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.