The Madness of Kings
The real villains of the story
Last week, I interviewed futurist Wendy Schultz about how to bridle our institutions to solve the climate crisis. We discussed this through the context of the Law in the Emerging Bio-Age report Wendy produced, which asked how legal structures can support second chances at improving human relations with living systems and our planet.
One thing that came up during our discussion was how the report had been reported on by the mainstream media. Wendy said the Guardian produced a great piece on the research and its conclusions, but over-simplified the message; the Guardian’s language suggested the report advocated for the measures suggested.
This reveals how journalism isn’t built to report on complex issues. Even the very structure of a newsroom whereby the reporter, who spends hour researching, interviewing and writing a piece, will have no say over the final headline reveals how disconnected intention is from purpose. For-profit media sells the simplest of stories: adverts.
But beyond whether or not our media is up to the task, is our tradition of story-telling even capable of communicating a reality as complex as the one we find ourselves in? How can we talk about solutions without painting any as the silver bullet? How can we talk about agents without characterising villains and heroes? How can we unearth truth from buried statistics?
Driven To Greatness
Currently, there is one big villain of the climate crisis—warming itself, and its impacts. Yet because global warming is symptomatic of systemic problems, crying out about the climate crisis as the problem distracts attention from the real drivers—us, our human system. A recent study found that the best way to solve the biodiversity crisis was to incorporate climate justice into policy, because climate justice addresses the roots of our global problem: extractivism, exploitation and colonialism.
These practices create an unlivable climate for ourselves and our biosphere.
There are islands in the Pacific which will disappear in the coming century. Millions of people have been displaced by extreme flooding this year alone. Species are going extinct at a rate never before witnessed. And for all the infrastructure we have in place in “developed” nations, citizens die every day because they cannot get access to healthcare, to housing, to safety. In some of the richest countries in the world, people will die this winter from the cold because, despite having the infrastructure in place, it is the market which decides who gets to live.
The unequal distribution of power and access creates the systems which have resulted in the climate crisis.
Now, we can’t paint merely one system as the villain. The focus on capitalism and extractivism from activist groups is brilliant, the messaging necessarily simple. We do need to restrain or abandon capitalism in the transition to something else. However, extractivism and colonialism have marked the expansion of empires for millennia. What is it in the way we build our civilisations that alienates us from better possibilities?
Driven To Madness
Towards the end of the episode, Wendy suggests our willfull rejection of ourselves as natural creatures—our willingness to plunder our own home, without recognising we are part of the very same resources we abuse—is the key to our self-destruction. Truly, what is the destruction of planet earth if not a toxic mix of profound arrogance and self-rejection? I think it’s worth noting here, too, that that same formula drives male violence, no doubt why some scholars refer to our current trajectory as “petro-masculinity”. Certainly, let’s remember that women leaders around the world are far outstripping their male counterparts for tackling emissions.
But to split good and bad down gendered lines only falls into the same trap which currently impeaches so many of us from discussing, reporting and understanding the crisis and the solutions. The real villain in any story is the depths of the bottomless pit from which we scream.
A bottomless pit which saw scientists and artists hold court for kings; a pit which demanded progress be done in the name of national pride; a pit which ransacked the surface of the world for fuel for our own desires.
That ruthless, unimpeded ambition of the cultural elites became doctrine, and norm. The unimpeachable greed of kings which was normalised by their access to, and power over, other people became transformed into the economic system that we live in today. Capitalism gave crowns to the global north.
But we cannot all live like kings, for kingdoms are bottomless pits from the depths of which subjects scream. We must find the moral of the story in order to fill ourselves up. If we don’t civilisation will not survive.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.