Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future

We are living in epic times. Mighty planetary changes are underway, and perhaps our pop culture is so obsessed with superheroes because only legendary heroes could successfully battle the dragons we face today.

I have been writing Transition Times for seven years now. When I started this blog, I was following the lead of environmental activist writers like Bill McKibben, Mark Hertsgaard, Elizabeth Kolbert and Derrick Jensen, who were sounding the alarm about climate change and biodiversity loss, translating the sober measurements of science into terms a lay audience could understand.

In the climate change movement then, the watchwords were “mitigate” and “adapt.” We could mitigate the damage that climate change would cause by reducing carbon emissions, trying to keep things more or less under control while we busied ourselves with adapting, by, for example, shifting to renewable energy sources and hybridizing flood- and drought-resistant grains.

Meanwhile, wildlife biologists were keeping track of the grim march of the Sixth Great Extinction, already well underway—not only for animals but also for marine life and plants on land and sea.

Seven years on, the scenarios I was absorbing with shock, outrage and fear at the beginning of Transition Times have come true, and then some. Monster storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, melting glaciers and tundra at the poles, staggering biodiversity loss, climate refugees (both human and non-human)—all of this has moved out of the realm of science fiction into the daily headlines.

Hence our desperate casting about for superhero help.

In the United States, the Gilgamesh crowd is in power—you remember Gilgamesh: the brawny young king who murdered the guardian of the cedar forest and cut it all down to build his grand city. Later in his epic he wanders around the world searching unsuccessfully for a route to immortality, strangely symbolizing the downfall of all humans who think only of short-term gain: you can’t take it with you.

Those at the helm of the U.S. economy today are willing to cut it all down. Who cares about helping endangered species? Who cares about national parks or ocean sanctuaries—drill, baby, drill! Who cares about the national debt? Print some more paper, acquire some more debt, let the suckers who come after us figure out how to pay.

And pay we will. The entire Earth community will pay for the savage destruction of climate and environment underway now. It’s not just the Sixth Great Extinction, it’s also a planetary reset we’re witnessing in these early years of the 21stcentury, on the scale of the shift from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic eras, when the dinosaurs went extinct.

But this time, it’s not a meteor shaking things up on Earth. It’s the planet’s most successful species, homo sapiens—the smart apes—ruining things for everyone.

I am not proud to be a human being these days. I am not proud to be an American.

But I do cling to a tattered shred of hope in remembering the much-vaunted ethical, moral compass of humans, and the legendary innovative ingenuity of Americans.

If climate change, habitat and species loss continue unabated, we will be the first species on the planet to knowingly bring about our own destruction. For make no mistake, humans will go down with everything else on the planet. A few may survive—but civilization as we have created it, a la Gilgamesh, will go down.

Is this something we are really willing to have on our collective conscience?

Especially when we could have prevented it?

I take hope from the fierce rhetoric of Pope Francis, and other activists who are firing up environmental protection with religious fervor: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a great example of a scientist who is appealing to the faithful, and also using pop cultureto reach the masses.

What’s needed now is a dramatic shift in cultural worldview: from Gilgamesh to Noah, from swash-buckling drill-slash-burn to the moral and technological leadership that gets an Ark built before the floods come.

Because the floods, they are a’comin’. They’re already here, along with the wildfires and droughts and heat domes and all the rest of it. The wild animals are feeling the stresses as much or more than humans…there’s no AC or helicopters coming for them.

Meanwhile our politicians are still busying themselves with archaic ideas like national borders and tariff tit-for-tats. Climate change knows no borders. Noah didn’t ask to see passports as he loaded the climate refugees, human and non-human, into his ship.

We are all Earthlings now. If there’s any upside to climate change, it may be that the fact of our global, interspecies interdependence is now blazingly clear and undeniable.

In the epic of the 21stcentury, we’re at a crossroads. Who will we follow, Gilgamesh or Noah? If we want to save ourselves and as many other beloved Earthlings as possible (plants, insects, birds, animals, marine life), there is no time to waste.

Noah is in all of us, and we’re all in this together. If we have the will, we can find ways to mitigate and adapt and survive what’s coming.

Can we find the will?

Every day is a cliffhanger lately…tune in next time for the next chapter of “Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future, No. 2018.”

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18 Comments

  1. Michael Carter

     /  July 27, 2018

    Can we get your permission to republish this on the Deep Green Resistance News Service, http://dgrnewsservice.org/, with our usual source attribution? Thank you for writing this,

    Reply
  2. Gerry Gras

     /  July 27, 2018

    RE: Homo Sapiens? … Or maybe Homo Unsapiens? (Could someone who knows Latin please correct me?)

    RE: Monster storms, floods, etcetera … How about ocean acidification, ocean deserts, crop failures, trees that don’t bear fruit, diseases spreading further from the equator … and sea level rise, (a problem already in some places, even without storms)?

    RE: Gilgamesh … How about Ozymandius: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias ?

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  July 29, 2018

      I know, the list of horrors goes on and on, Gerry. I have gotten away from listing it all because a) most of my readers are familiar with the litany and b) I’m trying to amplify what shreds of hope I can find….Thanks for reading….

      Reply
  3. If WordPress had an “outrage” button, I’d have clicked that instead of “like.”

