This essay is not about the science of climatology. It is about the mythology of global warming. As a concept, anthropogenic global warming has been around for over 100 years, but only in the last two decades has it seized the popular imagination with alarming dominance.
The reasons are widely debated, but it is reasonable to say that, at least over the last ten years, public anxiety has heated more observably than the planet. To put it another way, we are seemingly in the midst of a social crisis, while the environmental cataclysm, real or imagined, is located in the future. This public reaction is examined here through the realm of mythology.
What does the dominant current perception of the impact of global warming reveal about humanity’s imaginative understanding of ourselves in the world? What is its function? What meaning does it uphold?
The imagery of violent storms, drought, famine, disease, and floods is undeniably apocalyptic. (Laurie Oakes used the word to describe the content of the Garnaut report.) Such events are God’s traditional means of wiping out the Etch-a-sketches of worlds he no longer favours. The biblical God could be destructive at times, but He’d start over again with Noah, for example, and an ark full of animals.
Psychologist James Hillman, in his dialogue with writer Michael Ventura, We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse (1992), argues that:
The Apocalypse is the myth of our culture, it’s the book of our culture, it’s the last chapter of the holy book, of the writ. And what it is is the destruction of the entire world…That’s a literal interpretation of the Apocalypse. But suppose you take it not literally but imaginatively. Then it is just the last chapter of the Bible … It’s the end of [that] story. The Bible is over, not the world.
Imaginatively then, rather than literally, the global warming apocalypse is a myth about the end of a story, about the “climate” changing.
If that sounds like the metaphor is simply the wrong way round, it is worth considering how much the meteorological climate has actually changed in the last century compared to the social and cultural transformation that has occurred. In the 20th century humankind went from approximately 1.5 billion in number to 6 billion; took flight from the earth into space; and following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wiring of the world wide web, moved closer than ever towards global community. As best as it can be measured, the temperature rose about 0.6 degrees.
The 20th century also saw its share of metaphysical climate change. When Svante Arrhenius published his paper introducing the concept of global warming, in 1896, it was a mere 14 years after Nietzsche first famously wrote, “God is dead”. Nietzsche feared the consequences of this, unless God could be replaced by a suitable alternative. Seeking to replace him with Superman-kind was arguably his madness. Not too long after that, the world experienced the first of many 20th century events that foretold the Apocalypse, in the form of The Great War. There followed, among others, the bombing of Guernica, World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the “Apocalypse, Now” of Vietnam, and the Cold War “Whoops, Apocalypse!”
“Called or not, the Gods will be present”, were the words mythologist and analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, had inscribed over the door to his practice. He understood the centrality of myth in human experience, and that the absence of sustaining myths in times of change and fear can, unfortunately, call forth the most destructive madness of all: delusions of human omnipotence. Sigmund Freud saw them too, busy in the unconscious.
It comes as no surprise that two psychiatrists recently reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry the first case of what might be called paranoid climate change delusion. A young man admitted to the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne was experiencing visions of apocalyptic events, and the delusion that because of climate change, drinking water could lead to the death of millions of people within days.
Such a terrifying scenario is the logical endpoint of environmental fundamentalism, and was foreshadowed in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, where the main character’s daughter ends up sitting almost catatonically in an empty room, a hollow corpse, afraid to breathe for fear of disturbing the “microbes”.