While listening to Don McLean’s iconic hit ‘American Pie’, a lyric jumped from the 1970’s into my 21st century ear, namely ‘Fire is the devil’s only friend’. At the time I was driving home toward Reading and could see the wind turbine beside the M4, churning around in the air, generating electrical power from this zero-cost fuel whilst burning nothing in the process. My thoughts lingered on McLean’s words as I remembered a short story I read at around the time he was writing his hit song.
‘Hell Fire’ by Isaac Asimov was published in May 1956, and appeared in a collection of Science Fiction short stories titled ‘Earth Is Room Enough’. The story tells of the testing of a new technique of high speed photography, fast enough to capture an atomic explosion no less. The story was written before the nuclear test ban treaty when nations were testing their bombs by detonating them above ground in remote places. So, the bomb is detonated and the new hi-tech cameras record the event while the scientists rush back to a viewing room to look at the results. Immediately following the blinding flash of detonation, the film progressed to show a face forming in the picture. As the explosion rushes outward the face reveals itself to be Satan himself! The devil laughing, no doubt delighted that mankind has made for him such a ‘friendly’ fire.
So, we have a song and a short story where the main character is universally recognisable. ‘Old Nick’ to euphemise him is an essential supporting actor in the monotheistic religions and makes appearances in various guises in traditions that pre-date even those. But who or what exactly are we talking about? The dualist concept of good and evil, represented by their respective protagonists God and the Devil is ingrained in the human experience at so many levels. For religious people, these distinctions animate their lives and for Christians, the idea of sin and redemption is the central tenet of their faith.
Richard Dawkins introduced us to the concept of ‘memes’, ideas that get taken up by the human mind and carried from person to person down the generations. Memes propagate through art, music and language and like genes, adapt and mutate, the most adaptive surviving while the less fit are banished to the sidelines or die out. While the idea of the devil is as vigorous as ever in the minds of human beings, others hold sway only on the margins of society. An example of a marginalised meme is the idea of witchcraft. The ‘witch craze’ swept through Europe in the 16th century in an age when most people believed in witches and expected the authorities, religious and secular to punish these perceived doers of evil deeds. By the late 17th century the idea had lost its grip on the elites as science and reason began to expose such superstitious practices. The courts took less and less interest in trying to prosecute allegations of witchcraft, culminating in Parliament passing the Witchcraft Act in 1735. This act recognised witchcraft as an ‘impossible crime’ and was designed to prosecute claimants to such powers as con artists.
While dear old witchcraft has been banished to the fringes, the idea of the devil is as strong and universal as ever, continuing to appear under a plethora of names such as Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Hades, and Yen-Lo-Wang. The last in that list being the Chinese ruler of Hell. These were just a sample of about one hundred names served up by Wikipedia for our subterranean nemesis if you Google him. As a non believer in things supernatural, I put the devil in the same category as witchcraft, demons, ghosts, fairies at the bottom of my garden and of course God, the big daddy of all memes.
Human ingenuity has thrown up so many ideas, products, processes and belief systems that are both good and bad depending on where you are in time and place. Democracy seems on balance to be a good thing but is not universally accepted as such, along with freedom of speech, votes for women, the bicycle, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ and bacon sandwiches (unless you happen to be Muslim or Jewish of course). Things that are now considered by most people to be bad ideas include the owning of slaves, child labour, smoking tobacco and a double whopper burger with cheese and extra fries. Interesting that all of these things are still going on somewhere in the world and of course the last two are perfectly legal and available almost everywhere. Some ‘bad ideas’ though do offer benefits, both economic and hedonistic, although these can be short term and opinions tend to change with evidence and experience. And as for fire, the first technology game changer, is it a good or bad thing? If it really is the ‘devil’s only friend’, haven’t we set ourselves up for a fall by figuring out how to make it in the first place?
With another glance to the wind turbine it occurred to me that our well being and comfort depends almost entirely on burning things in one way or another. We started off burning wood, then coal, oil in its various forms and gas. Even nuclear power consumes the uranium fuel as the atoms are ripped apart in the process of fission, just another type of burning. Even if your ‘devil’ is a metaphorical one, wouldn’t he be having a little laugh every time we burn one of the aforementioned fuels, depleting a finite natural resource and as we now know, degrading the atmosphere to the detriment of all life? Every year, humanity burns the equivalent of a few million years of carbonised life, laid down back in the time of the dinosaurs. In effect we burn dead dinosaurs, or at least the trees and plants that grew when those giant beasts roamed the earth.
There appears to be a rising tide of climate change deniers, politicians, journalists and business leaders who rubbish the investments made in wind farms, solar power and other forms of producing energy that does not involve ‘burning stuff’. This must be making our imaginary Satan laugh all the way to his bank of souls as he foresees yet further death and destruction from rising sea levels, denuded resources and ruined crops. The point of my disparate ramblings is that in an irrational world, full of fact-denying shapers of public opinion, we need all the allies we can muster, even irrational ones like ‘Old Nick’. Mr. Asimov’s brilliant allegory showed the madness of testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, clearly a ‘bad idea’. We can only work towards a world where the burning of fossil fuels is seen in a similar light. Whether you believe in Satan or his opposite number ‘upstairs’ or not, nature’s experiment with a more developed pre-frontal cortex will come to a sticky end if we fail to figure out how to enjoy the benefits of its creativity without pandering to the Devil’s only friend.