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General · 13th February 2012
Ray Grigg
Everything that science can tell us about the environmental challenges unfolding around us must pass through layers of attitudes and values before we can identify or remedy them – "If I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it," was Marshall McLuhan's noted comment on this subject. Evidence alone will neither make us aware nor change our behaviour when all experience must be filtered before it registers as real. This difficult subject is illuminated by Professor Michael Hulme of the United Kingdom's University of East Anglia. Although his expertise is climate change, his insights apply to broader environmental subjects (New Scientist, Sept. 5/09).

Professor Hulme proposes that we consider four myths of our Western culture, the "stories we tell that embody deeper assumptions about the world around us" – and here he means "myths" in the anthropological sense, the frameworks we create to give meaning to our individual and collective experiences.

Myths, in this sense, are culturally true – not absolutely true – and are continually changing with time and circumstance. Indeed, conflict within a culture usually occurs when newly-evolving myths generated by fresh evidence and experience collide with old myths, precisely what is happening today as we measure the inability of our natural world to maintain its equilibrium under the impact of our collective human behaviour. This conflict of limits is also a conflict of myths.

The first myth Professor Hulme proposes is the Edenic one. It uses "the language of lament and nostalgia" to reflect our loss of simplicity and innocence, and urges a return to circumstances when we lived in greater harmony with the natural world. In this myth, our environment is understood as giving and generous, as fragile and sacred. The power we have amassed to affect it makes us apprehensive. Our fear is that our wisdom is not sufficient to manage nature's intricate complexity. The damage we do could be fatal, tantamount to another expulsion from Paradise.

Second is the Apocalyptic Myth. Its "language of fear and disaster" reflects our anxiety about the future. In a time of radical change ‹ history on steroids would accurately describe our present age ‹ this anxiety is amplified. Implicit in this myth is our inherent sense of humility and insecurity, an awareness that we must not disturb the physical and biological forces that regulate the living world which we must inhabit.

Third is the Promethean Myth, "named after the Greek deity who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals" ‹ we got our fire but Zeus punished Prometheus eternally for the theft. In this myth, we use the power of technology to exercise control over nature, "revealing our desire for dominance and mastery". But this authority also comes with a "lack of wisdom and humility to exercise it." In this myth, we have little sense of the great design we are working within, little awareness of the potency of our power, or how we are to live harmoniously with the multitude of natural forces operating the physical and biological complexity of our planet. This myth reminds us of the folly of reaching beyond our ability to regulate and control the planet that keeps us.

Fourth is the Themisian Myth, "named after the Greek goddess of natural law and order." This myth couches environmental issues in "the language of justice and equity." It implicitly condemns us for inflicting harm on others by emitting toxins, by disturbing weather and ecologies, by destroying habitat that wrongs plant and animal species, and by depleting resources that will be unavailable for future generations. The planet, in other words, is a moral place where we must carefully consider the consequences of whatever we do.

These four myths are all at play, in different combinations, within each of us. We use them to identify and interpret the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and to give motivation, direction and meaning to our actions. They are the means by which we guide and judge our behaviour.

Our predicament today is that the change occurring around us is so rapid and dramatic that we can't adapt our myths quickly enough. The technological power at our disposal is so huge and our numbers are so many that we are re-shaping the planet as never before in human history. The myths loom in front of us as dilemmas, on a scale and intensity that matches the steroidal history we are moving through. The particular myth that we each might favour ‹ how we are inclined to interpret the world ‹ yields our assessment of our present environmental situation, and this establishes our relationship with others who may stress different myths. As the speed and intensity of our civilization increases, the tumult increases.

Those favouring the Edenic Myth lament the loss of an old innocence. Those disposed to the Apocalyptic Myth anticipate widespread mayhem from our injudicious behaviour. Those with faith in the Promethean Myth trust in the power of technologies. Those inclined toward the Themisian Myth are concerned with the morality of all we do. And modern science, with its pervasive and obsessive quest for information and understanding, provides insights that heighten the intensity of each of these myths. We experience their collisions as conflicts reverberating throughout our social, political, ethical and material lives.

Professor Hulme doesn't suggest how these conflicts will or can be resolved. But, like the Greek myths themselves, knowing about them heightens the awareness of living by reminding us that the chasm of tragedy is always just a mistake away.