Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Squirrel and the Mockingbird

Three Short Stories with Interpretation

Since last weekend, when I wrote the Tell Me a Story post (if you haven't read that one yet, you may want to before this one), I've been thinking a lot about what else I wanted to say on the subject of story-telling and living green. Note, I usually try not to be too preachy or too long-winded, but this might be a little of both. Luckily, I've got stories to go along with the philosophizing!

Story 1

When I was twenty or so, I took a brief sojourn into community college, after some hasty decisions left me without college money for a year. I loved community college, and there I took the hardest two classes of my life, taught by Dr. C.

One of those classes was Ethics. All quarter, we learned about different theories trying to explain why some actions are considered right and others wrong. We hung out with the Stoics, pondered with Alyosha from Karamazov, took leaps of faith with Kierkegaard, and took dutiful walks with Kant. We considered ethics of utility (Mill) and the ethics of fellow feeling (Hume). The class was difficult, and by the end I think only about six of us showed up regularly. The final day, we were scheduled to have our finals returned, and Dr. C. told us we could ask him whatever we wanted about ethics, even ask him which philosophy he believed in. He passed out the finals, and then asked if we had any questions. We did -- oh... I'm sure we did. We all wanted to know what the dry-humored Dr. C. realy believed. But all six of us were mute with anxiety. Why? I have no idea. After a long silence, Dr. C. said that if we didn't have any questions, we could go. He picked up his things. Just before he hit the door, he turned to us and said: "It's Hume, by the way."

And he walked out.

If you were to ask me what I believe about why some things are right and some are wrong, I would say -- I believe in stories. As I wrote about in my previous post, we seem to be primed (by nature or nurture, I don't know) to favor stories that fit a sort of universal structure -- known as a story grammar by researchers. I think we determine right and wrong by whether we can fit actions into a story grammar.

Our whole legal system is based on this idea. Two opposing sides tell stories, and the one who tells the story that best conforms to certain principles is the one that's judged "true." As a society, we don't really seem to believe in absolutes. I mean, we say we do. We say that killing is bad, that stealing is wrong. But if I can tell you a story that makes sense ("I stole the bread because my babies are starving") I'm likely to be forgiven. If my story doesn't make sense ("I stole the bread because I was making a bread sculpture"), I get the book thrown at me.

OK, Catfish, I bet you're thinking. This little lecture from you scholarly days is all well and good. But what about living green?

That brings us to ...

Story 2
The Lorax and the Truax

Once upon a time, a beloved children's author wrote a book called The Lorax. The lorax is about a magical creature who tries to save a forest from devastation, and he speaks the unforgettable words "I am the Lorax I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." Children loved the book, but when some folks in the timber industry realized the book had an environmental message, they became incensed with the suggestion that clear-cutting and over-consumption might be bad. The book was banned in libraries in some timber communities.

But they realized that just keeping the story of the Lorax from the children was not enough. The only way to fight the truth of a story is to provide a counter-story. So several timber industry groups got together to fund that story. It's called The Truax. In it, a wise logger tells a foolish creature named Guardbark about all of the good that logging can do. Now teachers have an alternative to share with students who might be swayed by the Lorax's call to stop over-consumption!

The Truax is not a good book (it's also implicitly racist in its caricature of Guardbark, but that's a matter for another time.) And I don't think it will ever outsell Dr. Seuss's read-aloud classic, The Lorax, especially since it's free. However, it represents something that I think anti-environmentalists do much better than we do: control the narrative.

The Lorax makes narrative sense. It is simple and clear. Any kid, reading it, would think - hey, cutting down all the trees is bad. We should not do that. I used to read it to my students, and they usually got the message of the story without much prompting. That's the power of narratives that fit the story grammar embedded between our ears. We hear the messages, loud and clear.

The people who wrote The Truax knew that, and so they set about attempting to control the narrative. In the case of Lorax v. Truax, it's one simple story against another. However, much of the time, anti-environmentalists are telling simple, clear stories with obvious messages (Scientists who study global warming are liars who falsify data, thus they cannot be trusted; Protecting America is the most important thing and for that we need oil, even if oil rigs sometimes blow up; environmentalists hate America and want you to be deprived of your right to consume whatever you want) -- they're telling a children's story. On the other side, we, the greenies, are trying to tell a story that's more like a Quentin Tarantino movie. We're presenting evidence from multiple sources, projected timelines, using historical data, and asking you to radically change your ways while excusing the fact that there might have been some shady emailing going on in East Anglia. While I think a story of subtlety and nuance better represents the world we live in, it doesn't have the feeling of "rightness" that a simpler story, with clear cause-and-effect, does.

Story 3
The Squirrel and the Mockingbird, or
Zen in the City

So yesterday, I went for a walk and heard a commotion above me. I saw a squirrel running along a wire. And then I realized that the squirrel was being chased by a mockingbird. The mockingbird was flying loopy-de-loops, like Snoopy the World War I flying ace, dodging over and under the squirrel, chirrupping and pecking away. The squirrel leaped for a tree and for a moment I lost sight of them in the leaves, which shook as the mockingbird continued to dive bomb. A moment later, the squirrel emerged from the tree on another wire. He kept running. The mockingbird continue to lay chase.

So, who's the squirrel? Who's the mockingbird? And is it better to be a squirrel or a mockingbird?

So, we're the squirrel. We know what we want. We just want to run on the wire and get where we're going (protect the earth. Avoid global catastrophe). But there's a damn mockingbird pecking at us. It's making us veer off course. We're doing dumb stuff, like agreeing to more offshore drilling as part of a "comprehensive" energy plan. We look like jerks, because we suggest that the oil spill might be good because it's a wake up call. We confuse people, because we don't answer simple questions, like, "Paper or plastic?" without a lot of hemming and hawing and jargon. And it's happening because we're refusing to control the narrative. We just keep running, but we never really get anywhere.

Instead of continuing to run, it's time to turn around and punch that mockingbird in the face.

We need to buck up, and start telling our story. It's a good one, and if we tell it correctly, it fits the story grammar. It's a story that any kid can understand: Cause: Our lifestyle means chemicals, trash, manufacturing by-products and other sludge are filling the air, water, and land. We change the surface of the earth. Effect: Turtles are choking. Kids have asthma. World temperatures are rising. Polar bears are drowning. People are dying in floods, famines, and hurricanes. Solution: We have to change our lifestyle so that others don't die.

Until we're willing to come right out and say what's going on, no one's going to change. If my story is, I'm going to choose a plastic bag because it doesn't make much of a difference anyway... well, I won't do anything differently. But if my story is this: I chose a plastic bag and my plastic bag just choked a turtle -- well, why wouldn't I at least try to change? Unless I hated turtles. But come on. Turtles are cute.

Coming up: Whew! OK, now that I'm done with that, I'll be back to my usual fun-loving, DIYing, cooking self. Expect more meatless recipes, some macabre decor tips, and a green summer beverage round-up!

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