Montana Voices: When history rhymes

Jim Elliott

Fires, floods, and hurricanes are now something it seems we might have to get used to because of global warming. Some are skeptical that global warming exists, but when I bought a few hundred pounds of orchard grass seed to plant last year I asked the dealer if I should buy the drought-resistant variety and she said that that was probably a good idea. I live in the wettest part of Montana.

Anyway, the subject is controversial and maybe that’s only because some people are faced with a different kind of reality that they will have to cope with, but it’s in a way similar to past scientific revelations that went against the established thought, such as the earth being round, not flat, or whether the earth stood still and was circled by the sun and stars or vice versa.

I think that both are by now what they call “settled science” and generally accepted by almost everyone, although it wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic Church found that they might have been a little hasty in burning at least one fellow at the stake for the heresy of believing that the earth and the planets move around the sun.

Of course, this was all some time ago, but as Mark Twain wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” and it looks like it may be trying to rhyme today. By some time ago I mean almost 400 years back, in 1613. For centuries, the Church had held that, according to the 104th Psalm, “God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.” That is, the earth was the center of the universe. Although some early Greek philosophers had held that the sun was the center of the universe, the idea had passed out of fashion so the Church view was a pretty safe bet in those days, until it began to be questioned by some scientists of the day, Copernicus, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno.

Copernicus, who was Polish, challenged the prevailing view, and argued in 1543 that the sun stood still and the earth circled it, but he couldn’t prove it. Galileo, however, could show that not everything revolved around the earth, because he had looked at the heavens with the newly invented telescope and discovered that Jupiter had four moons which circled around that planet, not earth. Seeing the potential for unwanted controversy, in 1616 the Church made it official that believing that the sun, and not earth, was the center of the universe was heresy, and emphasized the point by granting heretics an extremely unpleasant death. This made “going along to get along” a pretty attractive proposition.

Earlier in that century, in 1600, a man named Giordano Bruno was charged with heresy and held in prison for eight years because he defended Copernicus’ theory of the Cosmos in print. He was asked—told, really—to recant (or retract) his views or suffer the consequences. Bruno basically said there’s nothing to recant because it’s true, and in 1600 was gagged, tied to a stake, and burned alive. Sort of a premature cremation.

In 1633, given the same opportunity to change his mind, Galileo had, as it were, a jailhouse conversion—even a revelation—that he had been severely mistaken in his beliefs, and recanted, living eight more years and dying of old age, but all the while under house arrest.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King said, so it took a while, almost 350 years, in fact, until 1992 when Pope John Paul II declared that the Church was wrong in charging Galileo with heresy and officially, I guess, agreed that the earth does revolve around the sun.

There is a difference between the two controversies, of course. Whether or not the earth revolves around the sun wouldn’t change people’s lives much, unless you count premature cremation, although it would probably make figuring out space travel a little dicey.

However. climate change, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, will affect people’s lives. The squabble there now seems to have moved on from whether or not it’s real to whether or not it is caused by mankind. Whatever the cause, it doesn’t make sense to aggravate it, and there doesn’t seem any reason not to try to slow it.

It never hurts to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.