Everything Old is New Again

Friday, October 12, 2007

In a recent speech in the UK at the Hay Festival, Al Gore “promised to devote himself to the task of warning people about the impending ‘planetary emergency’”. He also said that global warming represented “a danger which could bring the end of civilization”. This is surely heady stuff. The subtext, barely disguised, is that our profligate and greedy ways will bring ruin to us. By living it up and consuming, we will be consumed. We will bring down the wrath of the sun. This will cause enormous catastrophes, especially the melting of polar ice caps that will create floods, even large enough to submerge Ground Zero. Hurricanes will unleash their furies and make once grand cities an undersea world. We have the power to forestall this, as long as we forsake our corrupt and luxurious ways. In Al’s story, it is especially the mighty US that must admit its sins and repent.

Is this really new? Well, most are familiar with Noah and the Ark. In that story, at least Noah had the advantage of talking to God. But there are other stories from those who conceive of the masses as only looking at flickers in the cave.

In the Cratylus, Plato suggests that the gods punished the inhabitants of Atlantis for their sins of overreaching and arrogance. They were depicted as being in a state of moral decay. They were decadent. They brought ruin upon their city through their wasteful ways. Yet Plato didn’t really believe this or didn’t exactly believe this. In many respects, this was a Noble (or ignoble) Lie, depending upon one’s perspective.

Plato actually believed that natural disasters happen from time to time and are more powerful than we are. He wanted to shake people up from the childish belief that the world is always as safe place. In essence he believed that nature was the workings of impersonal forces, but he tries to use the beliefs people had in the power of the gods as a means of warning about the dangers of corruption. But he walked into a contradiction that he did not solve. In other words, if the citizens of Atlantis brought ruin upon themselves, why do terrible disasters happen to innocent people (which must happen in the world of Plato’s impersonal forces)? Plato began a speech by Zeus to address this question, but he never finished it. Tantalizing.

The myth of Tantalus (the source of the word tantalize) is an interesting and complex myth. Or rather it is a body of myths, as there are many versions of this myth. Tantalus is punished by being tantalized, i.e., being in a state of desire but having those desires remain unfulfilled. A wealthy and powerful king, Tantalus could have most anything a mortal could want. But he wants a life like the gods, to be immortal and have god-powers. Zeus sentences him to an eternity of a kind of quiet and repetitive agony.

Plato had used Lydian myths as a source for this and other stories. An Athenian businessman and philosopher, named Solon, served as a sort of wikipedia on Lydian myths for Plato. The Lydians had told of an ancient city that had been destroyed and became a legendary sunken kingdom, Tantalis, the city of Tantalus. Solon translated or changed Tantalus into Atlas for aesthetic and historical purposes. Atlas and Tantalus are similar myths in many ways and both derive from the Greek, tlao (suffer, endure). The etymological links in the Tantalus chain are interesting (see below).

Over time the Atlantis myth is told and retold, transformed and altered, as myths are. In the retellings, Atlantis kept moving westward. It became the place that no one could see but of which many stories were told. It moved to the Atlantic Ocean, so far west that no Greeks or Europeans could hope to see it. Of course, we all know what is on the other side of the Atlantic.

The US is seen as the king consumer, and we are invested with the power to save the world, if we are less greedy and immoral. The global warming sages are telling us to just say no to oil. Yet, Plato didn’t really believe that such natural disasters were caused by human greed, although he appears to have had no shame in saying so. Plato didn’t believe in the gods, but he was willing to play god in this case.

Moreover, it is certainly worth pondering that burning of fossil fuels has contributed immeasurably to the scientific, technological, political, and social developments that have transformed modernity from life that is nasty, brutal and short into one of quiet and repetitive agony of many appetites that are stimulated but not truly sated. What happens when the fuel to that engine is off limits?

The drama of humanity always seems to include some unpleasantness, some pain, some misery. Humans are tempted to all sorts of heights. The principles of liberty enable people to achieve and acquire wonderful things when power resides with the individual as much as possible. The new philosopher-kings appear to be on the verge of saying that individuals cannot be trusted; they are too tempted. They are suggesting that solutions should be top-down in nature, that is central planning by those few, knowledgeable and beneficent ones who can decide for us. Have we heard that story before? Well, it is interesting that the latest prophet brings people back into the cave of the movie theatre to show the masses an inconvenient truth via flickers of light on the wall.

Given the events of yesterday, with Big Al winning the Peace Prize and all. I thought it was time to bring this back for a repeat.


Buddy Larsen said...

