Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Blame Prometheus

After several heavy rains dispersed the oppressive heat, lovely summer evenings have transpired, when it has been cool enough to require pajamas, crickets chirp from the meadows and the fireflies are just starting their spectacular show.  Every June there are so many, they twinkle bewitchingly all the way to the tops of the tallest trees.  It is one of the things my children and I have always loved best about Wit's End.
Lately such magical sights and sounds - enchanting puffy clouds, glimpses of furtive wildlife, and air sweetly perfumed with wild honeysuckle - simultaneously fills me with joy, and makes my heart ache.
Readers of this blog know I do not think such splendid sensations will exist much longer.
Instead, scenes like this broken tree are becoming commonplace and will overtake the landscape until it is unrecognizable, a situation which is already faits accomplis in the unluckier corners of the world already overtaken by floods, wildfires, droughts and tornadoes.
The stone wall skirts the road in front of this imposing domicile on the Bernardsville Mountain, a reminder that no concentration of wealth is enough to stave off the collapse of the ecosystem, or insulate the privileged for long.
This little finch is perched in a lilac that has branches smothered in a lichen that likes to soak up the excess nitrogen polluting our atmosphere.
Pine trees like those in the background are dropping needles, while deciduous leaves are prematurely turning yellow, unable to produce chlorophyll.
Insects, disease and fungus are attacking plants and fruits that are compromised by exposure to toxic greenhouse gas emissions, from precursors that form ozone in the troposphere, where it doesn't belong.
Foliage exhibits visible discoloration as the stomates are damaged from absorbing caustic volatile organic compounds like peroxyacetyl nitrate.  It's invisible, but it's just as real in the air as oxygen.  When I see black walnut leaves looking this bad already in mid-June, I wonder how much longer plants can struggle to survive.
This understanding leads me to conclusions that don't seem to be very popular!  I left a comment at Greenman's blog, originator of the famous "Crock of the Week" series, in response to the most recent exchange, which earned me a terse:  "good luck with that!"  from the author, Peter Sinclair.  I admire his videos and have asked over the years that he produce something as incisive, about the well-known but widely ignored effect of ozone on trees (consider the report released yesterday by the UN Environmental Programme warning that annual crop yields are reduced by 50 million tons per year by air pollution, and extrapolate from that staggering loss what happens to trees that suffer cumulative exposure season after season!) but he has never been interested.  Lately his emphasis has turned from eviscerating climate denier canards to solutions, in the form of clean energy innovations.  I should stop being surprised that even for many scientists who have the diagnosis before them, the brutal prognosis is too unbearable to contemplate:
omnologos Says:

Mitigation is now impossible, long live adaptation
I agree. I don’t think Peter Sinclair does. I’m also afraid adaptation is hampered by the UN inertia, that will see the focus wastefully stuck to “mitigation” for years still if not decades.
 greenman3610 Says:
June 15, 2011 at 9:09 am 
It’s been said our choices are now, mitigation, adaptation, or suffering.
Those of us who’ve been warning about the suffering are aware that the planet is going to take a hit. The question is, how much of a hit.
I’d like to keep it something short of mass extinction, and I think mitigation is in order to do that.
The process will not be a pleasant one for much of the planet – but, like a heart attack victim who changes his ways and finds a better life, we could come out of this a happier place, maybe with most of our ecosystem intact.
Since I have kids, I prefer to work for that. You may have other priorities.
omnologos Says:
it’s exactly because I have kids that I want to do what is possible instead of dying for yet another false ideology. If you know of any mitigation that’d do better than adaptation, I’m all ears for that. You might want to inform the UK government too as they are clueless on the topic despite being committed to it.
witsendnj says:
June 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm 
I don’t think characterizing realism as having “other priorities” is quite fair. I’ve got kids too – they are my priority. I love them more than anything – I want them to not only survive, but live the futures I (mistakenly) brought them up to expect they would inherit – careers in law, veterinary medicine, and teaching biology at the college level. You know, work hard and you will earn a nice life, with a lovely family, living in security, in a beautiful world resplendent with nature’s bounty.

I now know that is impossible. There is too much heating in the pipeline, the amplifying feedbacks have been set in motion and cannot be reversed, in other words, that “uninhabitable climate” cake has been baked and there is going to be a sudden, terrible breakdown in society and quite likely resource wars.

You may “prefer” to believe the ecosystem is going to survive intact, but that is simply an impossibility. A rudimentary understanding of evolution precludes any such fantasy, because the eco SYSTEM is an incredibly complex set of relationships that unfolded over time, of different species becoming increasingly dependent on each other for food, shelter, population control, and a million other services to each other – as well as a climate that is stable within certain perimeters, which have already been breached.

So now my priority with my children (which I confess they do not appreciate in the least) is to help them adjust their expectations and priorities or, failing that (and so far I have failed) to simply last long enough personally in the event that they will need a shoulder to weep on, or perhaps someone to blame, when the full understanding of the catastrophe previous generations have wrought through our selfishness, stupidity, and greed overcomes them."  That's when I got the swift "good luck with that," reply.
Sometimes, so immersed am I after a couple of years of daily hourly reflection on climatic and environmental catastrophe, I forget that other people are still oblivious, or if they have any inkling, must still traverse a long and painful journey before they emerge with a full grasp of the inevitability of our imminent extinction.  After that, the paleoclimatic record demonstrates unforgivingly that it takes nature several million years to recoup to anything approaching the luxurious, paradisiacal complexity of current biodiversity from an extinction event - which is effectively forever, in human timescales.

