Cosmic Foolishness

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Greek goddess Demeter. Skyphos, 5th century BCE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: George E. Koronaios. Wikipedia Commons.

Demeter searching for Persephone

Demeter, sister of Zeus and one of the most powerful of the gods, lost her daughter Persephone. While searching for her, she took the form of an old homeless woman in the polis of Eleusis near Athens. Queen Metaneira invited Demeter to the palace. The two of them agreed Demeter would take care of Metaneira’s baby boy Demophoon. Demeter fell in love with the baby and tried to make Demophoon immortal. She fed him not milk or human food but ambrosia, food of the gods. In addition, she treated Demophoon with blazing fire without harming him. However, Metaneira secretly watched her baby in the fire and screamed, thus ending Demeter’s metamorphosis of the human baby into an immortal being. Angry Demeter said to Metaneira: “Men are too foolish to predict the good or evil that will affect them in the future. You, Metaneira, were also blinded by your foolishness” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 256-258).

Demeter then revealed herself to Metaneira. “I am the honored Demeter, the greatest benefit and joy to deathless gods and mortal human beings,” Demeter said (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 268-269). Demeter was not exaggerating. She was the goddess of wheat and other food crops as well as the divine force behind life on Earth. While searching for Persephone, she caused a global famine by not allowing the sprouting of seeds. She even threatened the gods. Zeus got the message and told his brother Hades to allow Persephone to return to her mother Demeter.

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Queen Metaneira (left) is making an offering of a gift to Demeter (right). Apulian hydria, c. 340 BCE. Antikensummlung, Berlin. Public Domain.

The Metaneira factor

The lesson of this myth reverberates to this day in countless ways, especially when little foolish humans refuse to extrapolate from the evidence in front of their eyes. Metaneira lived with Demeter but never asked her who she was. She knew the stranger did not feed her baby milk or other human food, save ambrosia, food strictly for the gods. Ambrosia (αμβροσία) means immortality. So, why did she not ask Demeter about feeding her baby ambrosia? This striking luck of curiosity had severe consequences. It was predictable, that seeing her baby in blazing fire, she would scream like any other mother or human being. She did scream and slapped her thighs in fear of her child. Ignorance has no vision, much less dreaming or predicting the future.

This is to say we have not advanced beyond the foolish blindness of Metaneira. We feel comfortable with our limited knowledge and experience. We hesitate to probe the unknown, even to prevent the bad consequences of what we know to be true. Consider the obvious climate monster in the room.

I have written a lot about climate change. Yet the puzzle remains. If not all, some heads of state, politicians, billionaires, members of parliaments, American presidents, members of the US Congress, army commanders, car manufacturers, farmers of industrialized agriculture, and most owners of industries pretty much agree the burning of fossil fuels is bad for the future of humanity and the planet. Owners of fossil fuels pretend climate change is a hoax. Yet the burning of petroleum, natural gas, and coal spark the machinery of the world. Yes, science has been telling us fossil fuel burning is raising the temperature of the planet, definitely dangerous to all life. But we like business as usual, so, like Metaneira not asking about ambrosia, we don’t ask questions about the consequences of this climate change going on in front of our eyes.

I simply cannot fathom the foolishness of such blind indifference. Millions of Evangelical Christians “believe” in the second coming of the Jewish messiah named Jesus. Can humans using reason take such believers seriously? Are the deniers of climate change victims of similar delusions or pathologies like the assumptions of resurrection or second coming of this or that hero?

On a personal level, the reality of climate change is frightening. Yes, I put solar panels on the roof of my house, and, in addition, I spoke to the members of the City Council of Claremont, California, urging them to do the same, put solar panels on the roofs of city buildings and parking lots. But the City ignored me. Like most cities, Claremont must think others should spend the money to fight climate change. The rich private colleges of Claremont must also make the same calculation. Others will take care of the problem. This ties my hands and challenges my trust in the beneficial effects of science or truth. I simply don’t know what else I can do to wake up a deeply ill society, which is getting away from civilization. My mind, however, relentlessly reminds me the dragon of climate change is almost out of the bottle. The bounds of preventing catastrophe for the planet and its foolish people are shrinking. Rains, snow, cold and temperature are turning upside down, changing seasons, threatening human and environmental health, farming and food and drinking water.

