Climate Change, the Myth of Progress, and Telling New Stories

This is an old post from December 1st, 2018 that has been lingering in my drafts folder. Seemed a good time to upload it.

Climate change and peak oil are predicaments. Problems have solutions. Predicaments are states of being to be lived through.

Digging deep into the climate science or studies on the fossil fuel industries is fine and all, but doing that does not address the situations that have lead us to make the very choices driving both of these predicaments. Something I have gleaned from years of reading up on both predicaments and watching responses to the challenges they raise is that each and every time a presenter finishes speaking on climate change or peak oil is that the story we tell ourselves needs to change. It continuously comes back to this. It does not matter how compelling the science is, it does not matter how detailed the arguments are. If you cannot tell a story the audience is lost.

Many peak oil folks who have given lectures will talk about a moment where someone, especially in the Q&A section, will say something about a technological fix to peak oil and hold up their cell phone as if it provided proof. Some seem to use the phone as a talisman against the notion that we cannot just ‘tech our way’ out of the problem. We have told ourselves that we are so clever and so good at using technology that we just have to design a new gadget to fix the situation.

Like a lot of things, folks recognizing climate change and peak oil as predicaments needs to be worked through through the stories we are raised on. The myth of progress is a big hurdle in most folks’ imagination. There are those who are utterly convinced that, even if the world encounters deep climate change that ‘they will figure something out’. A nebulous they, sometimes filled in by a technocrat or a scientist, an inventor or an investor; whoever the person is, they serve a messianic function. For Christians who either do not wish to deal with or actively deny climate change and similar predicaments, Revelations and the Apocalypse are comforts in that no matter how bad it gets, there is an end and it will be in God’s glory and Christ’s victory. For techno-futurists ‘The Singularity’, ‘Ascension’ and similar ideas fulfill a similar religious/spiritual/psychological impulse.

It is deeply uncomfortable for anyone in our American society to question the myth of progress because so much of the edifice of our modern understanding of who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going is built on it. The basic narrative of the myth of progress is that as time goes on everything will improve over time. Time in this myth is linear, assuming that things become more just, technology get better, knowledge improves, the economy grows, and that peoples livelihoods get better over time.

The opposite is also true in the myth of progress. As the myth is linear, its assumption is that things get better as time goes on. When it looks backward to the past it frames the past as being where things were progressively more ignorant, stupid, horrible and destitute the further back in time you go. The present in this myth is treated as the best things have been, and the future as being even better as a matter of course. It follows very similar lines of thought to the old notion of a hierarchy of religion because the central premise in that narrative was taken up into the myth of progress. The hierarchy of religion (or evolution of religion as it also has been known) is we started in an ignorant state of polytheism and animism religiously and tribal societies organizationally. It then states that we ‘grew’ into better states with monotheism religiously, empires and kingdoms organizationally. Now, it treats us as having ‘become better’ as we are. Monotheist dominance places itself at the top of this hierarchy, while more recently atheists often places atheism as the new crown in the myth religiously. Politically, superpower nations and global power structures like the UN and EU, are placed as the top of the hierarchy.

Both the myth of progress and the hierarchy of religion’s two-pronged approach defends itself by positing anyone who is other than monotheist or atheist is ignorant, backward, and against modern society, and that anyone who believes in any other organization model outside of national and global power structures we have now is seeking to plunge us back into times of want and privation. The myth has staying power for two reasons: the first being that its main source of strength is in a powerful call to the betterment of humanity’s lot through engagement with its myth, and the second being that it holds a great deal of social cache over peoples’ heads who disagree with it. In truth it is little different than Christians in the conversion periods of polytheist Germany, England, and similar with a carrot and stick. The carrot being if you wanted to trade with Christians your leader or your merchants had to be baptized Christian. The stick being if you wanted to stay heathen then they would slaughter you till you gave in or you were all dead.

Bound up with the myth of progress is that capitalism as it exists is always going to improve and is the best economic system. It states each movement forward in time will obviously, as it has brought ‘progress’ to religion and organization, will bring that selfsame ‘progress’ to the economy. As with religion, it treats looking back to other forms of economic systems that worked in the past, eg gift economies, small-scale interdependent communities, etc as harmful, ignorant, or being against prosperity, health, or the good of the humanity. Anyone who has paid attention, either to the history of economics or to the last thirty years of economic ups and downs in this country will see that money and wealth and the attendant power of both have concentrated in fewer hands while the cost of living increases for everyone. Meanwhile the majority of people in this country having falling wage levels to meet this increasing cost of living. That is, assuming you have a wage and aren’t in the so-called gig economy or bound up in contractual work.

