Not a Drop To Drink

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Without warning, the camel died on him. Unexpectedly, the beast grunted and collapsed. It made one last, unavailing effort to rise, before falling, lifeless, into permanent silence.

Jones cursed and kicked the beast’s corpse in frustration. The nearest oasis was still a week’s ride away to the north — a good fifteen or sixteen days for a traveller on foot, even if the khamsin did not whip up a blinding sandstorm such as he had struggled through three days previously.

Jones unhitched the pack and performed a careful inventory of its contents; a slab of dried beef, raisins and dates, a few emergency bars of chocolate. Plenty enough: it would be the water which would be critical.

Carefully, he unscrewed the cap on his canteen and shook it, trying to gauge from the sloshing sound how much was left.

u2018Two-thirds full — good for a night’s marching,’ he figured. u2018What about the water bags on the camel?’

After a careful calculation of his likely needs, he came to the reluctant conclusion that, even if he could bear the weight of the eight or nine gallons in the bags, he’d have to survive on barely half the normal ration if he were to make it back to Wadi-el-Aqbar — an unlikely prospect, even if his navigation was unerring in the near-trackless waste in which he found himself.

u2018Still, I don’t seem to be overflowing with options,’ he told himself stoically

He turned full circle, seeking to align his compass reading with anything which might stand out against the monotonous backdrop and, screwing up his eyes against the glare of the mid-day sun, he could just make out a patch of scrub, perhaps a clump of old thorn trees, a few clicks to the west, lying fortuitously along his route.

u2018If I aim for there, I can rest up in its shade during daylight, before I strike out across the desert again after nightfall tomorrow.’

He made one last, slow sweep of the pitiless horizon. u2018Nothing better on offer, it seems.’

After a few hours of hard, sweaty plodding through the scree and loose sand beneath him, Jones neared the scrub, just as the sun was puddling the Western rim of the earth with fire, while, behind him, the first stars were beginning to glow against the thickening velvet of the sky.

Shuddering involuntarily with the first presentiment of the night time chill, Jones started and peered intently into the lengthening shadows cast by the dying sun. Yes! — There it was again! Something — or someone — was stirring in the tenebrous foreground of a stand of dead-looking thorn trees.

As he crept closer, hand firmly coiled around the butt of his Webley service revolver as a precaution, Jones was stopped in his tracks by a cheery voice — imbued with the unmistakable soft inflections of the West Coast of America — calling out in greeting.

u2018Hey, am I glad to see you, Dude!’ The slight figure of a man, a shade under six feet, weighing probably 160 lbs, and dressed in bedraggled fatigues, was now just discernible amid the gathering shadows. u2018I was hoping someone would be along, before too long. I should be able to complete my borehole now, if you’ll give me hand — and a sip out of that bodacious-looking canteen of yours!’

Now, picture yourself in this scenario.

You are caught in the desert with barely enough water to last you a fortnight and almost too far from the nearest known source to replenish your stocks in time, before you succumb to thirst.

Suddenly, you are confronted by this stranger, who explains to you that he is a hydrological engineer who has come here to put to the test his latest invention — a battery powered drilling rig, complete with a wind-powered recharger — along the lines suggested by his very own, newly-developed and unorthodox theories of the best way to locate subterranean desert aquifers.

If he’s right, he tells you, he will revolutionize the way commerce is conducted across the world’s arid regions, and he will make a fortune out of licensing the technology, to boot. If you will help him, half of the deal is yours, he says.

Beside him is a strange-looking mini-rig in the process of construction and, a rangy looking mule, seemingly on its last legs from dehydration and general privation.

You are faced with two options. The first is that you can stick to your original — admittedly somewhat risky — plan to rely on your own hard work and best efforts to bring your trek to a successful conclusion.

Alternatively, you can buy into the Valley Boy’s plans and share your precious water reserve with him as he drives his new machinery down that vital few hundred meters into the bedrock, something which he estimates will unleash a positive gusher of sweet, unsullied spring water by the end of the week.

As it turns out, you choose the latter, but, whether it’s because he’s unlucky, or because he’s a fool — or simply a charlatan who debunks while you’re still tucked up in your bed-roll — a few days later, it becomes obvious the plan isn’t going to work.

Worse, because you and your companion were both so confident that his scheme was going to pan out, you haven’t been as careful with your water as you might have been, and there is very little remaining to you as a result of this misplaced extravagance.

