What are the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of such a mind-bogglingly, epically huge challenge as climate change?
Which are the narratives with the depth and resonance to inspire action? Are those stories all ultimately drawn from the sources of myth and religion? Are we telling the right stories?
If not, which one’s should we be telling instead?
That’s the fascinating conversation that we’ve been having with Michael Shellenberger since we reviewed his and Ted Nordhaus’ book “Breakthrough,” a couple of weeks ago.
We were dead chuffed (that’s an English expression – it means “gratified” or “appreciative”) to get this warm response from Michael to our review.
Thanks for this very thoughtful review of our book. I really appreciate the comparisons and contrasts you drew between DOE and Break Through, and your admonition that we take the ties between religion and politics seriously…
As for religion, we support a secular politics, not a religious one… We also think that gratitude toward creation, reverence, and awe are powerful motivators for a progressive politics. This is perhaps the least developed part of book, but it may also be, as you suggest, the most important one.
You ask, ‘Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?’ I hope it’s both. To date the religious discourse greens have used has overwhelmingly been one of a fall from nature that ends in apocalypse.”
The question Michael asks raises something we’ve thought about quite a bit at Jewish Climate Initiative. I wrote back:
…Yes, I too hope it’s both. It is uncanny how many secular environmentalists have reached (perhaps unwittingly) for a narrative of climate change in which future hellfire and damnation are the wages of sin; a story rooted in religious myth and a completely unhelpful one for inspiring action. The stories that we tell about this, the good ones and the bad, tend to be
traceable back to spiritual narratives. One of the things we’ve learned from your book is the importance of finding those religious stories related to climate change that can empower and inspire. I too very much hope we’ll continue the conversation.”
It really is uncanny. I have a Google Alert set up to search for articles containing the words “climate change” and “religion.” The results from Europe are almost all news stories about religious groups mobilizing to combat climate change; the articles from the US, on the other hand are usually near-identical opinion columns by climate change skeptics decrying belief in global warming as “the new religion.”
Annoying as these pieces are, the grain of truth within them is that many climate change activists have structured their case along mythic-religious lines. Whether consciously or not, they have borrowed a canonical, and readily available myth of Western culture to tell their story.
This is strikingly evident in the books of two very good recent writers on global change, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. Both use medieval reworkings of the Christian myth of hell-fire and damnation to add a dash of literary panache and moral urgency to their writings. Lynas in his “Six Degrees” quotes liberally from Dante’s “Inferno,” while Monbiot in “Heat” spins a nice little allegory of climate change based on Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus:”
“Faustus is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles… is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits…And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve worked that out for yourself.”
Even in post-Christian Britain, where Tony Blair recently admitted that he had kept quiet about his strong religious beliefs while Prime Minister, for fear of being branded a “nutter,” images of fire and brimstone are present enough in the national psyche to be irresistibly handy for global warming writers. Unfortunately, these myths provoke widespread paralysis, denial and despair and are generally not helpful to the public discourse on climate change.
Myth might be described as the deep, structuring narratives of human experience, and their primary source is in the great religious traditions. They are “the music we dance to even when we cannot name the tune”, as Bill Moyers put it, summing up the work of the greatest twentieth century mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. Like Campbell, when we say “myth” we don’t mean “untrue”; rather we are talking about the deepest levels of psychic and spiritual truth.
Human beings need myth to make sense of the world. However, it is highly questionable whether the myth of hellfire is a helpful one in the climate change context. The implication that we are all sinners, and that we are therefore heading for damnation, may shake up some people, but no doubt pushes many more into despair or denial. We need to draw on all of the world’s great spiritual traditions to articulate different, more hopeful and empowering mythic understandings of climate change.
As a mere starting point, let us look at the most obvious biblical narrative of climate change, the story of Noah and the flood. This is sometimes thought of (for example by the Christian eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in her book Gaia and God) as an apocalyptic end of the world myth. The rabbis, however read it as a story of human moral empowerment.
Noah heard a warning from God. His world was about to be inundated by catastrophic climate change. This threat was a result of systemic ethical failures. “The earth was corrupted before God, and the Land was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11.)
God commanded Noah to build an ark. The midrash asks why this was necessary. Couldn’t God have simply borne Noah up to Heaven? The answer is that the whole purpose of the ark was that it took a long time to build. First Noah had to plant cedar trees, which take a long time to grow. God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to see the construction, take heed of what was to come, and avert the decree by changing their ways.
Unfortunately, the response of Noah’s generation during the hundred and twenty year construction period was to scoff, deny the threat and refuse to change. The flood came, Noah and his family was saved, the rest of humankind perished.
Yet the Torah is implicitly critical of Noah for not having done more to save others. In the Torah text, he is silent. In the Midrash, he tells others,” God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.” Noah’s passivity is compared disparagingly to the activism of Abraham, who took responsibility for the fate of his generation.
At the dawn of the twenty first century a new warning has been sounded. Today, there is no ark except the earth, and no prospect of salvation apart from the entire global family. We must hear the call and repair Noah’s mistake of indifference to his neighbors. Climate change challenges us to act like Abraham, and work with the rest humanity to save our common home.