HillsBehindSrCenterClimatologists tell us that last year was the hottest on record, further evidence that global warming is not some figment of a liberal’s imagination, but a reality we all must live with. A geological history of periodic ice ages, shifting continents, and seas that advance or retreat point to natural changes in the climate over millions of years, but a mounds of evidence sufficient to convince all but the most hardshell skeptics point to rapid change in recent years, due mainly to human activity.

Foremost among those activities are the burning of fossil fuels, which loads the atmosphere with millions of tons of carbon, and rampant deforestation, which robs the earth of trees and other vegetation that remove carbon dioxide and release fresh oxygen into the air.

Courtesty Sulaymaniyah Museum/Wikimedia

Courtesty Sulaymaniyah Museum/Wikimedia

It turns out that humans have known for thousands of years that careless deforestation is not a good thing. While unprincipled looting of archaeological sites is also a blemish on our record as a race, the relatively lawlessness of Iraq has led to a rash of finds reaching the market, including a large fragment of a tablet containing part of the famed Gilgamesh epic.

The story of Gilgamesh has been pieced together from more than 200 tablet fragments that go back to the third millennium BCE, cover hundreds of years, and exist in different versions. It tells the story of a mythical Babylonian king who claimed to be part god and part man. Gilgamesh’s strength led to cruelty toward his people, and he was rivaled only by the wild man Enkidu, sent by the gods to challenge him. The two tangled in an epic battle before reaching a draw and becoming inseparable companions on a variety of adventures. They went too far when they killed the “bull of heaven,” however, and the gods decreed that Enkidu must die. Mourning over the corpse of his friend, Gilgamesh came to face his own mortality, and much of the remaining epic relates to his search for the key to immortality and his ultimate efforts to come to grips with human limitations.

Andrew George, who teaches Babylonian at SOAS, University of London; and who translated the Epic of Gilgamesh for Penguin Classics; joined other scholars in deciphering the recently discovered text. He reports in the online journal Aeon that it offers a clearer picture of what happened when Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu chose to invade the forbidding (and forbidden) Cedar Forest, kill the giant Humbaba who guarded it for the gods, and plunder its timber.

According to the newly discovered tablet, after the pair successfully killed the guardian and ravaged the forest, Enkidu said to Gilgamesh: “‘we have reduced the forest to a wasteland; how shall we answer our gods at home?” George notes, “The pillaging of nature was not without shame, even then.”

We know now, of course, that the consequences go far beyond shame: they degrade not only our spirits, but the earth itself. The Hebrews knew this, too. The creation story in Genesis 1 declares that God told humans to “subdue the earth” and have dominion over the living things that inhabited it, but that was never a license to pillage its resources and leave it desolate: the whole point is that humans were to be responsible caretakers of the earth, which was more than capable of providing all of their needs.

The mythical Enkidu worried about facing his gods: how will we answer to ours?

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