The Babel Tower: the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
(adapted from a story told by Wouter Diederen)
King of Babel: Minister, faithful minister, speak to me! I hear that there is unrest at the great tower that my workers are building. I hear that some workers want to leave, and I see that the tower is not growing anymore so fast as it was growing not long ago. Minister, tell me what's happening with my tower; the great tower of Babel of which, I, the King of Babel, am so proud!
Minister: King, what you say is true. There is unrest at the great tower of Babel, the workers are clamoring for better pay and a group of them have voted among themselves to stop working at the tower and go back to their land beyond the sea, where they will build their own tower. And because of this, the Great Tower of Babel is not growing anymore.
King: But, minister, why is that happening? Haven't these workers worked for so many years at my tower? Wasn't my tower nicely growing up until not long ago? What's happened that made the workers rebel against me, their master?
Minister: King, you see, we have a problem of energy return on investment.....
Minister: King, let me explain to you. In order to build the tower, we need stones from quarries. And it has happened that the nearby quarries have produced so many stones for the tower that there is no stone anymore there.
King: Minister, I was told about this problem. But I was also told that there are many quarries a little farther away that still hold plenty of stone. So what is the problem with getting good stones from these quarries?
Minister: King, you see, there lies the problem. In order to carry these stones from the quarry to the tower, we need a caravan of many mules pulling carts.
King: And what is the problem with that, minister?
Minister: Well, the problem is that we keep extracting stones and the quarries we get it from are farther and farther away.
King: But that just means that the caravans will have to travel farther away, right?
Minister: King, this is the energy problem I was telling you about. You see, mules need energy, in the form of food. And the people driving the mules need energy, too, in the form of food. So, some carts in the caravan must carry food for the mules and for the mule drivers, and therefore these carts cannot carry stones. And the farther the quarry is, the more food loaded carts there have to be in it.
King: So be it. What is the problem?
Minister: It is that the quarries we are exploiting at present are so far away that most of the carts must be loaded with food and only a few can carry stones. And so what you have are long, long caravans arriving from the quarry to the tower, but carrying very few stones.
King: So, make the caravans bigger, then there will be more carts loaded with stones for the tower.
Minister: King, we are doing that, but we are running out of mules. And we also need more caravans to bring wood for the scaffolding of the towers, and here, too, we must travel to far away forests to find good wood. In addition, the bureaucrats managing the tower have been growing in numbers and are now more numerous than the workers. And we need more caravans and more mules to feed the bureaucrats. As a result, the workers are now living on reduced food rations and they are not happy about that. As I said, it is a question of diminishing energy returns. We call this the "Limits to Growth."
Minister: So, I think we should start thinking of a sustainable tower, that won't need to grow anymore since it is already tall enough. And we could make a steady state tower that would need just a few stones to replace those that wear out. The energy investment would be much smaller......
King: Close your mouth, unfaithful minister! I do not believe a single word of what you told me. I think this story of the energy return is something you invented in order to confuse me. I think, rather, that the workers have become lazy. That the mule drivers have become lazy. And that the mules themselves have become lazy. And so, what I will do will be to punish the lazy workers, the lazy mule drivers, and the lazy mules as they deserve. And I will severely punish those workers who voted to move back to their island to build their own tower. They will feel the wrath of the king of Babel. Also, I think that my enemies outside the borders are plotting against me. And hence I will enlarge the army and attack them. And they, too, will feel the wrath of the king of Babel.
King: And, now that I think about that, I also need a new minister.