“Mythology is not a lie; mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth –– penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”
--Joseph Campbell from Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (book) (p. 163)
In October 2018, I read a Vox article on the IPCC report that had just come out. It said we only have 12 years to make major changes to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The author noted, citing the report, “There is no documented historic precedent” for the action needed at this moment…,” trying to get at the nearly incomprehensible scale and import of this news. Sure, climate news had been coming out regularly for those watching this issue, but the way it was presented that October felt like the blow of a life-threatening diagnosis. A gut-punch of feedback on the prospects of our business-as-usual.
While I’d been concerned before, I was now knocked off balance. I looked around me at the strangeness of anyone acting like we could behave as we had been. My own regular life felt out of sync, like I was participating in the collective lie that everyday life could be normal. I sought out a discussion group at church to find company to wrangle with what it means to be alive at this moment. I tried negotiating how to live with this reality, and I still am trying to find my place between urgent action, strategic systems change, and just living my life. I try to integrate climate throughout my work, across green design, teaching, and environmental art.
The following Spring 2019, in our first semester teaching the grand challenge class, “Power Systems Journey: Making the Invisible Visible and Actionable,” my co-instructor and I invited guests to host a “World Climate Simulation,” for our class. World Climate Simulation, a project of Climate Interactive, is a role-playing modeling activity in which participants play various nations negotiating emission reductions, forestation plans, and contributions to a climate fund using an interactive science-based model that connects actions to consequences. Part of the activity is for participants to read the profiles of the nations to get a sense of their current emissions as related to contextual factors of their economy and development as well as their history. Through role play, and the ability to play with the system dynamics, it creates a powerful, game-like, educational simulation where the play enables participants to engage with some of the complexity and weight of climate action.
In our class, with its art-science-systems-change orientation, my co-instructor and I wanted to bring in some more layers too. We started with prefacing the activity with videos of climate activists that had shared creative expressions during the time leading up to the Paris Agreement, for example, “Yolanda Winds,” a spoken word video by Isabella Borgeson about her land being taken over by rising seas. We also included the December 2018 TEDx talk from the then, 15-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, with her articulate and dead-serious call to action.
After a class period of preparation, the next class was devoted to actually running the simulation of a UN gathering to determine national climate commitments. While students played, we could observe the dynamics of the negotiations such as the way they took on stories about differentiated national responsibility, need, urgency, and practicality, and the way they unconsciously acted out dominant economic paradigms, and visions of what it means to develop. As I often note, Donella Meadows says that “Paradigms are the sources of systems,” and I felt their presence palpably during the game.
After the simulation activity, we brought in some other “actors” who had been haunting the game. I had noticed how paradigms about time were at play. Was it too late anyway? Can we negotiate with time? So I role-played various Greek gods of time as mythic beings to help make the invisible paradigms visible. My co-instructor role-played Gaia, personifying Nature or “Mother Earth.” She was a surprisingly absent character in the human-centered negotiations, and he played the part with powerful, paradigm-shifting simplicity.
Our theatrical reflections on the climate simulation events were an attempt to find and illuminate the invisible paradigm forces at play. How do we comprehend, let alone cope, with something as vast, complex, and imminently dangerous as climate change? If we live inside the systems we want to change, how do we transcend those systems, and the paradigms that drive them? For the systems, and their paradigms also live inside us, in our minds and the invisible models we make of the world that those same assumptions co-create. Can we have agency in such a predicament? In her famous “Places to Intervene in a System” article, Donella Meadows argues that an even higher leverage point to intervene in systems than paradigms, is the power to transcend those paradigms, letting go of certainty or overattachment to any given world view. I believe this open mindedness is supported by engaging imagination.
It is currently common to use “myth” as a word to mean a lie, or a misunderstanding in contrast to the truth. For example, in articles that discuss differentiating climate fact from myth. But myth has an older, different meaning. Joseph Campbell said “Mythology is not a lie; mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth –– penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” Ultimate reality, when represented in words, is an incomplete, imperfect model. Myths, poetry, and metaphor, while still subject to the limits of language, stretch that language and open up ambiguous space that is a bridge to new understanding. In this sense, engaging in myth can be part of the journey toward better understanding truth.
So I find when I am confronted by phenomena as vast, complex, and imminently dangerous as climate change, that I have an impulse toward poetry, metaphor and myth as ways to open and shift paradigms, and play with imagination to open alternate ways of thinking. Speaking myth to the entrenched power of old paradigms, can be as impactful as speaking truth to power.
‘Acting it Out’ Video Poem: A Climate Story
In response to feeling the forces at play in that 2019 classroom simulation of climate negotiations between nations and Greek gods, I wrote a poem called “Acting it Out: [planetary stage directions].” The text can be found in a past blog post. I’d recited this poem at multiple events, but upon a meeting with one of the founders of World Climate Simulation this month, I decided to create a video poem version of the writing, linked below. Its role is small, but I am glad to have it play its part as paradigm work in the larger purposes of our collective climate change theater.
Thanks to inspirations, and characters in the story: Co-Instructor and playing Gaia, Paul Imbertson; the student players in that 2019 Power Systems Journey class and the ones since; “Visitors 1 and 2” that brought World Climate Simulation to our class: Beth Mercer-Taylor and Aaron Hanson; Julia Rooney-Vargas and others on her World Climate Simulation team for creating this thought and emotion provoking tool and activity; Greta Thunberg (as I imagine her playing Ananke); and Isabella Borgeson and other artists inspiring creative climate action.
Video: Acting It Out [planetary stage directions] © Jonee Kulman Brigham, Full Spring Studio, LLC