The Gordian Knot, our real problem

One of the things you learn in a kitchen is to keep over ripe bananas away from the others. The over ripe banana emits a gaseous hormone called ethylene and this acts on the other bananas which will soon turn to mush too. It is a similar process to what we do in the garden to make compost from rotting vegetation and is in fact a vital process. In the human body we have another process called cancer. This spreads and incites other cells to kill themselves not that they know that. They think they are growing but the growth is uncontrollable, destroys organs, blood vessels and kills. The ageing process that kills us is linked to this as well and in terms of population control may also be important. Many of the problems health services around the world are having now are due to the increased longevity we enjoy, or endure. In the UK we live 13 years longer than we did at the beginning of my life.

So this natural process is both a life saver in a broad sense and an individual killer. I do not think it too political to point out that in cancer the body’s resources are diverted disproportionately to tumour growth and other vital functions get starved. People lose weight and this is often the first sign. In the world we have vast sums of money accumulating in certain places and growing poverty. It is a symptom of the body dying. Too many species are facing extinction, too many forests being cleared, the oceans and skies are becoming more and more polluted – these are all symptoms of this. The end result is of course that we all die, the body dies but the tumours never know that until it is too late. We hear of miracle cures but seldom will see them ourselves.

There was nothing seriously wrong really. We had a self sufficient system which supported life however over the last few decades the signals got muddled and corrupted as they do with cancers. One problem was how crime organised itself to become mighty corporations, or more precisely to own these and grow exponentially almost undetected. Corporations are merely programmed bodies whose purpose is to grow, to earn money. As they have become ever mightier they have achieved a control of our governance, our body’s governance if you like. It is not their fault. In many ways they made us what we were, a species with incredible gifts and abilities. But an example in the UK is how an initiative to harness these marvels has turned on the very people they intended to help. It was an initiative that sought to get private investment into public services. They built hospitals and many other public buildings, provided services to run them and it all looked fine. But the Private Finance Initiative as it was called also required hefty rewards for doing this and in the UK the PFI debt is running at well over £275 billion but for one reason or another is not included in the national debt which is also vast and un-repayable. The repayments are now so huge that the NHS for example is paying massive sums for this which are being taken away from funding needed by the clinical services. The government is also having to make huge cuts. Private investment of say £11 billion may result in repayments of £80 billion. It meant well but is ending badly for the body it was designed to help. The scheme has now spread all over the world, a world that did not realise that this quick fix could become an even bigger potential problem.

This is true for so much these days. What country or corporation can afford to clean up the plastic in our oceans? The floating mass in the Pacific was first identified in 1985. Most of it is beneath the surface, very hard to detect and the real evidence is being found in the marine life adversely affected. That is also how cancer works, we often first identify it from blood or urine tests then need careful scans and x-rays to find it. There is another plastic garbage patch in the Atlantic.

Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) (about the size of Texas) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.4% to 8% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some media reports, up to “twice the size of the continental United States” Wikipedia

Imagine the cost of picking that all up and reprocessing it on land. It simply will not happen but the problem causing it is still unidentified. Some say it is discarded fishing gear, others say it is refuse dumping at sea, others that it floated out to sea from land. As a result whatever caused it is not being stopped and that is again what happens with cancer and gangrene. The message telling cells to grow abnormally is not stopped. It may be for example that smoking has caused the cancer in our lungs but smoking all over the world is still doing that. It seems to be impossible to stop the habit and for many years they argued over whether it really was the cause. It is an isolated example and maybe should be viewed in the light of essential population control. But unfortunately it is a small symptom of the entire body dying, not just the individuals who choose to smoke. The cancerous cells eventually cause the demise of all the healthy ones unless treated and stopped.

Wars keep our numbers down, so do disease and pollution. Poverty keeps our numbers down and stops billions from using up the world’s resources, most of which have to be bought – food, water, medicine, shelter etc. The poor die young. It is obviously unfair and yet inequality is growing extremely fast, just as we find in a cancer riddled body.

