Preface to Beyond Bretton Woods

18 July 2005

Cover Beyond Bretton Woods

Beyond Bretton Woods: Alternatives to the Global Economic Order
Edited by John Cavanagh, Marcos Arruda and Daphne Wysham
Transnational InstitutePluto Press, London, 1994

This preface for a TNI collection was truly a rush job - so much so that as I remember, I was not even given enough time to read the contributions. The publisher was waiting and the ghastly alternative was to miss the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Boys - and no longer to be able fully to justify the watchword "50 Years is Enough". The only avenue open under the circumstances was to read nothing and plunge ahead. Fellow-fans of Steven Jay Gould may recognise a certain pervasive influence in this preface, completed in March 1994.

In the late Cretaceous Period, the lower orders held a long-awaited Conference entitled 'Beyond the Mesozoic: Alternatives to the Dinosaurs'. Mammalian scholars, activists and some who were both; although all exceedingly small, turned up in large numbers. A collection of remarkably interesting papers, later published in the venerable and prestigious Jurassic Journal, was presented; including 'Post-Mesozoicism: Possible Paths to the Cenozoic', 'A Bill of Rodent Rights', 'Ferns are Not Enough: Towards a Sustainable and Variegated Vegetation for All', 'Pterosaurian Accountability: What Price Prey?' and 'Coping with T.Rex'.

Pleistocene mammals like ourselves may not, at such a far remove, fully recognise the courage and foresight displayed by a small minority of their tiny, feeble and extremely distant ancestors in organising such an event. The mammal mainstream had, in those times, always adopted the position most succinctly described as 'Eat and Let Eat'. 'Never try to interfere with a Terrible Lizard' was their watchword for every occasion. The Saurians were simply more powerful than anybody else, they said, and that had to be recognised once and for all. The best mammals could hope for was to stay out of their way.

Once in a while, the offspring rebelled against this common parental view because the Saurian Order was so manifestly unjust for the vast majority of creatures. By the time they were off their mother's milk, however, the youngsters had generally accepted the conventional wisdom. The very notion that there could be 'Alternatives to the Dinosaurs' made most mammals snicker or sneer. Thus any scholarly endeavor daring to look 'Beyond the Mesozoic' was truly a landmark for the period.

The Proceedings of the Conference make for lively reading; they also reveal a certain dissension among the phyla. Chiroptera did not take the same line as Dermoptera who themselves disagreed with the Rodentia. Despite the Conference Chair's repeated remonstrances to the effect that 'We mammals have got to stick together', participants representing a surprising number of species were at odds with each other on their analysis of the whole question of dinosaurs and thus in their strategies for dealing with them.

They quarrelled, for example, over the eternally vexed question of carnivores versus herbivores. Should mammals attempt to oppose both sorts of dinosaurs or only the carnivorous ones that actually ate them? Could herbivorous mammals ever hope to make mutually beneficial arrangements with plant-eating dinosaurs, or would the latter always revert to type, siding with their own kind, carnivores included, when the chips were down?

Even those mammals who believed that, on principle, they should steadfastly struggle against both the 'Meaties' and the 'Grassies', as they liked to call them in their lighter moments, debated endlessly how best to do so. Whatever their noble principles, how could a bunch of insignificant and minuscule animals possibly take on these huge beasts in practice? The balance of forces was absurdly unequal - anybody could see that.

As the Conference proceeded, some shrill voices were raised. In one plenary session, the more combative shrews shrieked that talk and debate were all very well but meanwhile the existing system was crushing everyone except for - here knowing looks were directed at the bats - a tiny, privileged minority that could fly. The bats complained loudly to the organisers of discrimination - they deeply resented being singled out on grounds of anatomical difference and besides, had the shrews never heard of pterodactyls and other flying Saurians? The shrews, however, were nearly proven right when a plodding diplodocus just missed annihilating the Conference site as he lumbered into a river on whose banks the delegates had assembled.

Although present at every session, some participants maintained that holding the Conference at all was a complete waste of time. As one particularly pessimistic (and boring) lemur never tired of repeating, 'Dinosaurs run everything, they always have and they always will.' His view - he was not alone - was that mammals should concentrate on building larger and more evenly spaced sanctuaries. Confrontation with the Saurians was not even to be contemplated.

The more analytical and strategically-minded rodents asked their fellow mammals simply to step back and think coolly about the balance of power. 'Dinosaurs', they said, 'are big, for sure, and some of them are fast, but Holy Volcano are they dumb! Not for nothing is "Brontosaurus Brain" the worst insult you can level at a rat. We have to start analysing their vulnerabilities and our own capacities - for instance, we could maybe raid their nests, destroy their eggs, whatever. But we'd have to be unified, with well-disciplined ground, sea and air forces. Think about it'.

The majority still felt that military solutions were impractical or simply wrong and their spokesanimals tended to pontificate: 'We must either win by non-violent means or gain at best a hollow victory'. Many also asserted that the dinosaurs could gradually be brought to change their behaviour, through persuasion and counter-example. If it were made clear, really clear, to them how much damage they were causing, surely they would be converted and mend their ways.

The mammals on this side of the argument presented the Conference with a carefully constructed set of case-studies documenting dinosaur-induced damage in detail. Naturally T.Rex and the raptors got most of the attention, but the more mild-mannered stegosauri and triceratops came in for their share of criticism as well, particularly with regard to hogging the food supply.

As the Conference proceeded, a disparate coalition of forward-looking mammals - a bat and a rat here, a lemur and a shrew there - began to emerge. These creatures found a bond in their common interest in a post-dinosaur world which they, alone among the Conference participants, had the courage even to consider. 'Rank speculation!' 'Dangerous Utopianism!' the other animals squeaked whenever the ISC (the Inter-Species Coalition) attempted to place its motions on the floor. The ISC, however, remained convinced that planning for a world without Terrible Lizards was a rational animal activity even if most of their fellows could not even conceive of such a time or place. They looked to a future when all species could live together in harmony, without fear of being starved or trod upon.

Towards the end of the event, a single creature, who later turned out to be the ancestor of the hedgehog, timidly raised his paw. 'If it please the Conference', he said, 'could we not consider the possibility of divine intervention or of sheer ecological collapse? The dinosaurs are abusing our common home. They only care about their own power and they are taking too much from our world. They leave almost nothing for the smaller, weaker creatures and they trample us and our offspring as well. I believe that one day the Holy Volcano will refuse them their privileges and punish them. Then we shall come into our own'. The proto-hedgehog was laughed off the site, dismissed as a visionary and a fanatic.

Even in the late Cretaceous, however, history was quirky and unpredictable. Just as the mammals were dispersing, volcanoes the length and breadth of the earth began ominously to rumble. The Inter-Species Coalition immediately called an emergency all-species consultation on post-dinosaur measures. And a few turns around the sun later, the asteroid struck.