Pandora’s box and the demon of global warming

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The recent widespread flooding in Queensland and Victoria, together with extreme weather events elsewhere in the world, reinforce the view that global warming and consequent climate disruption is real and poses a threat to civilisation. Despite spectacular advances in science, we still have much to learn from the wisdom of past civilisations in regard to environmental health.

In his dialogue Critias, Plato (c.428-c.347 BC) describes the landscape around Athens following deforestation: \”What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away….Mountains which now have nothing but food for bees…..had trees not very long ago. The land was enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea, but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.\”

Hippocrates (c.469-c.377 BC) wrote the oldest known systematic account of interdependence between human and environmental health in his treatise Airs, Water and Places. In Hippocrates’ words, the physician who is an honour to his profession is the one: \”who has due regard to the seasons of the year, and the diseases which they produce; to the states of the wind peculiar to each country and the qualities of its waters; who marks carefully the localities of towns, and of the surrounding country, whether they are low or high, hot or cold, wet or dry; who, moreover, takes note of the diet and regimen of the inhabitants, and in a word, of all the causes that may produce disorder in the animal economy.\”

Travelling back in time to Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus made human beings out of clay, and taught them the arts of civilisation. He stole fire from heaven to help humankind, whom Zeus wished to destroy. For this theft he was chained by Zeus to Mount Caucasus, where an eagle preyed on his liver all day, the liver being renewed at night. Prometheus was eventually released by Heracles (Hercules in Roman parlance), who slew the eagle. It was to counterbalance the gift of fire that Zeus, who was not enamoured of Homo sapiens, sent the first mortal woman Pandora (meaning “all -gifted”) to earth with a box or jar containing all the evils which beset humankind. When the lid was removed, all the evils flew forth, and they have ever since continued to afflict the world. Hope alone remained in the box.

Some of Pandora’s demons, such as meteorite impacts, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis are attributable to natural forces, and might be termed “Zeusogenic”. Other disasters, such as soil and water degradation, chemical pollution, depletion of non-renewable natural resources, loss of biodiversity, and warfare, since the agricultural and industrial transitions, have a strong human influence and may be termed anthropogenic.

The earth’s mean temperature following the last ice age has been 14C, which has increased by 0.8C over the past century. This global warming effect might be attributable to Prometheus’ gift of fire, through the prodigious combustion of photosynthesised solar energy capital (stored, over 3-400 million years), as coal, oil and natural gas since the industrial revolution, initiated 250 years ago. Global warming has increased in parallel with the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. It is also powerfully influenced by water vapour, which is precipitated as rain, hail or snow, depending on prevailing local temperature. The recent extensive flooding of homes and crops in Pakistan and Australia after decades of drought is thought to be caused by oceanic warming, due to a combination of La Nina and anthropogenic influences. Flooding of the flat terrain of Queensland alone covers an area the size of New South Wales, or of France and Germany combined.

According to James Hansen of the National Atmospheric and Space Administration we have experienced the warmest decade and warmest year in history, with melting Arctic ice cap and glaciers. Nine countries have reported record summer temperatures, ranging from 44C in Russia to 54C in Pakistan. In contrast, the unusually cold winter in the northern hemisphere has led denialists to question the well established scientific evidence on global warming. Review of the literature by science journalist George Monbiot argues that these temperature anomalies are connected, and explicable by contrasting atmospheric pressures affecting air flows between the Icelandic low and Azores high. Although the effect of global warming is generally referred to by the scientific community and media as climate change, geographical anomalies and the experience of extreme weather events make it more appropriate to refer to it as climate instability or disruption as a description of Pandora’s demon of global temperature increase, caused by intertwined Zeusogenic and anthropogenic influences.

There are three hitherto under-recognised demons which have escaped from Pandora’s box, resulting from a warming planet. First, the release to the atmosphere and oceans of hundreds of billions of tons of carbon from fossil biospheres, at the rate of >2 ppm CO2 per year, is unprecedented in geological history of Earth, excepting events such as major volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts which excavated and vaporised carbon-rich sediments, interfering with the carbon and oxygen cycles, leading to mass extinction of species (The shift in state of the atmosphere, [email protected]). Second is the depletion of carbon sinks in oceans, soils and vegetation due to increasing temperature and acidity. Third is depletion of oceanic oxygen, which is less soluble in warm than in cold water. A warning signal of this was dramatically demonstrated in July 2010, when thousands of dead fish were washed up on Delaware beaches along the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Investigation showed that the fish had died of anoxia. This carries alarming implications for the survival of marine, and in the long term, terrestrial ecosystems.

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse and the historian Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress argue that civilisations collapse when their populations exceed their resource base. Historically this has happened successively to the Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Aztec and Mayan civilisations. Today, despite the vocal protestations of denialists, the consensus of scientific opinion is that runaway global warming threatens not only local but global civilisation, human survival and wellbeing to an extent comparable only to the Earth’s possible collision with an extraterrestrial body, or widespread nuclear warfare resulting in a nuclear winter.

Despite benefits conferred by the Renaissance and the industrial transition, humans’ practice of violence against our own kind and against the biosphere make the long term survival of our species problematical, if we continue with “business as usual”. Activation of Hope in Pandora’s box for our future survival and wellbeing will depend on two improbabilities. First is the curbing of testosterone-driven propensities to homicidal mania, promoted by ideological bigotry and the power of the military-industrial complex. Second should be a reduction of hubris and the implementation of our responsibilities towards preservation of the biosphere.

Guidelines might be provided by a re-drafting of Genesis, along the lines of “Be less fruitful, less profligate and more caring, develop sustainable relationships with fellow humans, the fish of the sea, the fowls of the air, and with every living thing that moveth and groweth upon the earth”. Such a Neogenesis would have been described by Albert Schweitzer as reverence for life.

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