Can Antonio Guterres Become Solon?

Photograph Source: Antonio Guterres – U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers – Public Domain

Antonio Guterres is the Secretary General of the United Nations. Solon was an Athenian statesman, constitutional reformer, and poet of the late seventh and sixth century, BCE, c. 630 -560 BCE. More than 2,600 years separate these two politicians. However, they are united by political virtue. Both tried to prevent a calamity and, in general, both tried to improve their societies. Solon shook off Athens’ burdens of inequality and debt slavery, and Guterres has been trying to convince world leaders to stop burning fossil fuels threatening Earth and civilization.


I have written about Solon, but it’s worth recalling the story that made him famous. Athens in the early sixth century BCE was a city in upheaval. The few rich farmers had such a hold on power that threatened civil war. Many small farmers could not pay back the money they had borrowed from the large landowners. They, in turn, humiliated the small farmers, making them serfs on their own land. In fact, landowners behaved like barbarian tyrants. They started selling their fellow indebted farmers to foreigners. Imagine the depth of depravity and hubris of the landed oligarchy.

The crisis did not blow up into a civil war because powerful Athenian politicians invited Solon back to power. He had served as archon, chief political leader of Athens. He was a poet who praised eunomia, good order and government. He had the reputation for fairness, honesty, and justice.

Once in power for the second time, in 594-593 BCE, Solon undid the arbitrariness and cruelty of the agrarian ruling elite. He made serfdom and slavery illegal and forgave the small farmers’ debts and mortgages. He purchased back those Athenians who had been sold to foreigners.

In his Constitution of Athens (12.4-5), Aristotle quotes Solon saying he removed “the many boundary stones of bondage piercing everywhere the black Earth of Attica.” And he freed Athenians who were forced to “shameful servitude, trembling before their masters.”

Solon did all that without siding with the poor or the rich. “The common people,” he said, “enjoy things now they would not have in their wildest dreams. And the privileged and powerful would do well to think of me as their friend.”

Aristotle describes Solon’s initiative as seisachtheia, the shaking off of burdens. He was a great lawgiver who paved the road of Athens for democracy.

Guterres and dire climate danger

Seisachthia links Solon to Guterres. The UN Secretary General can imitate Solon in his relentless efforts to educate world rulers to stop setting the planet on fire. On February 6, 2023, he told them: “End the merciless, relentless, senseless war on nature.”

I don’t know Guterres’ politics on other issues, but I appreciate what he says on climate, especially what countries and industries must do to avoid raising the global temperature above 1.5 degrees Celsius from the temperature of preindustrial age. There’s no other politician, domestic or foreign, who has demonstrated the integrity, courage, and intelligence of the UN Chief. He has been naming names and telling the climate story the way the story makes a difference in people’s lives.

Meanwhile, the warmer planet is wrecking both human communities and wildlife. Decrying the timidity of their elders, children are shaming irresponsible adults. They try taking on the cause, however tenuous, of defending the planet. In the Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town that hosted the 2022 climate summit, young men and women told the adults not to let them down.

But the adults of fossil fuel industry and politicians, academics, medical doctors, lawyers, and the clergy are letting them down. They keep pursuing business as usual as if nothing is happening. The streets are packed with millions of large petroleum-powered automobiles and trucks. The sky is full of airplanes. Large armies are slaughtering each other, while leaving a heavy global warming footprint.

Melting ice wipes out food for large mammals, including birds. Sea birds like puffins are starving to death in the millions per year. Polar bears are not doing any better. Overfishing wrecks marine ecosystems, making the bottom of the oceans like war zones. Sturgeons, dating to more than 70 million years to the age of the dinosaurs, are becoming extinct.

Defending civilization

Guterres is well aware of this unacceptable behavior. He hears scientists telling him the planet is screaming at us. So, he wonders, no less than I wonder, what do we do with large-scale capitalism destroying the planet? We are talking about amoral economic and political institutions, worldwide, monsters responsible for ecumenical upheavals endangering our Mother Earth and civilization.

From its tyrannical behavior 2,600 years ago in Athens, to its oligarchic (billionaire) determination in 2023 to keep extracting fossil fuels, not much has changed. The Athenians, at least, stopped the violence of the rural oligarchy and moved to democracy. But what are we doing?

In the Unites States alone, I don’t see any movement to remove the petroleum tyrants and its octopus-like networks deciding the fate of America and, possibly, that of the Earth and civilization. The money of fossil fuels has divided the politicians and the country to potential civil war. Destructions from massive forest fires, storms, hurricanes, floods, shrieking rivers, less fresh water, an orgy of species extinction, heat waves in the atmosphere and in the seas, rivers, and oceans, and draught don’t seem to signal a national emergency. In fact, President Joe Biden nearly abandoned his climate promises for fighting his insane war against nuclear-armed Russia in the Ukraine.

The Athenians in early sixth century faced not a climate emergency but an equally severe political crisis. So, knowing how divided they were, they called a man they all trusted, Solon. They gave him unchallenged supreme power for a year. Solon’s constitution brought to the fore virtues like moderation and equality before the law, helping Athenians to institutionalize democracy.

Could Guterres do something similar to the climate danger that divides and endangers all Americans and people of the planet? Would states give Guterres supreme power for a year to protect the planet and civilization from the climate hurricane?

I realize this is unlikely right now, winter of 2023. President Biden is wrestling with Putin. Climate chaos, however, is certain to make our lives so miserable that both Biden and Putin will give up their madness. The Europeans should realize that Biden is fighting the Russians not on their behalf, but on behalf of fossil fuel billionaires. Climate calamities will remind the combatants of their utter foolishness. Someone will have to bring the suicidal policies to an end.

Antonio Guterres would know what to do.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.