We need better stories for our future
A manifesto for positive environmental activism
If you’ve read any environmental news headlines in the last few years, they probably went something like this:
- Scientists warn that it’s too late to save [species]
- Global warming is making [place] uninhabitable
- [Human activity] is destroying the planet
Partly this is the result of a welcome shift in public awareness, as a majority of people around the world now consider climate change a major threat. After decades of complacency we’re witnessing a flurry of activity — legal activists recently won a judgment against Shell in the Netherlands, governments are investing unprecedented investments in green energy and clean transportation ($282b in 2019, a 28% increase on the previous year) and 20% of the world’s largest companies have set a net-zero commitment.
However, as the title cartoon suggests, the tone in which we discuss environmental topics has shifted so much over the past decade that it often feels like we’re living through an apocalypse, or even after it in cases like wildfires and natural disasters. Well-intentioned scientific warnings add up to a bombardment of negativity making us feel guilty, sad, and worst of all, hopeless about the future. It’s no wonder that young people are suffering from a host of new mental phenomena: climate anxiety, climate depression, climate rage.
I’ve even heard friends saying that it is morally wrong to have children, because the act of bringing an extra human being into the world makes you responsible for thousands of tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions. While this argument may be correct on the level of statistical averages, it reduces all significant life decisions to a sterile moral calculus in which every action has a carbon price tag.
This is essentially a modern-day retelling of the myth of Adam & Eve, except instead of picking an apple from a tree, we waited millions of years until the apple had turned into crude oil and then extracted it from the ground. Yet the end result is the same — we took something we shouldn’t have, and as a result we and our descendants are doomed to suffer.
While I don’t deny we are facing a monumental challenge which will have ever-more serious effects, the overall narrative of humanity as rampaging techno-apes destroying a pristine world is fundamentally narrow and misanthropic. Acting from a place of fear, anger and guilt doesn’t bring out the best in us, and makes it hard to build solutions to solve the problem.
Believing in a new story
I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and noticed a theme separating it from other literary genres (apart from wacky costumes and a lack of character development): its sheer optimism. Classic greats like Isaac Asimov and modern rockstars like Nora Jemisin are all interested in exploring how life flourishes in desolate worlds across different alien species.
In imagining alternative futures, science fiction helps us reflect on how we live today and realize that things could be different. Our world is not the center of the universe and our personal experience as a few pounds of grey matter steering around a wobbly meatsack is not the final word on reality, as David Foster Wallace puts it so elegantly in his speech ‘This is Water’.
This sense of perspective is comforting to me, because it shows that we have a choice about what kind of reality we want to live in. We can fit the same set of underlying physical facts to different narratives that change how we experience the world. If you believe that people are inherently evil and selfish, you’ll probably feel more isolated, cynical and frustrated. Conversely, if you believe that people are generally trustworthy, you’ll probably feel more open and this feeling in turn will make it easier to connect with others in a self-reinforcing cycle. The key to a meaningful life is believing in good stories that motivate and encourage us to be better.
So here’s a story I’d like to live by: we’re living in a wonderful time and our future is going to get even better. The climate crisis is pushing us to level up as a species by developing better technologies and lifestyles. And these next few decades are going to bring up surprising, weird and wonderful experiences that we can’t even imagine right now.
Even now, some incredible work is being done on the knottiest engineering and policy problems in the climate change sector:
- Heimdal is testing a way to make carbon-neutral cement (~8% of global CO2-equivalent emissions) from seawater.
- The United Kingdom generated over 80% of its electricity from low-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear) on 5 April this year.
- Governments committed to stricter emissions targets at the Leaders Climate Summit in April this year, reducing the gap between the 1.5C Paris Agreement target and current pledges by ~14%.
As a contribution to this narrative, I’m starting this Medium publication (Towards Net Zero) to chronicle promising technological and policy solutions for tackling climate change. It aims to inspire, entertain, and gently nudge people towards more environmentally friendly living. Who knows, maybe we could even have some fun 👯♀️!
The First Series
Over the next few months we’ll publish a four-part series on the biggest sectors contributing to greenhouse gas emissions:
For each, we’ll dig into where the emissions are coming from, why they are happening, and then highlight some of the promising trends, technologies and policies being piloted around the world to solve these problems.
This is just a starting point, as anyone will be able to contribute to this publication. If you’re a writer, editor, data enthusiast or just keen to get involved, fill out this form to be added to our Discord community!
To end off here’s a fun video of an unmanned electric airship being tested out by a new startup called Buoyant Aero. Enjoy!