I was inspired to write The Gilgamesh Gene because of my life-long concern for the environment. However it is as much about human nature and individual motivation as it is a book about ecological issues. It is now certain that mankind is on a collision course with his own survival, and that most other species are also in imminent danger. A combination of pollution, climate change, overpopulation , loss of habitat and the introduction of alien species into vulnerable areas means that the sixth extinction is well under way with one half of all amphibians, one third of all corals, one quarter of all mammals, one fifth of all plants and one sixth of all birds heading towards oblivion. The overall rate of species extinction is currently 1000 times the expected background rate.
Equally certain is that world leaders along with much of the mainstream media are in denial about the scale of the problem and the urgency of the situation. They accept that fauna and flora will disappear, but seem unable to comprehend that Homo sapiens is just another species, ultimately subject to the same laws of natural selection and survival.
How did we reach this impasse? Climate change is probably the most comprehensively studied phenomenon in the history of science, and there is a worldwide scientific consensus about the likely outcome. Yet political leaders consistently ignore the remedies necessary and portray GDP as the only possible definition of progress. They appear oblivious to the impossibility of ever increasing growth on a planet with finite resources, and a limited capacity to cope with the resulting pollution.
To analyse our predicament I go back to the very beginning of western civilisation, to Gilgamesh, the oldest story in recorded history, since many of the delusions and assumptions that underpin our world view today can be traced back to this ancient Epic. Gilgamesh was a king in Ancient Mesopotamia who ruled the Sumerian city of Uruk around 2750 BC. He was a capricious and egotistical ruler, so the Gods created an alter ego Enkidu to challenge the king’s supremacy. But Enkidu runs wild in the forest, and is only “civilised” when Gilgamesh sends a high priestess from the Temple of Ishtar to seduce him. So the narrative juxtaposes the twin origins of human nature: the innate instincts of our neolithic ancestors and the sophistification of an early Bronze Age civilisation.
The central theme of the Epic is ecological. During the previous millennium, Uruk had used up most of its local resources, and had initiated a process of expansion which involved trading with neighbouring states for items such as lapis lazuli and cedar wood. Within the cedar forest lurked Humbaba, a monster ordained by the Gods to guard the cedar trees against loggers. Gilgamesh and a reluctant Enkidu set off to kill Humbaba, Gilgamesh decapitates him, cuts down the forest, and floats down the Euphrates on a raft of cedar logs to Nippur with the head of Humbaba as proof of his victory. So Gilgamesh in not only the world’s first logger, he is also the first trophy hunter in recorded history. At Nippur the logs are used to fashion a mighty door for the temple beyond which only persons of divine status, such as Gilgamesh, may pass. But his vainglorious endeavour comes at a price. Enkidu is cursed by Humbaba before he dies, and soon after their triumphant homecoming, Enkidu sickens and dies.
The only rationale offered by Gilgamesh for his reckless behaviour is to establish his reputation in perpetuity; or as the Epic would have it: I will do this so that “I can stamp my name on the minds of men forever”. In other words celebrity trumps the environment every time, and henceforth, the natural world should be seen as something to be exploited, if necessary by force, and even if it entails the sacrifice of our dearest friend. Nowadays the ancient cedar forests that covered many of the mountainous areas in the Middle East have disappeared and Cedrus libanus has joined the list of near-threatened species. This environmentally destructive process was all started by Gilgamesh in the third millennium BC.
The earliest stories that report Gilgamesh’s exploits date from 2100 BC and are written as Sumerian poems. The earliest version of the Epic dates from the first half of the second millennium BC, more than a thousand years before the Bible, and the Standard version of the Epic dates from around 1200 BC. This version contains a complete account of the Flood story as recorded in the Book of Genesis 600 years later. So all of the Abrahamic religions that dominate world affairs today owe their origins and attitudes to Sumerian culture: a system of predominantly male hereditary rulers whose entitlement is based on divine lineage or whose divine approval can be obtained by building a mighty edifice; a tribal approach to politics with conquest regarded as a quick route to power and wealth; military prowess as the mark of a great ruler; and a trading arrangement that initially involves a system of barter, but which can rapidly develop into imperialism. The most damaging legacy however is an anthropomorphic world view whereby Man is granted dominion over every creature on God’s Earth; or, as Genesis would have it:
“Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion … over all the earth and over every creeping thing.”
The book traces the influence of this world view through different civilisations to the present day, and helps to explain the impasse in which we are currently transfixed. It is a situation that defies logic: that we can predict our own demise but are seemingly incapable of preventing it. To a greater or lesser extent all world leaders have inherited the Gilgamesh gene, characterised by a ruthless ambition to achieve fame and fortune often at the expense of the natural world. To find the most complete expression of the Gilgamesh gene in modern society, one need look no further than the American president Donald Trump, whose repudiation of the Paris agreement should be seen as an act equivalent to the slaughter of Humbaba almost 5000 years earlier.
The author Dr Robin Russell-Jones is one of the UK’s foremost environmental writers. He chairs an educational charity Help Rescue the Planet, and was formerly Chair of CLEAR, The Campaign for Lead free Air.