I tend to concentrate on what is hurtling us towards our well-deserved, long anticipated dĂ©nouement - the pollution, the unsustainable resource extraction inextricably enmeshed in capitalism, the catastrophic alteration of the atmosphere changing our stable climate into violent and unpredictable weather disasters (for an exhaustive summary of those processes, I recommend the latest essay from Survival Acres) - rather than about that process of learning and acceptance, at least as I have experienced it.  I never forget it, though, and of course it presents ongoing turmoil.

Having ricocheted from disbelief to horror, guilt and dread, I find that grief is lessening, and in its place an improbable gratitude grows - to live now, at this moment which is like no other, when all of human history has gone before me and is mine to know, and it is just at the inflection when I am part of the tiny minority of all humans who have ever walked this earth to witness it being destroyed for all time.  At times I feel, if not elated to be a member of the select few, at least as though I ought to be.

As J Krishnamurti said in 1973 - the year after I graduated from high school, long before I had any sort of clue about the overpowering corruption of the elite who control governments that he was discussing in this talk, " doesn't depress one to realize that the world cannot be changed unless you radically change yourself.   That doesn't depress one.  On the contrary it gives you tremendous energy to change."

And I do think that, whether or not the world can be changed (it cannot) it still behooves each of us, as we realize that the odds are stacked against any meaningful survival of humanity - or the rest of life on earth as we have known it - to become ever more compassionate, more engaged in life, more loving, and fiercer in our opposition to the truly wicked who hasten the march to oblivion while they rake in profits from exploiting the poorest and weakest victims, no small number of whom are children.

Some climate experts in their darker musings have postulated that the combustion of fossil fuels beginning in the Industrial Revolution determined our present course some 150 years ago, well before the escalation in the past few decades.  Personally I think it more than likely that the inevitability of ecosystem collapse has been set in stone as long ago as the earliest discovery that we could harness fire, for cooking, heating, and clearing for agriculture.  This suspicion was foreshadowed and prophesied back when our benefactor Prometheus, the original creator of man from common clay, was credited with giving us all the tools of technology we have since employed so usefully, from engineering to agriculture.

According to myth, the first deception promulgated by Prometheus to infuriate the gods was a trick to give man the tastiest and most nutritious part of slain animals for food.  In revenge, Zeus retrieved the flame, to deprive men of  the means to cook meat.  Prometheus then returned it to them again - in a bulb of fennel (a nice touch).  The ultimate result of that was the next devious gift from the Gods, in the enchanting person of Pandora.  Her legacy was to deprive humans of their foreknowledge of the future, to be replaced by that shabby substitute - superfluous, blinding Hope - lending us a seductive delusion that has led us astray ever since, even as it has inspired countless innovations, art, passion, and war.
"Pandora, the giver of all, or endowed with every thing, is the name of the first woman on earth. When Prometheus had stolen the fire from heaven, Zeus in revenge caused Hephaestus to make a woman out of earth, who by her charms and beauty should bring misery upon the human race. Aphrodite adorned her with beauty, Hermes gave her boldness and cunning, and the gods called her Pandora, as each of the Olympians had given her some power by which she was to work the ruin of man. Hermes took her to Epimetheus, who forgot the advice of his brother Prometheus, not to accept any gift from Zeus, and from that moment all miseries came down upon men."

