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Promtheus’ Fire: Climate Change in the Time of Willful Ignorance

Mythological narrative of Prometheus by Piero di Cosimo (1515) – Public Domain

Prologue

Greek myths assert Prometheus, Titan god of foreknowledge, was grandfather of the Greeks. He defied Zeus and brought the fire of knowledge and civilization to his relatives.

Zeus reacted with violence. He ordered the god of metallurgy and technology Hephaistos to tie Prometheus on a pillar. Zeus sent an eagle, which tortured Prometheus. Every day, the eagle ate the liver of immortal Prometheus.

However, Zeus changed his mind about Prometheus. His son Herakles killed the eagle and freed the god protector of the Greeks.

Prometheus and the Greeks

Aeschylus, 525-456 BCE, an Athenian tragic poet, recounts stories the Greeks knew about Prometheus. He says nothing about the time when Prometheus took pity on the Greeks. If there is a grain of truth in those myths / stories, the time must be counted in hundreds of thousands of years or millennia before Homer.

Aeschylus says that the first Greeks did not know how to build homes facing the Sun or to work with wood. They grew no food and did not recognize the seasons. Prometheus saved them from extinction, giving them the use of their wits, making them masters of their minds. Prometheus showed them the risings and the settings of the stars, teaching them how to count and write; how to take drugs for fighting diseases, and how to interpret dreams; how to yoke and harness animals for hard work or for riding horses, “the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury.”

In addition, Prometheus instructed the Greeks in the worship of the gods and in setting oracles throughout the land. He showed them how to craft and sail ships and, in general, taught them mining and all the mechanical and other arts and crafts (Prometheus Bound 441-504).

Plato agrees with Aeschylus. He reports that gods came to the assistance of the early Greeks: the fire of knowledge from Prometheus, crafts from god Hephaistos, and seeds and plants from other gods. This vital divine aid enabled the Greeks to stand on their own feet (Statesman 274b-e).

Athena

Moreover, the Greeks had one additional god with expertise on technology: Athena, daughter of Zeus. She was goddess of war, wisdom and the arts and crafts of civilization. Her mother was the water goddess Metis (intelligence).

Metis helped Zeus to overcome his father Kronos. Zeus married her, though he had difficulty in embracing her. She was like water, instantly changing form. Nevertheless, Zeus got her pregnant with Athena. However, his grandparents Ouranos (sky) and Gaia (Earth) warned him that Metis was destined to have a son who would dethrone him. Zeus immediately swallowed pregnant Metis. That way he safeguarded his supreme position among gods and humans while he had at his disposal the extraordinary intelligence of Metis.

Pindar, one of the greatest lyric poets born in Thebes in late sixth century BCE, celebrated the birth of Athena, suggesting she “vaulted from her father’s head.” She was fully armed and her fierce shout made heavens and Mother Earth tremble (Victory Songs, Olympian 7.32-38).

Athena became like her mother, a mighty goddess of intelligence. Like Prometheus, she spurred men in the development of science and technology, especially technical skills and handicrafts for meeting their own needs and improving their welfare. She fostered the cultivation of the olive tree, the teaching and practice of carpentry, metalworking and pottery while she taught women spinning and weaving (Hesiod, Theogony 886-900, 924-926).

Science model from heavens

There’s little doubt, this mythological icon goes a long way in explaining the rise of Hellenic science and civilization. Not that the gods invented science for the Greek, but they offered a pie in the sky: an irresistible model for excellence and innovation.

Were the gods right in banking on the Greeks and other humans? That they would live in harmony with other animals? That they would use the fire of knowledge for the benefit of all life and the integrity of their Mother Earth?

These are extremely difficult questions to answer. I think, however, that the fire of Prometheus was the greatest gift of the gods to the Greeks and humanity. Yet humans for millennia remain problematic political animals.

The Greeks reached the pinnacles of greatness, spreading their ideas all over the world. Their heroes, dramatic poets, and philosophers warned them of the temptations and corruptions of power.

Romans in Greece

Yet the Romans entered Greece and, by the fourth century, they caused an earthquake. A mad Roman emperor, Constantine, embraced a sect of the desert, the Christian siblings of the Jews. Once in power, the Christians all but wiped out Hellenic culture, including the temples of the gods, the Olympics, libraries and science and civilization. The violent Christianization of Greece and Europe triggered the dark ages.

This anthropogenic plunge into darkness lasted for a millennium. The Renaissance of the fifteenth century fueled itself with embers of the fire of Greek knowledge. Once again, science and the rule of law rebuilt Europe.

Limitations of the Renaissance

However, the beneficiaries of the Renaissance left the monotheistic enemies of Greek civilization (Christians and Moslems) untouched. Second, they ignored the ethical foundations of science and civilization. The results of these oversights or deliberate decisions have been deadly. They take the form of monsters of war and industry that, once again, threaten another millennium of darkness.

