Positive narratives may be our best hope for fostering desperately needed environmental action. Decades of ecological warnings have failed to produce the necessary societal changes. The enthralling realities and fascinating mysteries of the natural world offer endless inspiration for an alternative message that is both factually accurate and emotionally appealing. One of the most universally attractive messages we can communicate is the idea that we are part of the web of life that surrounds us.
As revealed by the plethora of science oriented subject matter in popular media, Americans are increasingly fascinated with accessible portrayals of the natural world. Biodiversity is no longer the exclusive domain of academics.
Movies, documentaries and books have succeeded in rendering nature’s diversity in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. Programs like “Fearless Planet” on the Discovery Channel or the documentary series “Planet Earth” demonstrate the popularity of the natural world. We have also seen important environmental messages in popular films like Avatar and in works of fiction like Faulkner’s “The Bear.”
If environmental advocates really want to change people’s attitude towards the environment, they must tap into this popular interest. The natural sciences need to be rendered in a way that is engaging, but to achieve the paradigm shift we are seeking, we must go beyond traditional pedagogy and scientifically derived facts.
As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I too would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures — they should be material to the mythology which I am writing.”
The planet’s ecosystems must be appreciated as more than a collection of facts. We must endeavor to ignite interest in the natural world by portraying the Earth at the center of a hopeful narrative. For millennia before our modern age the environment was esteemed and revered. Countless creation myths describe our origins and speak to a harmonious relationship to the Earth. Many of the great myths of antiquity contain environmental themes including Antaeus, Gaia, Prometheus, and Pandora. The mythologies of aboriginal people are also commonly rooted in environmental stewardship.
Modern society dismisses myth as obsolete, but this view eschews profound truths that reconcile us to the realities of our world. Regardless of our particular orientation, we are all influenced by mythology. Whether or not we consciously identify with it, mythology informs our thoughts and influences our behavior. This notion is reflected in a recently published book titled “The Immanence of Myth,”
“We may use myths to explore why something is the way it is, or what we are to do with it, but a given myth remains just an interface. It is through us, through embodiment and direct interaction, that it is made immanent…The myth is living because we are ever-changing and transitory. In other words, we are living, and myth too is living. It is a part of us, our mirror. It is like the moon in relation to the sun — without the sun, the moon would cast no light, but in the presence of the sun, it appears to have a light of its own…coming world conflicts will be driven by ideological forces along cultural fault lines. In other words, by our ideas about ourselves, others, and the nature of the world we live in. Ideas are not just ideas, when they take hold of us.”
Although mythology is often viewed as synonymous with falsehood, it is actually a narrative that we live by to this day. Sadly, the prevailing mythologies lack depth and fail to relate us to our world. What we need is a new narrative that binds us to the reality of our times. To achieve this ambitious goal, we need to craft a mythology that addresses the psychological functions of mythology.
Throughout the course of his life, Carl Jung explored the relationship between mythology and human psychology. For Jung, mythology is a fundamental component of the human experience; in his writings he sketched out archetypes which are universal motifs found across cultures. Jung set out to illustrate how these archetypes are deeply embedded in the human psyche. He saw mythology as an indispensable part of becoming more conscious. According to Jung, consciousness is the ultimate goal of human development, a process which he referred to as individuation.
Joseph Campbell elaborated on Jung’s work by exploring the basic elements that all mythologies share in common. In his book Creative Mythology Campbell reviewed the four major functions of mythology:
- Mystical/Metaphysical: According ot Campbell, the “living mythology” will “waken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect” (p. 609). This mythological aspect drives the revelation of unity between one’s self and all things.
- Cosmological: “The second function of a mythology,” Campbell writes, “is to render a cosmology, an image of the universe.” (p. 611). The natural world is at the center of this and it includes how the world and its creatures came to be. Most modern people, Campbell writes, turn, “of course, not to archaic religious texts but to science” (p. 611) for this information. A scientific understanding of the natural world reveals awe inspiring wonder which is entirely compatible with the mystical function of myth.
- Social: This function of mythology helps to determine what we deem to be right and what we consider to be wrong. As Campbell explains, it is “the validation and maintenance of an established order” (p. 621). In the context of this discussion, it involves morality that teaches us ways in which we can live in harmony with the Earth and how to avoid doing harm.
- Psychological: This is the aspect of mythology which emphasizes important points in an individual’s life. The goal of this element of myth is “the centering and harmonization of the individual” (p. 623). This can translate to action which puts us as individuals in harmony with our environment.
Incorporating these four elements into an environmental narrative can augur change on a grand scale and this new understanding can shift the way we relate to the Earth. Ultimately, the goal is to craft a mythology which weaves us into the fabric of the natural world. If we understand that we are one with the environment, we are far more likely to act to improve it. Fundamentally, we must come to the realization that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
5 thoughts on “Crafting a Positive Environmental Narrative”
“If environmental advocates really want to change people’s attitude towards the environment, they must tap into this popular interest. The natural sciences need to be rendered in a way that is engaging, but to achieve the paradigm shift we are seeking, we must go beyond traditional pedagogy and scientifically derived facts.”
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Richard – This is a terrific post! It reminds me of the quote from Daniel Quinn in Ishmael – when talking about narrative and humankind – Ishmael says, “Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world.”
Reconstructing this new narrative is critical. I wonder if, as scientists, we are stuck in our own “worldview”. Reductionist thinking tells us that humans are rational beings. Sharing the numbers and facts of climate change and environmental destruction ought to move people to action. Unfortunately, we are not only rational, but also emotional and social beings. We also hold engrained habits and live in societal constructs (political, economic, sometimes religious) that work against adaptive change.
It’s complicated. It is a system. And we are only a part of it.
Again from Ishmael – “… the world doesn’t need to belong to man but it does need man to belong to it.”
The problem is that it is not just about getting a critical mass of the population energized to mobilize re: climate change. We can do all the sustainability work we want in our own neighborhoods but unless the US government begins to take real steps to reduce greenhouse gases all of our good intentions and good efforts will have limited impact. And the economic clout of big industry, especially oil, mining, and utility companies and all their lobbying groups continue to use the power of the purse over many elected officials to prevent any meaningful (or even moderate) climate change legislation from moving forward. And then there are all the empty headed climate-change deniers who sit in the seats of Congress and exert their sway…even when the evidence is both overwhelming and unequivocal.
Thank you for your comments John. While I agree that governments are not acting to address the problem of climate change, part of the problem is that people are not pressuring their elected representatives. President Obama has indicated that he will “respond to climate change,” however House Republicans will not support action unless their constituents demand that they do so. Hence the need for new narratives that help people to see the urgency of action.
Simply, we all need pure and green environment for a good health. But in my country, something is not as pink as my expectation. That’s why I like building environment major. Thanks for your sharing ideas. They are so helpful for many, I believe that!