The epic of Gilgamesh and the plunder of nature

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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

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