Polluting the Heavens

Smokestacks in Manchester England c. 1858 watercolor by William Wyld

Heavens brings to mind the vast sky and the millions of stars lighting the Earth at night. Greek mythology has the sky and the Earth mating and giving birth to the natural world, the ocean, terrible monsters, the gods and the cosmos.

Greek philosophers expanded myths and studied the heavens as a home of the cosmos, including the Earth, the Moon, and the Sun. They said cosmos was order and beauty, which led them to speculation rich in understanding on the workings of the universe.

Polytheists worshipped the Earth. They looked at the sky and saw their gods in the stars. Monotheists placed their god in the heavens outside the cosmos: remote, unseen, and indifferent to life and the Earth.

The monotheists triumphed. The sky-heavens no longer represented beauty and order. It was just there. The one-god believers furiously mechanized the sky and the Earth. Factories covered the landscape, their dark smoke fouling the sky. No longer did industrialized men equate the sky with the lofty and invisible heavens, home of the gods.


Scientists, industrialists, and theologians did not object to the stuff coming out of factory stacks and petroleum-fueled cars. Visible and invisible gas pollution moved upwards to the clouds in the sky.

At about the same time – in the nineteenth century —  scientists started measuring the gases created with the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, and coal). They eventually concluded the burning of fossil fuels sparked rising global temperatures.

There are other human activities fueled by petroleum that also warm the planet: industrialized agriculture; cars, trucks, and other machinery; digging and fracking for petroleum; petroleum-burning for the generation of electricity; petroleum-fueled fleets of airplanes and entire mechanized armies, including thousands of warplanes; forest clearcutting and the conversion of that land to animal feed crops like soybeans and corn.

Unleashing the monsters of violent climate

The footprint of climate change is increasingly showing the vast destructive power of a warmer Earth: storms, violent rains, destructive floods, droughts, horrendous forest fires, bad harvests or no harvest, hunger, starvation, increasing number of climate refugees.

United Nations scientists, educated people, and a small majority of politicians are taking the symptoms of climate change seriously. They are talking of bringing the fossil fuels era to an end – by 2030 or, at the most extreme, 2050.

The empire fights back

This kind of talk (largely theoretical in 2019) and the rise of petroleum alternatives (primarily non-polluting solar and wind technologies) are threatening the petroleum empire and the billionaires who manage it. There are also entire countries like Saudi Arabia whose economies are petroleum economies.

There’s so much at stake with global warming that the petroleum wars are at high gear. As far as we know, the world never faced this slow-moving calamity. Those who deny climate change are primarily owners of petroleum. They have been busy buying the brains of “scientists,” politicians and think-tank propaganda artists who eagerly claim climate change is clouded in doubt or, at best, a hoax. This kind of “debate” marred the entire twentieth century.

In October 10, 1989, I wrote “Lower the Earth-threatening Heat,” an article for the Chicago Tribune in which I denounced Exxon Mobil and the petroleum industry for causing global warming. I did that while teaching at Humboldt State University.

My supervisors at EPA retaliated the usual thoughtless way – trying to fire me. Their vengeance did not work thanks to Bill Reilly, the Republican EPA administrator who sided with me: that I had a right to criticize the industry.

Despite that unpleasant experience, I kept up my interest in climate change. In the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, I deceived myself expecting EPA would start regulating petroleum and climate change.

Vice president Al Gore spent eight years “reinventing” government, not regulating fossil fuels. However, he had a reputation and scholarly interest in global warming. He and I had the same teacher about climate. This was the distinguished scientist and professor Roger Revelle at Harvard. He inspired the undergraduate Gore; he guided me in my postdoctoral studies.

Thanks to Gore, EPA sponsored a weekly climate change seminar series on Capitol Hill. The speakers came from the government, academia, and the industry.

It was during those exciting discussions that I did some work on global warming. After each seminar, I wrote a brief summary of the presentation and passed it on to my supervisor.

It just happened that during the late 1990s-early 2000s I had a branch chief supervisor who was kind to me. Perhaps he agreed with my criticism of EPA-industry, but kept his mouth shut. His supervisor was my boss, too. That man did not like me at all.

Nevertheless, my climate reports were innocent enough. They helped shape my mind and expand my interest beyond toxic pesticides and agriculture.

Once, a speaker tried to convince us climate change was nothing special – but a mirror of the Earth’s millennial geologic history: now ice ages and now warmer ages. This man was an academic with “peer-reviewed” articles under his belt. What could one do with him? He was not telling the truth. He was lying under the jargon of climatological discourse.

Despite Al Gore, the Clinton administration was for business as usual. I tried unsuccessfully to move from my EPA position with the Office of Pesticide Programs to the small staff involved with climate change – in the Office of Global Change. I wanted to study Exxon Mobil.

