Treworthy was holding forth when I arrived at the Diogenes club. I was a little late and the discussion had clearly already started. As I handed my coat and hat to Henry, I could hear his normally optimistic tones issuing from the library.
I lowered myself into an empty armchair next to Travis and waited for Henry to bring me a drink.
"He's off on one of his environmental crusades again." said Travis, as he opened his silver cigarette case, and proffered it in my direction. I waved my hand in refusal, having recently decided to try and give up – again - as I could feel my body becoming less and less forgiving as I plummeted headlong into middle age. Travis clearly had no such qualms, being the youngest of our group, and he took one for himself.
"He does it deliberately to annoy Manton, if you ask me" I said, as Henry approached, carrying my whiskey on a silver salver. "Thank you Henry."
"Ah, I was wondering when you were going to get here. Yes, he does seem to be projecting his hatred of his ex-wife onto Mother Nature herself at the moment." said Abrahams, rousing himself momentarily from his crossword. "Let me know if either of them says anything worth listening to.
The other two were oblivious to my arrival.
"Any right thinking person thinks that the state of the environment is of extreme importance, you included." said Treworthy resolutely,
"Treworthy, do I look like a bloody hippy?" thundered Manton.
"An overweight, red-faced, cigar-smoking, whiskey-gulping hippy." interjected Travis, adding quickly "if that is of any help." when he saw the look on Manton's face.
"It is not." said Manton, without taking his eyes off Treworthy. "Listen Treworthy. I am not against recycling, or whatever other inane schemes the government comes up with, I just don't think that they will have the slightest effect on the welfare of the planet. We are all doomed and it is no better than we deserve. I personally intend to indulge my every whim in whatever time that I have left to me, without any regard for my fellow man whatsoever."
"I cannot believe that you entertain such nihilistic beliefs, no matter what you say in public."
"I say it again. We are doomed, and it is no better than we deserve."
"Reasoning, Manton, give your reasoning." muttered Abrahams, without even bothering to look up from his crossword.
"Alright. Let's just take one simple example. The best idea that we seem able to come up with is carbon offsetting. This is meant to be how we are going to save the world."
"So – what's your point?" I asked. "I don't really understand the idea, but it seems to make some sort of sense that we should try and make people responsible for the amount of pollution that they produce."
"Well the trouble is, it's not about that at all. Let's look at it from a different angle. Let's say that we decided to introduce a tax on fat people."
"Can't say that old boy. It would be size-ist. Or fat-ist." said Travis.
"Speaking as someone who would almost certainly be in the supertax bracket, I am free to be as size-ist as I want."
"Well that is something we can both agree on." said Treworthy, slightly annoyed that he seemed to have lost control of the argument.
"The thing is, it wouldn't actually be a tax on being fat." Manton warmed to his theme. "If it was, it might actually cause people to try and lose weight. No – the point of it would be to make fat a commodity."
"How and why would you do that?" I asked, as I gestured to Henry to refresh my glass.
"Well, you tell everyone in the world that they have a certain number of fat credits. You have to come up with an average figure for how fat everyone is allowed to be, and anyone who is less than that gets fat credits up to that amount."
"And presumably this figure is based around a healthy body-weight ratio." enquired Travis.
"No, not really. Well it can be, but you must make sure that most of the people in the world fall well below that average figure."
"Why?" I asked.
"So that they have got plenty of fat credits that they don't need."
"Good God! Manton, that is brilliant." exclaimed Travis.
"What is?" said Abraham's, his crossword momentarily forgotten. "Look Travis, just because you work in the City every day, it doesn't mean that the rest of us have any idea what Manton is talking about."
"He can tell it better than I can. Go on Manton." Travis pulled a notebook out of his inside pocket and started to scribble down calculations.
"Wait a minute." Treworthy had a frown on his face. "If the average figure is tied to a healthy body-weight ratio, and if it is important that most of the people in the world fall well below that average figure, that would be mean that most of the world would have to be on the point of starvation."
"And why would that be a problem?" said Manton. "It is no more than a reflection of the world as it is today, is it not?"
"Oh for God's sake Manton." Treworthy launched himself out of his chair in disgust and stalked out to the bar.
"Manton, you're doing this deliberately to annoy him. Admit it."
"I assure you I'm not. I can't help it if he has a ridiculously high opinion of his fellow man."
"Compared to you old boy, everyone has a ridiculously high opinion of his fellow man." I said.
A few moments later, having calmed down, Treworthy returned carrying a drink.
