It was the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his great thirty-seven volume work, Naturalis Historia, who suggested the ostrich buried its head in the sand at the first sign of danger. Pliny was wrong. No-one has ever observed this phenomenon. Nevertheless, the poor old ostrich has ever since been accused of this unfortunate behavior, and become a symbol for those of us who refuse to accept the obvious, even when thrust under our noses.
To we beings of decidedly short lifespan, the Earth is an apparently stable place. Nothing changes drastically in the three score years and ten that, biblically at least, mark our beginning and our end. We note differences, but they are mostly in ourselves, or more likely in our offspring. Every aging generation sighs with resignation at the antics of its progeny, though most eventually settle into similar patterns of behavior as their parents and grandparents, once the over-heated flush of hormonal youth has cooled to a barely perceptible simmer.
Comparing our own human lifespans with that of the planet offers little more than a snapshot of the latter; a freeze-frame moment in the aeonic eternity of planetary existence. Were Earth’s history to be shrunk to a mere seventy years, our individual lifetimes would dwindle to a moment far less even than the blinking of an eye. A ‘freeze-frame moment’, indeed.
During three weeks holidaying in Britain, I realized my life was continuing its course just as the lives of those around me were ticking rhythmically away, as human lives have appeared to do since time immemorial. This very regularity makes it hard to accept that it’s not always been the case. Throughout earth’s history there have been times when human life itself has suffered cataclysmic disaster, occasionally sufficient to threaten total human extinction.
After Vesuvius buried Pompeii beneath its pyroclastic flows, archaeologists were surprised to note the human remains showed individuals continuing their everyday duties almost to the moment of suffocation, as though no warning of impending doom were heeded by the populace. Yet, they must have had some indication of the imminent danger.
Are we perhaps, as a species, some sort of mammalian ostrich? Do we, when faced with potential annihilation, metaphorically bury our heads in the sand and refuse to accept reality?
While on holiday, my wife and I spent a week in a delightful Welsh beauty spot, another week exploring the wonders of the Norfolk Broads by boat (an internationally recognized area for wildlife conservation) and the final week of our vacation in Will Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Internet access was unavailable, but each night the TV news was filled with natural disasters throughout the world; the Chinese earthquake, followed by Chinese floods; the storms, floods, tornadoes and other afflictions suffered by the United States; droughts and forest fires in Australia. It struck me that these news items were almost mundane. Every day now brings a plethora of such stories.
Having lived most of my three score years and ten, I can say with certainty that the frequency and intensity of this planet’s natural disturbances have never been so great, during my lifetime, as now. Weathermen, perfect examples of mammalian ostriches, murmur incessantly of El Nino and La Nina as the culprits, but these weather patterns have been around for centuries without creating the havoc that is our world’s weather today. Of course, the truth is that mere TV meteorologists don’t want to be the first to publicly declare these disasters the result of global warming.
While on our jaunts around the British countryside, it occurred to me that we are all mammalian ostriches to some extent. There we were continuing with our day-by-day lives, just like everyone around us, as though we were not being threatened with our own extinction in the not-so-distant future. I began to feel like those people of Pompeii, who knew they would probably die very soon, but didn’t really want to believe it because that meant doing something practical to prevent it happening. In their case, doing something simply meant moving to another place out of the danger zone, but that must have seemed too much trouble, and besides, if the danger passed without incident one would feel such a fool.
So they metaphorically buried their heads in the sand, then discovered the sand was actually twenty-feet of red-hot, volcanic ash.
Global warming is a reality no-one wants to face. Politicians, like most of us, ruffle their plumage and head for the nearest sandpit at any mention of the phrase. Today, we are more ostrich-like even than the Pompeians. We simplistically believe that when our Earth finally cries, “Enough is enough”, technology – our latest and most powerful god ever – will spring into action and save the day.
We should note that the Roman gods failed to save the Pompeians. We should, perhaps, also observe that the man who gave the unfortunate ostrich its mythical habit was probably the greatest mammalian ostrich of all.
When Vesuvius began its catastrophic eruption, Pliny the Elder was in his bath. Despite warnings from those around him, the Roman writer refused to admit any danger, determined it would not interrupt his bathing.
Like many, many thousands of his countrymen, Pliny the Elder was killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.
Filed under: History lessons