerful of all Maya cities and the implacable rival of the far better known Tikal, sometimes just visible far to the south. Now partially excavated and restored, it is seldom visited, as it is far from anywhere and there are few facilities. We were allowed, not without some intense discussion with the solitary guard, to sling our hammocks between trees at the entrance; and to rise in the dark to climb Temple I by torchlight. A rare treat.
As the sky lightens in the east, the mist lifts and dense rainforest is revealed in all directions, right to the horizon. In the darkness below not a single light twinkles; only gentle undulations disturb the ocean of tree tops reaching to the forested hills in the distance.
Gradually a sky to rival the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel forms overhead. Wispy pink, white, yellow, orange, red, mauve streaks of clouds weave patterns on the eggshell blue canvas: a sight to strike awe into the most cynical heart; one which aeons of men, women and children have gazed at in wonder; a never repeated diversity of pure natural beauty. It lasts for only a short time before an intensity begins to make itself felt in the centre of the display. The light is brighter here and the eye is drawn towards the action, as though to the rising of the curtain at the start of an opera. The sublime spectacle of the Overture begins to fade and the play unfolds.
The huge red orb of the sun inches its way over the rim of the earth and suddenly there is life in the forest as a cacophony of birdsong greets the dawn. First, there are the gentle hoots of motmots and a high pitched shriek or two from brown jays; then other small, invisible birds, robins, solitaires and trogons. Flocks of hysterical small green parrots speed in formation above the canopy, screeching to each other that they are late and must go faster. Pairs of their larger cousins fly more sedately past, their conversation more formal. Below, large numbers of oropendola squabble furiously, like angry washerwomen arguing over who gets the best spot at the well. From deep in the forest other, invisible, unidentified calls lay regular emphatic stress on the fact that this is my place, my tree, my fruit. Join me my brethren, but keep away all rivals. An eagle scours the treetops on lazy wings and gives a shriek of high pitched despair at the state of the world.
When the booming starts, all else is silence for a moment at the shock of it. The resonance is so intense, so insistent, so overwhelming in its sheer loudness that none who hear it for the first time can fail to be astonished and to wonder what on earth it can possibly be. Did the Maya worship the Howler monkey as the voice of their god? It would seem likely as it is a sound like no other in the world, one which can be heard from five kilometres away through the densest forest. It seems to be speaking directly to the listener. “Beware” it says “I am all-powerful and I am threatening you with dreadful things if you dare to challenge me”. This is the stirring cry still sometimes heard at dawn and dusk, and even occasionally during the heat of the day, throughout the remaining tropical forests of the New World. When the Maya world was young, more than 3000 years ago, it must have resonated everywhere and spoken to them of powerful spirits. Then, eventually, the people cut their forests down, as they always do, to feed their burgeoning cities and civilizations, and they must have hunted the Howler monkeys almost to extinction. Perhaps they became as rare then as now. Perhaps, living in a landscape worked for food from horizon to horizon, they forgot those gods.
The first rays of sunlight strike us where we sit on the top of Temple I. A moment later, as the mist drops away, Temple II is revealed in all its glory. The stonework is a soft, creamy white, which contrasts delightfully with the surrounding greenery. In its heyday it would have looked quite different, cleared of all vegetation and largely painted bright red, with huge, grotesque multi-coloured masks on the platforms. Upright stone pillars, life-sized statues, or stelae, would have stood in the courtyards below, as in the great cities of Greece and Rome. They were designed to impress and fill the spectator with awe, some soaring up over seven meters and weighing thirty tons. Although the carving may be exquisite and intricate and some of the faces reveal flashes of ethereal beauty, these were not primarily designed, it seems, for aesthetic reasons, as with the Greeks and Romans; instead they were meant to intimidate by showing the power and mystery of the Maya god kings and their priesthood. The figures emerging from the rock were supermen, magicians, guardians of mysteries beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Eric von Daniken, the Swiss author famous for promoting in his many books the idea that extraterrestrial life has existed on earth for millennia and influenced many cultures, claimed that some stelae represented spacemen operating the controls of their space ships. I remember standing in front of a stela at Copan in 1972, not long after von Daniken’s best seller Chariots of the Gods was published, and seeing exactly what he was getting at. With half closed eyes it was easy to imagine that the obscure and convoluted shapes around the central figure were the dials and instruments of some elaborate machine. Of course, it was all nonsense and von Daniken’s hypotheses have been disproved many times, but this does not diminish the power of the imagery nor the impact it must have had on the Maya population.
- 29th May 2019 Thank You!
Thank you so much for pledging to buy my new book.
There has been a tremendous initial response to my Round Robin about it and we are already nearly a third of the way to the target, so that I hope the book will be published by Christmas.
I would be really grateful for your help in telling others about it, especially the last pledge, where I offer to give a talk to a Society, school or charity…
These people are helping to fund Taming The Four Horsemen.
Ashley Parry Jones