Commentary: Is Al Gore the Reincarnation of the Xhosa Prophetess Nongqawuse?

Published September 1, 2009

I don’t know much about global warming, but I do know a little something about the dangers of precipitous action, especially when its advocates appear to be caught up in something akin to religious fervor.

That’s why I was both heartened and disheartened to read Dana Milbank’s “Washington Sketch” column in the Washington Post entitled “With All Due Respect, We’re Doomed.” It gives an account of Al Gore’s recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where apparently he was treated like a prophet.

Quoth the tongue-in-cheek Milbank: “The lawmakers gazed in awe at the figure before them. The Goracle had seen the future, and he had come to tell them about it.”

Senate Shenanigans

What the Goracle saw in the future was not good: Temperature changes that would “bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth—and that is within this century, if we don’t change.”

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-MA), appealed for more of the Goracle’s premonitions.

“Share with us, if you would, sort of the immediate vision that you see in this transformative process as we move into this new economy,” Kerry beseeched.

The article is well worth reading in full, but you get the idea. The bad news is that even Republicans on the committee, such as Sen. Bob Corker (TN), treated Gore with a reverence ordinarily reserved for the likes of Isaiah and Ezekiel.

But there’s good news here too: Milbank himself, a card-carrying member of the [mainstream media], gets it. He knows we need to take that deep breath before we plunge ahead at the behest of the Goracle.

I suspect more and more liberals are going to go skeptical on this issue.

Leading People to Ruin

The prophet whom Gore most resembles may turn out to be Nongqawuse, who led her people to ruin in the mid-nineteenth century. Nongqawuse was a teenager and a member of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa.

One day in the spring of 1856, she went down to the river to fetch water. When she returned, she said she had encountered the spirits of three of her ancestors, who said her people must destroy their crops and kill their cattle. In return, the sun would rise red on February 18, 1857 and the Xhosa ancestors would sweep the British settlers from the land and bring them fresh, healthier cattle. (Some of the Xhosa cattle had been suffering from a lung ailment, which may or may not have been brought by the British settlers’ cattle.)

Astonishingly, the Xhosa chieftain, Sarhili, agreed to do exactly as this young girl urged. Over the next year, a frenzy occurred in which it is estimated between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed and crops destroyed. Historians sometimes call it the Great Cattle Killing.

On February 18, 1857 the sun rose as usual. It was not red. And the Xhosa ancestors did not show.

But the Xhosa people had destroyed their livelihood. In the resulting famine, the population dropped from 105,000 to less than 27,000. Cannibalism was reported. Following Nongqawuse’s advice was a calamity of staggering proportions for the Xhosa people.

Modern Parallels

Like Nongqawuse, Gore tells us the sun will soon rise red over the land. Well, maybe. But the models he relies on have already been proven wrong. The intense period of warming these models predicted over the past 10 years never came to pass.

Yet we are repeatedly told it’s still coming and it’s just a little late. We should pay no attention to the fact that the polar ice is expanding again. Instead, we must put the brakes on our use of energy—the very thing that makes the modern world possible—to avoid antagonizing the spirits of our ancestors … I mean, to avoid climate disaster.

Class Envy

I am persuadable, but it will take more evidence than I have seen so far (and yes, I’ve spent more time than the average lawyer trying to piece the evidence together). And there are two more parallels to the Great Cattle Killing that are worth pointing out.

First, Nongqawuse’s urgings did not come out of nowhere. Some of the cattle were indeed sick. The problem is that her proposed course of action was utterly disproportionate to the problem, just as Gore’s proposals are disproportionate given the state of our knowledge.

Second, some historians believe the Great Cattle Killing was in part motivated by class animosity. The Xhosa people had been losing ground to white settlers for years, and some members of the tribe blamed its more prosperous members. Cattle were a status symbol, and initially at least, the burden of their destruction seemed likely to fall disproportionately upon these tribal leaders. The cattle were, in effect, the SUVs of their time.

Here’s hoping Sen. Corker and his colleagues adopt a little healthy skepticism before they fall for Gore’s proposals. We don’t need a Senate of Sarhilis.

For the record, I should point out that he perished in the famine.

Gail Heriot ([email protected]) is a professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law. This article first appeared on her Weblog and is reprinted with permission.