At the end of May 2019, I had the privilege of joining a climate change expedition to Greenland organized for Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum. The expedition was altogether inspiring, depressing, shocking, and familiar.
At the edge of the world, near the center-axis of our planet, I stood face to face with nature. I heard her silence. I witnessed the majestic beautify of her Arctic glaciers – a monumental expression of the delicate balance of our earth’s climate. It was a spiritual experience. Then, suddenly, I heard her roar in a thunderous cry as gigantic melting glaciers cracked and plunged into the sea before my eyes. It was heartbreaking as it was terrifying. Watching the fallen glaciers cause the sea waters to produce an infant tsunami was like watching the birth-pangs of a giant destructive monster – a monster of chaos that has appeared in many of the cautionary stories told by our ancestors.
Observing the scene unfold, I felt an overwhelming freeze-response; I felt paralyzed and helpless. What can I, as a small individual, do when faced with a problem that appears so vast, collective, and insurmountable? When dealing with questions about how to behave in the world, I’ve learned to revert to the wisdom of those who have tried and failed before me. As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Over hundreds of thousands of years, our humble ancestors tried and repeatedly failed, but some succeeded triumphantly. Those that weathered the storm and survived, passed down their wisdom, coded, in the form of story. Stories not only offer us a pathway to the wisdom of the past, but they also offer us a pathway to change the future. In today’s interconnected world, stories can spread faster than ever before. How we and future generations behave towards the unfolding climate crisis will be highly influenced by the stories we tell.
In my research of stories of our past, I have come across the sobering fact that many different cultures across history and geography carried world-destroying myths through their oral tradition. In the epic of Gilgamesh of ancient Mesopotamia, of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology, of Pralaya in Hinduism, of Gun-Yu in Chinese Mythology, of various First Nation tribes of North America, and of Noah and Flood in the Abrahamic stories, our ancestors tell stories of catastrophic deluges that wiped out entire civilizations. It appears that the destruction of our societies was a common – or terrifyingly inevitable – occurrence.
Why did so many different cultures tell world-destroying myths? When the stories are interpreted metaphorically, it appears that our ancestors were trying to send us a universal message about individual responsibility.
Psychological Corruption Leads to Destruction of the Environment
A common setting in the flood stories is a world that has gotten so corrupt that the gods (or a single god) decide to send a flood to destroy humankind. To modern humans, this may sound like a typical case of superstitious ancestors attempting to make sense of some catastrophic historical event. I think that is a serious mistake in interpretation. Our ancestors viewed the world very differently and we must interpret their stories metaphorically (interpreting the ideas or feelings that the words invoke), not literally.
From the perspective of our ancestors, “God” or “gods” refers to some unknowable omnipresent force that sets the laws of the universe. The “world” encompasses both the psychological world of conscious experience and the physical world of material objects. There’s an archetypical idea – a symbolic image that is derived from the past stories or collective experience of humanity – that the world we live in is a fragile structure and its integrity can be affected by human behavior.
By telling tales of gods electing to send a flood to destroy a corrupt humankind and renew the world, our ancestors were trying to convey a message: the decay of the physical world is attributed to the psychological decay of the individuals living in it. That’s how fragile the world is. At a certain point of no return, the physical structure of the world becomes so damaged by human behavior that the laws of the universe dictate that it be destroyed.
Why is the mechanism of destruction a flood? Because a flood is a perfect symbol of what always lurks outside the gates of our fragile structure: chaos.
Environmental Destruction Can Unleash Chaos
I’d like to take a moment to walk you through one of the oldest creation myths on record. It has layers of meaning. The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia believed that prior to the existence of a structured order in the world, the universe was in chaos. They tell a story of the goddess Tiamat, a dragon-like creature of the salt waters, and Apsu, her husband and a god of the freshwater; metaphorical representations of chaos and order. Tiamat and Apsu bear children, but when the children become disobedient and kill Apsu, Tiamat goes on a chaotic rampage to destroy the world. During this darkest hour, Marduk, a god with a ring of eyes around him, is born. He voluntarily elects to fight Tiamat on the condition that the disobedient gods elect him as their sole ruler. Marduk encapsulates Tiamat in a net, chops her up into pieces, and extracts order out of chaos to create the world.
During every New Year festival, the people of Mesopotamia would take the emperor outside the city walls – into the realm of potential chaos. They would strip off is royal garb, slap him, make him kneel and recount the ways he wasn’t behaving like a good “Marduk”; a reminder that if one participates in corrupt behavior, the world’s environment will collapse and chaos will flood the gates.
I mention the Sumerian creation myth above because I think it also holds a profound psychological interpretation that may shed light on our modern times. In their reading of mythology, psychologists have attempted to dial the clock back, penetrate the minds of our ancestors and understand more about the evolution of the modern human psyche.
The psychologist Carl Jung had a fascinating idea that our personalities are made up of sub-personalities fighting for control in Darwinian terms. If you don’t voluntarily arrange your sub-personalities in a hierarchical order, depending on the situation you are in, one sub-personality may fight off the rest and take control of you. For example, when feeling emotional hurt, defensive anger can assume control to protect you. That means you’re not the one behind the wheel. Like a speeding car swerving along the road, this can lead to potential physical damage to our environment and ultimately, chaos. I think this is represented in the Sumerian story by the children of Tiamat and Apsu who become so disobedient that they destroy order. Only after the disobedient gods agree to elect Marduk, a representation of the self-aware individual with a “ring of eyes around him”, to the top of their hierarchy is Marduk able to voluntarily approach chaos, encapsulate it, and return structure to the world. The message here is that the psychological order of individuals is a necessary precondition to prevent physical damage and environmental chaos.
