Genesis, the Wizard and the Prophet

The Fall of Adam and Eve as depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo

This post is very much opinion / faith / personal views. If you want to stick to facts, see my climate change lessons. It is also inspired by two books I’ve recently read: The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I recommend both books – one biography, the other fiction. The first helped me put the second into perspective as a “Prophet story” (ironically, Ishmael uses the term “prophet” in a way that links more to the “Wizard” viewpoint, but both, roughly, recognise the same dualism). It also has some ideas I got from “The Human Planet: how we created the Anthropocene” by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (I recommend that one too, and I know Mark).

The first chapter of Genesis tells a very different story to the story that follows in Chapters 2-4. Chapter 1 (and the first three verses of Chapter 2, to be pedantic) tell a story of a world and universe that “God saw was good” and that was created for humanity. Chapter 1, verse 26 (almost perfectly repeated again in verse 28 to really bring the message home) sums it up with:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  NRSV Anglicised, my emphasis in bold.

In this story there are already cattle and humankind’s dominion (farming?) is a blessing.

In chapters 2-4 there is a different story being told. Here Adam eats of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” after the serpent tells Eve: “… for God knows that when you eat of it you will be like God, knowing good and evil …”. Being like God, humanity can choose which animals and plants get to live, and which get to die – and that curses humanity to be farmers. “… in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…”

Just to emphasise the point, in Chapter 4, Abel, the sheep herder, is brutally murdered by Cain, the farmer. When God calls up Cain for this, Cain asks: “… am I my brother’s keeper?” – the farmer has rejected the herdsman, taken his land to farm, and killed his brother without care for his brother’s livelihood (life). Again, God curses Cain: “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength…” But then God protects Cain and builds everything that follows on him and his descendants.

The argument in Ishmael is that this is the story that the ancient, herding and gathering Semites told to explain how the northern farming tribes burnt their pasture to turn it into farmland that quickly disintegrated by over-farming – so they burnt more, killing their “brother”. In farming, humans make the choices about what species live and which die, and humans go out to search and kill (plants, animals, other people) to limit competition, and not just for the immediate purposes that hunter-gatherers kill (food, safety, maintaining/gaining territory). The farmers are “like Gods, choosing good and evil” rather than like animals living in accordance with the hunter/prey relationship. In that argument, the Hebrews, who wrote the story down and were descendants of the original Semite story tellers, could no longer understand this story, as they too had abandoned herdsman lives for farming and “civilisation”, but they recognised it as their story, so wrote it in their creation. The first (probably later-written) chapter, in contrast, is the creation myth (I don’t necessarily treat a myth as “untrue”, depending on how you define “true”!) of a civilisation (the Hebrews) that sees humankind’s destiny as owners and controllers of the land as a blessing rather than a curse.

In “The Human Planet”, there is supporting evidence for these ideas. Farming started on a large scale around 10’000 years ago in different locations, including the “fertile crescent” (modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt), but that this was a “progress trap” – farming made people’s lives worse: they had to work longer hours, they were more at risk of starvation when a harvest failed, life expectancy decreased as diseases increased (cross-over from animals and having people living closer together). But once you start on the journey of agriculture, it is very difficult to go back. Later, we, the descendants of those early farmers, fell and jumped into further “progress traps”: globalisation 1 (Europeans to Americas), the industrial revolution and then globalisation 2 (modern life). In each of these progress traps, life got harder for most people in the short term, then easier in the longer run – and with it we got/took yet more control over (and, unfortunately, because we didn’t manage it well, created damage to) nature. We have become more and more like Gods making decisions of who and what is good and who or what is evil, and now we control the whole planet.

In Ishmael the two cultures have divided, with the majority of the planet following the path of the “Takers” – societies that control nature. Only a few “Leavers” (hunter/gatherers and small scale herdsmen) remain. In Ishmael, Quinn encourages us to believe that only the “Leavers” are living in accord with the fundamental laws of nature. He makes some points that I don’t agree with – we have (possibly) managed to get on top of population since he wrote it, and by feeding people and educating women, rather than by letting people starve (I don’t like the suggestion in Ishmael that we should leave, or even encourage, people in poorer countries to die because that’s more “natural”!).  I also don’t think his “Leavers” were quite as pure as he makes out – or as unsophisticated (Lewis and Maslin describe how the early American tribes also cut down large amounts of the rainforest and possibly altered the climate in so doing). But overall, I think he’s absolutely right – that it is our cultural assumption that we are meant to rule the world, that has been extremely damaging – for that world, and also for ourselves.

