Perhaps we humans have always known that we might set the world on fire. Or maybe that awareness crept into our collective consciousness when we began to make the Earth a mere servant of our desires. Something told us that this might be a dangerous game.
The Greek myth of Phaeton is thousands of years old. The Roman poet Ovid wrote a gripping and terrifying version of it around the time of Christ.
Phaeton is being raised by his mortal mother. To prove that he is not illegitimate, he travels to his father, Helios, the god who drives the sun across the sky every day in his chariot.
Helios embraces Phaeton and promises him anything he wants. The callow young man demands that he be allowed, just once, to drive his father’s chariot. His father pleads with him to choose something else, but Phaeton insists.
The callow boy lacks the gravity to control the horses that haul the sun across the sky. They gallop wildly off course, causing havoc among the constellations.
And then they hurtle down towards the Earth, bringing the scorching sun too close to our planet’s surface. Ovid’s description of the consequences (in David Raeburn’s translation) is horribly resonant.
“The earth now burst into flames on all the hills and the mountains, /split into huge wide cracks, and dried as it lost its moisture./The corn turned white and trees were charred into leafless skeletons;/Phaeton now looked down on a world in flames . . . ”
We are consuming the spectacle of our life support systems being consumed
In one of the most poignant moments in classical literature, Ovid imagines Mother Earth herself crying out in protest: “ ‘Look at my singed hair, look at the ashes/coating my eyes and face! Is this the respect that you show me?/Is this the reward for the crops that I yield and the service I render?’ ”
Last week, millions of people watched a short clip uploaded on to social media of passengers on a Greek ferry watching the island of Evia go up in flames as they sail past. Evia, described in the Guardian by the novelist Francine Prose as "a natural paradise of forests, mountains and clear streams", had by then already been burning for a week.
So, of course, had much of the world, from California to Siberia. These apocalyptic scenes have become the familiar stuff of nightly news bulletins.
But this particular scene has an extra dimension: it makes us vicariously passengers on a one-way ferry to Hell. As Prose put it, “It’s as if Dante filmed the Inferno on his iPhone.”
Only a species with astonishing capacities could have screwed up an entire planetary system in the way humanity has managed
Or as if the Phaeton myth were being re-enacted as real-time performance. We are consuming the spectacle of our life support systems being consumed.
It should not have come to this. We should not have had to wait until the flames are at the door before we could really feel the heat of this epochal moment in the life of our species.
But the future we were warned against is here now. These are the ashes from which the alternative future – if there is to be one – must arise.
The thing about Phaeton is that he is not a bad boy. He just overestimates his own capacities. In trying to prove himself godlike, he destroys the only home that mere humans can inhabit.
In one sense, though not a good one, our species has indeed become godlike. We no longer just live on the Earth – we are creating it. Human activity now completely outstrips natural change as the cause of global warming.
As the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows, nature has contributed 0.1 degrees to the rise in mean surface air temperature since 1850. We ourselves have added 1.07 degrees.
We’ve taken charge of the cosmic chariot, but we have not taken control. As a species, we have lacked the gravity needed to rein in the runaway forces we set in motion through the industrial revolution. We have collectively refused to answer the affronted Earth’s question: is this the respect you show me?
The irony now, though, is that we can do as much harm by underestimating our capacities as we have already done by overestimating them. We are not messiahs, but we are not just naughty boys either.
Only a species with astonishing capacities could have screwed up an entire planetary system in the way humanity has managed. We have paid ourselves the ultimate in backhanded compliments by giving ourselves the ability to decide on our own survival – or destruction.
There are no thunderbolts to halt the charge of self-destructive folly
The paradox is that in order to be able to use that power we have to accept at last its proper limits. Uncontrolled potency, as the Phaeton story shows, becomes complete impotence. It is only in the humility of a rapid climbdown from the careering chariot of the carbon economy that we can reassert control over our fate.
In the Phaeton story, there is a big god, Zeus, who steps in to save the world by striking the dangerous fool with a thunderbolt. For us mortals, there are no thunderbolts to halt the charge of self-destructive folly.
There is only our collective will to turn the ferry around before it reaches Hell. If we do not act as a species, we may not continue to be one.