Who could look at the images of the wildfires in California and not see something biblical in their mind? Perhaps Eliyahu with his summoning of the fire to consume the captain and his fifty men, or all the times Hashem lashes his tongue of fire onto a couple dozen Israelites in Bamidbar for complaining, or even the image from Eykha when Hashem pours out his wrath like fire on the tent of Daughter Zion.
There is something primal about those videos; cosmic, retributive, awesome and frightening, all the moreso because we know it’s a mere premonition of what come what may in future decades. With everything we can predict about weather patterns, how can these fires not get worse? We have seen the future, and it is wildfire, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, sinkholes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis, limnic eruptions, cyclonic storms, blizzards, hailstorms, ice storms, cold waves, heat waves, droughts, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and who knows what acts such horrors from the earth will provoke in the demented psyche of human beings? Surely some revelation is at hand.
This is the paradox of the 21st century. We have an exponentially higher level of understanding and control over science and technology and the very forces of nature than ever before in human history, and all of this new knowledge tells us that we’re about to experience nature’s vengeance with a retributive severity that seems right out of the destruction of S’dom – so powerful it can never be stopped. Who could possibly not intimate the wrath of God in all this?
If you didn’t read even a summary of the UN Global Warming report and wonder at least for five seconds if we were gazing at the end of all things, you didn’t read any of it. To stop it, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power would have to make 67% of our energy sources, rather than the 20% they are today. Greenhouse pollution has to be cut by 45 percent from the 2010 figure by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050!
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this will never happen. We’ve already raised the average world temperature by 1.8 degrees since the 1850’s. If greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at their current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit past pre-industrial levels by 2040. I think it best to let the description in this article by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine do the talking.
At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, flooding dozens of the world’s major cities this century. At that amount of warming, it is estimated, global GDP, per capita, will be cut by 13 percent. Four hundred million more people will suffer from water scarcity, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. It will be worse in the planet’s equatorial band. In India, where many cities now numbering in the many millions would become unliveably hot, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing, in total, 93 times more people. This is two degrees — practically speaking, our absolute best-case climate scenario.
At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months and in the Caribbean 21 months. In northern Africa, the figure is 60 months — five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the United States. Beyond the sea-level rise, which will already be swallowing cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta, damages just from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India, and as much as 60-fold in the U.K. This is three degrees — better than we’d do if all the nations of the world honored their Paris commitments, which none of them are. Practically speaking, barring those dramatic tech deus ex machinas, this seems to me about as positive a realistic outcome as it is rational to expect.
At four degrees, there would be eight million cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone. Global grain yields could fall by as much as 50 percent, producing annual or close-to-annual food crises. The global economy would be more than 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change, and we would see at least half again as much conflict and warfare as we do today. Possibly more. Our current trajectory, remember, takes us higher still, and while there are many reasons to think we will bend that curve soon — the plummeting cost of renewable energy, the growing global consensus about phasing out coal — it is worth remembering that, whatever you may have heard about the green revolution and the price of solar, at present, global carbon emissions are still growing.
It is hard to escape the idea that humanity’s being punished for something. And in a sense, we are. This is justice for not taking better care of a home to which, if we’re to believe in a creator, we were entrusted. Just here in America, where we make up 5% of the population, but we use 25% of the coal, 26% of the oil, 27% of the natural gas. Every year we dump 1,200,000,000,000 gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste into our water. We dump 1,500,000 metric tons of nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River which comes to the Gulf of Mexico and creates a ‘dead zone’ the size of New Jersey that kills everything in its path. 46% of American lakes are considered high risk recreational endeavors. We throw away 2,500,000 plastic bottles every hour, each of which will take 500 years to decompose. 40% of Americans are breathing unhealthy air. 16,000 American babies are born prematurely every year from air pollution-related causes.
Worldwide, pollution is a factor for 1 in every 8 human deaths. We dump 14,000,000,000 pounds of garbage into the ocean every year. 3,000,000 children die every year from pollution-related factors. 3,400,000 die every year from causes related to water pollution. 90% of Chinese water is polluted and in a city like Beijing, the simple act of breathing is the equivalent of consuming 21 cigarettes in a day and half the Chinese people are forced to drink contaminated water. In Mumbai, the act of breathing is the equivalent of consuming 100 cigarettes every day.
Perhaps most unconscionable of all is our effect on animals. Every year we kill 1,000,000 sea birds, 100,000 sea mammals, and 100,000,000 land mammals from pollution. An unascertainable number of marine creatures die every year from swallowing plastic bags. As the greatest of Jewish fiction writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, once declared: ‘mankind is a Nazi to animals.’ The sins we commit against the earth are so much more egregious a sin than any we commit against each other, all the moreso for the fact that we barely think of them as sins. In less than a hundred years, we will look back on the squabbles of the early 21st century, and how trivial will they all seem. Everything related to Bush v. Gore, 9/11, Trump, Iraq and Afghanistan, #metoo, the subprime housing bubble, even white nationalism; what will it matter in the grand scheme of history if we’re all remembered as complicit in a regime of pollution more genocidal than Nazis?
We in Contemporary America are not Nazi Germany, and no matter what the Trump Administration may still be hiding in store for us, we will never be anything even remotely resembling Nazi Germany. We are America, and these days, that’s problem enough. People, including me, who fret that we’re about lapse into a truly authoritarian regime are probably still looking at the 21st century through the eyes of the 20th. We have more than enough existential crises right now without looking at them through the prism of existential crises of the past. America could easily become an authoritarian state, and it still would matter so little compared to other catastrophes which lurk just around the corner. We are already failing existential tests of the 21st century with flying colors: ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, bioterror, 20 trillion dollars in debt that could be recalled and defaulted on at a moment’s notice, unrestrictive company growth and profits, and often through the corporate data harvest of our personal information, and using that personal information to create fake news to keep us credulous about what they want us to believe. At this point, these are not problems that can be solved, they can only be survived.
