Civilisation And Environment: Ashes To Ashes

Apr 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Advocacy, Carbon, Development and Climate Change, Global Warming, Green House Gas Emissions, Information and Communication, Lessons, News, Opinion, Vulnerability

pompeii wikimediaGuardian: The citizens of Pompeii had no warning of the disaster about to befall them. Today, we do not have that excuse.

The twin themes of the moment are death and rebirth. With the snow melting and the sun peeking through, the Easter story’s promise, that what’s gained through the latter will outweigh what was lost in the former, feels plausible enough. It is a promise whose form should be familiar even to the godless, for the conventional way to tell the story of our civilisation is to set every tale of tragedy within the redemptive sweep of eventual progress.

But how exactly would these sanguine assumptions withstand a less forgiving climate? The British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition considers the consequences of an advanced civilisation being subject to – first – a hard rain of pumice, from 20 miles up in the air, and then a “pyroclastic surge” of scalding volcanic soup. The petrified pets and frozen forms of fallen humans are familiar. What is less appreciated, and perhaps more frightening, than the way that people died in the shadow of Vesuvius, is the marvellous way they were living before that day came in AD79, when splendid architecture, intricate frescoes and undoubted scholarship suddenly counted for nothing. Pompeii’s poignancy is enhanced because it proved a precursor to the less sudden decline and fall of wider Roman civilisation.

In discussing a city where the graffiti routinely quote Virgil, and where the paintings nod at Plato, it seems arrogant to dismiss a civilisation less learned than our own. In respect of science, however, ideas have advanced on a somewhat objective scale, giving us a facility that the Pompeiians didn’t have to see certain disasters coming. A case in point is last month’s warning by the outgoing chief scientific officer, the level-headed Professor Sir John Beddington, about a “perfect storm” of rising demand for energy, water and food by 2030.

Forewarned is forearmed, the age-old saying runs, because when you can see trouble coming, you ought to be able to plan to contain it. The Pompeiians could have moved, had they known what was coming and when; it is because they didn’t that history regards them as unlucky rather than stupid.

The disasters looming ahead of us are less acute and more complicated, but with 17 years’ notice we ought to be able somehow to get a grip on energy use and population growth. Should we fail to do so, a history that discovers books on climate change among our own rubble may be less forgiving about us. All the more so because the environmental ruin that we are unleashing could preclude any rebirth of prosperity for a very long time. But, rather than close on those Pompeiian plaster-filled voids where people once lay, let us offer the Eastertide hope that our generation might yet prove that it can make a new start.

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