Our entire money system is based on fiat currency that is borrowed into existence at interest. As this debt increases so too does our money supply. As this debt increases the overall ability of that money to do work goes down. There is no way, in the end, to pay our debts because there will never be enough money to pay them. The money system cannot improve over time for anyone but the most rich because anyone trying to save money (such as through a savings account) is losing money by keeping their money in the system. Retirement as a concept is vanishing for all but the most rich. With booms and busts occuring about every 5-10 years most people whose do have retirements are now predominantly bound to the stock market through 401ks, 457s, and similar market investments. Pensions and retirements were crushed in the last economic downturn in breathtaking numbers. Given the cycle of boom/bust, those who have some kind of retirement account could lose some, most, or all of what they have invested in the economy.

It is not anti-capitalist to say that things cannot continue as they are. It is self-evident to anyone paying attention that the myth of progress we have been told is not comporting with what reality is. Yet, having written all of that, I have not told a story. I have given you, the reader a great deal of information. If I reject the myth of progress and see the predicaments of climate change and peak oil will require us to tell new stories, what new stories do I tell? How?

I tell stories that come from my heart. I tell the stories of my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. I tell of how my Holy Powers have inspired me through their myths. I tell of how the Gods are working with us to face these predicaments, how my Ancestors faced predicaments in the past, like the Great Depression, how the vaettir ally with us when we do well by Them. I tell of how the Holy Powers are encouraging us to live better in harmony with Them. I tell of how we develop new ways of relating to our Holy Powers as we develop our approaches to these predicaents. I tell of what I find exciting about a world where we address climate change and peak oil on a local level. I share what I am most looking forward to doing to address the predicament we face as a community, of what things will need to be done so we can be more resilient in the face of the predicaments coming to bear. I inspire, speaking of how we will rise to the ocassion in the face of our country doing nothing on the national stage to address the perils facing us.

We tell stories of the animals we want to raise, and the plants we want to grow. We tell of the things we want to make, whether it is cheese or cloth, chairs or tools. We bring our stories into each thing we put our hands to; rather than a chair from a store, it is a chair I put together after learning how to do it. The tools are not merely tools, our things not merely things; they are sources of interconnection between one another. We weave the stories around the closeness of community we want to foster, and the sacred ways that will tie us all together as communities, Kindreds, clans, and groups, families, and individuals.

We are living stories. Embodied stories. Bound up and woven with our Gods, our Ancestors, our vaettir, and one another. We not only talk about how we are living in Urðr with all things, we live in that understanding consciously. Whether I am telling the Creation Story of Fire and Ice coming together so the rivers flowed and life could flourish or I am telling the story of how I made this bottle of mead, I am not only telling that story but bringing it to being again with each telling.

This is one of my living stories:

Not long ago our Ancestors dug into Jörð and brought up the Dead. Our Ancestors could not recognize the Dead, not then, but the Ancestors did recognize Power. At first it was by little bits; they used Fire, and burnt the Dead. Then the Ancestos saw the Power of the heat the Dead carried in Them allowed us to do more than we ever could by the horse, oxen, or our own hands. Generations passed. We dug and looked for more Dead, and found Them everywhere beneath our feet. We burnt the Dead for heat and for light. We were burning so much Dead there was less and less in the ground. Some said “We need to burn more!” and so they burnt more.

There were others that said “The Dead need to stay in the ground!” They had come to see that the Air, the Water, the Earth, and even the Fire Itself were being so abused by all the burning of the Dead that they could not live on Jörð and carry on this way. They could not say “You are our Mother!” and be so cruel to Her. They could not say “We need to burn more!” They could not honor the Gods right when they did not honor the Goddess on which they live. They could not honor the Ancestors as they fed the Dead into their fires to feed their want for heat and light. They could not honor the vaettir as they disrespected the Beings they shared the Worlds with. So, they resolved to change, and they asked their Gods, their Ancestors, and their vaettir to help them.

Some were told to stay where they were and work hand in hand with their neighbors, some for the first time. Some were told to move to the country and live as their old Ancestors had. Others were told to move to the city and work with those already there. Some were given set paths to follow, and some were given a field of choices. Each had their Work to do, and it was no more and no less important because it was given to them to do by the Holy Ones.

Each did the Work given to them. As each person did the Work others would see this. Each person who lived well on Jörð gave courage to another to live well on Her. Each person who did their Work gave courage to another to find their Work and to do it well.

They came to live in right relationship with Jörð. When Jörð swelled with heat and water they knew what to do because the Work had taught them how to understand Her and to prepare for these times. When the air went sharp and the ice came, they knew what to do because the Work had taught Them how to understand Her and prepare for these times. They were able to care for their people because they learned from Jörð how to live upon Her, with Her. They were able to live well upon Her because they listened to Her and did well by Her. They listened to the vaettir and became good neighbors, good relatives with Them once again. Generation on generation came and lived well because the Ancestors had taken the time to listen to the Earthmother, and worked to live in right relationship with Her.

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