Exxon Mobil is one of the largest players in the petroleum wars. For more than two decades, the 1970s and the 1980s, it studied the climate effects of burning petroleum. Exxon scientists warned Exxon executives that without major reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, potentially catastrophic events would take place. These included the flooding of Florida and most of the East Coast and Washington, DC. Exxon scientists concluded that the increasing amounts of carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of petroleum was raising global temperatures and fueling climate change.

The Exxon Mobil climate research became an important part of the history of climate change: certainly predicting, to some degree, the findings of climate scientist now, in 2019: rising sea levels, melting of ice, catastrophic forest fires, violent storms and floods, and endless ecological problems affecting the integrity of ecosystems, the extinction of species, agriculture and food production and public health.

In the 1990s, however, Exxon Mobil suppressed the truth and started funding propaganda think-tank mills. One of those organizations, the US Chamber of Commerce, took Exxon Mobil money to manufacture doubt about global warming. Its impact was huge. It is a giant umbrella that encompasses America’s largest corporations.

This explains why the obscene and dangerous message of Trump (that global warming is a hoax) was neither new nor radical. The American establishment has been marching to the petroleum tune for a very long time.

Other think-tanks funded by Exxon Mobil included the American Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

These organizations spread doubt about climate change, urging Americans and their politicians to think of global warming as a hoax or, less severely, as a light tempest. There’s nothing to worry about over higher temperatures, the company’s newspaper advertisements usually said: we need more research.

In 2018, the attorney general of New York sued Exxon Mobil for not telling the truth about climate change to its shareholders. This was strictly a business complaint accusing Exxon Mobil of a “longstanding fraudulent scheme” for the defrauding of  shareholders.

In 2019, Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental organization in Boston, Massachusetts, sued Exxon Mobil for irresponsibility in endangering thousands of people. Its oil storage facility near Boston Harbor was at risk of being inundated by excessive rains. According to Campbell:

“Because [the facility] has been in industrial use for over a century, every drop of water that hits the ground has to be treated to remove very potent toxics, including a number of carcinogens. … The new rain patterns are overwhelming the treatment plant at the facility and, as a result — day in, day out — when these rains come, this plant is violating its Clean Water Act permit …”

These examples of malfeasance, and the history of Exxon Mobil knowing of the deadly effects of its petroleum product, illustrate how careless and unethical and dangerous oil executives have become. Certainly, they risk the Earth and civilization.

Climate change is like the escaped winds of Aiolos, the god of the winds. Aiolos put all the winds, save one, in a leather bag. He gave that bag to Odysseus.

Aiolos warned Odysseus to guard the wind bag. The wind out of the bag, he told Odysseus, would guide his boat home to Ithaca. However, when Odysseus fell asleep, his companions opened the wind bag because they thought Odysseus was hiding gold in it.

With all the winds out, chaos took over. Odysseus nearly kissed Ithaca goodbye. He was lost. Aiolos ordered him off his island. Without divine assistance, Odysseus and his sailors were sailing in the dark. The sailors paid dearly for their stupidity. Storms drowned them.

Now that fossil fuel executives and other businessmen opened the bag of warmer temperatures, do they deserve the fate of Odysseus’ sailors? Certainly, their crimes far exceed the puny greed of the sailors. Oil executives conspired to put their profits above the integrity of an entire planet, risking the lives of billions of human beings. No court of justice would find them innocent. They opened the spigots of cataclysm.

Global warming pollution continues unabated. The amount of carbon reaching the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and the industry has been increasing every decade since the 1960s. In 2018, 37.1 gigatons of carbon polluted the atmosphere.

We have a choice: stop the fossil fuel executives from dumping additional pollution into the atmosphere, our heavens. Second, raise our behavior to standards that are morally appropriate and necessary to face this danger — and opportunity.

What needs to be done – in the United States

The government (of an elected Democratic president and Democratic Congress in November 2020) must take back from corporations and rich Americans the more than a trillion dollars tax cuts of the Trump administration. In fact, the tax-cuts of the George W. Bush administration should also be returned to the US Treasury. Use that money and additional revenue of trillions of dollars from taxing the billionaires to fund a transition to a non-fossil fuels economy.

Order the car industry to stop making cars, trucks, tractors and other machines fueled by petroleum. Outlaw those machines and their advertisement. From 2021 to 2030, car companies must manufacture electric cars, buses, trucks, modest-size tractors and electric trains, trams and other transportation vehicles.

Each town should have its own electric public transport (buses and trams). For short distances and enjoyment, bicycles are kings. Town and cities should encourage bicycles and make bicycle riding safe by separate lanes protected by barriers from car traffic.

Town transport should be linked to electric buses and trains for longer distances.

Most electricity should be produced by funding lower and middle-class home owners to purchase solar panels. Rich home owners (of more than $ 100,000 income) must pay for the solar panels for their homes.