The point is that all of us will die from the disease we are making. The rich will die, as will the poor and almost all the other species. Just a few problems with the financial world will see the corporations die and the death will affect our empires just as it affects individuals. This is not the ‘global warming’. That probably is happening but is just one of many things going wrong and certainly is being used as a diversion from the real problems that we can resolve if we try. I suppose that this is what is wrong with the entire environmental ‘green’ lobby. It may have the best intentions but does not identify what is actually causing the disease. Now the major problem is that the corruption is growing and spreading so fast yet no effective action is being taken to stop it. We are like the smoker told we will die from cancer. We continue smoking and ignoring the advice to stop as we are still alive and it is a habit that seems impossible to break.

The real problem may be impossible to resolve. It is a vast weight sitting on humanity. If we collectively heaved we could lift it. But ’collectively’ is exactly what we cannot do. The poor in the world cannot escape poverty but of course were it top of the agenda for every government and corporation they could work together to take the population out of it. They could ensure medical treatment for everyone too, and clean up the oceans and atmosphere. We could turn to clean energy almost overnight. There is so much that we could do to stop our body dying. One thing we should certainly be doing is looking at a more humane way to prevent overpopulation. There are still massive incentives and influences to have big families and people still get pregnant many times without meaning to. But a quick look at the dynamics of overpopulation reveal where it leads. The habitat is plundered, then starvation and disease come in fast and destroy. It does not spare a few rich animals!

So what is the real problem? This is the ‘Gordian knot’. That is to say it is a problem that is so complex it appears that it cannot be resolved. And some of the many causes of the problems were well intentioned efforts to resolve it which went wrong. DDT used as a general pesticide after the war for example. We have many thousands of think tanks and institutes these days working on our problems and sadly many of the solutions they come up with are making them worse. Many of them are biased anyway and wish to improve the lot of their few funders or founders at the expense of many. There are now so many that the solution will not be found in creating more of them. But it is well worth looking at the original Gordian knot to see what it was all about. Certainly there is a lesson here:

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) solved easily by loophole or “thinking outside the box” (“cutting the Gordian knot”)….

At one time the Phrygians were without a king. An oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Phrygia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an oxcart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods, and, on entering the city, Gordias was declared king. Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel (Cornus mas) bark. The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BCE when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrapy, or province, of the Persian Empire.

Several themes of myth converged on the chariot, as Robin Lane Fox remarks: Midas was connected in legend with Alexander’s native Macedonia, where the lowland “Gardens of Midas” still bore his name, and the Phrygian tribes were rightly remembered as having once dwelt in Macedonia. So, in 333 BCE, while wintering at Gordium, Alexander the Great attempted to untie the knot. When he could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called “Alexandrian solution”). However, another solution is presented by Aristobulus, which indicates “he unfastened it quite easily by removing the pin which secured the yoke to the pole of the chariot, then pulling out the yoke itself.” That night there was a violent thunderstorm. Alexander’s prophet Aristander took this as a sign that Zeus was pleased and would grant Alexander many victories. Once Alexander had sliced the knot with a sword-stroke, his biographers claimed in retrospect that an oracle further prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia.

Alexander is a figure of outstanding celebrity and the dramatic episode with the Gordian Knot remains widely known. Literary sources are Alexander’s propagandist Arrian (Anabasis Alexandri 2.3) Quintus Curtius (3.1.14), Justin‘s epitome of Pompeius Trogus (11.7.3), and Aelian‘s De Natura Animalium 13.1.

While sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, the means by which he solved the problem are disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that according to Aristobulus, Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it. Some classical scholars regard this as more plausible than the popular account.

Alexander later went on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus thus, for Callisthenes, fulfilling the prophecy.


The knot may have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordian/Midas’s priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus that, knotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.

Unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy to dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander’s “brutal cutting of the knot… ended an ancient dispensation.” The ox-cart suggests a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Gordias/Midas with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is most likely to have been aware. Based on the myth, the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly “outsider” class, represented by Greek reports equally as an eponymous peasant “Gordias” or the locally attested, authentically Phrygian “Midas” in his ox-cart. Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle stressed in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty was a race of priest-kings allied to the unidentified oracle deity….” Wikipedia

Well let me give my explanation and lesson in this. Midas was the king about whom it as said that everything he touched turned to gold. But his ancestors were poor. Certainly Midas lived before the Trojan war and centuries before money was invented, originally being gold and electrum nuggets used for exchange in his part of the world but only 500 years or so after the fall of Troy.

