Authors: Tim Lees
was late getting to Budapest. I didn't mean to be. But the plane was late, and then the train was late, and I had to go to my hotel and drop my luggage off and freshen up, and, well, to tell the truth, I maybe wasn't in much of a hurry after all.
So the session was in progress when I slid into the hall. An usher proffered headphones for the simultaneous translation, but I doubted Shailer would know any words I didn't. So I skirted down the side aisle, found a spare seat about halfway from the front, and sat. I'd assumed the gig was aimed at locals, but my neighbors here were both Chinese; they bowed politely, holding their headphones in place as they did so. A speaker mounted on the wall behind me helpfully relayed the lecture.
I sort of recognized the voice.
I didn't recognize the man at all.
Shailer was all grown up. Gone were the surfer duds, the baggy shorts and baseball cap, the hair that hung down like a curtain in his eyes. He stood upon a small stage at the front of the hall, wearing a well-Âcut, pale blue suit, with a radio mic headset that left him free to stroll and gesture as he would. He seemed relaxed and confident in front of seven hundred carefully invited delegates. It was as if he were addressing each one individually, sharing his own, most private thoughts. A neat trick. It brought trust, complicity. You wanted to be there with him, to laugh when he laughed, frown when he frowned, see the bright horizon he sawâÂwhen he got to it. Which was not quite yet. Not yet, no.
Bright, beaming. He spread his arms, he grinned at us.
Then dropped his shoulders. Slumped. A hangdog look upon his face.
“En .Â .Â . er .Â .Â . gy.”
His voice dropped to his boots. And he stayed like that a moment, pantomiming, like a robot who's run out of juice.
When he looked up, it was man-Âto-Âman, one of us; a friend talking.
“Anybody hereâÂanybody here stay out too late last night? Huh? Be honest. Anyone?”
There was a shy little murmur here and there among the crowd.
“Well, you should have! You should! It's a fun city. Go out, have fun! Have a meal, a few drinks. Take in a show, a club. It's all there, all good. There are some wonderful places in this town, take it from me. ButâÂand here's the
âÂto do that, to go out, enjoy yourself, you need two things. One is money, obviously. And the other one?”
He spread his palms. Waited. Then, voice dropping to the bass again: “En-Âer-Âgy.” He stamped his feet. “
He said, “Me, I couldn't go out last night. I knew I had this talk to give. So, an early night for Adam. Good night's sleep. And now, I'm
full of energy!” He began to jog around the stage. “Hup! Hup! Keep it up!” He ran in circles, shadow boxed. “One, two, three, four! One, two, one, one, two!” He mimed weight lifting, his face all strained, he raged like Atlas holding up the sky.
And then he stopped. His shoulders fell. And in a little, lifeless voice, he muttered, “Energy.”
He pulled a melancholy face.
“Anyone here short of energy? Anyone? Don't be shy. Come on, admit it! A bit tired? You, sir? You?
Because you should be!
All of you. We're
short of energy. And this is not a case of just needing a sit-Âdown. This is not a case of feeling jet-Âlagged or hungover or insomniac. These are facts, ladies and gentlemen.
Energy runs out
. We wake up full of it, and by the end of the day, we want to go to bed again. We have run out of energy. And on a global scaleâÂthe consequences are enormous.
“Here, then, are the cold, hard, thoroughly unpleasant facts. We are using up our planet. We are using it up so quickly that our children will inhabit a world almost devoid of usable energy supplies. That is a
. By latest estimationsâÂand these may well be optimisticâÂuranium will be gone by 2040, oil by 2050. Natural gas by 2070. The metals that we use in industry will vanish along with them. No more iron, no more nickel, no more aluminum. By 2150, the last workable seams of coal will be exhausted. And that, my friends, is that. We can see it coming. We are the last generation able to rely on fossil fuels. And think what that means. We have built a civilization on such things. Our children, unless they are very lucky, will have no electricity. They will come home from school and be unable to do their homework because there will be no light. Simple as that. Oh, of course, there are alternativesâÂwind farms, tidal power .Â .Â . a few other things. They might work. Might get us through. So if you value your children's futuresâÂand I know you doâÂgo build a windmill, or move to the coast. Or you'll never watch TV, or cook a burger, or switch on an electric light again.