All homes, factories, public buildings, stadiums, movie theaters, skyscrapers, and buildings of churches, colleges and universities should become electricity producers with solar panels on their roofs.

Third, agriculture must be redesigned to produce nutritious and pesticide poisons-free food. Anti-trust laws should help in breaking up large farmers and agribusiness corporations into family farmers serving towns and cities. This agrarian reform could bring rural America back to life while generating millions of jobs.

Fourth, we need a new EPA to really protect public health and the environment. To avoid the Trump era subversion, EPA must be independent from politics. It should be conceived and built like the Federal Reserve or the Supreme Court, without influence from the White House or Congress. The EPA administrator should be elected for a ten-year term. He or she should run a non-partisan campaign devoted to fighting climate change and environmental and public health protection and the protection of the Earth.

Fifth, the Democratic president expected to win in November 2020 must immediately invite world leaders to the White House to negotiate the phasing-out of fossil fuels by no later than 2030. Large countries like America, China, India, Russia and the European Union must assist tropical countries in banning fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable and clean technologies.

Sixth, world leaders should also establish a World Environment Organization for climate change and global environmental protection.

All the forests of the world should be declared sacred and protected by the World Environment Organization from logging and fires. We need a massive international public works program of reforesting all degraded lands — and cleaning plastics and pollution from the oceans. It goes without saying plastics should be banned worldwide.

And seventh, all countries must pledge to reduce their population as much as it’s humanly possible and as soon as possible. World population is more than 7 billion humans – in 2019. That’s unacceptable for climate change, civilization, and wildlife. China’s one-child policy should become the model for a drastic world population decline.

The Earth also cannot support billionaires. They are usually the owners of fossil fuels, bearing the criminal responsibility for triggering this potential climate holocaust. In addition, they represent the worst in human nature: grabbing, concentrating wealth and power that, otherwise, would lift millions and billions out of the violence of poverty.

Governments should tax most of the money of the billionaires. There should be no tax havens anywhere.

Good news

Not everything is bleak in our present climate emergency. Al Gore reported that in the last five years solar and wind technologies took off. Five years ago, solar and wind electricity was the cheapest form of energy among one percent of the world’s people; it is now, in 2019, the cheapest electricity among two-thirds of the world. The cost of storage battery technology is also rapidly declining.

Nevertheless, world leaders are servants of polluters. They don’t think there’s anything wrong that the fossil fuel companies and the rest of the industry have made it possible for humans using the atmosphere like an open sewer: dumping into it daily, according to Gore, more than 110 million tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases. Gore finds this unacceptable. Yet he says he is to some degree optimistic because young people are showing the way: demanding their elders fight climate change. He advises against despair, which he rightly equates to another form of denial.

Gore is right. Young people are changing the world: young people all over the world are rising in defense of Mother Earth: shaming their elders for their criminal apathy and reluctance to move away from fossil fuels and other practices compromising their lives as well as the integrity of the planet.

The star among the young climate rebels is a teenager from Sweden: Greta Thunberg. She told world leaders at the UN Climate Summit in New York, September 23, 2019, that they had failed young people and the world. She lashed at them as if she were an old philosopher:

How dare you, she said her voice full of passion, betray us and Mother Earth. You keep polluting and the only thing you brag about is economic growth. But while you mislead the world the world is entering chaos: people are suffering, people are going hungry, they are dying; species are becoming extinct, and ecosystems are falling apart. Shame on you.

Scientists from several countries joined the youth of the world, also expressing anguish and anger over the cowardliness of the political class to face the climate science facts and stop the fossil fuel pollution of the heavens.

One of those scientists deeply immersed in how to save the planet, Farhana Yamin, felt compelled to protest the ceaseless poisoning of heavens and Earth. She was a lead author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the main UN organization for studying climate change. She was also an advisor in the UN climate negotiations for a very long time. But everything has its limits. On April 16, 2019, she probably said to herself enough is enough. Surrounded by policemen, she superglued her hands on the pavement outside the entrance to the building of Shell Oil in London. She explained her action:

“Why did I, an international environmental lawyer, break the law? Having spent three decades failing to get governments to pay attention to the climate crisis through advocacy at the highest levels, I felt that activism was now crucial. I wanted to show how ridiculous it is that a law-abiding (indeed, law-making) mother of four should be handcuffed while the world’s major polluters remain unaccountable for ecocide.”

Greta Thunberg and Farhana Yamin are excellent models for all of us. Join them and the young people to bring to an end a medieval petroleum regime of pollution and contempt for the beauty and life of the natural world: the myriad species of plants and animals being poisoned and becoming extinct.

Heavens and Earth make life possible. They are asking us to break the lethargy of TV watching and petroleum propaganda for action for life. We, too, should say to the polluters: How dare you!

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.