How is the psychological state of modern humans? If we judge ourselves by our physical impact on the world, it’s not looking good. Overpopulation, burning fossil fuels, and deforestation have triggered climate change, soil erosion, poor air quality, an increase in acidity levels in the oceans, and undrinkable water. Increasing ship traffic, sonar and seismic air gun blasts are disrupting migration, reproduction, and communication of marine life. Our ancestors tell us that if we continue down this path of physical destruction, we will unleash chaos.
Embedded in the World’s Fragility Is a Call to Heroic Adventure
By telling us that our world is a fragile structure that can be affected by our behavior, our ancestors were trying to send us a message about a possible positive meaning for our existence. A call to heroic adventure perhaps. A call to repair ourselves, psychologically and physically. And if we can repair ourselves, we can then repair the city walls; man the barricades. Protect our environment and prevent the impending flood. In the great Chinese flood myth of Gun-Yu, the heroic figures of Gun and Yu are praised for their tireless efforts to mitigate the disaster, eventually succeeding by building drains instead of trying to contain the flood.
In many of the flood myths, before destroying the world, the gods elect to issue an advanced warning about the coming flood to a select protagonist, the hero of the story, to build a large boat that may save a select group. The protagonist is always portrayed as a character aspiring to be a better version of himself. An example of an ethical individual in his day to day interactions. An individual that sees the warning signs and voluntarily takes the call to adventure.
In the Greek flood myth, the hero chosen to build the boat was the son of Prometheus himself, Deucalion, “who first founded cities and reared temples to the immortal gods, and first ruled over men”. According to the Biblical version of the Abrahamic flood story, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.”
By selecting such heroes, our ancestors were casting a spotlight on the type of individual behavior that can lead to withstanding and maybe even preventing the flood. The building of an arc or a boat is a metaphor for building a stable, solid, and properly oriented individual psychology. If your ethics are in order then you can save yourself and your loved ones when the flood comes. If your ethics aren’t in order, your boat will be leaky, and when the flood comes, you will sink.
You Can Repair or Destroy the World
By indicating the world is a fragile structure always surrounded by chaos and that our behavior can significantly impact its integrity, our ancestors were identifying that we have a choice before us. In other words, what you do as an individual matters. After all, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through every man’s heart” concluded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after surviving the brutal concentration camps of the Soviet Union.
In the Gulag camps, Solzhenitsyn had plenty of time to ponder how he ended up there. He decided that it was Hilter’s fault, Stalin’s fault, but it was also his own fault. After all, he was playing the same dog-eat-dog game. He just wasn’t as good at it. So he wrote a three volume non-fiction book about his experience in the camps and argued for the absolute necessity of individual honesty and ethical behavior to avoid catastrophic man-made disasters. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The path you choose, as an individual, can repair the world’s structure or destroy it. By telling stories about world destructive floods, our ancestors were trying to send us a clear message: each and every one of is responsible for the state of the world. The world is what we make it. If we behave corruptly, selfishly disregarding the consequence of our actions, then the world will become corrupt. If we don’t act constructively as individuals to repair the fragile world we live in, the world will self-destruct and chaos will inevitably flood the gates. This appears to be a law of the universe.
Corruption of Society Leads to the Destruction of the World
My expedition to Greenland was a sobering experience. I learned that in 2019 alone, the melt-extent of the Arctic glaciers reached over 40%, nine-times higher than the 1981-2010 median. Whether we like it or not, our economic growth is warming and polluting our planet. As a whole, our individual day-to-day actions are collectively destroying our shared and our most important fragile structure.
At the rate we’re going the temperature of our atmosphere will increase to a degree such that the Arctic glaciers will melt and sea levels will rise so high that entire countries will disappear and hundreds of millions of people will be displaced or will die. Scientists estimate that 50 million refugees will be created every year. If you have children right now, they will experience this devastating reality as adults. They will no longer use the word “myth” when referring to “the flood”.
In spite of the path we are headed on, there is still time for us to correct our course. But “us” is made up of individuals like you and me. As people like Solzhenitsyn, heroic figures of our past who survived man-made catastrophes, concluded: corruption of society takes places because of the corruption of the individual. According to our ancestors, corruption of society leads to the destruction of the world.
We will only prevent a climate crisis if each and every one of us, as individuals, heeds the call to heroic adventure and acts constructively to reduce their carbon footprint and demand that their business and political leaders put the climate crisis at the top of the agenda. Solzhenitsyn said, “there are as many centers of the universe as there are consciousnesses”. You are at the center of the universe. The path you take is the path we take. What you choose to do every single day matters.
Lead the World by Example
I’ve repeatedly asked myself: what can I do to help? As the Founder & CEO of a screenwriting community and platform with thousands of writers, there may be a way I can help. There is no doubt in my mind that stories are the most powerful way to convey a message. It’s the reason why our ancestors used storytelling as the way to pass down information and influence behavior over generations and across time. And the most powerful way to tell a story is through the mediums of film or television.
In addition to positively disrupting Hollywood by helping new voices emerge, I always hoped that Open Screenplay would become a platform that encourages writing screenplays and spreading stories about important causes and social justice issues.
While visiting the arctic on a climate change expedition, I felt my own personal day to day problems melt away in insignificance when compared to the dire existential threat posed by climate change. Thus, the team and I at Open Screenplay have decided to heed the warnings of our ancestors. We will leverage our screenwriting platform by hosting a short film contest and mobilizing writers from around the world to write stories about a topic that threatens our planet, our beautiful and most precious fragile structure: Climate Change.