July 2023

Slowly rising temperature makes summer months unbearable. NASA reported that July 2023 was the hottest month ever. According to NASA, “July 2023 was 0.43 degrees Fahrenheit (F) (0.24 degrees Celsius (C)) warmer than any other July in NASA’s record, and it was 2.1 F (1.18 C) warmer than the average July between 1951 and 1980.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “The science is clear. We must act now to protect our communities and planet [Earth]; it’s the only one we have.”

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July 2023, the hottest month on record. Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Red is depicting high temperature in July 2023 the world over.

About 100 degrees Fahrenheit temperature engulfed nearly every day of August 2023. I found myself getting up at 6 in the morning to bike and walk. After 8 in the morning, I walked to the college library for a cool place to write. But walking means looking at everything carefully. Hundreds of large cars are daily slicing the quiet of the streets while dumping their stream of greenhouse gases into the air we breathe. Are the drivers of those fat cars like the believers of a second coming, washing their knowledge and responsibility down the drain of the commons? No one can answer this question, except to suggest that the limit of ethical and responsible action is getting narrow. Once I am in the neighborhood of the Claremont colleges, beautiful and very large building are everywhere. Yet their roofs are not covered by solar panels. Why? Not because of money. These colleges are private schools charging students about $ 70,000 tuition per year. So, what do their professors teach their students about the Earth, why its temperature keeps rising? I cannot answer this question either, though I know what I said to my students when I taught for a year, 2012-2013, in one of those schools named Pitzer College. I told them climate change was anthropogenic and, more to the point, the climate crisis was a result of the actions of their parents and grandparents. I did the same thing during my last teaching at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, Fall 2021.

Climate danger

The decision to face climate change as an adult in the room is not difficult. After all, we know the guilty party. Science says fossil fuel burning is the culprit. The National Academies of Science warned that during the summer of 2023, “the impacts of climate change are being felt all over the world — including record-breaking heat waves in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Asia, intense wildfires in Hawaii and Canada, widespread flooding in India and Pakistan, and 100-degree ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida. 2023 is on track to be the warmest year ever recorded.”

Hence, the adult in the room has merely to shut off the spigots of petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Yes, but with almost every gadget and machine and house and car and airplane relying on this dirty energy, shutting fossil fuels means shutting down society and causing mayhem. This would be possible in a fictional but not in real America. Responsible leaders know that alternative solar and wind technologies exist to replace fossil fuels. Yet the replacement is taking place at a very slow pace, if at all. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has been warning the world that the window of opportunity for a moderate violent transition from petroleum to solar energy does not go beyond 2030. On October 27, 2022, he warned that, “The world is headed for a climate catastrophe without urgent action.” But presidents and prime ministers are tied to petroleum — till hell freezes over.

At least, I have not come across any credible and sustainable clean energy effort in California for 14 years. Just about all Californians and institutions and schools, universities, churches, businesses, city governments refuse to admit this is a new age, which they created. Public transportation, for example, is barely surviving while polluting cars are multiplying in numbers and size. Air travel is also experiencing a tremendous growth with millions of Americans flying everywhere. I experienced this air travel utopia in June 2023 when I flew from Ontario, California to the JFK airport, New York, and then to Athens, Greece. Alas, airports have become the equivalent of shopping malls. They are populated by expensive stores and perpetual security propaganda. At the JFK airport, at almost every 5 minutes, megaphones blurred a message of fear: don’t accept anything from anybody and check your baggage for a gun.

These disturbing realities and trends are pretty convincing that without a radical shift or urgent action in both attitude and policies, America, and the world as we know them are doomed. The danger from rising temperature is grossly underestimated because of the secret but vast contributions of armed forces, and “vast amounts of carbon” escaping into the atmosphere from the thawing of permafrost in Siberia and Alaska.

The legal burning of fossil fuels has triggered a vast chain of evil. The longer it lasts, the more damage it inflicts on our future.

Solar mysteries?

Demeter’s threat of the powers that be (Zeus and his Olympian colleagues) worked. She found her beloved daughter Persephone and, at least, founded the Eleusinian mysteries to bring Greeks closer to their gods. But there’s no modern religion or political leadership that is taking the Earth and the anthropogenic climate emergency seriously. Petroleum business as usual has become another deadly pandemic. No vaccine is likely for this cosmic foolishness. Only political action from citizens all over the world can overthrow the dominant petroleum model while turning human attention rapidly to the Sun with its inexhaustible energy. It would be good establishing Solar mysteries for constantly reminding us of our Sun protector.

America’s environmental organizations need to join hands for winning this life-threatening petroleum-climate danger.

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.