“Let's pause a moment, think on that. More facts. The whole of modern civilization is derived from just one thing:
the exploitation of fossil fuels
. I don't just mean industry. I mean our culture, our political system, the fact that we can feed our Âpeople and get food to those who need it. Everything that makes our lives worthwhile.
“Now, I don't yet have children of my own. But I want to, I want to very much. And I have to ask myself: what kind of world will there be waiting for them? A world like oursâÂor a world effectively dying, moribund, in which all the benefits of civilization, of a decent, orderly, educated life, are gone? Is that the world I want for them?”
He paused. The joking was all done with now. He paused until his audience began to stir and shuffle in vague discomfort; until the translators had not only caught up with him but were drumming their fingers, waiting for the next line.
“Now,” he said at last. “That's a bleak picture, don't you agree? Very bleak.
“But you know why I'm here, and who I represent, and I guess that some of you already know I don't intend to leave it there. You are Âpeople who look to the future, who believe there's going to
a future. And so am I. A good, prosperous future, for us, and our children, and our children's children. So obviouslyâÂthat's not the full story.
“Fossil fuels are running out. All those I mentionedâÂcoal, oil, natural gas. But what if there was something elseâÂanother fossil fuel, almost untapped, and, what's more, renewable? Renewable within our lifetimes? What then?
“You see, there's a notion, and it's an old notion, that the Universe takes care of its own.
“Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen. It's true.”
He stood there with his arms out, palms towards us. An open posture that was also, in its way, faintly religious. The saint beholds the Christ. The soul opens to God. A little subtext running through it all. Subliminal, perhaps. Deliberate, most certainly.
“There exists a source of energy which has been here for centuries, gradually building power, growing without depletion. A very human source of energy.
is what I came to talk about. Not doom and gloom, not fear and misery. But hope. Prosperity. Not problems but solutions. And so, ladies and gentlemen, if you'll allow itâÂ” A knowing, self-Âironic look now, a brow raised to the camera. “Can we talk?”
here's a certain type works for the Registry. You don't much notice them at first, not if you're front line. You're talent-Âspotted, head-Âhunted, drafted in. You've got a gift, or at least somebody hopes you have, and you're busy at the nuts-Âand-Âbolts end of the thing, planning how to do your next job and maybe spin it out into a Âcouple extra days paid holiday before you go back home; and if you're anything like me, you don't think much of what you'll probably be doing next year or in ten years' time. It's a failing, I suppose, this lack of forethought, and may even be a mind-Âset necessary for the job, since most field ops I know are just like that. They moan, they bitch about the work, but they're field ops nonetheless. That's what they do, that's what they'll stay, too, in the main. It's only when their lives go seriously wrong that they stop and think a while, and wonder if there might be something else that they could do, some other trade or business with a slightly lower chance of being killed, maimed, or so mightily fucked over that they'll never get a good night's sleep again.
That's what I went through after my last time in Budapest.
I had taken stock. Decided that I liked being alive; decided when I looked into the mirror, I wanted to know who was looking back at me. I wanted to see me, just as I was, not the temporary hideout of some awful mass of ancient energy that had no right to wear a human form, especially not mine.
So I transferred. Some pains were taken to dissuade me. I was told I was a skillful operative, talented, and needed by the company. This even translated into the promise of a pay rise. But I was obstinate. I moved to HR, and for eighteen months I shuffled papers, typed reports, and sat on panels hearing the grievance of a certain worker A, who insisted that, six weeks earlier, worker B had used an offensive term to him; or worker C, unfairly graded at a level 4 (he claimed) because his manager disliked him; or worker D, caught, incontrovertibly, watching porn on a work computer during work time but somehow fighting the case and claiming it had happened by “mistake” or been foisted on him by malicious fellow workers who (again) disliked himÂ .Â .Â .
