The epic of Gilgamesh and the plunder of nature


Richard Galustian in Gulf News, 18 December 2017:

In August, America withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, signed two years ago this month. Their reasoning was that President Donald Trump thought it was ‘a bad deal for America.’

The objective of about 200 countries that accepted the agreement was to prevent global temperatures during the 21st century from rising more than 3.6 degrees F (2.0 degrees C) above early 20th century temperatures with the hope of even a lower figure to 1.5 degrees C. For the survival of the planet, it is necessary to decrease, even halt the greenhouse emissions caused by burning of fossil fuels.

To achieve this, wealthy Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)countries agreed to provide $100 billion(Dh367 billion) a year by 2020, so that third world countries can be more climate friendly for the good of the world.

Recent global environmental issues are rising to the top of the political agenda with levels of air pollution levels at an all-time high not least are the cause of horrendous widespread fires across California, and the accelerating contamination of our all our oceans and the marine food chain by plastic. Fortunately there is a growing ground swell of global public and political awareness of environmental issues.

Carbon dioxide does not only causes global warming, it also dissolves in the oceans to form carbonic acid which inhibits the ability of organisms to produce shells or to form coral. Coral reefs are immensely complex and fragile ecosystems that are now under attack on two fronts: increasing acidity is dissolving their structure, and higher temperatures cause bleaching.

Mass extinction events have occurred on five previous occasions in the history of our planet and all but one was accompanied by the complete disappearance of coral reefs.

We are witnessing the same process happening again in this century. I spoke to one of the UK’s foremost environmental activists, Dr Robin Russell-Jones who was formerly Chair of CLEAR, the Campaign for Lead Free Air, and who has been campaigning on environmental issues for the past 40 years.

He has recently published a fascinating book called The Gilgamesh Gene which analyses the mind-set of rulers throughout the ages and their attitude to the environment. The book provides a very interesting historical background into origins of humanity’s reckless approach to the environment; so Trump doesn’t stand alone in his ignorance.

“I conceived and drafted most of the book before Trump was elected president” Dr Russell-Jones says, “but his approach to the environment is emblematic of rulers throughout history who have viewed the natural environment as something to be plundered for their own benefit and glorification. Rather than being protected for the common good, it is seen as a capital resource that is there to be conquered and exploited, and it’s only value is perceived as its market price, or the amount of oil and gas it contains.”

To understand how much this approach is hard wired into the DNA of western politicians, and increasingly most world leaders, Dr Russell-Jones analyses the oldest story in recorded history, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The central theme of the epic is ecological. Gilgamesh ruled the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk in 2750 BC. During the previous millennium, Uruk had used up most of its local resources and had initiated a process of expansion which involved trading with neighbouring states for items such as lapis lazuli and cedarwood. Within the cedar forest lurked Humbaba, a monstrous creature ordained to guard the cedar trees against loggers. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu set off to kill Humbaba. Gilgamesh decapitates him, and our heroes then cut down the forest and float down the Euphrates on a raft of cedar logs with the head of Humbaba as proof of their victory. So Gilgamesh is not only the world’s first logger, he is also one of the world’s first trophy hunters; but his vainglorious endeavour comes at a price. Enkidu is cursed by Humbaba before he dies, and soon after their triumphant return, Enkidu sickens and dies.

Gilgamesh then sets off on a quest for immortality, and most of the commentaries on ‘the Epic’ concentrate on the futility of such an endeavour. But to Dr Russell-Jones, the more important aspect of this event are the environmental consequences. The only rationale offered by Gilgamesh for his reckless behaviour was to establish his reputation in perpetuity. I will do this so I can “stamp my name on the minds of men forever”. In other words he was an egotistical king with the same childish need for praise and adulation as Trump; though in many ways Trump’s narcissism is even more extreme. The only conclusion one can draw, says Dr Russell-Jones is that celebrity trumps the environment every time and from then on, the natural world came to be seen as something to be exploited, if necessary by force, and even if it entails the sacrifice of our dearest and most important friend, nature.

