This article was first published in an online journal called ‘State of Nature’. As is the way of online publishing, the journal no longer exists. So here is the article, updated and revised, on narratives of catastrophe:
Reports of catastrophe seem to be all around us. It may be the urgent matter of global warming and environmental collapse, or signs of the decline of the ‘West’, or of refugees flooding the last citadels of liberal democracy, of the Eurasian integration of China and Russia, or indeed the culmination of United States democracy in President Trump. Some catastrophes come and go, while others remain with us.
However, if we look a little closer at the way these stories are told in many parts of the world, they seem to follow some familiar patterns. The imminent catastrophes might be new in some way, but the shapes of the stories are certainly not. I like to call them the narratives of Noah, Jonah and Repentance – especially in cultures influenced in complex ways by the Bible.
The Noah Story
Let me use as an example the most consistent picture of catastrophe: climate change and environmental destruction. Despite the desperate efforts of the climate change deniers, the scientific evidence is overwhelming. We have overused the earth’s resources; in fact, thinking about the earth as a ‘resource’ is part of the problem. Since the industrial revolution, the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to dangerous levels through our thirst for fossil fuels. We have been encouraged to consume more and more, or at least those in the rich third of the world have. Needs we never thought we had have suddenly arisen, encouraged by the propaganda (advertising) industry. We use too much water, too many plastics, we fly too much, drive too much, eat too many processed foods. Our demand for ‘energy’, produced by heavy-polluting power stations, grows and grows. And when it gets hotter and hotter we simply turn the air-conditioner up. Our ‘carbon footprint’ is far too high.
The scenario here is as grim as it can get. Large-scale extinctions are already under way, clean water for human beings becomes increasingly scarce, crops begin to fail in areas that have been until now the bread-baskets of the world, low-lying coastal cities (the major commercial centres) go under water as the sea rises, diseases we never have seen become rampant, increases in starvation follow, the Greenland ice-cap melts, the Arctic becomes ice-free in summers, large chunks of the Antarctic ice shelf break away, the Gulf Stream stops and northern Europe freezes up, extreme weather events increase, such as storms, floods, and cyclones, the tropics extend their reach into temperate zones, the deserts grow, and life itself faces its biggest challenge.
But how is this story often told? One form is drawn from the age-old structure of the biblical story of Noah. Told of a coming catastrophe (the Flood) some years in advance, Jonah sets about building a massive boat according to a divine blueprint. His neighbours laugh and mock and his family thinks male menopause has addled his brain. But Noah keeps building. When the catastrophe does arrive in the form of torrential rain and subsequent flooding, Noah manages to ensure a remnant makes it onto the ark, two of some species, seven of others, as well as his own family. Eventually the floods subside and the ark finds a resting place in order to start life again (except for the fish who have done rather well).
More than one account of our impending doom has invoked this story form. The occasional Hollywood catastrophe film (meteorite strike, space invasion, monster storm and what have you) has its own version of the Noah’s ark story. Indeed, there is an environmental organisation called ‘Planet Ark’, focused on the planet as a whole, whole some in the environmental movement have called on this story as a means for ensuring some species survive.
An excellent example of the use of the Noah narrative is the ‘Survivalists’, a loose movement that shares the same basic assumptions. For them the arrival of Peak Oil and the catastrophic effects of global warming will mark the end of society as they know it. They buy land in remote areas that will be least affected by global warming, learn to become entirely self-sufficient, and seek to free themselves from oil dependence. However, this is not a collective act, done for the good of everyone. Instead, it is a retreat from the masses, a move to ensure that they will survive, even if everyone else will not. So they stockpile weapons and ammunition to protect themselves from the starving, dispossessed hordes that will soon be raiding their land looking for food and shelter. In other words, they seek to build their own ‘arks’ for the coming deluge and will fight off anyone who might want to join them uninvited.
