Tuesday, February 11, 2014

G is for Global Warming

Gearing up the electronic console in the classroom for my second-semester Latin course that day, I did not expect to be challenged on a point of science. I was showing a series of quotations which I had edited for translation into Latin. One of them showcased global warming. I began by explaining that, while changes in weather patterns affected the Roman food supply around 200 CE (200 AD), which in turn was a factor in the decline of the western Roman empire, the Romans had no concept of climate change as a general problem. A few of the best minds of the day (Varro and Pliny the Elder) knew about the consequences of development, such as mining and draining marshes, on local ecosystems, but nothing on a broad scale. How, then, can Classicists describe the phenomenon, preferably without using neo-Latin (Latin words developed by modern scholars)? It turns out that clima in the sense of climate is known from the later days of the Roman empire — from a couple of sources, including Servius's commentary on Vergil and a line in Vegetius (the writer perhaps best known for saying, "If you want peace, prepare for war," not exactly the favorite bon mot of Quakers). "Change," mutatio, is common enough. The whole phrase is mutatio climatis. So I was off and running with the translation passage.

Not so fast. One of my students —and a good one, I might add— averred that not everyone saw climate change as a problem. I admitted that I am a Classicist and not a scientist; I was following scholarly consensus. If the scholarly consensus were to change, unlikely as I thought that was, then I would revisit the issue. In the interim, I had a wide variety of passages for translation, and a reasonable amount of student choice. I hasten to add that my choice of passages and authors includes a number that stick in my Quaker craw.

This episode was not the first time I have encountered global warming skeptics, and I am confident it won't be the last. Most Friends I know accept at least the broad outlines of the current scholarly view about climate change: that it is occurring, that it is anthropogenic (caused by humans), and that it provides both a direct and indirect threat to life on earth. A number of people, however, do not accept at least one of these propositions. Some of them, like the student in class, are highly educated, while others are leaders in their fields.

In short, there are people whom we may never be able to convince about the urgency of climate change. If actuarial tables (about their own lives) and scientific data (about the likely unfolding of events, depending on what humanity decides to do) are at all accurate, many of them will not live long enough to see its most dire consequences. But that's not the point: they don't think their children and grandchildren, or the grandchildren of relatives and friends, will have a problem. What can we as Quakers say to them?

Earth Hour, Elora, Ontario, March 23, 2009. photograph ©Kristin Lord 2009

1 comment:

  1. While it is evident to me that there is global warming due to human activity, I proceed in hope that human beings will creatively find answers to the problem. Will it be in time? I hear you ask. We can only do our part in energy conservation and some of us are more equipped and economically affluent to do that, and hope by example that others follow our lead. I see no point in evangelising gloom and doom, it will only give a bad reputation to people that do so. Living creatively is about hope for the future and integrity of care for life, and all beings.