Myths and Revelations

I’m going to an event on Monday organised by the Dr Christopher Shaw and the BSA Climate Change study group, examining the Social Dimensions of Climate Change. To prepare for this, we’ve been asked to read some papers, including the summary chapter of Mike Hulme’s ‘Why We Disagree about Climate Change’. He has identified that there are four main myths that people use to see and make sense of climate change: Eden, Apocalypse, Babel and Jubilee. After reading this, I had a chat with Jodie Boehnert who runs Ecolabs, the visual communication of ecological literacy. Together, sharing our own models, we came up with a matrix to help visualise and interpret these myths. You can plot all kinds of stories and initiatives (Transition, Denial, Dark Mountain, Carbon War Room etc) on these axes:

Axis one: One end of the spectrum: The myth of Babel = Imperialist, Man will Overcome, We Just Have to Come Together, Technology Will Fix It

Axis one: Other end of the spectrum: The myth of Eden = Arcadian, We Must Return to Nature and Live in Harmony with it, Man Shall Have No Dominion

Axis two: One end of the spectrum: The myth of Apocalypse = Crisis, Massive Change, Urgency, Despair/Preparation/Acceptance

Axis two: Other end of the spectrum: The myth of Jubilee = Celebration, Reassurance, Opportunism, Imagine a Bright Future

Any story or initiative that is really interesting or worthwhile will be impossible to neatly plot on this axis. There will be individuals or dimensions within them who change or differ. Stories or initiatives about crisis shouldn’t be doctrinal but flexible structures to help us think and make decisions. For example, see how Tania Kovats describes the Svalbard Seed Bank as ‘both Eden and Apocalypse’.

I’ve been talking with some friends who are fellow supporters of the Dark Mountain Project (a cultural movement for an age of global disruption) about how we can draw and contribute more meaning and action from it. There has been criticism that Dark Mountain is too Apocalyptic and, variously, either too Babel or too Eden. I welcome the emphasis of Dark Mountain on facing the reality of crisis, even, let’s use the word, Apocalypse. (Incidentally, see this piece on why the term Apocalypse should not be used with such fear, as it means the revelation of what is hidden not the end of the world.) I’m dismayed and sometimes shocked by most mainstream thinking which, even if not meaning to deny or befog, still does so by overusing the Jubilee myth so as not to frighten people. However, I think that Dark Mountain would gain strength both by embracing more myths of crisis and by making more attempt to rehabilitate Apocalypticism (is that a word?). Also, it could benefit by developing communications and methods that come across as more ‘Jubilee’, to attract and reassure people in the difficult tasks of exposing and facing revelations.

Actually, I think this is already happening with a flowering of Dark Mountain groups and the theme of Coming Home in its 2012 publication. Other ways to achieve this could include developing more activities and voice for children and young people, and more programming for the visual arts. I’m hoping to be able to give time to both strands of activity this year. To acknowledge that these elements have been lacking is not intended to criticise Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine for their leadership so far, which has been inspiring.

Dark Mountain has been a fantastic network for me, leading me to some wonderful, like-minded and also provocative people. One person I met at the 2011 festival was Keri Facer. She has just invited me to a seminar and study group on Education and the Crisis in March. To help with this (and for my research), I’m trying to think more deeply to understand how people react to news of crisis as opposed to experience of crisis, and how the reality of crisis can be dealt with in education.

Daniel Gilbert, the evolutionary pyschologist (author of Stumbling on Happiness) explained how the human brain evolved to respond to threats, helping us decide to run away or fight, or stay and nurture. He says our brains have evolved to respond to threats with four features, none of which is shared by climate change (a shortcut to describe wider environmental crisis): 1) Threats of social intention or plotting 2) Threats that violate our moral intuitions  3) Threats that are coming right at us now  and 4) Threats that are sensorily evident.

Much of the task of a cultural movement like Dark Mountain is to help us reveal what is hidden, to make people notice, understand and respond to these threats. Perhaps we can do this by understanding how myths are constructed (as above), and by understanding how we deal with threats.

