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Lessons Learned from the Tower of Babel

November 20, 2014

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Bill McKibben, the Schumann distinguished scholar and noted environmentalist, connected the Tower of Babel with issues of climate change, bioethics, and multiculturalism in a public lecture on November 17 on the Middlebury campus.

Invited to speak by the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, McKibben opened by reading Genesis 11:1-9, that passage of the Old Testament in which “the whole earth had one language” and the people attempted to build “a tower with its top in the heavens.” The Lord reasoned that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” so the Lord “confused their language” and “scattered them all across the face of the earth.”

The Tower of Babel illustrates the power of the fable, McKibben said. “It’s not just a great story. It’s about the search for knowledge and the meaning of diversity... It’s a story that’s fired the imaginations of writers from Dante to Dostoyevsky, and great painters and musicians,” he said while projecting an image of Bruegel’s famous oil painting on the screen in Dana Auditorium.

"One reason the story has been powerful for so long is because it’s short, it’s pregnant with gaps and omissions, which means that generations of thinkers have had great fun and no choice but to supply meaning attached, which as we shall see continues to the present,” the speaker said.

Pieter Bruegel's 16th-century masterpiece

The meaning McKibben would attach to the story was foreshadowed in the title of his talk, “The Tower of Babel and The Ivory Tower: Reflections on Reaching for the Heavens.”

God symbolizes “restraint with a capital R,” McKibben said, “and even if we are religious we don’t take very seriously the idea that we should restrain our curiosity. At a college like [Middlebury] we view with sympathy, amusement, or outrage those who blind their eyes to the fossil records that prove evolution."

Since the time of Descartes, humanity has lived in an era of constant advance, McKibben argued. “From the vantage point of the 21st century maybe we can begin to make the case for reining in human ambition. We’ve become a very large, towering species. The iconic moment of the last century might have been the walk on the Moon, but I fear more likely it was the explosion of the atom bomb.”

McKibben segued into how humans have inadvertently changed the temperature of the Earth, and how shortsighted some researchers are to think that adding sulfur to the atmosphere could reverse or forestall the greenhouse-gas effect. “Nothing would make the oil companies happier than a geo-engineering solution to climate change that would let them continue selling fossil fuel as usual.”

Watch a video of Bill McKibben's talk

The speaker said the best example of “this kind of human overreach” is the “increasing and enticing ability to tinker with the genetic code to improve crops and improve human beings.” McKibben envisioned a scenario in which prospective parents could choose their children’s “traits and temperament” through a process of advanced human engineering. The problem is: “We have no way of knowing whether it should be done,” and that’s where the Tower of Babel story, with its dim view of mankind’s reaching for the stars, re-enters the picture for McKibben.

Realizing that the human species needed to speak different languages may have been part of God’s “divine plan that the world be filled with diverse peoples and cultures,” which, McKibben added, puts the story in a far more positive light. “Diversity is a great joy and a great achievement, and we should be very wary of any solutions that tend to homogenize the world in which we live.”

The Tower of Babel “is the last story in the Bible aimed at absolutely all of us,” McKibben said, since the next chapters of Genesis focus more narrowly on Abraham and the Canaanites. That’s why the famed author of “The End of Nature” believes “it might make sense, even in this secular age and place, to pay attention to some of the old stories” in the Bible.

- With reporting by Robert Keren, McKibben photo by Nancy Battaglia

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