Nowadays the ancient cedar forests in the Levant have all but disappeared. One wonders what further irreversible damage to the natural world will be wreaked by the current president of the US not to mention his lack of foreign policy strategies that could help destroy the planet before our fragile globe environmentally implodes so to speak.

The hope is the Trump administration will change its mind in 2018 when presented with all the overwhelmingly evidence that the planet is in danger.

Richard Galustian is a business and security analyst who has lived in Libya since 2011


Turkish environmentalist murders and the legend of Gilgamesh


The Guardian, 18 October 2017:

There have been many attempts throughout history to preserve the cedars of Lebanon, including a decree against logging by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but Aysin and Ali Büyüknohutçu are the first to have been murdered since Gilgamesh, a king in ancient Mesopotamia, slew the mythical guardian of the cedar forest, Humbaba, in 2750BC (Murders are a warning, say Turkish activists, 18 October).

It is likely that the Epic of Gilgamesh was written to warn against assaults on the natural world, but ancient cedar forests in Lebanon have nevertheless been decimated, not least by the British military when constructing a railway from Haifa to Tripoli, and Cedrus libani is now classified as a near-threatened species. The best-preserved trees are now found in the Taurus mountains of southern Turkey, and it is for these forests that the couple gave their lives. Turkey no longer has an independent judiciary, and there is a menacing link between nationalistic leaders and disregard for the environment. Trump’s attitude to climate change is just as dangerous as Turkish hitmen who murder environmental activists.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Author, The Gilgamesh Gene


The Gilgamesh Gene by Dr Robin Russell-Jones


What was it that initially separated us from other primates?
What was differe
nt about Homo sapiens 30,000 years ago that predicated our survival and the demise of our closest rivals, the Neanderthals?
Why are we obsessed with the notion that GDP is the only possible measure of progress?
If we are able to predict our own demise, why can we not do anything to stop it?

The Gilgamesh Gene is about the human condition, and in particular what it is in our make-up that has brought us, along with most other species on earth, to the brink of extinction. Ultimately it is a question about human psychology. The author draws on the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh to shed light on our predicament and offer a way out.

The epic is the oldest narrative in existence: it tells the story of a vainglorious king, Gilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk in Sumer about 2750 BC. He wished to leave a lasting memory of his feats by building great palaces out of cedar wood, killing the mythical guardian of the cedar forests so that he could “stamp his fame on the minds of men forever”. Dr Russell-Jones compares the different versions of the legend and traces their influence through Bronze Age civilisations to traditions that still dominate human thinking and world affairs today.

The Gilgamesh Gene incorporates the key scientific data that underlies the science of global warming, the decline of coral reefs, and the extreme vulnerability of ecosystems everywhere to global changes in the atmosphere and the oceans. His book is a warning that humanity’s demise is imminent, unless precautions are taken.

The budget should address cuts and chronic underfunding – before it’s too late


The Guardian, 6 March 2016:

Dieselgate has been described as one of the greatest public health scandals in living memory; and last week researchers at MIT estimated an extra 1,200 deaths from the use of VW’s defeat devices just in Germany. The equivalent figure for the EU is around 5,000. Yet there is no indication that the chancellor has any plans to protect the public from the reckless and illegal policies adopted by car manufacturers (Opinion, 6 March). If the government increased fuel duty and vehicle excise duty for diesel cars, then the monies could be used to invest in non-polluting technologies, and the UK could become a world leader in clean energy and green transport. Instead we have an administration that rivals President Trump in its addiction to fossil fuels.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Ex-chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

How to win the war on air pollution


The Guardian, 19 February 2017:

Air pollution is not just a London problem (Editorial, 17 February). Of the 43 zones currently monitored in the UK, 38 fail EU standards for NO2, so any strategy has to be nationwide and not left to individual councils.

