Waiting for Joseph

In a few days, my family, together with Jews all around the world, will start celebrating Passover with the Seder meal (Seder in Hebrew means “order”). Meanwhile, I assume that following recent tradition, President Obama and many on the White House staff will join in the celebration. The events that we celebrate are described in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Exodus and involve the emancipation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

The Bible is not a history book and the early parts of the bible do not describe historical events that can be independently corroborated. Here is what Wikipedia shows as its origin:

Since the nineteenth century, most scholars have agreed that the Pentateuch consists of four sources which have been woven together. These four sources being combined together to form the Pentateuch sometime in the sixth century BCE. This theory is now known as the Documentary Hypothesis, and has been the dominant theory for the past two hundred years.[6].

The assembly of the Pentateuch is believed to have taken place in the Persian period about 2,500 years ago. This means that the books now stand on their own as a central focus of all three monotheistic religions.

During the Seder we read the Haggadah (“tell” in Hebrew) and pass the stories down through the generations.

The Haggadah briefly describes how the Israelites came to be in Egypt and how they were enslaved there, but the story is described in much greater detail in the book of Genesis. Joseph, the son of Jacob, played a decisive role in the beginning of this process. Here are two paragraphs from the King James Bible translation that describe the role that Joseph played in Egypt at the time:

33Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

34Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

35And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

36And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.

37And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of all his servants.

38And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?

39And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:

40Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou

47And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls.

48And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same.

49And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.

For me, this Seder is an opportunity to do more than thank God for freeing my ancestors from slavery at an uncertain point in a distant past. It is also an opportunity to thank God and the few surviving American soldiers from units associated with the American 30th division that saved me, my remaining family, and 2,500 other Bergen-Belsen inmates from a very uncertain future by intercepting the train that was transporting us from Bergen-Belsen to the Theresienstadt concentration camp that was further from the front line. The liberation took place on April 13, 1945. First Seder this year falls on the evening of April 14.

Going through the chores of buying some of the Passover necessities, my mind kept drifting to Joseph – not for the reasons that he was promoted to the second most powerful man in Egypt a few thousand years ago (again – we don’t have an independent source for this information except for the Bible) – but for his parallels to present existential needs. By all accounts, our current needs bear a great deal of resemblance to those he is written to have encountered in Egypt.

As written, he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that seven bad years would follow the seven good years. Based on this knowledge, he was able to regulate the lands’ production over the good years and the bad years, and save Egypt from starvation during the bad years.

A pattern of seven good years and seven bad years, however, is very easy periodicity to handle (especially if you can accurately predict such periodicity).

Here is one of the main findings of the new IPCC 5th report of the Working Group II that was just published, as presented in the highly readable Summary for Policy Makers:

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.14

The variability that Joseph was able to interpret for the Pharaoh was simple and predictable in today’s terms – easily handled by storing some products in the good years to be used in the bad years. By today’s understanding, weather – even without human intervention – is notoriously chaotic, meaning that its very high sensitivity to initial conditions can produce almost random final results. It is chaotic both in terms of temporal and spatial distributions. As the IPCC makes absolutely clear, human influence amplifies the variability considerably. This manifests itself in the water cycle in terms of floods, droughts, and extreme weather events. It is also apparent through both extreme heat events and record-breaking low temperatures (such as those many of us experienced during this last winter).

To regulate the increased variability, we need a “super Joseph” to help us adapt global networks of energy delivery (power grids) and water delivery to deal with these changes on a global scale. The next few blogs will focus on where we are on these issues.

Update: A new article about desalination in The Poughkeepsie Journal, written by two graduate students at Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy, mentions my work on the subject. You may remember one of them, Emily McCarthy, for her questions in my post on March 11th, 2014 about my Bard CEP talk.

As always, I welcome your feedback to my blog. I check my comments section regularly — please let me know what you think; start a discussion about one of my posts; tell me how you heard about Climate Change Fork. It’s always nice to hear if you like my blog, but I much prefer actual interactions.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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