The Jonah Story
Another version is what may be called the Jonah story, a title I draw from the biblical book of the same name. In that wonderful fictional novella Jonah is called by God to go and preach doom and destruction on Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). Jonah is less than impressed by the job description and heads in precisely the opposite direction, boarding a ship, incognito. But God is not going to let him get off the hook so easily, so he follows Jonah, brings on a great storm (as gods tend to do) and then forces him to admit to the crew that he is a prophet fleeing a less than attractive commission. They promptly toss him overboard, the storm ceases but a great fish swallows Jonah, swiftly gives him submarine passage to Nineveh and spits him out on the shore nearby. Properly pissed off by now, Jonah decides to let Ninevites have it. He strides about the city, crying out with great relish that the end is nigh, that they have only days left. Then he takes himself to a hill and finds a comfortable spot to watch the fireworks.
So also do the Jonahs among us take grim satisfaction in telling us that the world is coming to end and that there is nothing we can do about it. No-one will change, they say, people will keep on consuming far more than they should, species will keep becoming extinct, and armies will be deployed to turn back those who come hammering on the gates of the wealthy nations. No one will in fact repent, people have brought this catastrophe on themselves, so damnation to the lot of them. Like Jonah, they preach destruction to an evil generation who will not change. Catastrophe is coming, so we had better get ready for it.
Call to Repentance
Apart from the Noah and Jonah narratives, a third approach involves repentance. Indeed, the purpose of the narrative itself is to call for repentance. In regard to the environment, one book after another, or one film or documentary after another, calls on us to repent of our destructive ways. We are to assess and reduce our ‘carbon footprint’, or find eco-friendly ways to live, whether growing our own vegetables, showering less, buying carbon offsets, or indeed walking, cycling and taking public transport. Or in the case of fossil fuels, repentance requires giving up our addiction to coal and oil and finding some other energy source, whether bio-fuels, or power from sun, wind, tides and hot rocks beneath the earth’s crust. All that stands between us and redemption is a great push for innovation. If we act now and change our ways, we can still save the planet from its doom.
By now it will be clear that this narrative of imminent doom and the call for repentance is by no means new. Warn your audience of the dire consequences of their acts and call on them to change before it is too late. It was and is the favoured mode of fire and brimstone preachers, warning of torments of eternal punishments in hell should we not repent and amend our ways. I wonder whether this is the most effective way to tell the story.
What are we to make of these stories? Some will point out that they are mere fictions, scary doomsday scenarios that we should really ignore, for they are no different from many similar prophecies of the end throughout human history. The problem with dismissing these stories is that doing so denies the wall of scientific analysis which shows that climate change is a reality.
Here I want to stress that both the way we choose to tell the story and the reason we do so are as important as the story itself. I must admit that I have indulged in the Jonah narrative from time to time, telling myself it is the most realistic of the lot. People will not change, capitalism will keep ploughing on in its destructive path and so a grim forecast is the best approach. Assume the worst and then anything looks like an improvement. The Noah narrative is as grim although more individualistic and selfish. Once again, it claims to be realistic for much the same reasons as the Noah narrative but then says, ‘stuff the rest, I’m going to save myself’. As for the Repentance narrative, we need to ask, repentance for what? Is it to keep our current system staggering along with a few bandages and splints? Then I am not interested. Or is it a wake-up call to change an economic system that has led us to this point? Then I am more interested.
At least two features are necessary for such an alternative. The first is that the socio-economic conditions of all human beings – not just a privileged few – should be improved to a moderate level. If this entails that those accustomed to much need to do with less, so be it. When people no longer have to worry about adequate food, shelter and clothing, then the environment benefits.
The second is that it requires a strong state with consistent policies to bring about such change. Advocating changes in individual behaviour never works. A consideration of the history of religions is instructive in this point. Why is it that Eastern Orthodoxy dominates today in Eastern Europe and Russia, while Roman Catholicism is characteristic of the south-western Europe and Protestantism in north-western Europe, if not in areas they colonised? In the past, rulers decided and enforced their decisions. Why did Buddhism become a Chinese, Japanese and Korean religion, as well as an Indian one? Again, because rulers enforced and fostered it, so that Buddhism took on local features. So also with socio-economic systems and their cultures. Human beings will act within frameworks provided. And if the framework changes, so will human ways of being in the world.
Does this sound like a prescription for dictatorship? If we think of individual dictators, of course not. But if it is a collective dictatorship, a democratic dictatorship exercised by the vast majority, then yes.