Saturday, February 28, 2009

The waning Promethean Age?...


I've started a new audio course whilst trundling along in Zippy called "Classical Mythology".  The professor, Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver, is the best of the ones I've heard (along with Daileader of the "Middle Ages" trilogy).

Anyhoo, we're at the early parts where the Titans were being born and Zeus was becoming the dominant God.  Enter his "nephew", Prometheus, who began the contact with the gods for humankind.

The Prometheus myth first appeared in the Greek epic poet Hesiod's (ca. 700 BCE) Theogony (lines 507-616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Themis or Clymene, one of the Oceanids.MenoetiusEpimetheus (" and afterthought"). In the Theogony, Hesiod introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus' omniscience and omnipotence. At Sicyon, a sacrificial meal marking the "settling of accounts" between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus (545-557). He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of bull meat hidden inside an ox's stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull's bones wrapped completely in "glistening fat" (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices; henceforth, humans would keep the meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. Prometheus at once went to Athena with a plea for admittance to Olympus, and this she granted. On his arrival, he lit a torch at the fiery chariot of the Sun from which he broke at once a fragment of glowing charcoal, which he thrust into the pithy hollow of a giant fennel-stalk. Then, extinguishing his torch, he stole away, and gave fire to mankind. This further enraged Zeus, who sent Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, Pandora, the first woman,[3] fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and brought to life by the four winds, with all the goddesses of Olympus assembled to adorn her. "From her is the race of women and female kind," Hesiod writes; "of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth."
Prometheus, in eternal punishment, is chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle[4] or vulture, only to be regenerated by night.[5] Years later the Greek hero Hercules would shoot the vulture and free Prometheus from his chains.[6]
Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus in the Works and Days (lines 42-105). Here, the poet expands upon Zeus' reaction to the theft of fire. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from men, but "the means of life," as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus' wrath (44-47), "you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste." [More]

Prof. Vandiver points out that the fire represents and perhaps is truly synonymous with culture, and the foundation stone of civilization. Thinking about this in my open-ended traveling hours provoked a tentative conclusion she may even be discounting the stunning importance of fire on our development as an intelligent species.
Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved.
Start cooking, however, and things change radically. Cooking alters food in three important ways. It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments. It “denatures” protein molecules, so that their amino-acid chains unfold and digestive enzymes can attack them more easily. And heat physically softens food. That makes it easier to digest, so even though the stuff is no more calorific, the body uses fewer calories dealing with it.
In support of his thesis, Dr Wrangham, who is an anthropologist, has ransacked other fields and come up with an impressive array of material. Cooking increases the share of food digested in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed, from 50% to 95% according to work done on people fitted for medical reasons with collection bags at the ends of their small intestines. Previous studies had suggested raw food was digested equally well as cooked food because they looked at faeces as being the end product. These, however, have been exposed to the digestive mercies of bacteria in the large intestine, and any residual goodies have been removed from them that way. [More]

OK, stay with me.

Our current energy debate can be very roughly divided into getting energy from fire and getting energy from other sources.  Today, we burn fossil fuels for electricity, internal combustion engines, heat, etc. We are oxidation-based.

Giving up all this "burning" may be a harder cultural adaptation than we imagine. In some sense, we are the children of fire, and I think you can glimpse that instinctual response when at a bonfire for a pep rally or a fireplace coming in from the cold"Fire good", we grunt on some level.

Switching to nuclear power, in contrast, has been difficult because that deep-seated linkage and primeval familiarity is simply non-existent or counterintuitive.  Wind, solar, and hydropower are less strange to our old brains, but I think we know on a very deep level they lack the raw, "commandable" power of roaring blazes.

Consequently, much of the resistance to new energy sources may be more deeply founded than we suspect. Our long history with fire, the cultural trapping we have invested it with, and the seemingly straightforward comprehensibility of burning stuff for energy will not be tossed aside on a whim or in the face of computer models a handful of people can understand - even if the arguments are fundamentally sound.

Despite from all equations about future energy needs and CO2 levels, we should be prepared for a long, long goodbye to the gift of rapid oxidation - if indeed we can actually part with this aspect of who we are. Fire is more than a clever tool we have adapted to our use as humans.  It defines us and has made us more than we were.

You can take the fire out of the furnace perhaps, but not out of the forebrain.


Ol James said... is easier to reach for a book of matches rather than say, a hunk of uranium or plutonium.. But then again ya never know what folks carry around these days.
Hey Mr. John, I'm sure you heard about the EPA decision on fining people for creating to much dust?? Couple that with CO2 emissions and the possible loss of subsidies and Farmers may be behind the 8-ball. Whadda ya think??

Anonymous said...

i think you are exactly right that it might take a decade or maybe a generation to realign our energy sources, but i'm willing to bet that soon we will learn to huddle a little closer to a smaller fire, and the ones whose childhood memories are of shivering around the stove first thing in the morning will consider seriously how their adult homes will utilize the sun and rainwater and whatever else our planetary situation makes available for the taking. the bright side is that the raw materials to accomplish this are already processed and sitting in our landfills or in my case in the barn and shop.

ole said...

I am one of the few that does not feel the need to believe computer models, so the burning of fuels bothers me not a bit. Those who recognize the correlation between the lack of sunspots and a frigid climate will, I predict, soon come around to that same view. Of course, I don't have a crystal ball(computer model) so what do I know.

John Phipps said...


The point here was not so much whether you follow any particular model, although I'm pretty sure the sunspot theory has had ample examination.

It is closer to the peak-oil question and the availability of easily burnable stuff. That does at least appear finite.

The tone of your words also adds to my conviction our culture will have a hard time letting go of fire for reasons we may not fully understand.

ole said...

I believe that burning of fuels has led to an increase in the standard of living, and that could be why people are reluctant to give it up. Give them a way to increase living standards without burning fuels (spending money) and you will have willing followers.

Anonymous said...

Well put ole. If we can develop an alternative energy program which is user-friendly and inexpensive WITHOUT subsidizing it, I think people will be very open to the idea. Right now, the initial investment into alternative fuels is so high that most people tune out as soon as they hear the cost. I have looked into geothermal, solar, and wind for my small hobby farm, and I can tell you that, at present time, even with any rebates or credits I may receive, it does not make economic sense for me to bury a lot of capital into a 20 year pay-back.

John - You are right. At some point in time we are going to run out of things to burn. But until we can make it affordable for the folks to do otherwise, waiting for the wind to blow or the sun to shine is going to be a tough sell.