In this, he is proposing the worldview of the “Prophet” in the “Wizard and the Prophet” book. If ever-increasing technology has caused the problem, and if our “ruling” over nature has only made everything worse, then we should stop with the technological fixes and move to a more localised, small scale production: organic farms that bring nature back into our food supplies, small, supportive communities and a fundamental shift in our lifestyle so that we can become more in tune with nature (even if we don’t give up all of our “civilisation”).

The Wizard worldview, according to Mann, is very different: it says that the solution to our poor management of the world is good management of the world. We should accept that we are now running the world, whether we should have done or not. Wizards wouldn’t usually put it like this, but basically: the fruit of knowledge of good and evil has been well and truly eaten over and over again in the last 10000 years and we cannot go back into the Garden ever again because we have been cursed. Even God has recognised this, which is why he still protects Cain, even after his murder of Abel. Given that we do rule the earth, we can no longer relinquish our control, and maybe now we are at the beginning of the wisdom necessary to control it well. We shouldn’t give up just as we have learnt that wisdom, instead we should harness our technology to save the world, rather than to harm it. We should build carbon sequestration units, install windmills and LED lighting, build hydrogen and electric vehicles, limit our farming to small areas of intensive farming and manage the rest of the land for wildlife and biodiversity.

I find myself curious about both approaches. I have a lot of sympathy with the Prophet/Leaver viewpoint, but I wonder if we no longer have time to wait for a complete shift in human philosophy. I wonder whether a Wizard/Taker approach may buy us that time and whether it just feels a more feasible shift in a world that is so dominated by “Taker” thinking. I know, however, I have friends who strongly feel that we can shift humanity towards a more natural life.

I’ve always found Genesis 1 consoling and Genesis 2-4 disturbing. Perhaps it’s time to accept that that may be because of my cultural conditioning and, as so often in my faith, I’d be better to sit with the disturbance than take refuge in the consolation! Maybe Jesus’ biggest challenge – far more challenging even than loving our enemies – is to consider the birds that do not sow and reap and the lilies that do not spin. Almost none of us have taken that particular statement literally!


Climate History: Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius and Callendar

Image of Svante Arrhenius, from Wikipedia.

I still have some science to cover – but I’d like to take an aside and write something about the history of our understanding of the climate science.

Joseph Fourier, in 1820, was the first person to realise what the very simple calculation that I described in Climate Lesson 4 that calculates that the temperature of the Earth “should be” much colder than it is. Blackbody radiation would not be fully understood for another 80 years, so his calculation was based on somewhat different premises, and you can read those for yourself (in old-fashioned French) in his paper. He recognised that somehow the incoming radiation must make it through the atmosphere easily, but that the outgoing radiation from the Earth would be blocked in some way by the atmosphere.

Tyndall’s experimental equipment from Wikipedia

In the 1850s, John Tyndall was able to measure the amount of heat absorbed by different atmospheric gases and he concluded that the “Greenhouse effect” that Joseph Fourier had surmised was dominated by water vapour absorption and that carbon dioxide had a smaller, but observable heating effect too.

Svante Arrhenius, in 1896, published a significant paper “On the influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” (available in full here – this one is in English). In this he calculated that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to a temperature rise of around 4 ºC.  I’m amused by how he starts his discussion section with “I should not have undertaken these tedious calculations if extraordinary interest had not been connected with them…” The extraordinary interest was to understand the causes and effects of natural climate variations during and between ice ages, but he already realised:

“The following calculation is also very instructive for the appreciation of the relation between the quantity of carbonic acid in the air and quantities that are transformed. The world’s present production of coal reaches in round numbers 500 millions of tons per annum … Transformed into carbonic acid, this quantity would correspond to about a thousandth part of carbonic acid in the atmosphere …

In a later book he would go on to say that burning coal would have a positive effect on the planet as it would stop the next ice age and would allow more crops to grow (I assume as he was living in Sweden, that he could only imagine warming in a positive way). He did, however, think it would take a 1000 years for humanity to double the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – he assumed a linear, rather than exponential, increase in our burning of coal (we are on track to have doubled it in 150 years).