    Thank you for keeping your voice strong in the face of these staggering truths. I know revolutions have happened around lesser challenges… I don’t understand quite what is holding us back from that around the climate.

    Reply
  4. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  July 29, 2018

    Thanks for reading! There’s a good article this week on what’s holding us back from connecting the dots between all the epic “natural disasters” and climate change. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/07/climate-change-wildfires-heatwave-media-old-news-end-of-the-world.html

    Reply
  5. Mark Behrend

     /  August 4, 2018

    The solution to the problem of civilization Jennifer documents is logically simple. The supposedly intelligent species responds like Americans did to the attack on Pearl Harbor, when we shut down our leading industry (cars), rationed everything from nylons to food, and millions left their jobs for the war effort.

    Here’s the plan: Replace an economic system based on competition, consumption, and profit with one based on cooperation, vital needs, and sustainability. Produce nothing that isn’t essential (no cars, planes, armies, space program, etc.), end trade in everything that can’t be produced locally, institute a global one-child policy for 200 years (bringing population back to its pre-industrial level), abandon cities and factory farming, and return to a village-based society.

    Or we can crash and burn with the Mother Earth we mistook for a whore.

    From all available evidence, we’re by far the most intelligent species on earth, and the most destructive organism in the universe. Such a contradiction obviously violates all the laws of Nature. And people living today will both decide and witness its resolution.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  August 4, 2018

      Yes, we know what to do and we have the intelligence to follow through. The critical question is, do we have the will, the heart, the courage to make the big changes that are needed, and quickly? That I just don’t know.

      Reply
      • Mark Behrend

         /  August 4, 2018

        I’m not optimistic. Barring an environmental Pearl Harbor, the majority of people are likely to remain in denial. The loss off 1/3 of the world’s arable land between 1975 and 2015 (which continues) didn’t even make Page One. Nor did the estimate of 200-300 million hunger refugees by 2050. And even suggesting that population growth is a crisis is considered politically incorrect.

      • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

         /  August 4, 2018

        But those are slow-moving disasters. I agree with you, we need an “environmental Pearl Harbor” to get our attention. And it seems like the heat waves, wildfires, droughts, melting glaciers, floods, hurricanes may just succeed. The planet is speaking to us–screaming at us!–in many tongues. Time to start listening!

      • Mark Behrend

         /  August 5, 2018

        Four questions I don’t see being addressed, even on our side, regarding population. We’re told the numbers will somehow “level off” at 9 or 10 billion, sometime around 2050 (presumably due to prosperity and female empowerment), and that, theoretically, we could grow enough food to feed them. But even in this best-case scenario, (1) most of the world has little or no prospect of attaining prosperity before running out of fresh water and arable land; (2) we don’t have the other resources necessary to sustain more than a fraction of that number (especially given the rising expectations that come with prosperity); (3) mass extinctions and the collapse of biodiversity would accelerate, under even our current population load; and (4) without an ever-expanding population, an economy based on perpetual growth would collapse. Meanwhile, the futurists who say we can mine the asteroids and colonize Mars deliberately overlook some glaring facts, such as the known composition of the asteroids (primarily iron, carbon, and nickel), economically prohibitive extraction and transportation costs, and our inability to relocate more than an elite few to the grim realities of life in space.

  6. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  August 5, 2018

    Yes. We have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and it seems we are in for some dramatic population collapses–Mother Earth’s way of reining humans in and trying to restore balance. So the question becomes, what do we do with this knowledge? I place no store whatsoever outer space. I think we who are aware need to be preparing for, as Paul Hawken puts it, “drawdown”–but at this juncture it looks doubtful that it will be as rosy as his team makes out. Joe Brewer is actively working on this too. We’re in the “transition times” and it would be wise to be preparing for what is coming. Community-building, creating local food supplies, relearning the old means of subsistence, figuring out ways to stay in touch if the internet goes down…all very valuable uses of this quiet before the storm, for those of us with the luxury to prepare.

    Reply
    • Mark Behrend

       /  August 5, 2018

      Or, as Chris Hedges put it, “It’s all Easter Island now.”

      Reply
      • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

         /  August 5, 2018

        Yes; but some will survive–and maybe even live well. It doesn’t have to be a dystopian apocalypse. What we do know can and will make a big difference.

      • Mark Behrend

         /  August 5, 2018

        Two items in today’s news suggest you may be right (maybe not this year, but soon) about global warming disasters like the current becoming the environmental Pearl Harbor. (1) Wildfires in Greenland; (2) crop failures in Poland, as temperatures in Europe reach 115° F. The latter reminded me that photosynthesis STOPS at 105°.

  7. Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

     /  August 6, 2018

    So scary. But we have to focus on the positive too, and what we can do to make a difference. That’s the Noah energy I’m trying to channel now!

    Reply
    • Mark Behrend

       /  August 6, 2018

      Backtracking a couple of comments, I neglected to put the Chris Hedges quote (“It’s all Easter Island now”) in its proler context. What he meant wasn’t, “The planet is doomed. Give up.” Rather, he was saying that — unlike Sumer, the Khmer, the Maya, or Easter Island — this self-made apocalypse is not one we can simply abandon and go somewhere else. Perhaps a more fitting quote is from Don Henley’s (of The Eagles) environmental anthem, “The Last Resort,” where he sang, “There is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.”

      Reply

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