Storytelling in the Anthropocene

IKIRU (生きる). 1952, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Writer’s block is caused by a conflicting imperative – the need to produce, and the need to edit. 

When a writer hasn’t divided those chores properly, their wires get crossed and the creative process breaks down. It’s a crisis of confidence. The way out is to rediscover the propulsive inspiration again and banish the inclination to modify that force in any way. Let it come out with queasifying adjectives and mixed metaphors, if that is how it first appears. Who cares. Just get it down. 

Writing stories in the Anthropocene has been writers’ block writ large. The 20th century was certainly chaotic, but the 21st is frenetic. We have seen massive changes, but they are written in the sand – and the sand keeps spreading. We multiple concerns now, but which ones will be most salient moving forward?

Supply chain disruption, floods, heat domes, atmospheric rivers, brownouts, emergent disease, and social conflict are pretty safe bets. These events are ongoing, and for me, they make many narratives obsolete. Of course, there will always be room for the comforting familiarity of mustache-twisting villains and heroes who win at fisticuffs. But the important stories, the ones that help us understand our lives – how do those get told?

When we ourselves are uncertain how to prioritize problems or respond appropriately to climate disruption, how do we write characters who inhabit that space?  In the Anthropocene, where mankind itself has become a boulder rolling down a hill with increasing speed, who is the hero and who is the villain? How can our heroes save the day, when the day is still very much in question? The problem can leave us without a compass.

Fortunately, other storytellers who wrote in times of great change have already shown us how to write about our time. We just have to pick some winners from each of these upheavals. The rise of fascism abroad brings about social critique at home¹. The return of a jaded audience from WWII brings about film noir².  Systemic bureaucracy is met with stories of individual humanism. 

That last one is especially salient to me. Bureaucracy is very like climate disruption, because we all hate it, and yet we all participate in it. It seems to be an inextricable part of human activity at scale, with a billion faces, none of whom are individually responsible, or completely innocent. 

One of the best films I know about bureaucracy is Ikiru (To Live), written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. When a man who has always been a petty bureaucrat is pressed to make some meaning of his life, he finds purpose and clarity. 

Ikiru shines a light on the possibility of responsible storytelling in the Anthropocene. We can still have heroes, but only if they are implicated. Any other tale will ring false in our ears. Their success can no longer be shouted from the rooftops, for they were also villains. Their success is most powerful half-glimpsed by the world, like Watanabe on the swing, whose great triumph, in the end, was only over himself.

1) It Can’t Happen Here, 1935 ,Sinclair Lewis 
2) Double Indemnity (et cetera), 1944, James M. Cain, Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler

Road trip!

Road trip!

On Friday, May 26, 2023, Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith surrendered to authorities after they were indicted on conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit.

The two, who belong to the climate activist group Declare Emergency, entered the gallery and threw red and black paint on the case of the Edgar Degas sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”

Timothy Martin of North Carolina, and Joanna Smith (Ellie Silverman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Declare Emergency members block roads and provoke arrest to foreground their cause. They write:

Despite the many agreements, plans, and protocols our government announces, the planet continues to warm—and every additional day of continued emissions makes the climate crisis harder to fix.

The same day Mr. Martin and Ms. Smith were busted for defacing the case, Dr. Brian Brettschneider made a blog post containing this image.

Dr. Brettschneider is a climate scientist in Anchorage Alaska, with a PhD is in Environmental Geography focusing on Climatology. A regular contributor to Forbes magazine, Dr. Brettschneider does not deny that climate change is caused by human activity.

Here he has planned a trip one might drive on certain dates to maintain a temperature no more than 70° F (21° C).

In all my (many) years of making maps, the most popular by far is the 70°F Road Trip map that I originally produced in 2015. It’s been shared over 10 million times on various platforms if I had to guess. Maybe 20 million. That map was a hypothetical trip through the U.S. with the route tracking where the normal daily high temperature was approximately 70°F (21°C). I have been contacted numerous times over the years since from people who want to bike or drive the trip. It has resonated with people in a way I never imagined.

… It might surprise people that as fast as the globe is warming up due to human activity, the shift in 70°F temperatures between 1981-2010 and 1991-2020 is very slight. It’s just too short of a time period to capture the distance change. Instead, I decided to come up with new routes. The original route was interesting, but it left out a lot of options. This time around, there are multiple routes to choose from. Enjoy!

If you are reading this blog in the 21st century, I hope you find Dr. Brettschneider’s map counter-intuitive.

Admittedly, it’s possible there are people out there who would look at this and start pumping up their bike tires.  There is the the 4,253 mile TransAmerica Trail.   It begins on the East Coast at Yorktown, Virgina and cuts across America to the Pacific Ocean, ending on the Oregon Coast. But they won’t be riding on Interstate highways, which is understandably illegal for all but a handful of states. So they won’t be taking Dr. Brettschneider’s route.

According to this calculator, driving these distances in the average gas-burning car would add about two tonnes of CO2e to the atmosphere.

Dr. Brettschneider is chuffed that ten, maybe twenty million people have shared his map on social media. Perhaps next he could calculate how the popularity of the map increases the temperature along the route, where fires and floods don’t actually make it impossible to drive.

People like Mr. Martin and Ms. Smith are trying to ring an alarm loud enough for people like Dr. Brettschneider to hear.
Because every additional day of continued emissions makes the climate crisis harder to fix.