Two interesting perspectives on story-telling about the environment came out this weekend.
In Orion, editor and novelist Kelpie Wilson contrasts the mythic approach to environmental disaster apparent in the Bible story of Noah’s ark and other accounts of the floods of 7600 years ago…with our present, science-based method of story-telling:
How ironic then, that a past climate change for which humans bore no blame should inspire such a tremendous sense of collective responsibility, while the current one, for which we are certainly culpable, inspires only a mad rush to place the blame on anyone or anything but ourselves.
The logos of our science tells us that human behavior is a primary cause of today’s climate chaos; but we have as yet no mythos that allows us to take it to heart and to admit our guilt. And we will never act to save ourselves until we do.
The new mythos cannot emerge from the art of today’s popular culture, in which the hero saves the day. Art as entertainment only drives us deeper into denial. Art as a cathartic experience is different.
The argument looks strong, especially in regard to the need for a hero, but conflates differing modes of story-telling in our culture. It’s true that scientific stories tend to be boring, but then, scientists aren’t interested in the human attention span. Wilson then springboards from this blending of science and popular culture into offering a myth to supply a cathartic experience and lead us as a people towards a new understanding. It’s a noble effort, but to this reader, looks like an attempt to put today’s environmentalism into Biblical language, and perhaps as a result, just sounds hollow.
On the visual story-telling side of the coin, in Saturday’s NY Times appears a story about Richard Misrach, a photographer who has spent decades documenting environmental disasters in the desert, and who is bringing out a new book called "Chronologies." (Misrach has appeared in this blog before, in an interview with artist Barbara Medaille, who cited him as an inspiration.)
In his interview with the Times, Misrach makes an important point. Critics complain that his work "anesthetizes disaster," because he makes environmental catastrophes so pretty to look at, but Misrach brings simple practicality to his response, pointing out that
Shakespeare uses profoundly rich and gorgeous language to convey the most terrible and tragic elements of the human condition. It’s the way the story is told that makes us re-examine life afresh.
An even better example, if you ask yours truly, is Charles Dickens, who wrote about the most abject and appalling horrors of the Industrial Revolution with amusement and sprightly good humor. Heroes were surely no more easy to find in his era than in ours; if unavailable, he focused instead on victims (such as Bob Crachit) and made them wonderfully endearing and memorable. And, of course, Dickens had the temerity to suggest that even bad guys like Scrooge could be reformed.
So let’s not throw in the towel yet on popular culture and global warming. Past crises made us just as complicit as a people (remember nuclear proliferation?) and yet popular culture found a way to bring them to the forefront of our consciousness, with works such as "Dr. Strangelove." Perhaps some as yet undiscovered genius will accomplish the same feat with global warming. Crazy optimism? Perhaps, but surely no crazier than assuming that we all must go back to Biblical-style storytelling.
Sure this picture makes Misrach’s point as well as any myth any of us could create: