Once upon a time there was a jar with clear sides and a lid. The jar was mostly full of air but at the bottom of the jar there was a tiny heap of earth sitting in a shallow pool of water. Living on the tiny heap of earth were tiny plants. When they were warmed by the light which shone through the glass the water in their leaves rose into the air and up under the lid of the jar. At night the jar was cool and the water fell as rain. As the tiny plants died they left their nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other tiny plants could grow. In this way, the jar, though small, was perfect.
Living amongst the tiny plants on the tiny heap of earth were tiny tiny people. They were so small that for them, the tiny heap of earth was a world and the tiny plants were a forest that stretched as far as they could see. They ate the fruits that grew on the tiny plants and lived in their boughs, and breathed in the air that the plants breathed out. When the tiny people died their bodies left nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other plants could grow, and other tiny people benefit. In this way, the people, though small, were perfect. This is not to say that there was no toil, or grief, but that there was balance.
It was quite by accident that someone found the diamonds. Most of them were buried deep within the heap of earth but some had made their way to the surface over time and lay glittering in the light, scattered here and there, small as berries. The tiny people who found these diamonds had never seen anything like them before but since everything else the earth gave up was good, like the plants, they believed the diamonds were good too. As they would with a new fruit, they touched one of the diamonds to see if it would sting their skin. It did not. They smelled the diamond, to see if it was rotting or acrid. It was not. They licked the black diamond, to see if their throats closed or their bellies revolted at the taste. They did not. One of the tiny people, the bravest or perhaps the most curious, put the diamond in their mouth, and swallowed it.
It was in this way that the people who lived in the jar discovered the wonders of the diamonds. When you had eaten one of these diamonds, you were stronger, and faster. Distances that would have taken days to walk were a very small matter for a person who had eaten a diamond. “Miraculous!” the people said, “the diamonds are gifts of energy from the earth!” And they were.
Life became easier for the people in the jar. The extra energy they received from the ground meant they could spend less time on toil, and more time in leisure. They could think about, and create, things that were beautiful, not only things that were necessary. They could visit family who had married into other tribes or moved into other villages because the trip was now a matter of hours, rather than a matter of days. Children who had grown up after the discovery of the diamonds did not know a world without them–they imagined this world would be a hard, inefficient, and ignorant place.
Of course, like anything that comes from the ground and is eaten, a single diamond could provide energy for an hour or two, no more. And when the miracle of the diamond had passed, a hunger for another would begin.
Not that the people needed to eat diamonds all the time. “Of course not,” they would say to each other, “that would be silly.” They ate the diamonds only to hasten their various labours, and when they needed to travel. Diamonds were not needed during times of leisure, only times of work. And yet there were those who occasionally ate them for fun, because they loved the speed of their movements, loved the freedom and strength and grace these diamonds seemed to give them. And of course, people often ate diamonds to travel even short trips, because it was faster that way, and would save time.
In fact, it seemed that once people began to save time by eating diamonds, they realized how precious time truly was. Their predecessors had plodded through life, taking for granted that another minute would follow this one, another day would follow that. “How backwards,” the people thought now, “how erroneous, to waste time as our grandparents did! Let us always give time its due, and value efficiency in ourselves and others.”
Efficiency meant diamonds were required, but that was alright, because they were so small, and scattered in so many low places on the heap of earth (now that the people knew what to look for), and there were so many of them. But even the sands in the desert are not innumerable if you begin removing them grain by grain. Eventually there were only a few places where diamonds could be found and the people, unable to imagine a life without their gifts, began to fight over them, and to panic.
Fortunately, or so it seemed, the most clever and enterprising of the tiny people realized that like the plants that grew from roots buried deep beneath the earth, the diamonds on the surface were just fragments of the treasure to be found by digging. And so the people dug. They cut down their tiny trees and built tiny machines to harvest the tiny piece of earth on which they lived. Many of the plants were cleared away to make room for holes, and left to rot in piles. Leisure was unheard of now–diamonds must be mined, diamonds to improve the lives of the people! What did they care that the pace and scale of the work required the consumption of even more diamonds? Efficiency demanded fast work, fast work required energy, and energy required diamonds. It made perfect sense, and yet–
There were some people in the jar, strange people, but maybe wise people, whose eyes could see farther than others’, and whose memories were longer. “We used to have more trees,” they said, “we used to have better air. Can’t you tell?” But the people busy digging ignored them. “Plants grow,” they said, “and air is all around us. There is no shortage.”
But the wise people were not so sure. Once they began looking they could not stop, and the more their eyes saw the more their eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t only that the trees and plants were being depleted–made into machinery or cleared away. There was something about the diamonds themselves, something that happened when the people ate them. The air they exhaled was different from other air, harsher, heavier. People were used to coughing after eating a diamond, and called the condition “diamond lung”, but considered it only an annoyance. The wise people were not so sure. The air in villages where many people lived became thicker, heavy with their crystalline exhalations, and the weakest of the people were often ill, and sent to spend time in the forest. Somehow the plants helped.
The wise people saw this, and were worried. Eating the diamonds dirtied the air, and plants cleaned it. But people were killing the plants to mine more diamonds, and eating what they mined so that they could continue mining diamonds. “You must stop,” said the wise people, “you must let go of the gift of the diamonds.”
But it was hard to let go. People wanted to see their loved ones in distant places. People wanted to work quickly, to have time for more beautiful, pleasurable, and elevated things. They knew, of course, that the diamonds were not like the plants–they did not grow and they were running out. And yet this only increased the people’s hunger; finding diamonds beneath the earth became imperative. “If there aren’t many left,” the people reasoned, “then it is better that we have all of them so that we can be sure we will have all we need.”
The wise people shook their heads. “Stop,” they said, “the air is being poisoned! If we stop now, we may still have a chance. The plants could grow back, the air could clear.” And a few of the braver, wiser people said, “We live in a jar, with a very tight lid. When the clean air is gone, there will be no more.”
The people were incredulous. “A JAR?!” they cried, “I have never heard anything more ridiculous! The earth is huge! The sky is immense! How can any sensible person believe that we live in a jar? We are powerful! We are important! We master the earth, we don’t live in a jar.” The ones who had suggested this were called heretics, lunatics, dangers to the good of the people. They were shunned and went into the forests by themselves, as far away as one diamond could take them, then built simple little houses, and never ate diamonds again. “A jar!” sneered the people, watching the wise ones leave, “Unbelievable!”
Nevertheless, it was true. The people were so tiny that only those gifted few could see the glass that encased their whole world. They did not know that their sky was a lid shut tight. They ate the diamonds, and dug for them, and ate them, and dug for them, all the while poisoning the air and destroying the plants that could have cleared it. They did not stop. They did not stop for a long time. They did not stop until their children woke up blind, their eyes unable to see through the crystalline fog that surrounded them. They did not stop until breathing was so difficult that the even sleep was laborious. They did not stop until the air was so thick that light could not filter through, and the remaining plants shed their leaves, and dropped their fruits, and died.
It was then that the people discovered that you cannot eat efficiency, and time cannot be saved. The faster you chase it, the more it runs out, like air in a jar whose lid is closed tight. They renounced the diamonds, cursed them, cast them in a pit and buried them, but it was too late. The small amount of time they had left was just enough to eat the last of the fruits, and to breathe the last of the air. No one, not even the ones who had been wise, could save themselves, because their world was a jar whose lid was closed tight, and there was no other.
(Good gracious, people, can’t we please try to save our jar? We still have time, but not much.)