We win or lose through the stories we tell. They’re what changes the world. And the most important story we need to tell today is the one that gets the people of Planet Earth to take meaningful action on the ecological breakdown.
The stories we’re offering now, however, aren’t working.
It’s fine to tell those who respect science about how we’re on track for catastrophe, because they understand evidence. It’s fine to tell those already awake to social and environmental injustice how climate change is driven by our economic system and the power structures that maintain it, because that fits their existing worldview. But what’s the story for everyone else?
Humans are brilliant at denial. Being able to put aside thoughts of suffering and mortality, to compartmentalise and not feel everyone else’s suffering too deeply, helps keep us sane. It seems that’s how the majority of people respond when faced with the facts of impending apocalypse too, and it’s understandable. Climate change is deeply frightening and it’s coming at us like juggernaut with broken brakes.
So we need a story. You’d think it’d be easy; a vast amount of mass market culture is about saving the world from calamity. But none of it really give us the mental toolkit for thinking on that scale in our everyday lives. It makes us think individualistically, not ecologically,* almost invariably offering individual heroics as solution, because that’s how fiction normally works.
It’s also interesting to look at how we frame the crisis itself. Post-apocalyptic settings (many climate-change related) abound, alongside the even more common race-to-save-the-world narrative. We’re not unfamiliar with the ideas that our world is fragile. We just pretend it doesn’t apply in real life.
So how are we currently going about instilling a suitable amount of urgency and realism? To generalise very broadly, there are two main narrative clusters: let’s call them system change versus system trust.
The latter includes the idea that the market will solve our problems – a belief many cling on to despite it being a purely ideological position that’s constantly disproven by the facts on the ground. It also includes the faith that technology will be developed to solve everything: we’ll suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, fly with no pollution and so on. Trust in tech can be a dangerous comfort blanket and leads to complacency, false hope and fantastical thinking. It’s also something that we should not entirely reject.
We’ve invented incredible things in the past, and our future dreams do feel achievable, civilisational collapse aside. After all, we humans got together on a global level to find and implement a solution to the hole in the ozone layer. It’s just really evident that the game-changing tech solutions we need for the current emergency won’t be ready in time. I make that claim confidently because they’re needed right now and we don’t have them.
The other narrative cluster – system change – is based on a self-evidently true observation; the West’s political-economic orthodoxy of extractivism, capitalism and lack of regulation has catastrophically failed us, despite having brought a higher standard of living to so many. We surely all agree that system change is inevitable; the choice is whether we go for managed change or just let mounting ecological and climate disasters do it for us. Clearly the former is vastly preferable. What we’re not agreed on is how, or what comes next. There’s a vast amount of thinking and writing about that though, and if the will is there, we can find a way.
Which brings us back to the problem of winning people over. Radical system change is scary. Just look at the growth of bizarre conspiracy theories, most of which are really about shifting blame and/or responsibility. It’s not only the fringes, however; most of us are engaged in denial to some extent. There are no clear, safe, fast routes out of our current system. History shows us that the fast political and economic upheaval the planet needs, because we’ve left it so late, very often goes horribly wrong; existing power structures are so entrenched that changing them abruptly risks creating power vacuums and chaos. So, yes, it’s perfectly rational to be scared by change. It’s also how our minds work: tangible change like giving up holidays abroad paradoxically feels worse than the knowledge that the beach you’re going to will be underwater at some point in the future.
A related problem is that it’s hard to frame this story in a way that’s not an attack on the people who need to change. I (and many others) have written before about the alienating effects of vanguardism in the environmental movement. Lots of people have explained how we need to learn from populist lurches towards irrationality, like Brexit and Trump, and the ascendency of feelings over facts. The bottom line is that no-one wants to be told they’re one of the bad guys, that they’ve misunderstood the world or made bad decisions. People will generally react by digging in rather than changing their minds. At the same time, we need to tell the truth because otherwise it’s fire and flood for us all.
We need a story that makes people think that radical change is worth the pain, that tells them they need to change their ways but aren’t the bad guys and that acknowledges that technology can’t save us yet but has amazing future potentially. Finally it needs to reject the most engrained trope of all; that of a passive population being saved by heroes. Do we really expect our politicians to reveal their secret superhero identities and save the world? Or some saviours to emerge from nowhere? That seems to be where we’re at. It’s certainly where mass-market storytelling is at.
There is a trope that seems particularly common in popular culture, in which one person sacrifices themselves to give the others a chance to escape. The Bridge of Khazad-dûm from The Lord of the Rings is an example; there are of course always hints of Christ in this story, so it’s pretty well established.
It’s also often a convenient (and rather reactionary) way to redeem and dispose of morally compromised characters. Being the generation I am, the end of Return of the Jedi comes to mind, but it’s everywhere when you start looking. And it’s kind of true that we, collectively, are the baddies. But casting people negatively is exactly what we mustn’t do if we want to get them onside, so let’s not tell that version.
A less grand version of the self-sacrifice trope is what in the UK we call ‘Blitz spirit’, a term appropriated by the right that perhaps we need to take back. It’s the idea that we, the everyday people, can pull together, and put up with the danger and privation, while our heroic soldiers are out there fighting for us. This kind of heroic sacrifice cliché, problematic as it may be in terms of simplifying and romanticising complex history, might just be the model for what what we need now. And the great thing about Blitz spirit (and for that matter, the Dunkirk evacuation) is that it’s collective. One of my favourite clichés is when at the last minute the previously cynical community turns up en masse to help save the day, a variant of the cavalry trope. Of course in our real version, they won’t be turning up to aid the hero. There isn’t a hero. It’s just us. Which, as stories go, I like even better.
I’ve said this before, but it seems even clearer now. Saying that we need to change our lifestyles to avert calamity isn’t working, despite the overwhelming evidence. No-one’s going to wedge themselves in the doorway as the zombies arrive purely because it’s the right thing to do and various strangers might be saved as a result; they’re going to do it to give their kids/the hero they’ve come to respect/the team they’ve bonded with time to escape.
The vast majority of us don’t want to bring about a permanent reversion to a lower-tech society with reductions to our standards of living. Nor do we want to take a revolutionary plunge into the unknown. But we will, I believe, take a hit to buy time for future generations to build a sustainable, equitable, regenerative future, based on a deeper understanding of ecology, supported by advances in technology and underpinned by better ways of organising society: a society in balance with nature and the planet.
If we don’t mess up now, we allow tech to catch up to where it needs to be. It’s probably not that long till we can fly without polluting and produce meat equivalent products that don’t destroy the planet. We probably will find a sustainable replacement for plastic and even a way to cleanse the sea of the waste that’s already there. So many exciting solutions await us in the future if we can learn to respect nature, listen to evidence and reject failed approaches.
Incredible things really can happen because inventing incredible things is exactly what we humans do. We need to abandon the mantras of economic growth and endless consumption, as they’re intrinsically unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a high quality of life for everyone. It’s just that on our current trajectory, ecological and civilisational collapse will happen first.
That’s the story I think we should be telling, not just because it’s more compelling than simplistic narratives of impending doom versus naive optimism, but also because I think it’s a lot more honest about the way forward. Let’s be remembered as another Blitz generation; the ones that with stoicism and quiet, collective heroism accept the need for sacrifice so that those who come after us can live amazing lives on a thriving Planet Earth.
*For my definition of ecological thinking, see here.