Manton sighed. "Alright, let's say that the magic figure is set a bit higher. It doesn't really matter."
"But wouldn't that negate the whole point of the scheme?"
"Not at all. As someone who enjoys life to the full, my weight puts me over the magic figure. I have two choices. I can either lose weight, or I can buy the fat credits off someone who doesn't need them. They get money, and I ostensibly get a bit more time in which to lose weight.
"But they don't exist." spluttered Abrahams. "You can't create something out of thin air and then sell it to someone else."
"My dear fellow, Travis does it in the City every working day, as do thousands of his colleagues. That's what makes the world go round."
"He's right. We just give them better names, like 'leveraged gilt future equity bonds' or something equally meaningless." Travis was quite excited. "Manton, this is the stuff of genius. I could actually make this work"
"And the best of it is that nothing changes." Manton drained his glass. "I can remain overweight, but free of guilt. Indeed, I can feel proud that I am doing my bit to make the world a better place, by helping to turn my fellow man into a copy of me by giving them the money to buy food."
"But if you do that, at some point they won't have any fat credits to sell because they won't be underweight." said Treworthy. "They you would have to lose weight."
"I don't think so. I think you would find that there would be a move to increase the fat-average figure so that they are all underweight again."
"Standard practice in the City old boy." said Travis. "Listen Manton, do you want to go into partnership on this? Fat credits. I'm amazed no one has thought of this before. We could even sell fat credit futures. Get people trading on which way the fat-average figure was going to move. The sky's the limit."
"This isn't very helpful when it comes to losing weight, is it." I observed.
"Yes but that's just it. It's not about losing weight. That's just the cover story. If the government really wanted people to lose weight, they would just tax everyone who was above a certain weight. No buying and selling of anything." said Manton.
"This is ridiculous Manton." interjected Treworthy. "It doesn't apply to carbon offsetting anyway. People being fat isn't endangering the planet."
"No, it just endangers their own health. But no government is ever going to suggest such a tax of course – it would be political suicide."
"But it could be made to work for pollution." said Abrahams. "If it was just a straight tax, and no trading was allowed."
"No that won't work" said Treworthy, his voice suddenly sounding tired. He looked over at Manton, resignation in his eyes. "Will it."
"No, I'm rather afraid it won't."
"But why not?" asked Abrahams.
"Because any company producing pollution will just work harder, in order to produce more profit. Thus enabling them to pay the pollution tax." Treworthy sighed.
"Which will just cause more pollution. Yes, I see." said Abrahams.
"Which brings me back to my point. We are all doomed and we don’t deserve any better. QED." Manton lifted his glass to find that it was empty. "Where's Henry?"
Treworthy rubbed his eyes. "Damn you Manton, can't you ever be wrong?"
"If you can show me where my reasoning is flawed, I would be extremely grateful Treworthy. I have no desire to be right in this particular case. You were right in that respect, at least. If Henry can be located, I will gladly buy you a drink to show that there are no hard feelings." His eyes scanned the library. "Where the devil is he?"
The library fell silent for a while. Treworthy seemed depressed, and I was trying to find a flaw in Manton's argument but failing to do so. The only one who seemed unaffected buy the general air of gloom was Travis, who was now punching figures into a small pocket calculator.
"Listen chaps. If everyone here agrees to keep their mouths shut on this until I can make a few phone calls, I think we could make a real killing on the markets. I'll cut you all in. What do you say?"
No one answered.
"What about you Manton?"
"No, I don't think so Travis. It wouldn't sit well with me, but by all means go ahead yourself. I give the idea to the world free of charge for anyone to make use of, as they see fit."
"As you wish. Will everyone at least agree not to breathe a word of this to anyone else until I am able to register the idea with the Regulatory Trade Commission?"
Everyone mumbled their assent.
"Excellent, I'll ring Alan after we've eaten."
"Dinner is served, Gentlemen." said Henry, who had just appeared at the door.
As we walked through into the dining room, I heard Manton reprimanding Henry for being absent.
"I do apologise sir. I had to make a quick telephone call."
"Well it was damned inconvenient."
"Yes sir. Do you still require a drink sir?"
"Yes, and one for Treworthy too."
"I shall bring them through to the dining room sir."
As Henry was placing the drinks on the table, Treworthy turned to him.
"What do you think about the all this business, Henry."
"You know, the environment. Pollution. Global warming."
"Well I'm sure that when the time comes, we will get the end that best justifies our means, sir."