In The story of how Greens became energy enemy number one, George Marshall makes the case that when you put together our hard wired focus on intention and our need for stories, you get the enemy narrative which dominates our culture. Climate change doesn't naturally fit this narrative, as there is no intention to harm and everyone is a victim. When Climate Change is framed as an enemy narrative, he says, it makes scapegoating easy, and fails to advance sustainability.

What Marshall fails to envision is an ideal alternative story. He doesn't notice that the enemy narrative is inherently Dominator Culture.

Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm.  Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Phil Pullman puts it "after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."

Put the two together and you have the powerful basic storyline that dominates mythology, fairytales, the Bible, TV and film…

It looks like this.

1.       Enemy + Intention → Harm to victims

2.      Hero + Intention      →  Defeats enemy and restores status quo

Psychological research has found that this narrative structure is more powerful than any of its constituent parts. If any part is weakened people are willing to introduce substitute components even, if necessary, inventing them or using information that they know to be wrong, in order to maintain its integrity.

The problem for climate change is that it simply cannot compete against enemy narratives. In climate change the enemy is really everyone, the victims are everyone (although we like to think it is people far away and in the future) and there is no deliberate intention to hurt.  What is more, there can be no restoration of the status quo because this is a permanent and worsening condition.

Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats.

The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people. [enemy narratives phrase is my emphasis]


I submit that a Partnership narrative is necessary, in particular a story of enlightenment, self-discovery, personal growth, a maturation into responsibility and adult power.

In short we need a self-transformation narrative.

Because we are all responsible (notice I didn't use "blame"), realizing how we are causing our own doom and owning responsibility for our part in it is a process of self-discovery. Surely it's painful, as personal growth often is. By acknowledging our own dark side, by redefining ourselves from the bottom up to be fit for a sustainable world, we will emerge with a more mature humanity. Margaret Kline's insights about the kinds of climate denial are a good place to start.

Tags: Climate Destabilization, George Marshall, cognitive framing, self-transformation narrative, the enemy narrative

Views: 33

Replies to This Discussion

"we need a self-transformation narrative.

"Because we are all responsible (notice I didn't use "blame"), realizing how we are causing our own doom and owning responsibility for our part in it is a process of self-discovery. Surely it's painful, as personal growth often is. By acknowledging our own dark side, by redefining ourselves from the bottom up to be fit for a sustainable world, we will emerge with a more mature humanity. Margaret Kline's insights about the kinds of climate denial are a good place to start."

~ Ruth Anthony Gardner 

May I Tweet this? 

This needs to be shared widely! We see over and over again in politics that stories are more powerful than bare facts. We need a powerful story of attaining "planetary adult" power and responsibility.

Yes, Grinning Cat, it seems stories that appeal to emotions are more powerful than those that appeal to reason. I don't understand, but what the heck, there are a lot of things I don't understand. 

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