This will inevitably trivialize what I’ve said above, but the reason I wrote all that is that all this and much more occurred to me while watching The Seventh Seal at the Charles Theatre Revival Series in Baltimore last night. To most people who’ve seen it, The Seventh Seal always seemed a good albeit ridiculous movie. Those of you who’ve seen it know that it turns the pretension dial up to 11. More than any other film, it was responsible for making foreign films seem forbiddingly intellectual to the average American. But for an age when all human progress feels as though it may regress to the Middle Ages, The Seventh Seal is the perfect movie. I suppose it had the same macabre urgency when it was released into 1957; World War II only twelve years in the past, World War I and Spanish flu and The Great Depression in living memory, Khrushchev and Mao threatening to destroy the world and Mao murdering a hundred million of his own people. No matter how relatively peaceful the 1950’s seemed in retrospect, the specter of a looming apocalypse was everywhere. It probably speaks to us now with more urgency than it has in an entire generation.
The point of this famous movie is not only to question death or God’s existence as it so famously does, but also to render a landscape where such questions are elementally necessary. It is as perfect a rendering of the Middle Ages as exists in the history of cinema – perhaps only The Passion of Joan of Arc and Andrei Rublev can be said to come close. We see the essence of the Middle Ages recreated so vividly that we have to pause to wonder if our images of the Middle Ages comes from this movie and not the other way around. To enter the world of this movie is to enter the ethos of a time and place so completely different from ours that no outright fantasy literature can hope to equal its strangeness – because we, human beings, of this world, our ancestors, were the people who believed in all of this strangeness.
Not only death is omnipresent, but also sex, and friendship, and sensuality, and love, but mostly tragedy – cruelty, evil, fear, shame, disease (it is the era of Black Death), natural disasters, crime, poverty, betrayal, and above all, superstition. In a realm of superstition, there is hardly any difference between what is real and what is imagined, and the imagined visions of people whom today we would believe mentally unwell are taken completely seriously by those who live with them. The true terror throughout this movie is not death itself, but death by plague. This movie takes place during that period around 1348 when Black Plague ravaged the entirety of Europe – flea-covered rats spreading it from town to town at a rate of five miles a day. Like AIDS, it disables the immune system and causes pustules to grow on one’s body the size of a chicken egg. Once the bacteria can multiply without antibodies, the blisters swell up until they pop, the functions of the extremities die from gangrene, and the lungs simply dissolve.
In this era, the tragedy one feels from mortality is minimal, it is simply an accepted reality one encounters in everyday life. In an era of agony, death implies a release from the horrors of untold suffering. No matter what tales of damnation and hellfire people hear, how can the terrors of death compare for these people to the horrors of their everyday lives? In circumstances this extreme, what would people not do in the quest to alleviate their circumstances? Would they not kill one another and burn heretics over small religious differences to appease an angry god? Would priests not lose faith to the point of becoming thieves and murderers? Would laymen not speculate that we are the generation living in the End Times? Would the trauma not cause people to have visions of an alternate world as real as this one?
And since these visions are so real to the people who inhabit this world, who’s to say that these visions aren’t as real as real objects? The true visionary of this film is neither Death nor Antonius Block (the medieval knight played by Max von Sydow who bargains for more time by challenging death to a game of chess so that he might use his borrowed time understand the meaning of existence); the true visionary is Jof – an actor in a troupe who not only perceives Death sitting with Antonius Block, but also the Virgin Mary walking with her infant. Jof has a wife named Mia (whose names obviously meant to recall Joseph & Mary), and they have a son named Mikael (like the archangel). They are clearly meant, among other things, to symbolize the divinity in human beings, and perhaps therefore the hope that allows humanity to choose life even when death is everywhere – as though to say ‘whether it’s us or someone else, life will continue, and it will get better.’
But the hope of Jof and Mia is not something most people have in such grim eras. In such a world, death is no more than an uncomfortable inevitability, perhaps even a relief. When you meet him, it is as though you’ve met a feudal lord, and you must accord him all the respect a man of a sufficient station to legally kill you deserves. When such people call a tune, you dance. When he comes, you may protest or even bargain for more time, but a meeting with him is hardly the meeting that provokes the worst of all fears in people of this era. For an agonized intellectual of the higher classes like Block, or his squire, Jons, death is a gateway to nothingness and therefore a matter of at least mild trepidation. But most people in this era do not possess their worldliness. For them, death is merely a transition to another world, hopefully a better one. This is not a human world as we today in our creature comforts might understand the human condition, but it is a human world as it once was lived and may yet be lived again. I look at Antonius Block and his knightly entourage roaming the landscape, playing a game with death to bargain for more time, and I think of my grandparents in the forests around Bransk and Wysokie in 1943 or 44. God knows what horrors, what manifestations of death they must have seen while in hiding? And what acts of grace lost to history allowed them to survive?
We have come so far, and yet God sits in the sky and he laughs. What is the point of all this scientific and technological advancement if it only brings us back to the animalistic chaos of our origins? Yet another horseman knocks at humanity’s door, and whether it’s due to our naiveté, or our evil, or just that humans are biologically determined to destroy a large portion of ourselves every so often, it seems, yet again, as though Hashem is angry at us for our misdeeds. And for all our scientific knowledge, the destruction may be no less apocalyptic than it was in an era when we knew nothing about science at all. These people: Block, Jons, Jof and Mia, and all the other characters they encounter along the way, are us. In an era like Black Death, in an era like the imminent heating of the planet, they are precisely whom we might turn into. But in an era before Global Warming’s effects truly manifest themselves, the character we all most resemble is Death.