Queen Elizabeth: And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world…”
So ends the 1940 swashbuckling classic, The Sea Hawk, with Errol Flynn’s glinting eyes and steel causing many a damsel to swoon. The film is widely seen as a propaganda vehicle for encouraging US engagement in the second World War. The use of a well-known historical precedent, heroic and successful, as an allegory of a current situation was a clever one.
What could be a modern-day equivalent?
We stand, seemingly helpless, watching the imminent destruction of much of our planet’s human-life-sustaining resources. With that destruction, perhaps the collapse of civilisation. Certainly at least the continuing and deepening suffering of billions of people, as water and food become scarcer each year and the hope of Western-style, fossil-fuelled affluence ever trickling down to them receding fast. Did I say “affluence?” I apologise. We are merely talking about the very basic survival needs of people. Healthcare, education, shelter. Basic security. Freedom from slavery.
Environmentalists (I count myself among this diverse, disagreeing rabble) unless possessed by unnatural optimism, must hold the fear of failure, a shard of despair, in our hearts. We are between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand persuading people that catastrophic climate change is imminent in order that they take long-overdue action, and on the other hand being unable to persuade our audience that a solution exists. Catastrophic climate change seems inevitable. We feel powerless. This is a rational conclusion. The problem is too big, too complex, too gnarly. It’s been around for decades, been studied and interrogated by the world’s finest minds for decades. Yet not a single persuasive solution has emerged.
An engaging story depends on a well-drawn antagonist. Our heroes may be weak of body, mind or virtue, that is irrelevant. The antagonist and the situation unfolding must be real in the listener’s mind. We can taste a good antagonist, she makes the hair on our neck stand on end, he disturbs our thoughts just before we go to sleep. He must be defeated, purged, exorcised. There must be a solution. A n engaging story usually is quite clear about the solution, what must be done. We know the path to defeating the monster and we want to know the ending. We need to know the ending. Does the climate change story have a credible antagonist, and a way of defeating her? Not yet.
No matter our optimism, perhaps the picture we should be painting right now is: “What are we to do if it is already too late – what would that world look like?” Can we see, feel, taste it yet? No we can’t, although a few recent Hollywood blockbusters and extreme weather events have given clues. And can we paint a desirable picture of a different outcome, one where basic human needs are met globally, and peace is the norm? We are so used to being sold war, quite frankly it sounds a bit boring, a bit naff, a bit “lion lying down with the lamb”.
Second question – by far the most important – “How will this immense threat be defeated, by us, mere squabbling humans?” When we start to taste victory, we’ll start fighting for it.
Back to The Sea Hawk. My question is: what historical allegory would do for climate change what the Queen’s speech did for WWII? What example do we have of collective suspension of disbelief, collective heroism with a small h, collective sacrifice, collective victory over a seemingly insurmountable foe?
So ends the Queen’s speech:
“… it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist. Firm in this faith, we shall now make ready to meet the great armada that Philip sends against us. To this end, I pledge you ships – ships worthy of our seamen – a mighty fleet, hewn out of the forests of England; a navy foremost in the world – not only in our time, but for generations to come.
I have included it to the last line, where reference is made to ‘generations to come’. Would that our current politics were able to extend its influence beyond the present. Would that the climate change story had a path to victory we could, if not yet fully believe in, at least dream of.