Our Species is Approaching its Greek Tragedy Phase

A “lose-lose” Climate Climax like no other

Ancient Greeks had an obsession with the concept of sacrifice “for the greater good”. They believed that sometimes in life really difficult, almost impossible choices needed to be made, choices where some of the things we keep most sacred may need to be sacrificed in the altar of society. It is no wonder that “sacred” and “sacrifice” are words that appear to have the same root.

This concept of sacrifice and difficult dilemmas was explored countless times in mythology and drama, perhaps the most well known being the tale of Troy, where Agamemnon has to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, so that the god Artemis allows his fleet to safely sail to Troy. (Yes, Artemis sounds like a real piece of work).

Aside from creating drama, something the Greeks invented and excelled in, these types of stories aimed to explore the concept of compromise, and the struggle of balancing personal benefit on one hand, and the benefit of the greater society on the other. If Agamemnon thinks only of himself, he can save his daughter’s life but lose the war and possibly condemn a whole nation to subjugation. If however he decides to think of his country and his fleet first, he will make the difficult decision to sacrifice Iphigenia. He will be safeguarding the greater good, possibly the future of generations. It really is an impossible decision, because this is actually a lose-lose situation: either one of the choices is extremely painful and detrimental.

And this brings us to real life. Because in 399 BC Athens, Socrates was waiting alone in a prison cell, faced with a difficult choice between two options, which he also felt were equally detrimental:

A) He could denounce his critical views of Athenian Democracy, stop being an enemy of the state, and apologise for what he believed in. If he did this, he would walk away from his cell a free man.
B) He could insist on his views, but would have to die by drinking the hemlock poison in his cell. He would maintain his pride and dignity, but he would have to pay the ultimate price: his own life.

To Socrates, this was an easy choice: it was a choice on one hand between dying as himself, a truly free man, holding on to his beliefs, and on the other continuing to live but as a fake version of himself, having denounced the very things he had been fighting for.

In a sombre atmosphere, as his students visited his cell to try and plead with him on the night before his voluntary suicide, he explained to them that one is only alive when they are themselves. If they denounce themselves and their beliefs they are effectively dead. He took the poison.

The fallout from his death gave birth to a reinassance in philosophy, and the impact of his choice, his sacrifice, would reverberate through the ages by nucleating new thought which evolved into Athens’ own brand of philosophy: one that championed the human spirit, individualism, and questioned where our ethical responsibilities lie as individuals and societies. Many of Socrates’ students became philosophers, leaving behind a legacy that has left its mark on today’s activism.

Fast forward to today: enter Climate Change. Where do our responsibilities lie? And what are our choices? Is it all lose-lose or can there be a win? And which are the values that we need to uphold, no matter what? The answer is that Climate Change has definitely entered Greek Tragedy territory. Because a few decades ago, the level of sacrifices we would have had to make in terms of emission cuts, in terms of our lifestyle, pale in comparison to the ones we need to make today, after having wasted so much time emitting, destroying, burning rainforests. We have wasted precious time, and have already reached a lose-lose situation: we could take draconian measures to cut emissions that would cripple our economies (as COVID-19 illustrates), and still manage to lose our only planet, as there is ample evidence that the planet has entered an accelerating, runaway amplification of climate change that cannot be stopped.

In other words, even if we sacrifice Iphigenia we still lose our war fleet. This is our predicament. And it is not only a lose-lose situation, but a combination of the worst of both decisions. The more we delay a decision, the more the decision becomes impossible, and it even becomes pointless: it is merely a choice between two slightly different flavours of Hell.

Many politicians today are in the place of Socrates or Agamemnon. They know that climate change is happening, and that action is urgent. Yet they don’t take any action because they may lose their job, a few voters, or a few industry lobbyists and capitalists. They are selling themselves out, and selling their children who will suffer in the future, so that they don’t have to drink the hemlock poison themselves. But what is abundantly clear is that, while they may be sacrificing Greta Thunberg’s future, the Iphigenia of our times, the fleet is being sacrificed as well.

It appears that our species has made a choice, and it is the “superlose” choice. Yes, we have outdone the Greeks in making drama.

to be continued…(or not)

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4 thoughts on “Our Species is Approaching its Greek Tragedy Phase

  1. Yes we have. The best our collective biology allows is monkey see monkey do. Civilization is the perfect self interest trap. Self sacrifice takes an enormous amount of conviction and moral fortitude. It is a rare individual that can overcome the seduction of living large in civilization on the backs of others and the explotation of the planet. Even though I know how this civilization story probably ends. (tragically from a human perspective) I still want to believe that the culture of make believe can have a happily ever after ending for all species. I am still shopping for a bit more than just life support. At our current population level and creature comfort expectations even powering down to life support only for all would still exhaust the biosphere more likely than not. Too many competing for less and less. The fantasy is very powerful and hard to give up. Love Rick

    1. Maybe “monkey see monkey do” is our salvation (at least for some of us). Perhaps the trick is to be the monkey that triggers our fellow primate’s mirror neurons in the right way.

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