In the face of nature we are all too human

Pliny, the great Roman encyclopedist, urged people to respect the environment. We should heed his sage advice.

Painting titled The Last Day of Pompeii by the Russian artist, Karl Bryullov.
Painting titled The Last Day of Pompeii by the Russian artist, Karl Bryullov. Credit: IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo

Even when presented with the video footage and satellite images, it is almost impossible to take in the scale and severity of the fires engulfing parts of Europe and North Africa. The orange skies can look more like the work of Photoshop than nature. It is no easier to describe the scenes on the ground. People fleeing affected areas, which include Rhodes, Lamia, Volos, Sicily and Algeria, repeatedly liken what they have witnessed to a movie apocalypse or, more vaguely, to ‘something out of a film’. The fires are beyond the scope of human comprehension.

In recent days, my phone has been pinging with increasingly frantic efforts to pinpoint the precise position of the fires on Corfu, where a friend keeps a villa. With many cables down, one has to be grateful for the existence of alternative technology, such as WhatsApp. One moment all was calm, reported my friend’s neighbour; the next, the air tasted of ash, then came the first sight of flames. The fires had reached the edge of the village and then miraculously paused. How strange it feels to be able to track their steady encroach, yet be entirely powerless to stop them.

The powerlessness of humanity in the face of natural disaster is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the modern world. At times like these, when many have tragically lost their lives, we can’t help but ask ourselves how it is that we’ve managed to mould the planet to cater to our every need, from supplying us with gas to sprouting crops in such abundance as to feed us all year round, and yet failed to find a way to control the elements.

People in the ancient world were broadly more accepting of disasters than we are and found arrogance in the very desire to master nature. The first-century encyclopedist Pliny the Elder asked whether we can really be surprised at the occurrence of earthquakes when we insist on digging deep into the bowels of the earth for natural materials. His reasoning chimes with that of modern scientists, who attribute the current fires to the effects of climate change. World Weather Attribution, for one, has linked the extreme temperatures currently affecting parts of Europe, Asia and North America to climactic change induced by human activity.

It was more common in antiquity to interpret extreme weather, floods and fires as a divine response to happenings on earth than as purely scientific phenomena. From the opening passages of the Iliad, where a plague in the Greek camp is attributed to the wrath of Apollo, to the historian Livy’s description of the sky being ripped in half, blood running through wheat and water and other bizarre portents afflicting Rome during its Punic Wars with Carthage, classical literature abounds with this kind of superstition.

When Pliny found himself caught in the middle of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, many people around him supposed that the fires, earthquakes and general commotion were being caused by the gods or even by giants trampling the landscapes. Pliny did not live to see the end of the disaster that ravaged Pompeii and surrounding areas. He was asphyxiated in the shadow of the volcano while people tried to escape by land and sea in scenes eerily redolent of the news today.

Some across the world may follow suit, as our ancestors did, and recognise in today’s disasters the work of gods. In this way of thinking, blame does not lie with the omnipotent so much as with us and our mortal failings. In this respect the religious and the scientific are not so very different. What is there to distinguish those who believe we’re being punished with the results of climate change for our sustained abuse of the environment, from those who believed in the past that we were punished by the gods for our sins or irreligiosity?

Regardless of whether the current fires sprung up of their own accord, as a result of extreme heat caused by climate change, or through human endeavour (the mayor of Thessaly has reportedly blamed ‘brainless workers’ for causing the fires there), we are reminded of nature’s potential to be cruel. Rightly did Pliny characterise her as a divine force with which we must maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. Treat Nature well, he said, revere her, and she will repay you in kind and supply you with everything you need. Abuse her and she will make her vengeance felt as strongly as any Olympian god. Pliny’s may be an optimistic equation for safety, but in urging people to be mindful of respecting the environment, he proved remarkably ahead of his time.

Our continuing inability to control or even to comprehend fires, earthquakes, eruptions and other elemental forces is ultimately proof, as the ancients recognised, that we are human. It is hard to imagine us ever overcoming our limits.


Daisy Dunn