[The IPCC AR5 report (see page 82 in the Technical Summary) in 2013 stated that the “Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity” (impact of a step doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere and the planet going into equilibrium thereafter) is “likely between 1.5 ºC to 4.5 ºC”.]

But Arrhenius’s paper was met by a strong criticism by Knut Ångström. Ångström, and his assistant “Herr J Koch”, were doing absorption experiments with carbon dioxide and realised two things that seemed to suggest problems in Arrhenius’s work. First, they changed the amount of carbon dioxide in glass tubes and measured how much infrared radiation was absorbed. Their measurements suggested that carbon dioxide absorption saturated very quickly, meaning that very quickly all the infrared was absorbed and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide made no difference beyond this point.

Even more convincingly, they also showed that water vapour had absorption bands that overlapped the carbon dioxide bands – meaning that those wavelengths were already completely absorbed by water vapour.

This time – around the turn of the 20th Century – was a time when there was a real “greenhouse gas debate”. These two excellent scientists were arguing about confusing evidence and an incomplete and necessarily highly simplified conceptual model of the Earth system.

The assistant Koch’s observations actually didn’t show that there was no difference in absorption as the carbon dioxide was increased – he saw a 0.4 % decrease, which Ångström dismissed as trivial. (Modern calculations suggest he should have seen a 1 % decrease, and this suggests that Koch and Ångström underestimated their uncertainties). 

Arrhenius published a long response (this time in German) to explain why Ångström was wrong – he apparently (I haven’t been able to access the full text) correctly realises that Ångström was oversimplifying his analysis – the spectral bands of water vapour and carbon dioxide do not fully overlap (we also now know carbon dioxide absorption is not fully saturated), but most importantly, the atmosphere is not like a single thin sheet of glass – it has layers, and while the lower layers may mostly absorb the infrared, the outer layers are drier (less water vapour) and the atmosphere itself emits thermal infrared radiation.

Other scientists seem not to have noticed, or understood, Arrhenius’s 1901 paper, and the assumption that Ångström had proven Arrhenius wrong limited research in this area for many decades. Furthermore, there was growing recognition that the Earth itself could, and would, regulate any increase in carbon dioxide by absorbing it mostly in the ocean, and, with any that the oceans didn’t absorb, in increased growth of trees, peat bogs and so forth. The Earth would sort itself out, there wasn’t that much coal anyway and we weren’t (then) burning it fast enough for there to be a problem. (We now know that there are limits to that absorption too – I’ll come back to that).

It was Guy Stewart Callendar who, in the 1940s and 1950s, revitalised the Arrhenius ideas. He, as a hobby, started compiling temperature measurements since the 19th century and started to see an upward temperature trend (we now know that trend was not based on the relatively low increase in carbon dioxide, but on natural effects). To understand this he re-investigated the absorption of carbon dioxide and newer observations that provided more detailed spectroscopy of carbon dioxide absorption; he started to make a coherent model of the atmospheric effect. His papers influenced scientists to start systematic measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (although he also got a lot of criticism). Charles Keeling started taking Mauna Loa observatory measurements in 1958 as a response (see my earlier blog on that).

Now my opinion on all this: I’ve been reading climate sceptic blogs and webpages and many of them gleefully say that “the first climate alarmist Arrhenius, who was an amateur scientist, was proven wrong by the much better scientist Ångström…” In this they are misunderstanding the whole scientific method (and confusing Ångström with his father). Both Arrhenius and Ångström were good scientists who were working on limited information, poor models and experiments that were in their very early days. Both made mistakes of understanding – but both also showed new concepts that were essential pieces of the jigsaw that more recent scientists have put together. Most importantly – this argument is over – we now understand what neither of those scientists understood, we have better observations of everything from the absorption spectra of carbon dioxide and water (using similar  experiments to those of Ångström and Koch, but with more sophisticated analyses) to the atmospheric composition and we have models that split the atmosphere into far finer levels than Arrhenius imagined, and which also include clouds and atmospheric circulation (that he couldn’t include).

Oh, and as a personal note, when I was at Imperial College in the mid 1990s, I won both the Tyndall and the Callendar prizes. It’s nice to be building on their work!

Aside on climate politics and tobacco

This blog is my opinion.

