The Secret to Climate Change Resolve

Facing climate change sucks. We’re just not built for it.

Human beings are built for problems with lots of feedback. If the climate reacted every year to how poorly we treated the environment in that year alone–or better yet, if that happened every month–then we’d be able to handle it all. We’d make bad choices and immediately be slapped down, then make better ones and feel relief.

But of course, the way it really works is that there’s a massive backlash that builds up over time and can’t be clearly traced from exact cause to exact consequence. We take an airplane flight to Honolulu, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect. We buy a hybrid car and it also seems to have no effect. A hurricane strikes the northeastern U.S. and we can’t say for sure to what extent climate change contributed. Mistakes seem infinitely forgiveable and smart choices seem to have no impact. The problem is huge, and it feels like we’re too small to make a difference.

That’s why we need Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell

Who’s Joseph Campbell? He was the man who compared religions and mythologies from around the world and found that as human beings, there are certain stories and attitudes we share regardless of where or how we live. Perhaps the most powerful idea he unearthed was the story of the Hero’s Journey, which underlies everything from ancient myths to modern blockbuster movies. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey talks about how writers can employ this structure to create a compelling story. Here’s a diagram Vogler offers to explain the Hero’s Journey:

The Hero's Journey

That all might seem kind of fanciful and irrelevant to climate change, but Vogler also provides the following version of that diagram, phrased not in terms of story or myth but in terms of emotion and change. For me, at least, the applicability of the Hero’s journey to the process of radically changing our lives jumps out in this next image.


“1. Limited awareness of problem”? I certainly had that. Then Hurricane Sandy and the flooding of Venice drove me to look closer and voila, there I was at “2. Increased awareness of need for change.” My immediate reaction was described by “3. Fear; Resistance to Change.” I’m now at “4. Overcoming Fear” and “5. Committing to change.” This is exactly how it feels to be facing this problem.

What is it like for a dragon to menace your village, or for Mongol armies to invade? It feels like climate change: massive, disastrous, unstoppable, and far too big to do anything about individually.

The useful thing about this is that it provides a way to think about the problem that can empower us. We are each the hero in this story, because we are facing our fears and reluctantly going on a journey into an unknown landscape where we’re certain to be facing difficulty, trials, pain, and loss. Ultimately, though, if we don’t turn back, we come back home and find ourselves not only changed, but also in possession of a prize that’s desperately needed by our family, village, town, school, friends, country, or world … we will have successfully shown the way to transition to a lifestyle that will save us from the worst ravages of climate change.

Don’t be distracted by the word “hero”: it’s not likely that we’ll come home to a ticker tape parade (those always seemed horribly wasteful to me anyway). Many people may not even notice that we did anything.

But we’ll know–and what might be even better about all of this is that the fear, the feeling of helplessness we face at the beginning of the process, will be largely gone. The emotional difference between fearing what we do won’t be enough and actually doing everything we can is enormous. We don’t have to succeed. We don’t have ride triumphantly into town with the corpse of a slain hurricane dragging behind us. We just have to step out into the wilderness and be willing to face the trials that are coming. Courage–that is, acting despite being afraid–is its own reward.