Defend Atlantis: Confronting climate change with J.R.R. Tolkien & the Flobots

19 05 2010
Sauron Defeated. 2002 Edition. HarperCollins. Cover illustration by John Howe.

Depiction of the drowning of Numenor. Art by John Howe. Paperback cover of Sauron Defeated, published by Harper Collins.

“Then suddenly… there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea…”from The Akallabêth by J.R.R. Tolkien

“And survival hinged on the ascent by the humble… We let the altars die to keep our pulse alive.” – from “Defend Atlantis” by the Flobots

As I watch the suspiciously opaque “climate bill” flounder in the Senate, I find that my mind keeps drifting to the legend of Atlantis.

No, seriously.

The story of Atlantis has been retold scores of times by different artists since the days of  Plato. But my favorite by far has long been J.R.R. Tolkien’s version, as recounted in The Silmarillion, a collection of the histories that form the back story of The Lord of the Rings.

I’m also a big fan of hip-hop/rock band the Flobots. As I wrote in SPIN Earth a while back, their latest album, Survival Story,  has a lot to do with environmental justice, especially global warming. And they retell the story of Atlantis in their own way in their music.

The other day I had an epiphany about an important insight these Atlantis stories share. And you don’t have to be a fan of either to appreciate it.

Both the Flobots and Tolkien suggest that our environmental issues are about far more than politics or economics. In a very real sense, they say, the root of these problems is actually about idolatry — what some might call free-market fundamentalism.

There is the superficially obvious connection — that rising water levels threaten to make modern “Atlantis” cities that are destroyed by water. But if you’ll indulge a brief journey into ultra-nerd territory, I’ll explain more deeply.

In Tolkien’s Atlantis story, a group of people are given their own island continent called Númenor. Without getting bogged down in all the details, the once great society is corrupted by — who else? — Sauron. They descend into violence, oppression and decadence. They even start worshiping dark, demonic forces. They finally cross an unacceptable line and the Powers of the World have The One destroy the island and bury it beneath the sea.

A few enlightened ones, referred to as “the faithful” or the Elendili, escape. They go on to battle Sauron and become Aragorn‘s ancestors.

Tolkien expressed some interesting environmentalist views throughout his writing. (Anyone who disagrees should take a look at Treebeard and the Ents or “The Scouring of the Shire” and then get back at me.) Tolkien clearly thought of respect for the natural world as a spiritual issue. But these stories were forged decades before climate change and rising water levels were on anyone’s radar.

So its even more striking how the story can still act as a modern metaphor. Before the sea buries their cities, Sauron instructs the leaders of the Númenóreans to build a huge “temple” where they constantly offer the Dark Lord burnt sacrifices — often human sacrifices. The temple is a huge tower that perpetually spews thick smoke. (Reminiscent of a smokestack?)

And get this — because of their actions, the climate changes. At their once-comfortable home, the air becomes less sweet to breathe. Violent storms become more frequent. And in the end, sea levels rise to destroy their cities.

In Tolkien’s version, of course, this is thematic and spiritual fallout from evil, not the product of scientific phenomenon. But doesn’t it sound familiar?



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One response

20 05 2010

This is a good reading of Tolkien (Tolkien I’m not that familiar with to boot :)). And good theology. And journalism skills, of course. Nice. 🙂

To compete with your nerdiness, I feel like I have a new LOST theory (the island as an Atlantis of sorts). So thanks for that. 🙂

As far as the vegetarian thing goes, in parts of the world where the Western diet isn’t common, meat is a bit of a luxury. The poor (outside industrialized nations) don’t eat as much meat. So it can’t be that hard/expensive. 🙂 It’s mostly American culture and affluence and economic policies (ie – agricultural subsidies) that make it hard.

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