The most likely government response is an extension of clean air zones, but there are serious doubts as to whether this will improve public health. First, designating certain areas as clean does nothing to reduce total emissions; it merely diverts them elsewhere. Second, the health effects of NO2 and particulates are without threshold, so reducing levels below an arbitrary limit may make sense politically, but will have little effect biologically. Third, the projected improvement in air quality is predicated upon new vehicles producing less NO2 in line with stricter EU vehicle emission tests, but we already know that emissions of NO2 “on the road” are four to five times greater than in laboratory tests, a discrepancy that even applies to the latest Euro 6 engines. Finally, studies of London schoolchildren showed no improvement in lung function after three years living in a low-emission zone.

As your leader proposes, we are in urgent need of a new Clean Air Act that hastens the demise of diesel and other highly polluting technologies, something the government could and should have championed more than 20 years ago.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Former chair CLEAR, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire


Finding a solution to pollution

sunday times

Sunday Times, 5 February 2017:

Most of the carnage inflicted by Trump since he took office can be reversed when he leaves; the exception is climate change, since failure to mitigate global warming today will probably result in irreversible changes tomorrow. Trump’s solution is to ban any discussion of global warming when he meets the royal family, even though the future of humanity is under threat. He needs to recognise that there is not a single reputable scientific journal, or a single national scientific institute, that does not accept that global warming is man-made and getting worse. His behaviour is that of an autocrat in denial.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones,

Help Rescue the Planet

Known risks

sunday times

Sunday Times, 1 January 2017:

Cavendish says the 20% of lung cancers that occur in non-smokers is “sheer bad luck”. According to Cancer Research UK, exposure to radon gas – for example, in houses built over granite accounts for about 5% of the 36,000 annual lung cancer deaths. However, the biggest cause after Smoking is outdoor air pollution, which is behind more than 2,300 respiratory and lung cancer deaths every year, according to a recent joint report by two medical royal colleges. So it is bad luck if you live or work in an urban environment heavily polluted by diesel emissions and nobody informed you of the risks.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones

Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Dirty Diesel: Cities and citizens choke while the government looks the other way



British Medical Journal editorial, 27 December 2016:

In the 19th century, John Snow correctly identified the Broad Street pump as the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, but a subsequent inquiry by the Board of Health decided that there was no reason to act. [1]

The response of the UK government to air pollution displays a similar lack of foresight. The main problem is diesel. Not only do we have a legacy of dirty lorries, buses, and taxis; the UK, along with much of Europe, has tragically adopted diesel as the main fuel for private cars. Before 2000 less than 10% of new cars sold in the UK were diesel. Now the figure is over 50%. Furthermore the amount of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emitted by most diesel cars on the road is 4-5 times the EU limits allowed in laboratory tests. Illegal defeat devices installed by Volkswagen enabled NO2 emissions up to 40 times the EU limit.

For the past six years, the UK government has refused to implement the 2008 EU Air Quality Directive on the grounds that EU directives can be implemented by individual countries when convenient. However, the law does not recognise this defence, and the directive stipulates clearly defined limits as well as deadlines for compliance. For NO2, the annual limit is 40 µg/m3 of air. The compliance date was the now distant 1 January 2010.

Thanks to our reliance on diesel, nowhere in central London or most other large UK cities complies with the EU standard for NO2. Thus, in 2012, the environmental advocacy group ClientEarth sued the government. The case finally reached the Supreme Court in 2015, which found against the government and ordered it to produce an effective action plan. The government failed to do so and has now been ordered to remedy the situation by 2020 [2].

This judgment is momentous, not least because the EU commission can impose swingeing fines on the government if it fails to comply, a scenario that will doubtless foment demands for an early Brexit. However, it is the public who will suffer most if the government evades its public health responsibilities.

Air pollution is now one of the main causes of premature death in the UK, second only to smoking, with 29,000 deaths attributed to particulates and 23,500 to NO2.[3][4] In February 2016, a joint report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimated that there are 40,000 deaths annually from outdoor air pollution in the UK and identified multiple medical conditions associated with higher exposure to particulates, ozone, and NO2. These include heart disease, stroke, lung disease (including cancer), diabetes, obesity, and dementia.[5]  The cost to the NHS was over £20bn annually; yet the then chancellor, George Osborne, did not even refer to this report when announcing that there would be no increased tax on diesel fuel in the March 2016 budget.

