Some tribes are supposed to have a counting system which consists of the numerals one, two, three and many. This tends to make us chuckle, but I wonder if we do not at times deceive ourselves with the devices we have invented to count up to the sky and beyond. We can write huge numbers and even (with difficulty) pronounce them but can we think them ? I have been trying to work out how many apples or bottles of milk or people I can visualize at once and I think my answer is somewhere between seven and thirteen. So I can imagine 1300 dollars by thinking of 13 one-hundred dollar bills or 6500 euros by thinking of 13 five-hundred euro notes, but not really beyond that. Which makes the figures which I hear being thrown out by governments to shore up the financial system sound as real as ogres and angels. It is hard to maintain any idea of what really happens in the economy because the figures are so far beyond the boundaries of our mental eyesight. Perhaps we don’t admit it to ourselves but we also give up pretty quickly and translate large numbers into many, larger ones into more than many and even larger ones into shrugs and lifted eyebrows.
One way of bringing home the meaning of things is to change the unit we use to measure them with. In 1971, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, found a way to represent differences of income in society. He asked us to imagine a parade of the whole of the British population. The parade would last one hour exactly and people would walk by in ascending order of height. The height of the people marching by would be determined by their income. We the spectators would have an average income and thus an average height.
For the first five minutes we see gnomes the size of a matchstick, a cigarette. These are housewifes who have worked for a short time, schoolboys with a paper round. The next five or six minutes sees taller people, up to about three feet (90 cm), old-age pensioners, young people, owners of shops doing badly, divorced women, unemployed people. Then we get ordinary workers from the lowest paid categories – garbage collectors, miners, unskilled clerks, unskilled workers, lots of people from ethnic minorities. It takes about fifteen minutes before the marchers get well beyond four feet (1.20m). “For you and me this is a disturbing sight; fifteen minutes is a long time to keep seeing people pass who barely reach to our midriff.”
After another ten minutes, the people marching by are as high as our collar bones. There are skilled industrial workers and office workers. As we look at the approaching marchers we still don’t see much change in height approaching. In fact, it is only after 45 minutes of the hour-long procession that we finally see people of our own height arriving – teachers, executive civil servants, shopkeepers, insurance agents, foremen, a few farmers.
The last six minutes of the march bring the top ten percent of the population. Initially people who are just above average, about six foot six (1.95m), who never thought they were in the top ten percent – headmasters, youngish university graduates, seamen, farmers, departmental heads. But the climax comes in the last few minutes. A lawyer, not exceptionally successful, eighteen feet tall. The first doctors, seven or eight yards (6.30 – 7.20m). The first accountants. One minute is left and now we see university professors, nine yards (8.10 m), senior officers of large concerns, ten yards (9 m), an even taller High Court judge, a few accountants, surgeons, over twenty yards (18 m) tall. In the last few seconds, people as tall as tower blocks appear, mostly businessmen, some film stars, members of the Royal Family, the Duke of Edinburgh – sixty yards (54 m) high, famous singers, nearly a mile high. The parade ends with a special international guest, John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time, and his height is almost inconceivable: at least ten miles, perhaps twenty. The sole of his shoe is hundreds of feet thick.
This description was Britain in the 70s and by most accounts economic disparity has increased greatly since then.
Here’s another thing I find it hard to imagine. I’ve read that on 3 June 1864 during the battle of Cold Harbor 7,000 Union troops were killed within the space of twenty minutes. How does one begin to imagine that ? If you were to count to 7,000 at the speed of one number per second it would take just under one hour fifty-seven minutes (60×60=3600 per hour): which means that it would take about six times longer to count the soldiers than it did to kill them. One second a life is a very cheap rate of exchange. Think of all the stories and memories that go out when a life is lost. It’s like a whole world disappearing.
But let us stay with this rate and see where it takes us. The deaths in World War II over a period of just over five and a half years are estimated at between 50 million and 70 million. Let us be conservative again and take the lower figure. You’re not going to be able to count to 50 million in a day and you’ll have to stop to sleep and eat every now and again so let us try and work out how long it would take us to count the dead of World War II if we worked a 40-hour week . According to my calculations it would take you about 6 years 8 months. Taking the 70-million figure the time would be something like 9 years 4 months. This is assuming you work every second of those eight hours a day (no sick days, no extra holidays, no trips to the coffee bar, no conversations with anybody) something which has probably never been achieved on any single day let alone for years on end. So you could easily add another 50% or 100% to this time and realise that it would take a large chunk out of one’s life simply to give a brief acknowledgement of the number of victims counting at a speed which does not even allow for people’s names to be read out decently.
Here are some more big death tolls and the time needed to count them (40-hr week):
1. Great Leap Forward (20-43m) 2.67-5.74 yrs.
2. Indian Famine (1896-97) (6- 10.3m) 0.8-1.37 yrs
3. Indian Famine (1899-1900)(1.25-10m) 0.16-1.33 yrs
4.World War I (15m) 2 years
The risk is that these huge figures might make the ones in the thousands, like at Cold Harbor, seem negligeable. After all, if you work hard you can knock off 144,000 numbers by the end of a five-day week. But, of course, in these things one is already a huge number.
People who start wars and cause disasters are hardly ever held responsible. And though I can’t help thinking thoughts I’m not going to name names because we might have different opinions on the responsibilities involved and that could be an argument which would take us far away from what I am trying to talk about, which is, basically, that even if we can’t assure accountability we could at least try to make sure there is some countability from time to time. I don’t see much chance of organising a six or seven year count but perhaps we could take on a number somewhere in the area of 10,000 to start with.