Eight billion world powers and I: On the relationship of the community and the individual: Essay by Nora Lessing, science writer from Berlin

28. August 2020

Eight billion world powers and I: On the relationship of the community and the individual

Essay by Nora Lessing, science writer from Berlin

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf. © WISTA Management GmbH

We call him The Joker. Casually steering his frog-green sports car with one hand, he whizzes past our house every evening, circling the block. He controls his car as well as our destinies: when The Joker comes from the left, you take out the rubbish. Joker from the right, it’s my turn. Whenever The Joker isn’t circling the block, he’s slouching in the driver’s seat, engine running, and crushes candy. You don't have to see him to know he's there. When he keeps his engine running, our windows unhinge and the cups rattle in the cupboard. This can last anything between a few minutes and half an hour. Then, finally, The Joker turns off the engine and mooches home. Presumably, the pleasant vroom of his predatory tin can left him mentally strengthened.

If the The Joker ran for office, his campaign motto were: ‘Joker first!’ We do not know what drives him. Is it thoughtlessness? A peculiar way of finding inner peace? The need to remind others of his existence? We do not know. Is The Joker trying to defect from the international driving community? Does he want to build a wall to keep other drivers out of his neighbourhood? Or promote new fuels that only he can use? What we also don’t know is how our 15,000 neighbours deal with his nightly display of noise and horsepower. In fact, it would intrigue me to know how they feel, when they see the garish green vehicle and its owner with a penchant for silky sportswear. Do they look upon him with envy and longing and run inside to set up a sports car savings account? Do they seek revenge? Are they fantasising about revoking his driver’s license? Or would they make sure he can get an even bigger car as long as its fenders are manufactured in Neukölln?

When wobbly windows meet shaky nerves — say, because I was commissioned with writing a polemic on the relationship of community and individual and the deadline is approaching — I regret having such poor egg-throwing technique. There are days when I watch The Joker from afar and peruse my inner dictionary: freedom, tolerance, success. Given the Olympic disciplines of the 21st century are a three-way fight between having the most followers, the largest private jet, and the most powerful nation, one could be tempted to think success is synonymous with being ‘against them’ and ‘louder than them’. I make a profit therefore I am? When everything ends, the award will to the last remaining gas-mask bearer, doing her rounds in a gigantic gas-guzzler on an overheated desert planet. It is not known whether she will be shouting out ‘Freedom!’ while doing it or whether she’ll post selfies on a depopulated internet. What is known, though, is that nobody attended the award ceremony.

It’s easy to convince oneself that hell is other people because of, say, never-ending meetings (‘I wanted to say the same as the other guy, but more complicated!’) or going for your first swim of the year at an overcrowded Baltic Sea beach. Without other people, and this might be overlooked sometimes, there wouldn’t be a road leading to the beach, albeit littered with potholes. There also wouldn’t a rickety Strandkorb to sit in, nor a driver whom I — or the whole family at best — can relish in teasing for his unhinged driving manoeuvres. The same goes for the simple but far-reaching fact that I, this one-letter world power, am surrounded by eight billion other world powers with leadership claims. If everybody gets a ticket for the international put-down competition, we will all end up sitting in our cars revving our engines at full power. Possibly wearing a gas mask.

The Joker recently switched from frog-green to Batman-black. Of all places, this brand-new, matte monstrosity is parked directly in front of the church. My bike creaks as I bring it to a halt to take a closer look at this polluting display of power. There is no speeding ticket stuck to the windscreen, the neighbourhood has fallen silent. It seems like the villain has turned into the hero. I wonder whether The Joker knows that the bike road he likes to treat as a racing track will be turned into a low-traffic neighbourhood next year.

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