Anyone who has been following the climate change controversy at all closely will have come across two words used ad nauseam: ‘myth’ and ‘narrative’. The first is defined as an incorrectly held belief, although in the Grand Debate it is usually used to refer to the stuff the other guy believes. The second also tends to be used as a pejorative; narrative isn’t just a story but a carefully fabricated one designed to push forward an agenda. Accordingly, most narratives are treated as if they were a joint alibi concocted by a consort of rogues prior to their interrogation.
When commenting upon other people’s beliefs I try to avoid using ‘myth’, if I can, because it doesn’t really achieve a great deal. However, I will be the first to admit that I refer to ‘narrative’ all the time. It seems such an appropriate word to use because, let’s face it, the human brain seems to have been exquisitely designed to tell stories – it’s what we do best. In fact, this has been the case ever since the filing of mankind’s first ever business reports, as found on the walls of the Lascaux caves. Today the same talent for narration can be seen in the conspiracy theories and propaganda that burden the internet (i.e. the stuff that you are not supposed to masturbate to).
The Birth of the Disaster Movie
One might reasonably ask where our predilection for creating narrative comes from. Simply observing the brain’s propensities doesn’t really explain anything, unless one can offer an argument for how they arise. Basically, one needs to determine the evolutionary advantage afforded by an ability to weave stories. It could be, of course, that the ability to tell and believe stories has no such advantage and that it is just a party trick discovered by a brain that actually evolved for the purpose of meeting cognitive challenges that were far more important for survival. Perhaps the brain that can discern potentially threatening patterns in the environment, plan future ventures or comprehend the motives and thinking of adversaries just happens to be the same sort of brain that could spin a yarn or two just for entertainment value. One cannot easily dismiss this possibility but it is tempting to think that there is more to it than that, particularly when one reflects upon the nature of the narratives favoured by the human race from its earliest days. Noticeably, the most potent and effective are those that speak to the meaning of existence and the ubiquity of mortality. Perhaps having narratives that establish a group belief encompassing such themes is unifying in a way that is to everyone’s benefit.
It certainly does seem to be the case that creation narratives and theories relating to death and eternity predominate amongst those that have gone viral. Amongst such best-sellers there is the Kono creation myth, in which Sa, the god of death, vengefully inflicts mortality upon all mankind after believing his daughter to have been abducted by the god Alatangana. Death and existential risk also feature prominently in the Oceania stories of Maui and his attempt to gain immortality for mankind by ripping out the heart of Goblin Goddess, Hina-of-the-Night. His plan, it has to be said, was a little over-egged. Turning himself into a worm, he entered the unsuspecting goblin via her vagina, intending a smash and grab followed by an escape through her mouth. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far because he failed to appreciate that her vagina also had teeth. Lesson to be learnt: Do your homework.
In fact, it is not uncommon for such stories to tell of not just the protagonist’s demise but that of the entire world – a collective fate that usually involves copious amounts of fire, water or both. Believe me, it wasn’t Hollywood that first discovered the appeal behind a good disaster movie.
More Fire and Water
As for existential narratives involving heroes battling to save the world from an elemental fate, we do seem to have more than our fair share of mythic yarn woven into the climate change saga. For example, who could forget the BBC’s recent opus, ‘The Trick’, a potent narrative in which our hero learns that you can’t hope to fend off the evil forces that are busily destroying the world unless you master the art of the potent narrative? In this, he is coached by a pair of public relations experts, which just about sums things up. Not content, however, the BBC has returned to the battlefront with its latest radio drama, ‘Smoking Guns’. Once again, it is a good-versus-evil yarn in which nothing less than mankind’s survival is at stake. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I understand that the noble scientist (Dr Ben Santer) is set upon by ‘Cold War hawks’ and other flying demons.
With so much at stake, the storytellers have never been so busy, and I suspect there will be much more to come. I note with interest that amongst the many ‘contributors’ for Greta’s forthcoming ‘go to’ tome on the subject there will be a generous lacing of authors, playwrights and poets. Consequently, I am looking forward to some pretty imaginative stuff – perhaps the uplifting story of a polar bear on an ice floe rowing itself to safety.
Not to be outdone, the IPCC itself has lately learnt of the power of storytelling and now promotes it as being the best methodology for evaluating extreme weather events. Yes, you can talk about Fraction of Attributable Risk and Risk Ratio to the cows come home, but that doesn’t quite capture the imagination and it often exposes a truth that is in danger of underplaying the ‘required’ sense of urgency. How much better if one abandons the numbers game and turns instead to the storyteller, who can regale you with plausible explanations as to why the event occurred and how it is likely to have been much worse than it would have been without anthropogenic warming. It’s a valid approach but I hardly think that the IPCC had validity in mind when it proclaimed narrative as a superior method for capturing ‘true’ risk and combating pesky uncertainty. It is all very well placing ‘just so’ stories at the centre of the science but, by doing so, we are in danger of blurring the distinction between valid science and lurid journalism.
Just Enough Incredibility
Earlier, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that in describing the various ancient narratives I neatly segued into using ‘myth’ more than once, despite having previously declared an aversion to using the word. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable due to another important characteristic that sets apart the successful existential narrative from the box office flop: It has to grab the attention by invoking the fanciful and terrible whilst remaining credible on at least one level. This is what a good myth does. It’s all about it hitting that sweet spot in which the unbelievable is used to grab the attention whilst retaining enough plausibility to make its point. Looking back at the ancient myths, it is difficult to believe that any of them would have met that Goldilocks challenge, but it is important not to judge them from our modern position of advantage. In their day, I’m sure the storytellers enjoyed a great deal of influence and played to a largely receptive audience.
So what then of our modern position of advantage? It certainly enables us to mock the idea of Goblin Goddesses with man-eating vaginas, or any posited fallout from divine rivalry, but does it protect us from believing potentially equally dodgy narratives that simply haven’t been exposed as such yet? What susceptibility do we have, for example, to narratives that speak of global destruction and man’s hubris, and yet are also seemingly supported by the full weight of the scientific community? Is this the point at which we should drop our guard and simply accept that, at long last, we have an inspiring narrative that warns of an existential threat whilst finally establishing our correct place in the world? Have we now discovered that sweet spot of sufficient incredibilty? Or does the allure and benefit of accepting such narratives threaten to render truth superfluous, thereby corrupting our judgement?
The Narrative Steals the Show
I think this credibility gap is the nub of the public’s dilemma. Lacking the time or patience to engage in our own research, we rely almost entirely on narrative constructed on our behalf by a host of agencies that seek to promote their particular world view. What then emerges as the dominant narrative owes its success as much to the efforts of those agencies, and to the appeal of the message, as it does to the veracity of the storyline. Specifically, we are biologically programmed to accept the storyline that appeals greatest to our desire for meaning and security within our lives. Suitably convinced, we move forward with a common sense of purpose and justice as if it were handed down to us from Mount Sinai.
The appeal of a good story is so primal that it is no coincidence that story telling should have taken centre stage in the battle for hearts and minds in the climate change debate. Nobody wins such a debate with graphs and numbers alone, and nothing brings a message more to life than a damn good story. It is little wonder, therefore, that ‘narrative’ has become the cliché that it has.