Let a billion ordinary heroes bloom!

Mark Hertsgaard dedicates his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth to his young daughter, Chiara, born in 2005 as the snowball of climate change began picking up momentum.  Perhaps because he has her constantly in mind as he’s working on the book, he does something science writers rarely do: he begins his book by invoking fairy tales, and returns to them several times as he goes along.

Science writers are usually at great pains to be empirical—that is, to convince us, by their impeccable sources and detailed documentation, that what they’re telling us is true.  Hertsgaard does this, of course: there are the usual obligatory paragraphs of statistics, drawn from unimpeachable sources like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the various climate experts he interviews.  But for me some of the strongest, most memorable passages in the book are the ones where he relies on the imaginative power of fairy tales to get his message across.

In his very first chapter, he goes back to the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who analyzed fairy tales in his book The Uses of Enchantment, concluding that children learn from fairy tales that “’a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence.’ But, Bettelheim  continues, ‘if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious’” (Hertsgaard, 16).

The first fairy tale Hertsgaard writes about is E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker,” with which his daughter Chiara fell in love as a young toddler.  “After seeing The Nutcracker ballet onstage, Chaira began acting out the story at home.  She invariably cast herself as Clara; her mother or I was assigned to play the godfather, the prince, or both.  One day, after she and I had played the game for about the three hundreth time, I got distracted.  To my half-listening ears, the music seemed to indicate the start of the battle scene, so as the prince I began to brandish my sword.  A puzzled look appeared on Chiara’s face.  It took her a moment to realize that her father was confused.  She looked up and carefully explained, ‘No, Daddy.  It is still the party.  The danger is not here yet.’”

Hertsgaard tells this charming personal story to illustrate his point that “the party, so long and pleasurable, that gave rise to global warming is…still underway.”  For most of us, the danger does not yet seem real, so it’s hard to feel the urgency to change our lifestyles, which are after all so comfortable, familiar and, let’s face it, fun, at least for the upper crust.  Hertsgaard goes back again to the fairy tale model some pages later to put out a call for “thousands of ordinary heroes to step forward and fight for our future,” to tame the many-headed hydra of climate change.

This call echoes that of Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychologist who gained prominence as a young professor in the 1970s by conducting the infamous Stanford prison experiment, where he showed that if put into the right circumstances, the most ordinary young men will become fascist torturers.  After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Zimbardo was called upon to explain how those ordinary American soldiers could have engaged in such horrific sadistic acts.  But by then his own focus had shifted.  Zimbardo is now much more interested in examining how it is that ordinary folks step up and become heroes, because he too is convinced that our society is gravely in need of “thousands of ordinary heroes” to turn things around.

When I was about eight years old, a very powerful revelation of the destructiveness of humanity prompted me to start writing my first story.  It happened like this. We always arrived at our country house at night, and the next morning I would always get up around sunrise and go out, with great excitement, to see what was happening in the natural landscape I loved so much.

On this May morning, I was shocked to see, at the bottom of the driveway, piles of maple branches, their small, bright green, new leaves withering on the ground, sap oozing out of the cut branches—a holocaust of new life.  Shocked and upset, I raced back home to tell my mother what had happened.  I expected that she would be upset too, but instead she calmly explained, “The power company must have come to trim branches along the lines.” That was all there was to it; there was nothing to be done and it wasn’t worth getting upset over.  Her response just infuriated me more, and out of that fury my first story was born.

It was about a wood nymph named Estrella, who set out on a quest to save her forest from human destruction.  I wrote about the council of animals and forest spirits that decided that such a quest must be undertaken, and I wrote about Estrella setting off with two animal companions.  But beyond that the story petered out, because I could not imagine a solution to the problem; I couldn’t think of how a wood nymph and some animals could stop humans with chain saws.  At that age I was reading my way through all of the Lang fairytale collection, so you’d think I would have been able to invent some powerful magic to do the trick.  But I wanted a “real” solution.  I knew that the problem I was dealing with was no fairytale, it was very much of this world, and I wanted to solve it…I just didn’t know how.

Now I am realizing that in order to accomplish the deep changes necessary to create a human society that values life and harmony more than domination and destruction, the old heroic quest model will not suffice.  Like Hertsgaard and Zimbardo, I know now that we can’t wait for a hero or a charismatic leader to take up the challenge and make everything right.  We need the kind of small-scale, unheralded acts, made daily by people all over the world, not because they expect to become famous and marry into royalty at the end, but because they are committed to living harmoniously with the ecological world of which we humans are a part; because they value life, and want to live their values.

Towards the end of Hot, Hertsgaard invents his own fairytale, which I hope he actually produces as an illustrated children’s book—it’s wonderful!  I won’t give it away here, other than to observe that it’s about how a whole village worked together to throw off tyranny and create a more sustainable, joyful place to live.  There is no clever young boy outwitting the giant; no princess standing fast in the face of a dragon.  Just ordinary people—in this case, ordinary young people, since  the children lead the way—standing up to do what’s right.

Fairytales may be fiction, but as Bettelheim and so many other analysts have realized, they point the way to deep truths.  I’ll have more to say on the importance of telling new stories in future posts.  For now, let a billion ordinary heroes bloom!

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