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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Woe! Welcome to our unhappy New Year

If the supervolcano doesn't get us, the censorious elite are waiting

Yellowstone National Park holds scenic delights ... and a subterranean menace that could change our world. Photo / Getty Images
Yellowstone National Park holds scenic delights ... and a subterranean menace that could change our world. Photo / Getty Images

The doom and gloom brigade has been quick out of the blocks; 2014 is less than a fortnight old and we've already been given two reasons to gnaw our fingernails over the future of civilisation as we know it.

The first is supervolcanoes, which are to run of the mill volcanoes what great white sharks are to stinging jellyfish.

It's not hyperbolic to say that when these babies blow, all hell breaks loose.

They're almost as catastrophic as an asteroid strike. The eruption of an Indonesian supervolcano spewed enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun for six to eight years. That was 70,000 years ago, but if you think supervolcanoes are like colossal carnivorous reptiles - something the planet got out of its ecosystem before we came along - think again. There's one bubbling away under Yellowstone National Park right now.

What's more, scientists have discovered that the likelihood of an eruption is greater than was previously thought.

They'd assumed supervolcanoes erupted only once an earthquake had broken open the earth's crust. Having studied the molten rock in the huge cavern beneath Yellowstone, they now believe the pressure could build up to a point where something will have to give.

And that, my friends, would be the end of the world as we know it.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the "war that will end war" as wishful thinkers called it at the time.

If you thought WWI was history - ie of relevance only to historians - you too might be guilty of wishful thinking. Cambridge University's Professor Margaret MacMillan believes history could be about to repeat itself with the USA and China reprising the roles performed by Britain and Germany, and the Middle East rather than the Balkans as the tinderbox, "only this time with mushroom clouds".

One of the "worrying resemblances" between then and now is that decades without armed conflict between the major powers had lulled people into assuming war on that scale was a thing of the past.

World War I has, however, provided a glimmer of light amid the gloom in the form of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove's complaint that the entertainment industry, aided and abetted by those ubiquitous left-wing academics, has given the youth of today a false impression of the Great War.

One of the productions singled out is Blackadder Goes Forth, and it's certainly the case that the show's writers, Wellington-born Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, laid on the satire with a trowel.

A typical scene shows General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett (Stephen Fry) telling Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) that high command has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure victory in the field.

Blackadder wonders if this brilliant plan involves "us climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy".

If so, could he just point out that it's been tried 18 times before with the same outcome - everyone getting slaughtered in the first 10 seconds.

That's what makes it a brilliant plan, brays Melchett: "It's exactly the last thing they'd expect us to do."

Gove complained that this approach portrays the war as "a misbegotten shambles - a series of catastrophic mistakes precipitated by an out-of-touch elite".

Gallipoli in a nutshell.

Gove is making the same mistake as those attacking Martin Scorsese's new film The Wolf of Wall Street - lumping artists and entertainers in with historians and news journalists, people who have a responsibility to treat facts as sacrosanct and examine issues from all angles.

They have no such responsibility. Nor are they required to emblazon their work with easily decipherable messages that endorse conventional morality, whether based on the Ten Commandments or political correctness.

There's an undercurrent of elitism in Gove's complaint and the censorious critiques of The Wolf of Wall Street. Clearly, Gove was able to view Blackadder Goes Forth - assuming he did, otherwise he had no business bringing it into the discussion - as an anti-war satire rather than a documentary portrayal of the Western Front in 1917, so what causes him to think others can't make the distinction? The obvious answer is that he reckons most people are too dim to tell the difference.

The behaviour that Scorsese is accused of glamorising is piggish, criminal greed, substance abuse on an industrial scale, promiscuity necessitating constant recourse to paid sex, and self-destructive stupidity leading to professional and personal ruin.

If Leonardo DiCaprio's wired brio and snappy suits make you want to do this stuff, you probably have character and personality deficiencies that won't be resolved by avoiding movie theatres.

The rest of us can be amused or appalled without needing to be told we shouldn't try this at home.

- NZ Herald

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