Myth and Dystopia in the Anthropocene

December 6, 2017

In the autumn of 1913, Karl Jung dreamt of a monstrous flood of yellow waves cascading down from the North Sea through north-west Europe and down onto the Alps. Later in his apocalyptic dream-vision the swirling yellow seas turned blood red amidst “the floating rubble of civilisation, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands.”

Nine months later Jung had a similarly dramatic dream, but this time with a different emphasis: “An Arctic cold wave descended and froze the land to ice…The whole of Lorraine and its canals frozen and the entire region totally deserted by human beings.”

I thought of Jung’s pre-World War One visions when I read of the stirring of the sleeping ice giants of East Antarctica earlier this year. According to recent research, one of those glaciers—the Totten (larger than the state of California)—is moving slowly towards the Southern Ocean as a result of global warming, with the potential  to raise sea levels by 3.5 metres in future decades.

This figure is a worst case scenario, but a sea level rise of even a fraction of that figure could lead to extraordinarily worrying outcomes. In the case of the Totten glacier, warm ocean water is seeping up from the bottom of the sea into the cavity beneath this vast ice giant, which could destabilise the surrounding ice sheet even further. That’s important because East Antarctica has long been regarded as more stable than West Antarctica in terms of its melting ice.

Returning to Jung’s fascination with dreams, myths and metaphors, the ice and fire giants of Norse mythology are described as forces that oppose the orderly rule of the gods; they exist to create havoc, chaos and war, representing all the destructive aspects of nature. In Old Norse language they were called Jötunn,roughly translating as “devourers.”

The symbolism of the devouring glacier is unmistakable. As these modern day ice giants melt, they seek revenge for their deaths by attempting to devour those whose actions are causing their demise—our cities, our industries and us. In allegorical terms, it’s hard not to think of ice monsters (both real and metaphorical) as vengeful behemoths who have been prodded once too often by the myopic stupidity and greed of industrial capitalism, driven on by unsustainable levels of production and consumption, and it’s here that an understanding of myth and metaphor can be especially useful in helping us come to terms with the spectre of anthropogenic climate change.

The great mythic stories of pagan Europe, Buddhist and Hindu India, and Taoist China exist for a reason. These archaic traditional narratives understood that we have a tendency as humans to rely on metaphors, allusions and myths to unravel the unexplained and the mysterious, rather than relying solely on reason and logic. Human beings are instinctive and emotional creatures, and all great folk tales have understood this fact.

As moral parables, these mythic stories were designed to make sense of an unknown and unpredictable world; create sense out of disorder; and warn us of our collective and personal arrogance, stupidity and inattention. Across all cultures their themes are universal: revenge, warnings of hubris, ambivalent heroes, magical origin stories, suffering, bereavement and greed. They also talk of the unfairness and injustice of a sometimes callous universe, and—at least in the Greek tragedies—the ambivalence and indifference of the gods to the suffering of ordinary mortals.

Myths also warn us that the monsters are not just present externally, but also exist inside of us. Arjuna’s philosophical dialogue with Krishna at Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita, for example, is not just the tale of a reluctant and despairing warrior prince unsure of his martial duties, but also a meditation on the moral and spiritual conflicts that take place within. These conflicts have implications not just for our own souls, but also for those around us and the worlds that we create.

In terms of climate change there are conflicts and monsters everywhere both internally and externally, yet we don’t seem able or willing to face them. The biggest monster of all is capitalism, particularly the neoliberal version that has been slowly hollowing out everything it touches like some giant blood sucking incubus over the last 40 years, devouring the social compact between people, natural resources and the future. Ultimately, it is rooted in rapacious greed and the insatiable desire for power.

The fire from this monster’s mouth is always the same: endless privatisation, endless productionendless growth and endless consumption. Among other systemic failures, the blind pursuit of profit has led us to a level of carbon dioxide emissions that’s now over 60 per cent higher than at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The ideologically-dogmatic Pandora’s Box of carbon tradingDr Strangelove geoengineering fixes and other myopic, time-wasting “market solutions” dreamt up since then to hold back the inexorable tide of rising temperatures certainly won’t save us.

Nevertheless, the much-lauded Paris climate agreement of 2015 promises to “[hold] the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C” in the future by utilising just these technocratic solutions: 111 out of 116 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models that chart the economically optimal paths to  2°C assume negative emissions.

In effect we are hedging our bets on technologies that are supposed to suck out hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere in the future (none of which have been tried at scale), whilst doing little to curb the profligate, fossil-fuel based consumer cultures that lie at the root of the problem.

In October 2017, Storm Ophelia  battered the south and west coast of Ireland where I live. The night before the storm I tracked it online. It looked like a swirling Technicolor Dervish in slow motion, crawling up past Portugal and France as it headed north. The next morning, a few hours before the storm made landfall, I went out to feel the atmosphere. I live near a large wooded area not far from the Atlantic coast, and the trees were already swaying violently, with thousands of birds flying around chaotically in the sky, perhaps instinctively sensing the coming of the storm.

In two minds, I drove the short distance to the coast. The sky had a strange reddish-orange colour and felt dark and foreboding. Branches and house-roof slates were already falling off, and I sensed that—as much as I wanted to experience the wild elements of nature—the situation could become much more dangerous very quickly. The road made me feel I was entering a magnetic vortex pulling me towards the ocean.

Sideways winds buffeted my car ferociously, with gusts of 156 kilometres per hour recorded a few kilometres away. As people say in the west of Ireland, the waves resembled a horde of giant white horses stampeding violently towards the land. An old fisherman I’d seen on previous visits was already there; “Never seen anything like this before,” he told me, “this feels like something different.”

In 2017, the IPCC concluded that “The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger abrupt and irreversible change remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing such thresholds increase with rising temperature.” The language is dry, antiseptic and clinical, but the harbingers of permanent climate change are clear.

The IPCC tells us that we need a fundamental departure from ‘business as usual’ to confront this situation; otherwise anthropogenic global warming will get much worse, possibly much sooner than we think. In the Soviet Union, cynics purportedly said that it’s the future which is certain; it’s only the past that is unpredictable. Climate change increasingly feels the same. In which case, what could encourage us to take the necessary action?

Karl Jung believed that myths resonate deeply within our unconscious as “the deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.” Because they are universal, we all have access to them across time and space. Perhaps the appeal of these myths to our emotions, and the inner wisdom they offer, might finally wake us from our induced inertia on climate change instead of relying on yet more reams of data and statistics.

The great mythic stories teach us that it is unwise to commit crimes against the gods. The arrogant Sisyphus, for example, who always managed to elude his fate, was finally condemned to push his rock to the top of the hill for all eternity by Hades, only for it to roll all the way down again each time.

In the 21st century, Sisyphus’s arrogance represents the myopic stupidity of global laissez faire capitalism as it drives the world on towards climate chaos. We are all susceptible to hubris, of course; we’re always pushing the rock up the hill, expecting redemption to follow. But, as it says in the Upanishads, we must not be “like fools dwelling in ignorance…like the blind led by the blind.”


Teaser photo credit: Calving front of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. Credit: Flickr/Etienne Berthier, Université de Toulouse. CC-BY-2.0.

Mark Kernan

Mark Kernan has written for Open Democracy and Resilience.org on climate change. He lectures and researches on climate change and human rights in adult education at University College Cork.

Tags: building resilient societies, catastrophic climate change, cultural myths, cultural stories