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Telling stories: the restorative power of myth

Recently, writer Bill McKibben issued a call for artists to grapple with the epoch-making topic of global warming. "If the scientists are right," he wrote, "we're living through the biggest thing that's happened since human civilization emerged." In order to wrap our minds around the enormity, he said, we must engage our most creative and dramatic sensibilities. We must create art.

But we need not create this art out of whole cloth, nor should we. The most transfixing narratives in present-day culture are those that build on old familiar stories—Plato's Atlantis, for instance; or Noah's flood. Tales of ancient sunken cities offer tantalizing clues that human culture may have encountered global warming before, though for very different reasons.

Geologists are finding hard evidence that when the last ice age ended, it created floods of biblical proportions. Sediment cores show that around 7600 years ago a rising Mediterranean spilled suddenly into the Black Sea in a torrent mightier than a dozen Niagara Falls. The deluge raised the Black Sea's water level by six inches a day, quickly displacing the Neolithic farmers who must have inhabited the fertile plains around its shores.

Several centuries earlier, melting ice sheets had raised the global sea level by 5 to 10 meters. Just as today, a large portion of the Earth's human inhabitants lived along shorelines. Is it any wonder, then, that nearly every culture surveyed has myths of a cataclysmic flood?

A theme of many flood myths is that the deluge was punishment for failure to respect the gods and their creations. The Old Testament version speaks of God's desire to end the "wickedness of man," while the Babylonian version says that the god Enlil was disturbed by the overpopulation and "noise of the people." From a completely different part of the world, a myth from the Palau Islands in Micronesia tells of gods who sent the flood to punish a man who stole a star from the sky. The stars were the eyes of the gods.

The ancients were inclined to take any natural cataclysm—an earthquake, a flood, or a storm—as a sign that their actions might be out of harmony with the cosmic order. The great floods at the end of the last ice age came just at the time that the earliest civilizations were forming. The deluge became a powerful image to instill guilt as a tool for maintaining the social order and to motivate faith in the founding religions of civilization.

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.

Meanwhile, the flood waters are already taking their toll. The story of Atlantis is being replayed from remote Pacific islands to melting Arctic villages to a drowned New Orleans. But even the lesson of Hurricane Katrina is staunchly resisted. The mainstream political culture continues to downplay or ignore or even silence evidence showing that the warming oceans are powering ever-larger tempests.

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.

Bill McKibben pinpoints the biggest challenge we face in creating the new mythos: "...there's no real chance of a happy ending. We can do better, or we can certainly do much worse— but we've already pushed the carbon concentration past the point where the atmosphere can easily heal itself."

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 Greek tragic plays, based on the sacred stories of the gods, provide examples of such catharsis, or "purification." The art we need is an art that can confront us with the tragic results of our actions and embolden us to accept our culpability, while at the same time offering hope that we might salvage what is left of the Earth and our humanity. Is it possible to create new sacred stories, built on the familiar, that will restore both reverence and hope?

Through the story of Noah, the Bible has already grappled with both climate change and human responsibility. In the Talmudic tradition, which admits new interpretations and even new stories into the sacred literature, Rabbi Ari Kahn has written an interesting commentary examining context that gives us a starting point.

Kahn says: "The saga of Noah and the flood is well known, yet Noah remains an elusive personality. What was the nature of Noah's goodness? The description of Noah is tzaddik—which can be variously translated as a good, just, righteous man; in other words, a saint—but with the qualification 'in his generation,' it sounds like a back-handed compliment. The implication seems to be that in a rotten generation, Noah looked good."

Kahn then compares Noah with Moses. Noah passively carried out God's instructions without bothering to try to save anybody but himself; but when God threatened to destroy Moses' followers after catching them worshipping the golden calf, Moses pleaded with God to relent...and he did. Through the comparison Rabbi Kahn reveals the deeper lesson: it is not enough to be concerned with ones own survival. We are all connected and we must each take some responsibility for the actions of community as a whole.

One might imagine a mythos that both responds to Bill McKibben's clarion call and extends Rabbi Kahn's thoughts in the context of our current and near-term future predicament:

God saw that his great flood had not rid the world of evil. Though he had done his best to help good men like Abraham and Moses along, the people had multiplied and there was still much evil in the world.

After a time, God decided to send the people a test. He gave them a gift of awesome power, power distilled from the remains an earlier creation. The oil, coal, and gas would allow the people to fly through the air, to build great cities, and to perform other stupendous miracles. If the people were to use this gift justly and wisely, then they would be worthy of inheriting the Earth.

But the people used God's gift to build temples and great houses for a few while the many starved. They built to such excess that they destroyed much of Creation in the process; and their greed led them to make wars upon each other such as the world had never seen.

And so God said that he would take the Earth from Man since he had not been a good steward. He said that henceforth Man would live on an Ark, surrounded by the catastrophes he himself had wrought. He said: "Man is a builder. Let him then live in that which he has built."

And those who heard God's words and heeded them were afraid. They implored their brethren to cease from their building and their drilling and cutting and mining and burning lest they destroy even more of the Earth and make the Ark smaller still.

All of Heaven heard their cries and wept. The tears filled oceans and they rose. The ice melted and the seas rose higher and smote the land and many of the works of Man tumbled and were gone. There was great death and destruction and multitudes perished.

Finally a day came when those who were left looked upon each other and said: The Earth as we knew it is gone. It has been diminished and it is now only a small island in space. Let us open our hearts to each other and work together to preserve what is left to us. Our new world will be smaller than it was before, but now that we truly see that our home is an Ark, we will treasure every life form and greed will have no place here.

Leading us to a new reality, the story offers new choices. As we have seen with the response to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, many people have opened their hearts to each other and many more have seen the terrible results of our government's corporate hard-heartedness.

In the coming years there will be ever-increasing opportunities to ask ourselves: Shall I be like Noah, concerned only with myself and my immediate family? Or shall I be like Moses, and participate in the struggle to lead the larger human community out of its moral wilderness?

This choice involves more than soul salvation. It is an immensely practical one. Lifeboats won't be able to save the wholeness of Creation and there will be no way to patch up our planet without global cooperation.

Noah and Moses don't speak to everyone. But there is a wealth of traditions to tap for sacred art that will help us understand that with global warming and its aftermath we shall reap what we sow.

Storytellers, start your engines.


Kelpie Wilson is the environment editor for truthout.org. Her first novel, Primal Tears, has been published by North Atlantic Books.

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