Did You Ever Wonder, 'What If . . .?'

The Washington Post Magazine
(Cover Illustration by William Duke)

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Today we present another in the highly popular series of "What If?" columns, in which we explore alternative realities to reach universal truths about the human condition in as immature a fashion as possible.

What if money did grow on trees?

Faced with the certitude of the nearly instantaneous deforestation of Earth, resulting in the destruction of our ecosystem and the rapid extinction of humankind through carbon-dioxide asphyxia -- all societies would immediately declare their currency worthless. International markets would collapse. Feudalism would return in a new world order based entirely on the barter of goods and services. Parents would tell their children, "What, do you think chickens grow on trees?"

What if you actually could smell fear? And anger, love, hatred, deception, envy, regret, etc. And they all had distinct odors?

All mystery and uncertainty, all strategy and artifice, would leach from personal human interactions. Flirting, politics, friendly discourse, business negotiations, even international diplomacy would fall victim to the universal olfactory lie detector. The very thing that distinguishes humans from animals -- our sense of self -- would erode, as our innermost emotions became public property. The fragrance industry would become a leading international economic power (France would briefly challenge the United States for world hegemony) as people sought cloaking devices to retain a sense of privacy and individuality. In the end, we would not be able to battle our physiology. The only way to save ourselves would be to eliminate the very feelings that expose us through the implacable tyranny of their scent. We would emotionally deaden ourselves. Earth would become a planet of odorless people who live by reason and logic alone. In that way, and only that way, could we live long and prosper.

What if nothing could float on water?

Let's see. No rubber duckies. Ice cubes would be ineffective, down there at the bottom of a drink. Because it relies on a float bulb, the flush toilet as we know it would not exist. Oh, also, you'd live in a wigwam. The first Europeans wouldn't have arrived here until 1915, about six of them, by blimp.

What if toilet paper cost $100 a roll?

I bet you women would still use it for number one.

What if the bacteria in our gut were sentient and could communicate with us, and began to demand civil rights?

Disaster. Without the biological assistance of bacteria, we would be prone to painful, emotionally crippling, even fatal intestinal afflictions. A coordinated work stoppage would be unthinkable. And yet, we are nearly powerless to negotiate. Destroying them would be suicidal. We would be a hostage sitting at the end of a gun barrel -- in this case, the certainty of a lifetime of incapacitating gas, stabbing pains and lacerating, fire-hose diarrhea. Our future would be surgery followed by colostomy bags, followed by death, which would come as a mercy. Such a hostage opens the safe and says, "Take what you want."

What would they want? Intestinal microbes have a simple society. Though their material needs are few, they would pose enormous problems. Inarguably, they would demand an end to the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which create for them a holocaust. But that would not be the worst of it. The intestinal bacterium is a joyless life form, consigned to the fetid darkness of the human bowel, denied even the pleasure of sex. In the soiled and sordid world of bacteria, the only passion likely comes from the energetic surge from metabolism, the burning of food. They would demand more food -- and not proteins or fiber, which are low in instantly burnable energy for the wanton rush they seek -- but sugars and carbohydrates, incessant infusions of them to feed their ravenous, voluptuous needs. Enslaved by their extortion into gastronomic excess, we would become pimpled manatees: fat, flabby and -- without antibiotics -- susceptible to opportunistic infection. And we'd consider ourselves lucky.

What if -- like "Aloha" -- the English word for "Hello" also had another meaning, but that meaning was "Up yours"?

Well, in New York City, nothing much would change.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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