One of the things that arrived during Lauren’s birthday party was a mylar balloon filled with helium.
It’s bright and shiny, in the way that such balloons are, and the cats are just fascinated. It skitters around the house carried by the air currents from the furnace in a random Coriolis pattern, trailing felines and making just the sort of scraping noise that something out of a low-budget horror film would make if it were trapped in your attic, which is why we try to anchor it at night.
For a while I thought it was losing its lift, since it had settled to an altitude of about knee-height, but it turned out that Tabitha had weighted it down to make it easier for the cats to prey on it. Lauren apparently figured that out too, and now it cruises around the ceilings once again.
It is a very nice balloon.
You don’t see them very much anymore, oddly enough. It was only a few years ago that these helium-filled mylar balloons were everywhere – you’d go to the supermarket and they’d fill up as many as you wanted, and they were so much nicer than the old latex ones that lost their helium overnight.
But there’s a helium shortage, don’t you know. They don’t make the stuff, being an element and all, and there are important industrial uses for it that tend to trump balloons.
It’s kind of odd, really.
We live in an age of unprecedented abundance. By any historical standard, the modern world – particularly the industrialized part of it – is awash in goods and resources to an extent that previous generations would have found inconceivable.
We are surrounded by stuff.
We expect there to be food.
We don’t worry too much about survival.
Oh, some people do. Poverty exists, and in some places it exists good and hard. In those places there isn’t much stuff, and there can be even less food. Survival is in fact something to worry about there.
But we regard those places as exceptions, as places that have somehow missed out on the larger prosperity and abundance that defines the modern world, places that could be brought into that prosperity and abundance if only we refined our politics, our economics, our technology, our distribution networks, our ethical standards – as if it were simply a matter of choice on our part that scarcity continues to exist amid all this plenty.
It can be shocking to come face to face with the fact that those aren’t the exceptions, even in something as trivial as a helium-filled mylar balloon.
The fact is that there is only so much stuff that can be made.
That while we may have raised the Malthusian limit on food production, we have not eliminated it.
And that any age of abundance will invariably be followed by an age of scarcity that will reach even those areas where scarcity is regarded as a problem for other people.
Humans evolved in scarcity. We’re good at it. Not in the numbers we have now – those, unfortunately, are not sustainable in the long run, and the faces behind those numbers are not anything you want to think about too hard if you want to sleep at night.
Such thoughts are a lot of weight for a balloon to carry.