This piece was published in The Big Issue in March 2012.
Climate scientists today are seriously depressed. As politicians squabble over targets and our daily routines remain resolutely carbon-centric, many experts think preventing global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels is now impossible. If you talk seriously with many environmentalists, there is a gloomy resignation about the enormous changes looming over the horizon of our warming planet.
One climate activist working with young people admitted to me recently how much he struggles to be optimistic when talking to them about their future. He is not the only one now muttering darkly of a ‘post-collapse’ society. A reckoning, so they say, is heading our way.
It is tempting to cast the greens and climatologists as Old Testament prophets: a bearded, anguished elect castigating the people from some dusty hillside. Like Noah, who “warned of things not yet seen” (Hebrews 11:7), Pete Postlethwaite’s last-man-standing character in the climate change film The Age of Stupid looks out from his ocean tower and wonders why foreknowledge was not enough. “How could we willingly know that we were going into extinction… and let it happen?”
Long before Sigmund Freud came along, the great philosophers and poets understood we are not strictly rational creatures. And yet we are clever enough to listen to the calm, logical arguments of smart people.
Despite some residual scepticism, we non-scientists place a huge amount of faith in panels of professors with the right degrees. Last month Ipsos MORI pollsters asked people whom they trusted most on climate change. Scientists came out top, chosen by 66 per cent of those polled. Only three per cent plumped for religious leaders.
In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that human actions are “very likely” the cause of the continual warming of the Earth’s climate system – “very likely” meaning a probability of 90 per cent or more. Most of us are sensible enough to assess those odds and see the wisdom in weaning ourselves off carbon with some urgency.
Yet all the peer-reviewed studies and the strategies of persuasion known to green PR have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live. It seems our brains are not well built for concerted long-term planning. This month we’ve been able to watch Nasa footage of a spreading crack in an Antarctic ice shelf, read why the African cheetah is losing its ability to reproduce in warmer temperatures, and examine why Britain’s nuclear power stations are at high risk of flooding in the decades ahead.
Yet the hosepipe ban enforced by seven English water companies is the climate story that gets everyone talking. Faced with melting ice caps, species collapse and diminishing coastlines, we choose to fret over the watering of our geraniums.
This sense of denial, this failure to distinguish big threats from small, is also about where worst-case scenarios live in our imagination. Few cultures do not possess prominent myths of apocalypse, the days of violent doom in which we mortals are punished for our wickedness or hubris. Storytellers revel in these tales because they also contain big moments of revelation and spiritual transformation, the destruction of old ways of life and the beginning of a new cycle.
Hollywood has come to love the eco-disaster movie, from Mad Max to The Day After Tomorrow. Yet these apocalyptic narratives often depend on all-or-nothing scenarios that leave the hard work of transition out of the picture.
Stefan Skrimshire, who teaches ethics at Leeds University and specialises in theology and climate change, believes apocalyptic visions can be a way of deferring the reality of changes coming our way. “Those sort of films portray climate change as a one-off event – a catastrophe that is total and global. It’s easier to imagine a crisis dealt with over five days than gradual decay and decline, which is harder for the imagination to deal with.”
When Al Gore invokes the spirit of the Second World War to promote the idea of climate change as a great battle to be won, or Nasa’s James Hansen says we have until 2016 to “save” the planet, they are appealing to ideas of heroism and happy endings.
“The time limit that politicians and campaigners have used feeds into that idea,” Skrimshire continues. “You can see the logic, but I think it can be disingenuous, because of course there’s a lot of work to do after any deadline. I think it was always a mistake to try to focus everyone on a singular tipping point. People say you can’t talk about adaptation [to climate change] because people then think you’ve failed.
“It’s all very difficult. Some people in the environmental movement think we need more violent, apocalyptic imagery to shake people up. Others say, ‘No, that’s not going to work because it’ll make people feel completely dispirited and destabilised’. The green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task.
“How do you get people to believe in the end of civilisation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to help forestall disaster? And if we are moving into an era in which we talk more openly about adaptation and post-collapse societies, what kind of stories do we tell to gee everyone up about “rationally managed decline”?
It may not be possible, or desirable, to separate science from the big mythic tales which still occupy our unconscious. In his book, Hell and High Water, writer Alastair McIntosh raises the intriguing possibility that some of the big founding myths of the ancient world were based on real climate events occurring in the post-Ice Age era of rising sea levels.
The Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark resembles the Epic of Gilgamesh, a flood narrative scratched out on tablets 5,000 years ago in Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). Plato wrote a dialogue, Critias, about Atlantis and other flooded cities after “they ceased to be able to carry their prosperity with moderation”.
Although our ancestors interpreted (mostly) naturally occurring events as divine judgment on sin, we struggle to assume responsibility for the impact of drastically overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity. “The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see our use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed,” writes McIntosh.
Ken Wilson, pastor at Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, has been part of a major push among American evangelicals to take contemporary science more seriously. He helped put together a “creation care” booklet sent out to 20,000 religious leaders across the country. Ken tells me his own awakening came at a “hush-hush retreat” with a dozen other curious evangelical leaders and a dozen climate scientists back in 2007.
“In the US, these tribes had never really talked before,” he recalls. “One of the scientists gave a little presentation and said, ‘The top three problems we’re dealing with are apathy, greed and selfishness, and to
combat that you need a spiritual transformation… as scientists, we don’t know how to do that. We need your help’.
“When he said that, I felt the tears come to my eyes and hairs stand up on my arms. I realised how much my tribe had to do. I felt ashamed that these guys – the scientists – had more of a heart for God’s creation than we did.”
Even environmentalists now admit they may have entreated only the baser instincts of self-interest, and may have to recover some of the big moral arguments.
Tom Crompton, change strategist at WWF, says soliciting celebrities and telling people how much money they can save through green gadgets has been very far from enough. “Some of the piecemeal stuff may actually have been counterproductive,” he says.
“Some strategies may actually serve to strengthen values that are unhelpful – materialistic values that undermine wider, more durable concern with the environment. NGOs and businesses have used techniques which play into those values – what’s going to leave them better off, or cooler to their peers.”
What kind of values does he think we should be appealing to instead? “A sense of community and connection to others, ties to family and friends, to their own sense of place, the environment around them, a sense of responsibility… things more compelling than saying you’ll save £250 by insulating your loft, or that wearing a woolly jumper is sexy.”
If huge changes are to be forced upon humankind by diminished resources and less hospitable environments, the question remains: what kind of stories will we tell ourselves once the old tales of economic growth and endless progress are gone?
I ask Alastair McIntosh about how we begin to mentally prepare ourselves for a very different way of life.
“It is, inevitably, a spiritual debate and we’ll be pushed to think more and more about these things. It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we’re going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.
“We have to walk through the world with our eyes open, however hard it is. Come what may, we can tell ourselves stories of collective resilience, about rekindling community, looking out for one another. These sorts of story will be very important.”
In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, we have, perhaps, a contemporary story carrying the profundity of ancient myth. The journey of a father and son through a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape in search of other “good guys” challenges us to wonder what “good” might mean.
The boy, who has never known a pre-collapse society, is capable of trust and compassion, while his less trusting father believes “it is my job to protect you… I will clean another man’s blood off of you”.
The father continually reassures the boy they are “carrying the fire”, a line of such elemental beauty and ambiguity it is fast-becoming a central motif of the environmental movement.
What kind of fire do we want to pass on to future generations? In figuring out ways to sustain the things we hold most dear, we will probably need all the ideas science and religion can muster.