The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Notes from a work in progress about the climate emergency

I’m struggling to write a piece about climate change. It’s pretty easy to fall into a funk as I consider what can happen. What can one person do? So much has been done for us already, by energy companies hungry for profits, by extraction capitalism built to make cities destroyers of nature, by colonists who stole land from indigenous peoples and erased the healthy ways of working and living on the earth. 

Looks like a mess. Long time in the making.  

I’ve been looking for inspiration, not only to write this for you, but also to work on a podcast about being an activist in this unstable time. A few key people have helped me through this. 

The first is my wife, a Utopian who believes that one person, taking a small action each day, can make a difference. The others are my children, because I know it would be wrong to leave them with a world they can’t live in. 

“Know what you are fighting for, not just what you are fighting against.” 

Emma Marris wrote that in the New York Times recently. Her words became for me a way to pull off the trick of thinking positively in dark times. But, of course, it’s more than a trick. To take a first step toward action you need to grab ahold of a moral imperative without being pretentious about it. You have to believe in a positive future which only our generation can make real. A future, “in which children don’t need to take to the streets in protest and alarm, because their parents and grandparents took action. Instead, they are climbing trees,” as Marris put it. Yes, I get that. 

Also: It’s about the stories. The stories we tell ourselves. Stories, internal and external, shape how we think about ourselves, how well or badly we love and get loved back, create everything about how we are in the world. The stories we tell ourselves about the climate emergency shape what we will do about it.

“We’ll still know in 2020 that we have to do a lot better, but admitting we’re in an emergency means we can start to tell ourselves new stories that will help get us out of the crisis.”

That’s Eric Holthaus writing about climate change for The Correspondent. He wrote a piece of speculative, Utopian fiction that reads like a news article from 2030 looking back on the present. He describes all the things we will do to solve the climate crisis in the ten years ahead.  His suggestions have a little to do with policy that is startlingly new but everything to do with the stories we tell ourselves. We need to start telling new stories about how we can get ourselves out of the mess we’re in. “In a climate emergency, courage is not just a choice. It’s strategic,” he wrote. 

I’ve found more of that strategic courage writing this for you. It’s made me see that my podcast project will make a difference because, as Holthaus also wrote, the most urgent thing we can do in an emergency is to passionately tell others that it exists. We need to build and tell new stories to “stop seeing Earth as an external thing to be saved. We’ll realize that we are inextricably linked to the Earth: saving it is, in fact, saving ourselves,” wrote Holthaus.  

In Marris’ Times piece (link above if you want to read it), she covers many ways to take action. For story builders like me, and I suspect many of you who read this blog, our job is to create the new stories that reconsider what we are supposed to accomplish during our time on Earth. Telling those stories is the only way to remain optimistic and to remain optimistic is the only way to move forward. Courage is not just a choice. It’s strategic.


Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

A note on this post. I’m starting a series of more “work in progress” posts that are really about thinking out loud and feeling my way through the start of new projects. I hope you like them. Comments? Add yours below.