Meadville Tribune


June 30, 2014

What’s the logic of turning buildings into refrigerators during the summertime?

History tells the story of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, grandson of Julius Ceasar and, from A.D. 37 to 41, third emperor of Rome. Usually known as Nero, his nickname was Caligula, meaning “small soldier’s boot” because, as a child, he sometimes accompanied his father on military campaigns.

Born in 12 AD, his brief reign ended with his assassination when he was 29 — reportedly because people tired of his capriciously vicious treatment of his subjects. However, reports that he fiddled while fire destroyed Rome are false.

I remember seeing a movie during which he was portrayed as sawing on a violin, his crazed eyes reflecting the flames. Not likely. The Roman historian Tacitus reports that Nero in fact undertook significant measures to relieve the suffering of the Romans. Besides, the first violin, while indeed believed to have come from Brescia in northern Italy, was not assembled until 1530. That would preclude his even seeing one, much less fiddling on it.

But demonstrably false stories survive because people enjoy them — like the one about how President William McKinley, while a freshman student at Allegheny College, was suspended for leading a cow up into the Bentley Hall tower. You can forget that one, too. Still, the new food court that opened when Henderson Campus Center was last refurbished is named McKinley’s and features a Holstein cow as its logo. We don’t believe these things because we’ve proved them; we try to prove them because we believe them.

So “fiddling while Rome burned” became a treasured metaphor for willful inaction in the face of crisis. Which — in light of global climate change — has a nice resonance.

My wife and I recently attended a family wedding in Jacksonville, Fla., a weekend blessed by temperatures in the 90s with humidity to match. Beyond the obligatory belly-aching about how intolerable it all was, however, no one truly suffered. The airports through which we traveled, the hotel where we stayed, the restaurants and shops we frequented, were air conditioned and just oh-so-comfortable. The hotel’s beds even featured (shades of a northeastern January) heavy comforters. Not a light-weight blanket was to be found.

It’s hard not to reflect on how contradictory that whole lifestyle is. True, no one enjoys being barbecued by days that threaten to blow the top off the back-porch thermometer. But in the face of global warming trends, the consequences of turning entire buildings into refrigerators gives “counterproductive” new meaning. Disliking too much heat, people crank up air conditioners, machines that are among the most energy-intensive we possess. And from whence comes the energy to operate them? Electrical generating plants — most of which burn fossil fuels and comprise our largest single source of global warming gasses. So, just as the mercury goes stratospheric, we intensify the very temperature increase that makes us miserable.

Could someone please explain the logic of this?

And while we’re on the topic of standing by while Rome (and Jacksonville and Dallas and Beijing and Rio and Canberra) ignite, we should pause to award the Caligula Pyromania Traveling Trophy to the current political majority in my new home state of Ohio. The legislature adopted, and Republican Gov. John Kasich signed, a bill imposing a two-year freeze on the state’s renewable energy and energy-efficiency standards. As written, it sounds something akin to a death-knell for wind power in Ohio. It would establish set-back standards so severe that few plots of land would be large enough to hold a wind-turbine farm.

The two-year postponement is all but acknowledged to be payback to Ohio’s coal-fired utilities for generous donations to senatorial election campaigns. They declared the requirements — 2.5 percent of energy from renewable sources and 12.5 percent from “advanced” sources (read “clean coal” and nuclear) — to be oppressive, never mind that many other states have already surpassed them.

The legislation could backfire, however. The standards it nullifies, which were overwhelmingly adopted by lawmakers in 2008, led the wind industry to invest $1.2 billion in Ohio. And it wants to invest more. The practical effect of the postponement is to jerk the rug out from under the industry, rendering its investments worthless.

If Ohio’s legislative majority believes that those companies will sit on their hands for two years while politicians rehearse their Caligula fiddle-and-dance act, they may be the ones who get burned. Alternative energy developers are not exactly stupid. Given legal vacillation by the Buckeye state, they’ll redirect their efforts to where they’re appreciated. And when common sense finally prevails, why should anyone take Ohio’s government seriously?

Don Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at

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