That was superb. A re-reader, to be sure. America the New Atlantis indeed. Clever boy, that President Gore, strumming the mystic chords of memory. This is from Rick's "psychobabble" link just below (scroll down 2 or 3 inches, my ellipses meld several speakers):

The Ancient Greeks recognized the power of theater to aid in psychological relief when they coined the term catharsis....And I think everyone has a movie or two that they routinely watch when they’re in a funk....Movies can also be used to facilitate discussion about areas that people might find difficult....Because cinemagoers watch films from a third person perspective, their defences are often down and the film acts as a springboard to self-discovery....

This is very high level grandiosity. To look into Nature (in this case the climate) and scrounge up an opportunity grand enough to match his megalomania, Al Gore is showing the voters he can Think Big.

Buddy Larsen said...

Since the science is contradictory, inexact and incomplete, it is perfectly OK to distort the dickens out of it, because, as with that other stuff, there is No Controlling (factual) Authority.

Buddy Larsen said...

Psychbloggers, not "psychobabble" (*blush*).

Simon said...

Yes, global warming is a myth. All the species we are making extinct, day by day, are actually just imagined fairies. The polar ice caps melting story is very evocative and scientists who observe it are just making up great theatre.

It seems off that they devoted their lives to understanding science just to invent fairtales. Ah well...

terrye said...

Yesterday I saw story about Hugo Chavez and he said the US is threatening the entire species with its arrogance and consumption.

I thought, now is that anyway to treat your number one customer.

Yes, the myth of utter destruction as judgment is not new. And considering the number of ancient port cities that have ended up under water I would say rising sea levels are not new either.

After the tsunami scientists discovered the remains of one such city on the shores of India. It was estimated the city had been under water for almost 3,000 years.

Perhaps people create these myths because we need to cling to the idea that we can somehow effect these kinds of catastrophes, there is comfort in the notion.

charlotte said...

The Greek tie-in is really good. I had been thinking Apocalypse Al an evangelist in the greatest of southern traditions, stumping for The Church of Gaia with an Old Testament take that you mention: repent and worship Her or She will destroy you.

Gore's new approach might resonate more with Red America than that of the elitist ('Episcopalian') environmentalists, especially given how Katrina smote the Big Easy recently. The enviro movement is such an odd fusion of anti-Americanism/materialism, animism, weather hysteria and feminism that it has been needing a better hook, such as old-timey preaching of hellfire and endtimes, to reach those turned off by New Age sensibilities and science-politics.

Rick Ballard said...

"The principles of liberty enable people to achieve and acquire wonderful things when power resides with the individual as much as possible. The new philosopher-kings appear to be on the verge of saying that individuals cannot be trusted; they are too tempted. They are suggesting that solutions should be top-down in nature, that is central planning by those few, knowledgeable and beneficent ones who can decide for us."

One might wonder if they had ever looked into the concept of hubris. Successful electoral politics depends upon accurate assessment of the ignorance of the electorate and the Al Gore Canute Corps appears to be shooting a bit high. Fear as a political tactic works best when the approaching disaster (say, a perceived possibility of a reduced SS check) is immediate. It also works best on geezers - and this isn't a 'geezer in ascendance' moment in political history.

Creating the illusion of scarcity in a moment of abundance is a tough row to hoe. If the cost of Gore, the global bore's 'fix' is presented correctly his decision to follow this path will rank with the hiring of Naomi Wolfe as a political advisor in terms of stupidity.

'Course a hellacious hurricane season (for which there is a very high probability) is going get him some good press.

Buddy Larsen said...

Simon, it's not that the globe isn't warming--it may well be, since it is always, according to all historical records, in flux.

Fresh Air said...


Ah, yes...geezers! The credulous tip of the Democratic pyramid that once formed the New Deal base. This is part of the untold disaster facing the Party of Gore.

As long as standard of living in this country keeps rising, and the Democrats align themselves with rent-seekers and anti-American leftists, they won't be able to recruit dimwitted 20-year-olds fast enough to offset the reliable geezer demographic.

But even geezers don't seem too interested in protecting the world's largest mosquito herd up in ANWR.

Knucklehead said...


I'll echo Buddy's huzzah. This will require re-reading to even attempt to do it any commentary justice.

As I was ruminating where to go with a comment I was compelled to begin with a Captain Obvious descant.

The purpose, and perhaps the power, of the myths human subscribe to, be they ancient or modern, lies not in the memory of the events but in mythology of the scope, scale, and causes of the events.

It seems to this knucklehead that one would need to be a fool to fail to believe that great floods and cataclysmic "rains of fire" and such things did not happen to humans with effects that were nothing short of the destruction of the world as they were aware of it. The myths around these events develope to try and explain why they happened so that we may, mythically or mystically or magically, avoid such things in the future. Or perhaps more accurately, the myths are developed by those who wish to guide their society in a particular direction.

What direction is it that the likes of Al Gore want to guide us? It seems to me, sometimes, that they long for some deep and shared misery. As if life for everyone would be better if only life for everyone was far worse.

