The Scourge of Prometheus
I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, trying to figure out a thing or two.
The way I remember it, in Catechism they taught us that God said: “Let there be light”, and that sort of got the ball rolling. Like in the sense of actually being able to see stuff and all. Leave it to a bunch of nerdy physicists to come along and complicate matters by saying that the whole shebang started some 15 billion years ago. In one fell swoop Creation was accomplished and endowed once and for all with all the matter and energy it would ever get.
For quite some time now, humans have had a favorite source of energy–fire. Mostly just a convenient way of transforming the stored sunlight in other material, like paper or your mountains of yard waste, the cooking gas in your stove, the diesel in your tractor or the coal extracted and burned in power generation stations all over the globe. Harness that energy and, bingo, you can go places.
Anthropologists tell us that fire was employed by early humans and their hominid ancestors to cook food, stay warm, ward off predators and, importantly to alter and manage entire landscapes. We, as a species, have been torching off tons of stored-up sunlight from the get-go. Combustion is what gave Homo sapiens the defining edge over the rest of the animal hordes. It allowed us to range over the entire globe, erect vast monuments and transportation networks, land on the moon and explore space. As the Greeks understood, combustion is the cornerstone of civilization.
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was the trickster figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, an act that enabled progress and civilization. The head of the gods, Zeus, exacted a sort of divine vengeance, imposing eternal torment upon the chained Prometheus. Risking the wrath of Zeus, Hercules crushed the chains and liberated the daredevil Prometheus. In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. As it turns out, the ‘unintended consequences’ of man’s use of the Prometheus’ gift are literally spiraling out of control.
I’m not talking about the admittedly gruesome fires that burn day and night through the hills in Guanacaste. I’m talking about the latest report from the UN Panel on Climate Change.
Bear in mind that these guys are super cautious in their predictions. Scientists by their very nature like to avoid the limelight and, God forbid, be seen as alarmist or ‘rocking the boat”.
Case in point the Arctic looks to be ice-free in summer by 2015, some 30 years ahead of their previous projection. You can pretty much say ‘ditto’ for the rest of their ‘worst case’ predictions given our continuing appetite for the abundant fruits of Prometheus’ gift. In all likelihood we’re looking at a future of eternal torment with no Hercules to come and save us. As to why we’re locked into a paradox, another Greek legend holds the key.
While the Greek Gods dwelled on Mount Olympus, a measuring station on the snowy summit of Mauna Lea, has been documenting the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere for over 50 years. Meanwhile, in the rarified atmosphere of behavioral science, the American Psychiatric Assn. just made it official: the taking and posting of ‘selfies’ is now a certified mental disorder. For this layman, it is simply a modern, technologically facilitated reincarnation of the myth of Narcissus—the guy who fell in love with his own reflection and starved to death. We all think we’re so special, our accomplishments so important and we feel entitled to more or less keep doing the same stuff that on the macro-scale is torching the edifice for our all-important enterprise and the playground for our collective fun and games. Like charity, denial begins at home.
A study recently showed, that in the US of A, only 35 % of the citizenry actually even believe in global warming at all. However, as one guy, with the very cool nom-de-blog of Meteor Blades has pointed out:
“Don’t tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I’ll tell you what you believe…”
And I can guarantee, what those self-same climate change believers do is drive, buy, fly, use prodigious amounts of electricity from a largely fossil fuel powered grid and will go berserk if the ‘gubmint’ tries to mandate some kind of limits on what George Bush called the “non-negotiable American way of life.” This is the modern version of the Greek concept of hubris—overweening pride—writ large and embossed with the presidential seal.
At the risk of showing a bit of Narcissism myself, the following was penned over ten years ago after a particularly nasty conflagration laid waste to a substantial part of San Diego, California.
“As I write, a troop of Howler monkeys swings gracefully through the forest on its way to snack on a few papaya leaves. Elegantly adapted to life in the treetops, these distant relatives of ours live in harmony with the paradise which God bestowed upon them. Not so their upright cousins–Homo sapiens—whose ancestors apparently came down out of the trees, took stock of the situation, and began the task of rearranging nature more to our liking. From the fires set by early hunters to massive deforestation for agriculture and settlement, mankind has been hell bent on showing Mother Nature just who runs the show. Reweaving DNA, the strands of life itself, and sucking out the earth to belch it into the sky are just the latest chapters in the long epic of pride at work.
It is interesting to note that indigenous cultures worldwide developed different myths warning of the disasters to be incurred by transgression against nature. These myths have been swept away first by liturgically based religions as mere witchcraft and more recently by economics, the de facto global religion. It’s not a lack of information. We know that the planet earth is the only habitable real estate among the billions of sterile rocks in the known universe. But we lack the common sense to proceed with respect and even reverence in the natural realm, to not let our priceless natural equity go up in smoke.
Everyone watched helpless as a sizeable chunk of net worth spiraled into the sky last October. As predicted by folk myths, Mother Nature is capable of spanking her favored child when it misbehaves. I’m not evoking hell-fire and brimstone, the retribution of a judgmental Father in the sky, simply the consequences of how we choose to live on earth.” (“Reflections in the Flames.” The Howler, Jan. 2004)
Those consequences have leapt out of out of the arcane annals of climate studies into a worldwide tantrum of weather gone awry. They have ‘fast-forwarded’ from the predictions of computer models in 2007. “No one will be spared severe consequences of climate change,” warned the chairman of the UN panel. The gift of Prometheus has turned out to have a definite downside. Zeus is probably watching the show from his lofty perch on Mount Olympus, savoring the divine pleasure of having the last laugh.
Tom Peifer is an ecological land use consultant with 19 years experience in Guanacaste. 2658-8018. firstname.lastname@example.org