Humans changing the world: climate change

The present potential catastrophe has taken the flesh and blood of climate change — the overarching danger in 2020. This is an entirely anthropogenic phenomenon unleashed by the monsters of war and industry that, for more than a century, have been polluting the Earth with greenhouse gases.

From 2001 to 2017, the US military emitted into the atmosphere about 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of the annual emissions of 257 million cars or the annual emissions of Japan. The Pentagon burns huge amounts of oil in order to protect oil. At the very least, in 2017, the total US greenhouse emissions was 6.5 billion metric tons. This estimate ignores the substantial contributions of the military and its perpetual wars.

Warnings

Like ancient Greek poets, scientists of our times have been warning people and their leaders for decades that fossil fuel burning business as usual is triggering the planet’s rising temperature.

In 2018, the US Fourth National Climate Assessment report explained why we are facing climate change and why Americans and the rest of humanity are indeed the main factors of the Earth becoming warmer:

“Scientists have understood the fundamental physics of climate change for almost 200 years. In the 1850s, researchers demonstrated that carbon dioxide and other naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent some of the heat radiating from Earth’s surface from escaping to space: this is known as the greenhouse effect. This natural greenhouse effect warms the planet’s surface about 60°F above what it would be otherwise, creating a habitat suitable for life. Since the late 19th century, however, humans have released an increasing amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, deforestation and land-use change. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming, has increased by about 40% over the industrial era. This change has intensified the natural greenhouse effect, driving an increase in global surface temperatures and other widespread changes in Earth’s climate that are unprecedented in the history of modern civilization.

“Global climate is also influenced by natural factors that determine how much of the sun’s energy enters and leaves Earth’s atmosphere and by natural climate cycles that affect temperatures and weather patterns in the short term, especially regionally. However, the unambiguous long-term warming trend in global average temperature over the last century cannot be explained by natural factors alone. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the only factors that can account for the observed warming over the last century; there are no credible alternative human or natural explanations supported by the observational evidence. Without human activities, the influence of natural factors alone would actually have had a slight cooling effect on global climate over the last 50 years.”

In addition, UN reports regularly summarize climatological data and warn “policy makers” they need to act to avoid a worldwide ecological and political catastrophe.

IN 2016, the world emitted into the atmosphere 50.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. The main UN conclusion is that humans are threatening the entire planet: “Human influence on climate has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century, while global average surface temperature warmed by 0.85°C [Celsius] between 1880 and 2012: human influence has become a principal agent of change on the planet, shifting the world out of the relatively stable Holocene period into a new geological era, often termed the Anthropocene.”

In January 16, 2020, the Los Angeles Times warned that the burning of fossil fuels is radically changing the “habitability of the planet: Global warming is neither a scientific abstraction nor a future event that we can ignore. We must act now, and with urgency, to address it. Because there is no other acceptable option.”

Despite these repeated warnings, business as usual controls the world. Fossil fuel companies, and not a few countries, are scrambling in mining the Earth, the land and under the waters of the seas and oceans, for more petroleum and natural gas. Mountains are blasted apart for more coal. The result of such irresponsible behavior is that, in 2018, greenhouse gas emissions rose sharply in the US and the rest of the world.

Climate change poses the greatest threat to national security, and yet, experts (primarily former spies and professors) on national security and politicians rarely if ever make that connection.

Willful ignorance

I see this willful ignorance, and apathy and indifference for the future of humanity and the Earth, in things small and large: gossip among friends at a coffee shop, the overwhelming number of polluting cars in the street, and the spin and hubris of president Trump.

Trump is chasing money. He is in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. He denies climate change. And he has been steadfast in weakening the country’s environmental laws. Furthermore, he forced the government to become another giant spokesman for polluters.

The net result of such a bad man leading the government is that industry is emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Americans have very little protection from pesticides in their food and drinking water and numerous other chemicals in the air they breathe.

Our slim hopes for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change is removing Trump from office. If the Republican Senators fail to convict the impeached Trump, the next best thing would be for the Democrats winning the White House and the Senate.

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates (Senator Bernie Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden and Tom Steyer) admit climate change is an existential threat.

Were this to happen, the US may still lead the world to a worthy fight against climate change and its anthropogenic agents: fossil fuel companies, industrialized farming, and other industries emitting greenhouse gases.

It’s a matter of life and death these industries be decarbonized or abolished.

Epilogue

Prometheus’ fire has always been a precious gift. It is inexhaustible like the light of the Sun. It is giving us the knowledge and wisdom to build a better world.

Let’s do things right this time: put the Sun and the wind to work for our electricity; have solar power fuel our transportation; bring back ecology and democracy (small farms replacing factory farms) for agriculture without pesticides. This vision and its implementation promise enlightenment, justice and ecological civilization while putting a brake on climate change.

More articles by:

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.

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