I find knots all the time. Cables seem to knot up magically and much patience is required to untangle them. You need to find the ends first. Some I know would throw the tangled mess away and buy more cables. The garden wire I bought in a large roll now seems to have multiple ends, the lazy result of constantly being cut in the middle to get a length without the problem of trying to find the end. Cutting a knot is certainly not helpful – unless one is tied up. And that is where we are with our knot. We are tied up. In some ways what we are tied by are legalities or even conventions. For example hospitals cannot just go out and buy the scanners they need. They cannot create new wards to give them the extra beds required or employ more doctors and nurses. They have budgets. And top of the budget is the loan repayment.

This is the case for every government. They cannot spend money on everything they might like to spend money on. They have budgets. Nor are they free from commitments that they have already made. And at the heart of this mighty knot is ’money’. We can, and do, print money but if we printed as much as we need to resolve all the issues facing us and to pay off the massive government debts then the financial system would crash. Money would become worthless. We are often told what happened to Germany between the wars. The dollar had traded at 4.2 German marks. The German government started printing money. It went to 330 marks to the dollar and Germany was forced to pay reparations for World War 1 of 132 billion gold marks – they were not going to accept paper money. In 1922 there were 7400 marks for a dollar. “By November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks” Wikipedia

They are not going to let us forget that because of what happened as a result! But in essence this is what the knot is about. It is something we find in loan sharking where poor people borrow money from gangsters and never get out of debt. The interest charged can be over 1,000,000%. The poor have no one else who will lend to them. Poor countries and those with poor credit ratings fare little better and have to pay mire interest on loans than the wealthy countries. Usually there is a safety net in our modern world – bankruptcy. In the UK before the 20th century our prisons were full of debtors, now few end up in prison but many lose all their assets. The average family in the UK now owes a fortune – for their cars, houses and credit cards:

“This means that households in the UK would have paid an average of £1,873 in annual interest repayments. Per person that’s £1,001 – 3.79% of average earnings. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s November 2016 forecast, household debt is predicted to reach £2.294 trillion in Q1 2022”

There is no end in sight and eventually we will crash again. In 2008 around 850,000 homes were repossessed in the US, in 2009 over 900,000. It is a massive tragedy in real terms when the global finance structure begins to collapse and it happens when repayments cannot be afforded.

I have often played Monopoly with my family. It is a good game and a good learning experience but one which always ends badly. One person ends up with everything and the rest are bankrupted. But it is a game.

So is our world finance system now. It is not bad but it ends badly. When that happens there are wars and revolutions. We can put down the revolutions but history tells us that it is only a quick fix at best. The revolutions we have seen of late have spiralled out of any control. Great empires like Rome staved off bankruptcy by invading country after country and pillaging them (spreading civilisation this was called in Rome) but eventually those countries destroyed Rome. Surely we have learned something by now. That to avoid this rage and to keep a good game going you have to cancel all debts and start again. But the rich players do not like that and the legal niceties protect them as after all they are the rules of the game.

This game will kill us all if we do not sort out the root problem stopping us from doing all the things we need to do right now to survive as a species . Countries are spending trillions on defence because of the problems brewing. Those mighty corporations need to change their product – they can clean the oceans and atmosphere for the money spent keeping a crashing system going. All the players lose eventually and that is the solution to this knot. Survival of the fittest is the rule of the game but it does not save a doomed species.

In fact it is all illusion. That is what the saddhus and sages will tell you. This money game makes things happen – it puts washing machines in our houses. But it has its limits and when extinction looms the knot has to be cut. When we stop being in denial about our cancer or gangrene we have life saving surgery, dangerous chemotherapy and radiation if necessary, but ideally we identify the culprit, cancel the tumour growing message and cut off the blood supply to them to save the whole body*. We would only do this at such a late stage in our life. It may be too late but our corporations are a clever lot and their ingenuity may save us and themselves if they change course, wake up to the impending disaster and deal with the real problem.

* it is only a wealth tax, it does not kill anyone!




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