Thursday, 2 June 2016

The valiant quest is not a simple journey

What’s a good climate story? Is it even possible to tell a climate change story in a positive manner? Can we learn from other types of stories, that often are based on a common generic plot? One such basic plot is depicted in the figure below and can be summarised in a few bullets:
  • We are presented with the main characters in their “normal” life
  • Suddenly some dramatic event unfolds that makes a challenge or task become apparent and urgent
  • The reluctant hero or heroine feels it his or hers obligation to rise to the occasion, knowing that if not, doom and disaster will follow, not only for themselves but for their friends and community
  • Accompanied by a trustful friend or fellowship they set out on a journey to address the challenge and fulfil the task
  • A sequence of event follows, often with early but false successes that develops into a path lined with both heroism and betrayal, including near disaster
  • In the end the challenge will be overcome, but not in a triumphing way; the end is often bittersweet, the task is done but losses are also clear
Can this generic story be reconciled with our engaging climate change story? At present, the consensus seems to be that we have to tell a story of mainly opportunities to engage people into action. Through inspiration and possibly great rewards we will join forces to do the necessary things to dissolve the risk of total climate disruption. 

Clearly, it is evident that so far, portraying the risks and potential calamities that will follow from continued “business as usual” have not been able to engage a broader part of the population. Still, it might be that the encouraging “yes we can” message will also fail, if it becomes evident that the task ahead is far from simple. So maybe the stories we need must have a dark twist to engage us. Maybe we will actually take a stronger stand if we understand that climate disruption could be an existential threat to us as a species.

In the “Lord of the Rings” story, it was the threat that Middle Earth could be thrown into war and chaos that made Frodo set out on his journey to destroy the ring. He understood that this would be a hard and risky journey even if he could not foresee the coming events. He did not start his travel calculating coming rewards, neither in material form nor for the “cred” he might earn. Still he went. 

Here in northern Europe we are still a bit like most of the other hobbits in the Shire. We can sense bad things are threatening us but it is still the business for “someone else, somewhere else, some other time”. We are not really affected and hope that most of bad tidings will pass us by. If we open our eyes the dark riders are clearly visible, but we would rather sit down again for second breakfast. We sense that the task is Herculean and that the upside is not clear, so we wait a bit more and hope for the wizard to save us by magic. 

We need stories, but while storytelling can be a strong motivator, stories can also lull us into into inaction. With our growing penchant for storytelling, perhaps we are starting to believe in our own publicity – slipping an illusory comfort that we are doing enough, that deeper actions are not required, or can be put-off for another day. Our current narrative isn’t working. 

The stories we need must thus be able to engage us and make us not only understand but feel the urgency and the risks involved if we continue on the present path. And they must motivate us to fight hard and long for the necessary transformation we need, not to save the polar bears but to provide a liveable and lovable world for generations to come. It is not a question of hoping, it is much more about starting to act, from the personal to the political level. But there are powerful obstacles ahead and if we [the horror!] would get a President Trump, things would really go from bad to worse. Trump is like Lord Denethor, another Lord of the ring character, who would rather let his country burn than give up his power. Our problem is that we have no wizard like Gandalf that will come riding on his white horse to save us. Bill Gates might talk about energy miracles but what we need is to find the solutions together and co-operatively in ways we can share the burden. More on that in forthcoming posts.

Transformation will come and there is still time to shape it in a benevolent way: I have no doubt in my mind. We are in the early phases of a wide-reaching transformation that will profoundly alter not only the way we organise our societies (our economies and our political systems), but also our fundamental belief and value systems. And if we do this right, I believe the future will be bright.

To be continued....

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