While I have no doubt that there are elements of Michael Moore's charlatanism in Al Gore - he's found a way to make a lot of money playing to an audience - I also have the impression that he is a deeply troubled man. Some loose screws and some that have fallen out and gone lost long ago.

loner said...

I'm a little leary on the Plato interpretation, but then it's Plato and these are dialogues with which I've spent little time so I'll defer except to quote from early in Timaeus: There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.

As to Gore, he has been consistant beyond belief (Bush-like even) in this since publication of his Earth in the Balance in 1992. Indeed, one of the few times during the 2000 Bush-Gore debates in which Gore and Bush engaged (as opposed to sticking to message and role) was toward the end of the debate moderated by Jim Lehrer when he said to Gore:

In your 1992 book you said, quote, "We must make the rescue of our environment the central organizing principle for civilization and there must be a wrenching transformation to save the planet." Do you still feel that way?

Gore's response began, "I do."

For myself, I'm all for the debate and for women and men attempting to do things to make the world a friendlier place in which to live, but then, I was out on the playgrounds and in the parks of Los Angeles during the '60s when on more than a few days eyes burned and breathing was a bit strained because of the quality of the air. I don't miss that aspect of those days.

Barry Dauphin said...


It seems to me, sometimes, that they long for some deep and shared misery.

I think that's called communism.

Rick Ballard said...


It's interesting to speculate that the story of Atlantis, the epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah might all be describing a global warming event that occurred at the end of the last ice age. The bursting of a huge ice dam - or just an accelerating melt off of the glaciers.

Maybe antropogeneticist is actually the world's oldest profession?

Buddy Larsen said...

Joseph Conrad tries to warn Al Gore (ht Maggie's Farm).

Knucklehead said...


Last evening while clicking among a cornucopia of ballgames I would stop in watch a few moments of the show that was on Discovery Channel. It was a show about ancient humans.

I happened to click into one segment about ancient sapiens where they were floating, apparently very lost and adrift, on a raft. The narrator was saying something about navigation by stars not having been developed yet but that navigation wasn't quite as important to ancient humans because the sea level was 300 ft. lower and, therefore, there were far more exposed landmasses and distances between landmasses not nearly as great.

The sea level has risen some 300 ft. over a thousand or so generations. Large numbers of landmasses have disappeared. Presumably some of them were relatively large and inhabitted by humans at some stage.

Is it any wonder that earth destroying flood myths are nearly ubiquitous among the world's cultures?

How many "world's" have been sunk by global warming? Never again! Enough! No more worlds sacrificed to the demon drink! Ride your bike! Elect Al Gore! Cork a volcano! Only you can piss on a forest fire! Burn carbonless renewable fuels! Better yet, don't burn anything except your draft card!

Buddy Larsen said...

Yes, let's!

Knucklehead said...


The poor little tykes! And they were wandering around just a century or so after the end of the Midieval Hotter 'an Heck period when global temps were in a freefall dash to a Little Ice Age. Surely their moms packed them decent sweaters.

truepeers said...

What happens when the fuel to that engine is off limits?

-if the stores ran empty, how long do you figure before the riots start? 2 hours? 24? 36?

-What the greens tend not to grasp is that consumer society is a form of order, a means of recycling and hence deferring the destructive potential of desires, without which many people today would have no idea how to live with each other in peace, order and good government. We would return to an era of brutal wars, and not simply because there is no system but some kind of free market capitalism that can hope to feed six billion.

None of which is to argue that it isn't a good thing for people, on an individual basis, to explore forms of self-discipline that would allow them, among other things, not to be all-consuming pigs. Some big consumers really are offensive, aren't they?

Buddy Larsen said...

'Peers, de gustibus non est disputandum (i done that without 'search', too!).

Knuck, that paricular crusade was put together by one Stephen of Cloyes (Al Gore wasn't born yet). I wonder if that's where the word "cloying" came from?

Skookumchuk said...


Very well done.

They are suggesting that solutions should be top-down in nature, that is central planning by those few, knowledgeable and beneficent ones who can decide for us.

Easier to do in the past when you could hope via revolution to monopolize all meme creation and transmission. Much tougher to do when you don't. As a prerequisite, they would need to put the toothpaste back in the tube. And that will be tough to do.

Then there are the practical effects of their policies. Imagine if, just as an example, the Carter Administration had taken seriously those apocalyptic projections that the planet would run out of copper, to take one example, by 2000, or whenever it was. It may have been 1980, actually. And we had embarked on some megabillion dollar Manhattan Project to find substitutes for copper. Only to find that the planet has copper coming out of our ears. Just a few of those, with the attendant human suffering that these sorts of centrally planned projects entail, would be enough to quiet the hellfire and brimstone crowd for some time to come.