Whatever the case, there is no water to be found, or there’s too little piping to reach it, or progress has turned out to be too slow for you to get there before your stores run out, or the guy’s hit crude oil, showering you with black, not white, gold instead — a bounty in other circumstances, but totally useless to your present, pressing needs.

There is hope, though.

The mule, you realize, has survived all this time by pawing up the ground alongside the thorn bushes — which are in fact dormant, not dead — and sucking up the few precious drops of moisture it has found from around its hardy roots.

If you work equally hard, you, too, may be able to garner enough vital liquid to eke out an existence while you await rescue, but it is critical, as you do, that you become even more draconian in your rationing than you were to start with, in order to match your shrunken means to your most essential ends.

Moreoever, the Cisco Kid’s would-be water-diviner was wind-powered, you remember, and it came with a great plastic sail which you could strip off from its mooring to the fuel cells and use to rig up a solar still, putting his engineering skills to some good at last, and thus harvesting yet more life-giving fluid from the ground.

The days ahead are hard and survival is still tenuous, but, with your rigorous control of water use, and your total restriction of any unnecessary exertion, you are beginning, painstakingly, to set aside a little surplus each day and you are slowly refilling the water bags.

If you can just maintain your morale and your discipline, in another week or so, one of you will be able to attempt to go for help and then, who knows, that oil you found might just make your fortune, as long as you don’t have to trade away the mineral rights as the price of your salvation.

However, this wouldn’t be a true desert story, if it didn’t come with an alternative version, incorporating a little traditional magic.

In this telling, as you are digging around under the thorn tree, you unearth a stoppered bottle, buried in the damp sand. Taking out the cork, you are amazed that a great cloud of smoke billows out and, before your unbelieving eyes, a turbaned figure materializes in the reek.

u2018Ah, Effendi, you have released me from the prison of a thousand years, whence I was confined by a White Magus from the land of Pannonia! I shall satisfy the most urgent of your desires, in gratitude for my much belated liberation.’

Setting aside your astonishment (though half believing this is a delirium brought on by the heat), you tell the Genie you want water — copious, nay, inexhaustible, amounts of fresh, cold water.

u2018So small a request for so great a service,’ observes the Genie, chuckling. u2018It shall be as you say. Only show the Spirits of the Place that you desire water and they will furnish you with your Heart’s Desire, for, O foolish Mortal, it has only been your own parsimony which has left you in dearth, rather than summoning forth the gratification of your wants by their very expression!’

Who are you to argue with a genie?

You do as he commands and you immediately guzzle the last few pints of your water reserve and hold out the containers in the expectation they will be magically refilled.

But, alas! You have sealed your doom, for this is no benevolent spirit which you have freed, but an Evil Djinn — a demiurge — who was bottled up by the wise old Austrian seer for the very good reason that it was his malice to lead trusting Men to ruin with his nostrums — and so there is no miracle to be had, whereby your waterskins are miraculously replenished.

u2018Foolish Man,’ the Djinn cackles as he dissolves into the desert breeze once more. u2018To think that plenty arises spontaneously to repair waste and to gratify desire! How naïve you Humans, truly are!’

Thus our little allegory has attempted to show that in a world where all economic resources are intrinsically scarce and where time is an ineluctable constraint, the only viable responses to a poor investment decision are:

To recognize it for the loss it is and to stem it forthwith.

To cut back on all unnecessary expenditures and to reinvest the difference in other — perhaps less glamorous, lower tech — undertakings, in an attempt to rebuild one’s capital stock.

To try to salvage as many of the physical goods from the wreckage as possible, putting them to work aiding the new endeavour and simultaneously redeploying all relevant human skills to the same purpose.

To ignore the malevolent voices of Keynesians and Monetarists alike, when they tell you that u2018effective demand’ will be your saviour and that, if you will only do your patriotic duty and consume, industry will instantly and frictionlessly reorder its complex interweaving in order to accommodate your appetites, to raise the value of your financial assets, and to secure your prospects of employment — all in one wave of the macroeconomic genie’s hand.

The moral of our tale: If you want to get over the Bust, drink less, dig harder, and keep Greenspan and his peers firmly corked up where they belong!

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] writes from London on the financial markets, and edits the daily Capital Letter and the Website Capital Insight.

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