Sunday, October 08, 2006

Signs, Portents and the Roman Way

Under the Tarquin kings the early Romans looked to a priestly class called augures who interpreted the flights and other habits of birds in order to foretell whether a course of action would succeed. We still have an echo of that in our current language when we say some event "augurs well" for us.

Later Romans living under the republic and the empire embraced astrology as the key to unlocking the future, according Michael Grant in his wonderful capsule of ancient Roman life, The World of Rome. Even highly cultivated Romans such as the emperor Tiberius believed in astrology. Astrology was and is based on the notion that there is a natural "sympathy" between what happens in the heavens and on the earth. It seemed obvious to the ancients that everything was connected and that one had only to read the signs--in this case, the stars and the planets--to see which way events were heading.

Accompanying this devotion to astrology was a belief in Fate. This wasn't complete determinism, for if one could learn ahead of time what Fate had in store, there were ways of mitigating or even averting misfortune.

Besides astrology and fate, natural events such as the comet which appeared after Julius Caesar's murder or the supposed birth of a monkey to a maid of the Emperor Claudius made profound impacts on the minds of the Roman people.

Today, we know better. We no longer look to the natural world to predict our future. While some people still subscribe to a morbid determinism, most--at least in wealthy, industrialized countries--believe that our own choices are central to the trajectory of our lives. The natural world is now something which seems largely explained by science and controlled by technology.

Having tuned out natural signals, most moderns look for signs of the future in the financial news and from political pundits and pollsters. The auguries of our day are those armed with sophisticated financial models or polling results.

But, within the last three decades or so scientists have come to the public to share the results of their own models in the form of Limits to Growth, the famous study of resource depletion and pollution, and in the form of various climate models. Unfortunately, the idea that the natural world could tell us something about our future has been so thoroughly undermined that these scientists have found it difficult to get a hearing.

As a result, only now has the problem of global warming become an everyday topic of conversation in some circles. But the idea of resource depletion is still treated with scorn, even in many environmental circles. And, the proposition that human consumption and population might have limits can be discussed in polite company only at one's peril.

We do not, however, need to return to the naive mindset of the ancient Romans in order to cast nature once again in a central role. We have methods of studying nature and testing theories far beyond anything the augures or astrologers could imagine. In addition, it might behoove us to contemplate the notion of fate in our own time. Nature still does not negotiate. It lays down limits which we are obliged to obey. We may temporarily evade them by, for instance, using huge quantities of finite fossil fuels. But in the end we cannot repeal those limits.

We might do well then to listen to what our modern-day augures, the climate and resource modelers, are telling us so that we, like the ancient Romans, might mitigate or avert a disastrous fate. The portents are all around us: the deformed frogs; the rapid extinctions; the evaporating lakes; the devastating hurricanes; the severe droughts; the deadly heat waves; the spike in certain cancers; and the rapid melting of the polar ice. The list goes on and on.

The natural world and the scientific one are warning us to change course without delay. With this much evidence, I'm betting a sensible Roman would have done just that long before now.


Anonymous said...

A very entertaining and thought-provoking post. There is no going back to nature. We have permanently disconnected ourselves from the natural world. Prepare for the mass dieoff and social chaos.

Anonymous said...

Oil, Smoke & Mirrors