Buddy Larsen said...

Remember the prestigious 70s colloquium of scientists, the Club of Rome, which "proved" that Europe was overpopulated and on the doorstep of starvation?

Skookumchuk said...

Acutally, Buddy, that's who I was thinking about.

The essential issue is that for those people who listen to people like Gore, ritual is everything. Articulating their feelings of apocalyptic doom and guilt for our undeserved wealth and of somehow atoning for our sins or of simply, passivly accepting our fate is the important thing. The meaning, the collective ecstatic experience, is in the discourse and the ritual. Not in the actual doing.

Because the Devil is in the details of the doing.

Buddy Larsen said...

You're right. These things are visionary revelations, and to dispute them is to be reactionary--heretical. So, we masses live waiting for whoever the hell is next to decide that those weird thoughts must a revelatory vision experience (since otherwise they'd just be weird thoughts).

Buddy Larsen said...

Al Gore

Rick Ballard said...

I don't think Algore I, Supreme Pontiff of the Cult of the Watermelon and Protector of the Sacred Bong, is going to like that, Buddy.

Skookumchuk said...

Sensing that to his public the important thing is the sermon and not the actual doing was Bill Clinton's genius. And Gore's lack thereof.

Buddy Larsen said...

Watched a recent Nat'l Geographic show on the Waco debacle. Clinton--after he had loosed Reno to pointlessly incinerate 80 (albeit idiotic) people--was shown in a press conference saying, more or less, "Mistakes were made, and I feel bad over it". Then *poof* on to the next display under the Big Tent at the Carnival of Therapy, in the Flatlands of the Two Dimensions.

CF said...

Rick--That Naomi crack hits home. I cannot forget that stupidity.It always reminded me of the stuff in Bonfire of the Vanities..You know people so rich they hired specialists at $500/hr to toss their pillows decoratively on their sofas.

I simply can't wrap my head around the fact that seemingly sentient people actually voted for Gore or Kerry.

Barry Dauphin said...


Extinction of species by global warming? That's a new one. And there is hardly only one opinion about the polar ice caps. They "devoted their lives" to understanding science? That is about as breathless as Scarlett O'Hara. I guess devotion equals truth, eh?

Loner, You can read Peter James' book on the Atlantis mystery if you want to leanr a bit more about the allusion I made.

I am not suggesting that Gore is disingenuous. He has been interested in this for a long time. But the preacher-like zeal is hardly reassuring, nor is the attempt to toss every bit of bad weather into the global warming basket, when there is very good reason to doubt that.

We have previously been told to seriously cut down on fossil fuels. First it was due to pollution (of which you spoke). Various regulations and technological developments have lessened pollution, but we don not consume less fossil fuels-we consume way more. So less oil wasn't a solution. Developed countries pollute less, not more. Economic development appears to be key in lessening pollution.

Second we were told that the world was running out of oil, so we must conserve more. Again that was wrong. There are plenty of reserves and we consume more. Continued technological development is the best chance to find better fuels over time. There are problems with fossil fuels, just as there are problems burning wood to heat food. I would be astonished to find a fuel for which there will be no side effects. Choking off economic development (a la Kyoto) is a peculiar way to pollute less.

loner said...


Why would I want to do that? Personally, I think Plato made Atlantis up, but I did once upon a time read the dialogues, in translation of course. True words.

Buddy Larsen said...

There's a possible, a speculative, victim to ignoring Kyoto: the climate, at the margins.

OTOH, there is a certain victim to adopting it: those at the bottom of the economic ladder, especially those just beginning to enter the global market. Here you're talking not about trimming the industrial nation's net worths, you're talking about taking food off poor people's tables. In return for what quite likely amounts to a "command performance", a show of fealty to the western liberal elites.

Rick Ballard said...

That's where the bet fails the laugh test - put the economy on the come line for what return? No one can be surprised at comsymps willingness to sacrifice the little people - or any people - in a bid for power but there isn't a populace in the world ignorant enough to sacrifice their current material status to the watermelon's Gaia in exchange for an unknown.

That's what makes Kyoto a giggle - kind of like the UN only it hasn't killed anybody - yet.

Buddy Larsen said...

Adding to the humor is the fact that China, India, and Brazil aren't even included, have no "targets". These three vast economies (which you'll note are also situated upon the same globe as the USA) are joined by a Russia whose vast empty Siberia is Kyoto-assigned "carbon credits" which the Czar intends to sell for cold hard cash.

So, even if there WAS a mankind-caused crisis, and the USA decides to "be nice" and closes shop and disappears, we're STILL gonna be screwed anyway by the original premise, just not quite as quickly, presumably. IOW, we don't die suddenly, we die slowly. Yippee!

Wot a load o crap, huh?

Buddy Larsen said...

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