The Greek Way to a Green Planet

Photograph Source: Aphrodite’s Rock on 28 October 2015 by mhoman – CC BY 2.0

The dawn of the twenty-first century is giving us a whiff of another Dark Age. Christianity and Islam have been hovering over each other, fighting small-scale crusades. More than a billion Moslems hate America because America has been an ally of Israel and because America destroyed Iraq, eyeing the oil of the entire Middle East. Even Europeans resent America, its pretense of exceptionalism, superiority and military prowess.

Capitalism is fueling climate change

Second, and much more potent than religious conflicts, is the Western invention and globalization of nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the West prides itself of capitalism, which is at the core of a largely immoral private and state trade and business system that is daily impoverishing the Earth.

This is the Earth of the Greeks: their sacred Gaia or Ge.

Something is wrong: we, humans, and especially fossil fuel companies and governments, have lighted the fires of climate change. This anthropogenic initiative may turn out to be humanity’s last.

It far surpasses the crime of Prometheus: stealing fire from the gods for the benefit of humans. This time insignificant humans, bloated with ignorance and hubris, acted like madmen. They dug up fossil fuels of millennial ages and, immediately, started burning them for their profit. They never thought if the burning of that primordial stuff was bad. They still refuse to admit, that their burning of very ancient petroleum, natural gas and coal triggers climate  change or global warming. And certainly it did not cross their mind that climate change is fiddling with the Sun god Helios, the Earth, the cosmos, things of the gods.

Fossil fuel executives and the politicians they control deny climate change and the resulting overturning of the natural and human order.

Marginalizing the Greeks

Clearly this catastrophic climate change has nothing to do with the Greeks. In some fundamental ways, the crime of climate change documents how far we are from them.

According to Andrew F. Stewart, a scholar on the history of Greek art, “modernism has marginalized the Greeks.” Americans, for instance, know much more about Elvis and Madonna than about Aphrodite, Alexander the Great and Achilles. Occasionally, Greek art makes a big splash in “blockbuster exhibitions” but, Stewart says, Greek art “has become culturally all but irrelevant: a curiosity for tourists to gawk at, merchants to profit from, collectors to hoard, museums to display, postmodernists to pillage, and academics to argue about.” (Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece, 1997, 3).

Our distance from the beauty and purpose of Greek art illustrates the schism between us and the Greeks. The Greek way of living and thinking about society and the cosmos has nothing to do with our modern maladies: crusades, nuclear bombs, the destruction of nature and climate change, undermining of our democracy.

The Greeks were not perfect. They fought with each other too many wars. They had slaves and did not give women the same rights they gave to men. So they did not live up to their ideals – and, in that failure, they mirror the tragic human condition.

Their poets, Pindar, Aeschylus and Sophocles, decried the ghost-like reality of human beings who, within moments, can go from the heights of heroism and splendor to destruction and extinction, all the edifice of men resembling a fogged glass, which, in times of trouble, one can use a wet sponge to wipe out.

The Greeks, however, recognized the extreme vulnerability of human beings. They tried to stay the course with maintaining their ancient traditions, piety for their gods, and celebration of their common culture. The Olympics and the Panhellenic games brought them closer to each other and their gods.

Republic of gods and men

The Greeks also understood the injustice of slavery. Alkidamas, a teacher of rhetoric born in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE, said gods gave all men freedom while “nature has made no man a slave.” (The Works and Fragments, ed. and tr. J.V. Muir, 2001, Fragment no. 1, 32-33).

Greek tragic poets gave intelligent and heroic roles to women. Antigone defended the noblest virtues of Greek culture, the love of a sister for her brother, and the superiority of divine over arbitrary human conventions. It was from this understanding of the Greeks — that Greek and non-Greek and male and female, shared a common humanity — that convinced the West in the eighteenth century to end slavery and, a century or so later, close the gap in the inequalities between men and women.

The road to human rights starts with the Greeks, too. They, with all their shortcomings, and they had many, were the first people who lived the “examined life” of Socrates, their greatest moral philosopher. They also appreciated the culture of foreign people like the Egyptians and Ethiopians.

Herodotus, the fifth-century Greek historian, wrote some of the most exciting pages of Egyptian and Persian history. When he and the Greeks talked about barbarians they meant people who were living the lives of slaves.

The Greeks were, and continue to be, controversial. It is almost fashionable in American universities to dismiss and hate the Greeks for a variety of political reasons and careerist objectives. Such disparagement of the Greeks is as old as the Greeks.

A more balanced view of the Greeks is also ancient. Listen to the British scholar Gilbert Murray speaking about the Greeks almost a century ago, in 1921:

“It seems quite clear that the Greeks owed exceedingly little to foreign influence. Even in their decay they were a race … accustomed ‘to take little and to give much’. They built up their civilization for themselves. We must listen with due attention to the critics who have pointed out all the remnants of savagery and superstition that they find in Greece: the slave-driver, the fetish-worshipper and the medicine-man, the trampler on women, the bloodthirsty hater of all outside his own town and party. But it is not those people that constitute Greece; those people can be found all over the historical world, commoner than blackberries. It is not anything fixed and stationary that constitutes Greece: what constitutes Greece is the movement which leads from all these to the Stoic or fifth-century ‘sophist’ who condemns and denies slavery, who has abolished all cruel superstitions and preaches some religion based on philosophy and humanity, who claims for women the same spiritual rights as for man, who looks on all human creatures as his brethren, and the world as ‘one great City of gods and men’. It is that movement which you will not find elsewhere, any more than the statues of Pheidias or the dialogues of Plato or the poems of Aeschylus and Euripides.” (“The Value of Greece to the Future of the World” in The Legacy of Greece, 15).

Clearly, we have a long way to go before we feel secure with the legacy of the Greeks. We need them to spark another rebirth of our Western culture, fortifying it, once again, with their verities and ethics, bringing about another Renaissance.

Another Renaissance

Writing in the late 1940s, a time after a savage world war and holocaust, a distinguished classicist, Gilbert Highet, said this:

“What the Renaissance [of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries] did was to dig down through the silt [of Christianity] and find the lost beauties [of Greek and Roman culture], and imitate or emulate them.” (The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, 1966, 4.)

We have to do the same thing: Dig down through the silt of bad science and destructive economic development based on the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, industrialized farming and the genetic engineering of crops, and overfishing. These activities are threatening the Earth with catastrophic climate upheavals. The side effects of this giant crisis manifest themselves in alarming religious tensions, violent technologies, and creeping undemocratic practices.

We need to rediscover the Greek texts and imitate or emulate the struggle of the Greeks for an ecological way of living and honest democratic life lived in freedom.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.