This hope has nevertheless been seen not as a burden but as a wonderful boon for much of our civilization, right up to the present day, the subject of poems, songs and prayers.  Unfortunately in our modern times, the benefits will finally cease.  Those few with the courage to recognize the control of fire for the curse it has become have abandoned hope, and in so doing have regained knowledge of the future, with all the attendant terror and fascination that involves.
Theft of Fire, Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916
Friedrich Heinrich Fuger, 1817, bringing fire to man
Prometheus being chained by Vulcan, Dirck van Baburen, 1623
Prometheus tortured by an eagle sent by Zeus...Laconian Black Figure, Attributed to the Naukratis Painter, ca 560 - 550 BC
Prometheus Freed by Heracles, Griepenkerl
(Photos were found at this a very amusing tarot blog with myriad interpretations of the myth.)
Is it any wonder that this golden sculpture of Prometheus is the iconic symbol dominating the base of the towering Rockefeller Center in Manhattan?  You'd think it might cause those titans of finance that routinely scurry by it to reflect on the eventual repercussions of unregulated business, but no, they do not.  The sad fact is, they cannot.
There are too many legends about Prometheus, and versions of legends, to excerpt more than one, but following is a little snippet, for a hint of the flavor [italics added to my favorite prophesies!], along with photos - just because I happen to like them - by Antonio Girbé.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound -
Prometheus: No news to me, in truth, is the message this fellow has proclaimed so noisily. Yet for enemy to suffer ill from enemy is no disgrace. Therefore let the lightning's forked curl be cast upon my head and let the sky be convulsed with thunder and the wrack of savage winds; let the hurricane shake the earth from its rooted base, and let the waves of the sea mingle with their savage surge the courses of the stars in heaven; and let him lift me on high and hurl me down to black Tartaros with the swirling floods of stern Necessity: do what he will, me he shall never bring to death.
Hermes: Such indeed are the thoughts and the words one hears from men deranged. Where does his prayer fall short of raving? Where does he abate his frenzy?--But, at all events, may you who sympathize with his anguish, withdraw in haste from this spot so that the relentless roar of the thunder does not stun your senses.
Chorus: Use some other strain and urge me to some other course in which you are likely to convince me. This utterance in your flood of speech is, I think, past all endurance. How do you charge me to practise baseness? With him I am content to suffer any fate; for I have learned to detest traitors, and there is no pest I abhor more than this.
Hermes: Well then, bear my warning in memory and do not blame your fortune when you are caught in the toils of calamity; nor ever say that it was Zeus who cast you into suffering unforeseen. Not so, but blame yourselves. For well forewarned, and not suddenly or secretly shall you be entangled in the inextricable net of calamity by reason of your folly. [Exit Hermes.]
Prometheus: Indeed, now it has passed from word to deed--the earth rocks, the echoing thunder-peal from the depths rolls roaring past me; the fiery wreathed lightning-flashes flare forth, and whirlwinds toss the swirling dust; the blasts of all the winds leap forth and set in hostile array their embattled strife; the sky is confounded with the deep. Behold, this stormy turmoil advances against me visibly, sent by Zeus to frighten me. O holy mother mine, O you firmament that revolves the common light of all, you see the wrongs I suffer!"
Does any of that sound like Joplin, Katrina, Pakistan, Columbia, Fukushima, Arizona or dozens of other plagues unleashed in just the past few years?
This last gorgeous photograph brings us back again to the purpose of this blog, the fate of trees.

Naturally I find in the most recent photos of flooding in the midwest, trees that are inadvertently revealed to be thin and in decline...just as revealed by this article the latest about dying trees to blame the trend on a false culprit, in this case road salt in Vermont.
When photos from the air are taken from a low enough altitude, branches that have not fully leafed out can be seen, with completely bare branches protruding from the tops.
These examples are similar to the norm here on the east coast.
People have forgotten that trees crowns were once lush and dense with deep emerald foliage.
Not to be uncharitable to those residents who are losing precious homes and possessions to the rising waters, but these aerial photos of development sprawling in flood plains make it pretty clear this inundation is yet another example of humans stupidly deserving disaster by building laterally in ill-suited locations.
Even more ludicrously absurd are the gargantuan houses, edifices to excess that are overflowing their cramped building lots.
Whatever inspired builders to create these monstrously oversized houses, or buyers to purchase them defies rationality.
The insurance companies will simply stop covering such lunacy.
This construction frenzy boggles the mind - I thought we have been in the midst of a recession depression and housing market collapse?
Here are a few more for good measure.
These obviously aren't an isolated extravagance, but part of a systemic plan to build ridiculously large houses in inappropriate places.
Here's my favorite!
And last in this series, a quintessential image of withering trees and mountains of sandbags.
I suppose, if blaming the gods is too fanciful, you could always just attribute our doom to intrinsic human nature - Dave over at the Decline of the Empire has made a persuasive case for that notion.  Along those lines are the lyrics to this song (copied below), a hauntingly lugubrious dirge expounding the same inescapable conundrum - we are condemned by our own genes, and much as we might wish, never really had any viable alternative to our preordained fate.  I guess some of us can be considered lucky to know that.

Set the sails I feel the wind's a stirring
Towards the bright horizon set the way
Cast your reckless dreams upon our Mayflower
The haven from the world and her decay

Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
Fighting for a system built to fail
Spooning water from the broken vessels
As far as I can see there is no land

Oh my God the water's all around us
Oh my God it's all around

Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
Lords of war just profit from decay
And trade the children's promise for the jingle
The way we trade our hard-earned time for pay

Oh my God the water's cold and shapeless
Oh my God it's all around
Oh my God life is cold and formless
Oh my God it's all around

(Pictures of flooding found here, here, here and here.)


  1. Someone on the radio the other day was saying that it was the discovery and use of fire that enabled mankind to expand our dominance of the planet with the foods we could eat and places we could live.

    It was the use of fire NOT tools that separates us from the other creatures of the Earth.

    "The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in human cultural evolution that allowed humans to proliferate by cooking food, and by finding warmth and protection. Fire also allowed the expansion of human activity into the colder hours of the night (or colder climates in general), and provided protection from predators and insects.[1]

    Unequivocal evidence of widespread control of fire dates to approximately 125,000 years ago and later.[2] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus beginning some 400,000 years ago has wide scholarly support, while claims regarding earlier evidence are mostly dismissed as inconclusive or sketchy.[3]

    Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 0.2 to 1.7 million years ago (Mya).[4]"

    Prometheus meant well.


  2. Haha, nice try Catman. Typical guy - you'd rather blame Pandora!


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