Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 May 2007

Eden or the Fall: for Real This Time

Of all the stories told and retold by humankind, the myth of the Garden of Eden is the most compelling. We lost our Paradise, the myth says, because we made a fateful choice. Our choice drove us from Paradise to wilderness, where we must fend for ourselves without God’s protection.

What makes the myth so compelling is how deeply it probes human nature. A powerful Temptation informed our choice--one which we could not resist. We lost our innocence and forfeited Paradise in exchange for knowledge of good and evil, i.e., free will. God drummed us out of the Garden, and the road has been hard ever since.

The Bible says the fateful Temptation was knowledge. But “knowledge” is a dry and abstract concept. It hardly compels emotional attention. The pictures tell a very different story. The Middle Ages’ transcendently beautiful paintings show a gorgeous Eve, fully nude, accepting a luscious apple from the Serpent of Temptation. You don’t have to have Freud’s knowledge of phallic symbols to understand Temptation as the pleasures of sex.

And so we have the myth’s modern version. Pleasures of the flesh exposed Reason’s weakness and cast us out of Paradise. We exchanged the innocence of childhood for the powerful and dangerous urges of puberty and Reason. And we’ve been fighting a twilight struggle with Evil ever since.

This sexual view of Temptation undergirds much of Western cultural history. From the Catholic Church’s association of sex with shame and guilt (except for procreation) through the negative body fetish of the Puritans and the Victorian Age, the notion of sex as dangerous Temptation leading to a Fall is deeply embedded in Western culture.

It was not always so. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a very different attitude toward sex. They took it at face value and viewed it as part of the natural world’s inherent glory. Countless ancient statues, paintings, murals, and frescoes show human sexuality with accuracy, innocence, humor and tenderness--sometimes even reverence. Archaeologists discover more such works of art every day. It took our Medieval Christians, inspired by the myth of the Garden, to wage a cultural jihad against sex, striking off statues’ genitals, replacing them with fig leaves, and covering our “shame” with strategically draped cloth.

But nothing lasts forever. The Earth turns on its axis. New cultures evolve, and old ones gain supremacy. The century of Asia has begun.

Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Asians have few sexual hangups. From the hilarious erotic art of Japan’s Edo period, through the concubines of Imperial China, to modern mistresses in Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Asian cultures accept sex as a natural, inevitable and enjoyable part of human life. If Asian art shows less nudity than did ancient Greece’s and Rome’s, the reason is doubtless that Asia’s main centers of culture were and are in colder climates.

As Asia waxes transcendent, what will become of our culture’s most compelling myth, the myth of Eden? Will it lose its power and become an historical footnote, like Atlas emerging from the ocean with the world on his shoulders?

The myth’s two traditional foci have little relevance to Asia. Asians have never been sexual Puritans and are not so today. As for the “original” version of Original Sin--knowledge--Asians today seek it more avidly than ever before. The vast Asian stampede toward education, science and engineering today hardly portends suspicion of Reason as leading to a Fall.

So is the great myth of Eden destined for oblivion as Asia rises?

Maybe not. Industry and history might conspire to renew it, giving it more power and importance than ever before. The Temptation this time is neither knowledge nor sex, but energy. The Apple of Temptation is no longer pleasures of the flesh or of the mind. It is coal.

Coal is the most dangerous and seductive temptation that humanity collectively has ever faced. It is plentiful. It is cheap. It lies close to the surface and, compared with other minerals, is easy to dig out. Neither Muslims nor Arabs control it. We Americans have enough to meet our energy needs for hundreds of years. China has enough at least to complete its economic transformation, and probably for many more years to come. That is why China is building one new coal-fired power plant per week, and Texas, in its infinite environmental wisdom, until recently seemed not far behind.

There is only one problem: coal will drive us from our Eden as surely as did the biblical hand of God.

We have only one planet. It is our Eden. We evolved here, and so it is just right for us. Even if we “terraform” Mars, it will never be the same. Mars will always be too cold, too dry, and too far from the Sun.

As for other planets that we may find, they’ll be even worse. The recently discovered planet circling Gliese 581, for example, is fourteen times closer to its red dwarf sun, and (because of huge tidal forces) it keeps its same face to its sun all the time. Imagine living on a world in which a dull red sun glowers from a quarter of the sky, without ever setting, and there is no day-night cycle. Men and women trying to live there might go mad.

So there is no place to run. If we succumb to coal’s temptation, we will lose our Eden forever.

Coal is more than half the problem of global warming. It provides more than half our own electric power, and much more than half of China’s and India’s. Coal is the chief source of greenhouse gases worldwide and the primary threat of global warming.

For years fossil fuel junkies derided sober climate scientists as alarmist. But global warming appears to be accelerating faster than anyone expected, even the alarmists. This spring temperatures throughout Europe broke records for days and weeks in a row. If these weather patterns persist, by August we may see heat waves in Europe on a truly biblical scale. Thousands may die.

But global warming is only part of the problem with coal. Coal is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. In addition to carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, burning coal produces sulfur dioxide, which combines with water to form sulfuric acid (for example, in your lungs). After fifty years of trying, we Americans are just beginning to get a handle on the destruction of our northeast lakes, streams and forests caused by coal-generated sulfur dioxide, so-called "acid rain." The rest of the world hasn’t a clue.

Then there is mercury. Burning coal lifts mercury--a potent and long-lasting nerve toxin--into the air, where it ends up in lakes, rivers, and oceans, poisoning fish and other aquatic wildlife. The recent warnings against pregnant women and other vulnerable people eating too much tuna are largely due to burning coal.

Finally, there is the quality of life. Visit Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong, and breathe deeply. Go to Gary, Indiana. Cruise down the so-called “Mexican Riviera,” and see city after city--Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta--hiding its natural and architectural beauty in an orange-grey pall of coal-produced particulates and sulfur dioxide.

For the first time in human history, we have the power to bring the myth of Eden to life. We have temptation, and we have choice. We can have cheap power without much effort and turn our Eden into a kind of earthly purgatory. Or we can tighten our belts, work a little harder, conserve, and rely more on nuclear, solar, ethanol, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power and keep our Eden alive.

The Temptation and the Choice are real this time. Purgatory or Eden. Coal or alternatives. The next decade or two will tell whether we can resist Temptation or will suffer the Fall.

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