Crying wolf down the millenia

A few days ago I read on Professor Peter Brimblecombe’s website a comment which puts our environmental gloom into perspective. During his PhD research he discovered that people have been worrying about environmental crises since the 13th Century. He realised that “throughout history we have found it easy to regard ourselves on the brink of an apocalypse.”

Neil MacGregor goes even further back. In his book A History of the World in 100 Objects, item 16 is a clay tablet from Nineveh, northern Iraq, dating from 700 – 600 BC. It was deciphered in the 1870s by George Smith. It tells the story of a flood, including the lines: “Demolish the house, and build a boat. Abandon wealth and seek survival. Spurn property, save life. Take on board all living things’ seed.”

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of history, I was really hit by those lines. “Abandon wealth and seek survival.” “Spurn property, save life.” Strap-lines to a green manifesto, millennia before their time; stark and contemporary.

We might revel in the poignancy of this ancient appeal, but it only emboldens deniers, who say: “It’s the same old record; it’s been stuck in the same groove for two thousand years.” And they reel off the times we’ve been wrong.

We have to take confidence from another old story, the one about the boy who cried wolf. The lesson from this parable is supposed to be: “Don’t sound the alarm falsely, because people will ignore it, when you are really in trouble.” The lesson should be: “Always take the alarm seriously, because you don’t know which one is true.”

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