Hard to believe that Âpeople cared about all this. At least that they cared as much as they did.
I did other things. I moved around, one department to another. None of it worked out.
I asked for a transfer back. To real work. Work with an end product that you could actually see and chalk up on your private wall of triumphs. Then, if you were lucky, that you could go home and forget about.
There's worse in life than Field Ops. Much, much worse.
Still, my little holiday had taught me much. It had brought home just how big the organization was; how many departments, sections and divisions it contained, how many offshoots, side-Âshoots, teams and crews and units and committees; for purchasing, for servicing, for printing, manufacturing, for media and publicity and all the rest.
Then there was Outreach and Development.
Shailer'd scarcely been in sniffing distance of it then. Now here he was, a few years later, Deputy Department Head. Well, who'd have thought .Â .Â . ?
This is something that I noticed, working in HR. And it must be true of any major company, any large organization.
You get the folks who are their jobs. Field ops tend to be like that; they eat, sleep, and drink the business. They may not like it, but they're stuck with it, and, by and large, they're good at what they do. “You couldn't do it,” is a standard op response to criticism. And it's true, too, in the main. They're good at it, and not at too much else. I know these Âpeople's private lives. The wreckage stands at roughly one for one. Mine included.
Then you've got those for whom it's just a job. They could be working anywhere. Some of them are good, some less so. They may gain pride from the prestige of their positions, but nothing that they wouldn't get from Ford or Kellogg's or Pfizer. It's a job. It buys a house, supports a family, whatever else. Fine, fine.
The third type, also, could be working anywhere. Because at root, they really do not care what we produce or what we do.
They care about themselves. Their own trajectory through life. Which is not unreasonable, really; we're all like that to some extent. But they could work for Shell, or Greenpeace, or the government, or anything. Because the vital thing isn't the work: the vital thing is just getting ahead. And I don't mean going for a few quid extra, better work conditions, all of that; those are things we all want. I'm talking about drive, obsession, total dedication to a single end.
They could be one of the boys; oh yes, they could fit in. Except they're always looking to the bigger boys, wanting to join
club, always hankering to move on up. They're competitive. They don't prosper out of talent or ability or dedication; they prosper out of drive. Creatures of will. Like gods. And Shailer now seemed very much a small god in himself. He relished the attention, knew the way to milk it, focus every eye upon himself. Like an actor, knowing when to pause, when to tease and when to flatter. Knowing all the right buttons to push.
Ironic, then, what he was saying now. In somber tones.
“There is a term come into public use. And I abhor this term. I abhor it onâÂoh, moral grounds, ethical grounds. But mostly for one simple, scientific reason: it's inaccurate.”
He looked around the auditorium, as if awaiting prompts. But he didn't want prompts. In a deep voice, he announced, “That termâÂand I've no wish to hear this, ever againâÂis
So here we go.
“You should be awareâÂI have the deepest, most profound respect for genuine religious faith. Make no mistake. I believe that seeking spiritual enlightenment, in whatever form, is the highest calling that a man can have. And it just muddies the waters describing what we do, this energy resource we can provide, with a term that falsely, fraudulently, credits it with a religious quality. I can't stress this enough. What we mineâÂwhat we
if you likeâÂis the fruit of years, centuries of human interaction. Human feeling,
emotion, embedded now like coal or oil or gas within the very fabric of our land. A renewable energy source. Churches, true, are places where such feelings well up to the surface. But there are others, too. Last week, in an English railway station .Â .Â .”
I am impatient, as I say, with the palaver that surrounds the job. There is what I call work, and there is what I call farting around: the bumf, the conferences, social niceties, staff get-Âtogethers and the like. And Shailer doing his PR thing. The company might need itâÂmight, indeed, need him.