The royal colleges’ report also identified neuropsychological effects from exposure to small particulates (PM2.5) and ultrafine particulates (0.1 µm), which can cross the placental and the blood-brain barriers. Some studies have shown an IQ deficit of 4 points in more highly exposed children.[6] Since these effects have no threshold, they represent a re-run of the neurocognitive deficit identified in the late 1970s from exposure to lead.[7] [8] There are many similarities between the campaign to remove lead from petrol in the 80s and the current uproar over diesel. One big difference is that campaigners now have the support of the medical profession in the UK.

Further evidence has recently emerged linking maternal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and mental health problems in children of primary school age.[9] [10]

Again diesel exhausts are the main source. One of these studies was in non-smoking mothers in New York [9] and is of particular concern to the UK, where the proportion of diesel cars is much higher than in the US and the current epidemic of mental health problems among children remains largely unexplained. Further research is urgently needed. Currently there are no EU limits for PAHs, though benzo[a]pyrene is monitored because of its carcinogenic potential. In 2015, 88% of the urban population in the EU was exposed to levels of benzo[a]pyrene above the World Health Organization limit of 0.12 ng/m. [3] [11]

The extent to which car manufacturers have been allowed to damage public health in Europe and the UK is scandalous. A new Clean Air Bill is currently making its way through parliament, piloted by the Labour MP Geraint Davies. This bill deserves to be supported by everyone with an interest in the health of the nation.

The quickest and most effective way out of our current predicament is to follow the lead of other European capitals and announce a date by which diesel cars will be banned from city centres. Secondly, the government needs to ramp up the cost of diesel until usage falls substantially and drivers choose the clean methods of transport which our political leaders could and should have championed 20 years ago.[12]


Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that I am on the board of Ebsworth Enterprises, a limited company dedicated to developing and funding environmental technologies. I was involved with CLEAR the Campaign for Lead Free Air from 1981 to 1989.

Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

1 Summers J. Soho—A history of London’s most colourful neighbourhood. Bloomsbury,

2 ClientEarth wins air pollution case in High Court, 2 Nov 2016.

3 Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. COMEAP 2010: mortality effects of long term exposure to particulate air pollution in the UK. 2010. government/publications/comeap-mortality-effects-of-long-term-exposure-to-particulateair-pollution-in-the-uk

4 DEFRA. Draft plans to improve air quality in the UK. Tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities. UK overview document. Defra, 2015.

5 Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Every breath we take. RCP, RCPCH, 2016.

6 Perera F, Weiland K, Neidell M, Wang S. Prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and IQ: estimated benefit of pollution reduction. J Public Health Policy 2014;35:327-36. doi:10.1057/jphp.2014.14 pmid:24804951.

7 Needleman HL, Gunnoe C, Leviton A, et al. Deficits in psychologic and classroom performance of children with elevated dentine lead levels. N Engl J Med 1979;300:689-95. doi:10.1056/NEJM197903293001301 pmid:763299.

8 Canfield RL, Henderson CR Jr, , Cory-Slechta DA, Cox C, Jusko TA, Lanphear BP. Intellectual impairment in children with blood lead concentrations below 10 microg per deciliter. N Engl J Med 2003;348:1517-26. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa022848 pmid:12700371.

9 Margolis AE, Herbstman JB, Davis KS, et al. Longitudinal effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on self-regulatory capacities and social competence. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2016;57:851-60. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12548 pmid:26989990.

10 Peterson BS, Rauh VA, Bansal R, et al. Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behavior in later childhood. JAMA Psychiatry 2015;72:531-40. doi:10.1001/ jamapsychiatry.2015.57 pmid:25807066.

11 European Environment Agency. Air quality in Europe—2016 report. EEA report No 28/2016. EEA, 2016.

12 Russell-Jones R. A toxic agenda. Science and Technology 2016;21:194-7. http://www.