Up in smoke

AFP have a story of an Australian scientist with an unusual idea to help tackle global warming — ending the practice of cremation.

The guy, Professor Roger Short, is a reproductive biologist at the University of Melbourne.

“What a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide,” he says. “Why waste all that carbon dioxide on your death?”

And he even has a suggestion for a ‘greener’ death: be buried under a tree in a cardboard box (as ’tis biodegradable). The body would nourish the plant which would in turn convert evil CO2 into gorgeous, sexy oxygen, keeping us all going that little bit longer.

Not that cremation is a leading cause of climate change (as even the man himself admits, hastily adding that he did not want to prevent people disposing of their bodies according to their beliefs).

But it does raise the issue of how little things can make a difference, whether it be washing clothes at a lower temperature, turning off the lights when you leave a room or being buried under a tree. And that’s something which will always fascinate me: how the most insignificant or run of the mill events can make a huge impact further down the line.

The best exploration of this notion I can think of would be ‘virtual’ history. This is perhaps better known as ‘what if?’ history.

For instance, William H McNeill, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, wrote an intriguing article focusing on disease, “one of the wildcards of history”.

He looked at the siegeof Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. The siege was lifted because a disease swept through the army of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. As Judah was a minor kingdom in the region, poorer and weaker than its neighbours, the Assyrian force moved on. McNeill points out that Sennacherib’s forces had already dominated the tiny kingdom anyway; what was one more city? The larger, wealthier part of David’s kingdom, Israel, had been extinguished some 21 years earlier.

McNeill notes that “common sense” in the region was “that the gods worshipped by different peoples protected their worshippers as best they could. Victory and defeat therefore registered the power of rival deities as well as the strength of merely human armies”. The departure of the Assyrian force was a propaganda victory for Hezekiah and the refomers.

“Thus, according to the Bible (e.g., the Book of Isaiah), God saved his people and destroyed the impious Assyrians by spreading lethal pestilence among them. Such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet of Isaiah (whom Hezekiah consulted with) were right to rely on God’s power and protection.

More than that: it proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth?”

The result was that a religious reformation the king of Judah, Hezekiah, had supported was able to sink roots. And it meant that when Jerusalem was finally conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and its inhabitants brought into exile in Babylon, their faith was strong enough to endure. The idea of an omnipotent God was so ingrained in the people that even the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not enough to encourage them to abandon His worship.

The people of Israel had lost their identity following their conquest; “by accepting commonsense views about the limits of divine power, they abandoned the worship of Jahweh, who had failed to protect them”. Not so for the citizens of Jerusalem, who interpreted their defeat as punishment for Judah’s failure to obey God’s commandments as well as they ought. Ultimately, these exiles “reorganised their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipation from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem”.

So, one little plague outside the walls of a city in a minor kingdom some 2,700 years ago ultimately led to the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What would the world be like without them? Would we have a world full of gods? A world without any?

And now it is time to sleep.

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