Sisyphus, you may remember, was the mythical king whose punishment in the afterlife was to push a massive boulder up a hill. But before Sisyphus could get the boulder to the top, the damn thing would always roll back down to the bottom, forcing him to start again.
Being any sort of environmentalist is always a Sisyphean task. Every time you think that humanity might be approaching some sort of watershed, some great awakening to the dire ecological reality that our species has created, the big stone of progress rolls back down the mountain. In my darker hours, I start to wonder what we all did to make the gods so angry.
A few months ago, we were celebrating the acquittal of the six Greenpeace activists who scaled a chimney at Kingsnorth power station and painted “Gordon” on the side, to protest the Government’s collusion with E.ON in its suicidal plan to unleash a new wave of coal-fired energy plants. The damage done to the power station, concluded the jury, seemed trivial when compared with the damage which will be done by climate change. The protestors had a ‘lawful excuse’ for their actions, and were found not guilty.
It was a verdict which smelt of change and new beginnings. The great social change theorist Bill Moyer spoke of a stage in the development of all social movements called ‘Take Off”. At this stage, the general public hear, for the first time, the activists’ side of the story. Suddenly the powerholders are no longer the sole narrators. This is exactly what happened during the Kingsnorth trial: a jury is, after all, intended to be representative of the broader public.
But perhaps the take off was a false one. The attorney general Baroness Scotland has since decided that this verdict simply won’t do. She is considering using her powers to force courts to clamp down on defences based around a ‘lawful excuse’. Nevermind that the activitsts went through the usual process of justice and walked free at the end. Nevermind the expert testimony provided by climate scientists and increasingly desperate Inuit leaders. Nevermind that a government minister has called for more popular mobilisation on climate change. And certainly nevermind all that democracy. The gods have spoken, and all us little Sisyphuses must go back down the slope. As one lawyer who spoke to the Guardian commented, ‘This is a sinister effort to undermine [the jurors’] decision”.
Some of the gods are sinister and vengeful. But in the old Greek myths there were always a few, such as Bacchus the god of wine, ritual madness and estasy, who were so busy pleasuring themselves that they didn’t have time to bother themselves with the goings-on of a few pesky mortals. And you don’t have to look very hard to find the hedonistic Olympians in our culture. The Guardian’s Leo Hickman reports some of the unecological excesses going on amid the artifical islands and elite hotels of Dubai. Imagine beaches which have the heat sucked out of them so that they’re cool enough to lie on. Or refigerated swimming pools. Or ski slopes in the desert. Or hotels which abduct whale sharks for the amusement of their guests. It’s an avalanche of boulders now, and there’s no chance we’re going to catch them in a few recycling boxes.
Still, the great thing about Sisyphus is that he kept going. Even Albert Camus said that we must ‘imagine Sisyphus happy‘.