Thinking about threat one, Social Intention and plotting. Most denialists interpret the problem of environmental crisis as a problem of conspiracy or intention to hurt other people, so it has to be revealed as a geophysical problem.

Thinking about threat two, Moral Affront, the more I learn about ecocide and inaction on climate change, the more my sense of morality feels affronted. So, the moral dimensions of the geophysical problem must be revealed as fully as possible.

Thinking about threats three and four, that Environmental crisis is too distant in time and not sensorily available to us, cultural forms must reveal that it is here now and happening, that it is the root cause of many other problems that can be felt more readily.


3 responses to “Myths and Revelations

  1. This is really interesting and useful, thank you for taking the time to tease out the elements within the different axes – there is much food for thought in this and illumination for me on areas that have seemed muddled and entrenched (befogged!). 🙂

    Your reflections on perceived threats remind me of a (model?) that someone once told me about – I’m afraid I can’t cite a source – which may be worth incorporating into this somehow. It was to do with animals’ responses to threat and danger, and my friend summed it up as: fight, flight, freeze or flop. Worth exploring what factors play into our choice of response?

    A quick google search (apologies to the reference librarians in my life) leads me to these links:

    The repetitive nature of interpersonal trauma

    These articles are about sexual trauma, with the model being used within that context, but they contain some interesting leads, and explore what is happening in each of these 5 response scenarios.

    Incidentally, it adds friend to the list of responses – which reminds me, even more incidentally, of a conversation I had once with my brother about American culture and its superficially positive aspects (extroversion, ‘extreme smiling’, have-a-good-day-ism.) His theory (or one that he had read about; sorry, this is years ago now) was that when Europeans colonised the North American continent and there was a long period of pioneer culture, people were living in (European) frontier conditions without access to (European) social protections such as groups of other (European) people and established/reliable (European) systems of law and retribution. They developed forms of communication that were excessive and explicit about demonstrating a friendly, non-threatening intent. This was done for self-defense, because misunderstandings, miscommunications and misinterpretations of intent led to dangerous situations: if someone thought you were their enemy, there was little in the way to prevent them from just killing you to get you out of their way. (Obviously there’s a lot in there about whose system of justice we’re talking about, when individuals were confronting and displacing and destroying the native societies already established there…)

    Anyway… I was going to say that was an irrelevent digression, but perhaps not: the friend response connects with the jubilee mythology? Also to do with whose voice is constructing the social narratives about climate change: what happens when this threat is caught between competing systems of social justice, and how the impacts of climate change will be experienced by different groups of people.

    • Thanks for your long & thoughtful reply. I don’t mind the digression. It fits in with what I was thinking about today, having read this:
      about (American) groupthink and overemphasis on extroversion, and also this
      on how school systems and teaching methods aren’t allowing time and space for children to reflect, pushing too much on group work. I’m interested to read these because part of my ideal learning model is collaboration and co-learning. But it’s clear that group work and social learning can’t be too bluntly imposed.

      There’s much to tease out from this, as well as in the links you mention. The addition of ‘friend’ to ‘fight, flight, freeze, flop’ is quite a lateral way of thinking, and appropriate to the long-term, complex threats humans face in migrating to unfamiliar ecosystems and changing the planet. We think that threat can only be reacted to by desperate measures, but if threats aren’t as immediate as in the ‘animal world’ (pre-anthropocene), then new responses must be developed. New understandings of what it means ‘to friend’, like Pat Kane’s idea of the ‘constitute’.

      • Another thought on this issue of too much time in groups in work and school. Maybe it’s not so much about how much time we’re with others, but the quality of practice of being with others. Maybe we’re herded too much, asked to conform and emote as expected, rather than being allowed solitude and freedom within the group. And when we’re working or learning with each other, we’re not working or learning for the sake of others but for our own achievement (for our performance ratings, for our exams, for our salaries). So, I’m concluding that collaborative learning is still a good aim, that it’s not true that there is too much of it, but that our learning contexts need to be more admitting of individuality and more focused on the common good.

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