I am intentionally separating the science of climate change from a discussion of the politics and what we should do about it. Too often, people have conflated the two. I think Al Gore talking about climate change was one of the most damaging decisions ever (and he should never have got a Nobel Prize). Because, and particularly in the USA, people who disagreed with his suggested solutions to the problem, chose to argue with the science, rather than the politics. I think they didn’t understand the difference between different types of “truth”. (I wrote a lot about different types of truth in 2016 and the 2nd-5th posts on this blog are about that). I believe politicians and all of us should be grappling with (and that includes arguing about) what we are going to be doing about climate change. We should not be arguing about whether anthropogenic climate change is real or not.

I am trying to give a faithful and honest account of what I understand about climate change in my lessons. The science is not perfectly known and there are some very big unknowns – for example how positive cloud feedback is – but just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing. The science of climate change will advance and with that advance it will become ever more possible to understand the detail of what’s happening, but we already know the main point: anthropogenic climate change is putting human civilisation as we know it at risk. We either have to stop it (mitigation) or we have to adapt to it. Or perhaps a bit of both.

But we’ve only fully understood this for about 20 years. We’ve had hints before that, and the hints have got stronger and clearer over time, but the clear picture we have now is very recent. I think there are parallels with how we learnt about – and then reacted to – the dangers in tobacco which it’s useful to draw.

The first scientific study on the dangers of tobacco was in 1791. John Hill did a clinical study that showed that snuff users were more likely to get nose cancer. A debate about tobacco in the Lancet started in 1856. In 1889 Langley and Dickenson do the scientific studies that start to explain why nicotine is dangerous. They start modelling the processes by which nicotine effects the cells in our bodies. In 1912 the connection between smoking and lung cancer is first published. The first large-scale scientific analysis of that connection was in 1951. In 1954 the Readers Digest published an article about this and that article contributed to the largest drop in cigarette sales since the depression. In 1962 the British Royal College of Physicians published a report saying that the link was real and in 1964 the US Surgeon General did the same. Cigarette adverts were banned on tv in 1965. Cigarette smoking was banned on the London underground in 1984 – but not for health reasons, instead because a dropped cigarette may have contributed to a fire at Oxford Circus. A comprehensive review about the dangers of passive smoking came out in 1992. Over time more and more things are banned – no smoking zones are introduced in pubs, advertising has bigger warnings …. and eventually in 2003 tobacco advertising is banned in the UK and in 2007 smoking in workplaces is banned in England. Now, 12 years on, I think most of us consider this normal. [I got these dates from an interesting document online:]

In 1964 the evidence was clear. We didn’t understand everything – we didn’t understand all the effects of passive smoking, we weren’t quite sure about how a mother smoking affected the fetus in her womb, we didn’t know the link between smoking and cervical cancer or heart disease… but we knew it was dangerous and we took our first steps towards changing it. We had to change people’s attitudes, we had to get people to change how they did things, we had to make smokers uncomfortable on long-haul flights. And people sued the tobacco firms and they fought back – and often won – court cases. It was a long journey that often didn’t go what we now, in hindsight, see as the right way.

I think in climate change we reached that 1964 moment with the publication of the first IPCC report in 1990. There was a lot that that report didn’t know – just like the 1964 tobacco and health reports didn’t know everything either. But equally, it was the first clear report that the problem was real.

If it follows a similar timescale, and I think human nature is such that that’s a good first approximation, that would put climate change in 2020 in the same place as tobacco smoking in 1994. That’s the year some individual organisations made voluntary changes – like Wetherspoons introducing smoke free areas in their pubs, and Cathay Pacific introducing smoke free long-haul flights. It’s also the year that the tobacco companies lost their court battle to stop the warnings being printed in big font on their cigarette packets. There were signs that the numbers of smokers were dropping and British Rail had banned smoking a year earlier – to 85% approval. But there were still 8 years to go before smoking was banned in workplaces – and it probably would have felt too much back then. (I remember being pleased to have a smoke free area in the pub and I didn’t question that the rest of the pub still allowed smoking, I just held my breath walking from the bar to the place I was sitting).

I think that if we’re doing the voluntary stuff now, and the legal stuff catches up with us in 5-10 years – we’ll probably end up ok. But we all need to be talking about this and saying that we want to live in a world where burning fossil fuels seems as old fashioned, unhealthy and odd as smoking in British pubs does today.