THE GRASSHOPPER, NERO, AND CLIMATE CHANGE

1 November 2019

  Do kids know Aesop’s Fables, nowadays? When I was growing up in the 1940s, everybody read them, both as fun stories and also for their moral lessons. Well, I suspect we didn’t worry too much about the “lessons” part; we were mostly in it for the entertainment. Anyway, there was one about a grasshopper and a bunch of ants. The ants worked industriously all summer, storing food for the winter to come. The grasshopper was so enthralled with the warm summer that he spent all his time playing his fiddle and courting the lady grasshoppers.

   As it always happens, winter came, and the grasshopper was on the verge of starvation. The ants, on the other hand, were inside their ant hills eating, drinking, and being merry (and the male ants were probably courting some of the lady ants). When the grasshopper came to the ants and begged for food, they uncharitably turned him away. “You should have thought about your needs ahead of time.”

   There is another story, this one about the Emperor Nero. It is undoubtedly untrue, but, nevertheless, it has become a fable of its own. In the year 64 AD, a fire started in Rome that eventually burned up most of what at the time was one of the richest and most advanced cities in the world. The story goes (as I said, almost certainly untrue) that Nero, known to be enthralled with his musical instruments, sat in his room and played while his people died and the great city was reduced to ashes – or, as people now say, Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

   Which was worse: being like the grasshopper, not aware of what was to come, and suffering from it; or like Nero, (allegedly) being fully aware of what was happening and doing nothing about it? The grasshopper likely died that first winter as a result of his ignorance. Nero didn’t die immediately, but he pretty much bankrupted his kingdom rebuilding the ruined city, lost all of his support through bad management and poor choices, and eventually committed suicide before somebody assassinated him. Nero turned out to be the last Roman emperor, and not many generations later, the Holy Roman Empire – vast, powerful, and long the ruler of the world – was no more. In effect, in the end, fiddling got both Nero and the grasshopper.

*   *   *

   Making an awkward segue to climate change, there can’t be an real grasshoppers in the world; I mean,  people who have some excuse for not knowing what’s going on. For over 20 years, scientists around the world have been spreading the news that serious, human-life-threatening changes in the earth’s climate were occurring, and that the processes were accelerating. In 2006, Al Gore  with “An Inconvenient Truth” made the information widely available for, and eloquently understandable by, even the most uninformed and naïve human being. The threats are not hypothetical: turn on the news, or look out your window, and you can’t ignore that somewhere in the world just had the hottest month on record, the wettest or driest year ever recorded, the most tornadoes, the strongest hurricanes, the largest and most ruinous wildfires, the second “hundred year” flood in the last two years, or massive crop failures due to long-term drought. In some parts of the world, whole populations are needing to move because their desiccated lands will no longer grow adequate food, or because their island homes are actually going under water due to rising sea levels. This is the most immediate – most dramatic – TODAY issue that the Human Race has ever confronted.

   Did I say confronted? The situation is that a world full of Neros have not confronted the problem. They – meaning, we – continue to fiddle while not just Rome burns, but the whole earth is in danger of collapse. Rhetoric too strong, you say? Absolutely not, I reply. In fact, I have a feeling that the situation has already gone beyond confrontable – that the best we can do is buy time to make our final generations as comfortable as possible. I hope I’m wrong; maybe things are reversible. Either way, anything that is going to be done has to be attacked seriously right now. The problems have been growing for a long time; they aren’t going to be solved quickly, no matter how great the effort.

    I have to say that not everybody in the world is a climate-change Nero. Individuals are dedicated to doing what they can. So are some cities, some states, and even some countries. But this isn’t a case of “every little bit helps;” this is a world-wide crisis that must be solved (if it can be solved) world-wide. Unfortunately, the ones who can make the most difference – the ones who are both the biggest culprits in the causes of climate change, but also the ones who could have the greatest leadership influence – have settled for short-term capital gains over world survival. Everything that needs to be done attacks the Religion of Economic Profit, a religion sacred to those who must lead the way. As smart as we say we are, I doubt we are far-thinking enough collectively to look for a new paradigm to save ourselves.

   So we fiddle on.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2019