I’ll open with a confession: I no longer believe in the end of the world.
If that seems like a strange thing to say, then let me explain. When I was young the idea of the end of the world, or more specifically, the end of ‘civilised’ Western consumerist society, wasn’t something to wish or aim for, it was something inevitable. So ingrained in our collective subconscious that we never even bothered to talk about it.
For context, I was raised in an alternative/ anarchist community on the southernmost tip of Europe. And yes, plenty of the usual stereotypes apply. We were undoubtedly a crusty bunch of rag-tags who made our own clothes, harvested and ate our own food, had phenomenal parties, and probably placed a bit too much faith on star-signs and the I-Ching.
In many wonderful ways, it was a delightful childhood. In winter we gathered firewood from the hills and in summer we collected rocks from the riverbed to build dry-stone walls around the veg garden. Yet before we get too deep into the idyllic caricature of hippy life, let me reiterate that as far back as I can remember, I’ve taken for granted the notion that the world was ending.
It didn’t matter how. Could be nuclear, could be another world war. Hell, it could be zombies. The point was, I and all my friends – and all our parents – were basically futureless. We made no five-year goals, planned nothing beyond the weekend or next summer, and never was a whisper of career paths or pensions plans spoken. And while I am very proud of the odd community I come from, I’ve also come to realise this lifestyle – charming and bohemian as it may be – has its limitations.
So believe me when I say I understand the language that looms over so much of the eco conversation like a cloud of soon-to-be-extinct pollinators. Call it apocalypse-anxiety, climate-anxiety, what it amounts to is the empty heavy feeling in your stomach when you see the world changing around you. And there’s no question that this feeling is justified by the state of the world right now.
So I understand and I listen and I engage, but I no longer believes.
Why? Because of stories.
Good storytelling allows us to imagine a way beyond any conceivable disaster. To see the light at the end of all the tunnels.
Over the last few years, since leaving the community I grew up in and stepping away from the climate movement, I’ve tried to focus my attention to the study of storytelling and narrative.
For me, the act of telling a story becomes a path out of the language of endings. Stories – by which I mean pretty much any well-written form of creative fiction, from Grimm fairytale to Hollywood masterpiece – have the ability to show what the folklorists call ‘the blue in a magpie’s tail’; a colour which is neither black nor white but something altogether more interesting.
A few years ago, when I first encountered The Dark Mountain Manifesto, I was struck by the line: ‘the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world’. It was refreshing to encounter an ideology that dared to go beyond the language of doom. Not because the project doesn’t believe in the end of the world – it very much does – but because it accepts it and then moves past it, broadening the conversation beyond just black or white. Alive or dead. Human or natural.
After all, when we say ‘the world is ending’ – what ‘world’ are we talking about? Humanity? The Earth? Or just our way of life?
Good storytelling allows us to imagine a way beyond any conceivable disaster. To see the light at the end of all the tunnels. There is no sad ending that cannot be brought back to life by a clever storyteller, even if they use the universally forbidden line: and then they woke up and it was all a dream.
Moreover, good stories are able to blend multiple arguments and combine contradictory perspectives. Read any decent collection of fairy tales and you’ll come away feeling like human beings are very contradictory things. That’s because we are. And I think that’s just fine.
The poet Adrienne Rich once said ‘war is an absolute failure of imagination’. I would apply the same criticism to the notion of the apocalypse. To structure an argument around an unshiftable perspective is to make it brittle. To weaken it with certainties. Good storytelling rejects certainties. And it’s only by rejecting certainty, blending polarity, and breaking binaries that we have any chance of properly seeing and becoming part of the change we want to see in the world.
With that in mind I’d like to invite you – to challenge you – to talk less about endings, and more about stories. And to consider the purpose of a good story. Not just what it is, but what it does.
I often hear the term ‘escapism’ associated with storytelling, a word I’m not at all sure I enjoy. But then again, maybe there is some truth in it. Maybe we do need to escape, sometimes. To dream, to imagine, to hope.
In the world at the moment there’s a lot of reasons to run away. To escape. And that’s fair enough, but the trick is to run away without betraying the thing you need to work towards.
In that spirit, I’d like to introduce this series exploring old stories that tell us something about the current world, and perhaps even our future one. I hope, perhaps, it can be an escape for you. Not a getaway vehicle, but a bridge to a new perspective, or just the next adventure.
A version of this essay was first published on Climate:Cultures.