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Making the Biggest Story Small

July 3, 2019

I am writing this on a terrace in an olive grove in southern Greece. The waves are breaking a hundred yards away, early cicadas are rasping, swifts are grazing on the clouds of aerial plankton over the mountain, and my children are somewhere in the chest-high flowers. 

We haven’t seen them all morning. We sometimes hear them. I know what they’ll be doing, because sometimes I stalk them as I’ve stalked deer and antelope. They will be lying on the ground, watching ant armies pouring in and out of holes, or looking for birds’ nests or lizards or the scorpions that live in our woodpile. They have painted spots on the beetles’ backs so that they can recognize individuals. They have names for the trees. They observe that the grove has moods. “It is sad today,” they say. “Perhaps it is angry with us for leaving it for so long.”

When we arrived this time they saw that someone had dumped some rubble on a patch of thistles that had once been home to Theo, a tortoise. There were tears and violent outrage. “How could anyone do that, Dad? If I could find the person who did that, I’d get them with my sharp stick.” There will be tears, too, when we return home, to Oxford.

Love, passion, fascination, a desire to protect. “We will not fight to save what we do not love,” Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, wrote. Quite right. But the would-be saviors of the natural (and hence the human) world seem to be embarrassed by love, and ignorant of its chemistry. 

All those well-meaning articles about melting glaciers, creeping deserts, and the annihilation of our great-grandchildren are anemic and emetically dull. My children wouldn’t see, let alone feel, any connection between their beloved olive grove and those stories, and neither do I. It’s quite an achievement to make the natural world dreary, and ontological peril boring. 

Tabloid newspapers and their online equivalents don’t carry environmental stories at all. In the broadsheets, save-the-earth articles appear with religious regularity, and the regularity itself generates a feeling of sanctimony. The articles are there because they have to be—because they are part of the creed.

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There’s generally no dissent from readers about the content of that creed. That, indeed, is part of the problem. Readers know the gist of the articles and agree with the points made. They therefore don’t feel they need to be reminded, and may be affronted that someone thinks that they do. 

It’s simple boredom, too: they’ve heard it all before. Climate news is presented as if every problem and solution is obvious, and the only thing the reader can or should do is be angry. The conclusions are ex cathedra statements that must be accepted by the faithful if they want to remain in the church. 

Even for those of us who plod dutifully through climate change articles, peering at the bar charts and the pie charts and the depressing maps and the pictures of thin polar bears, the plodding is a way of telling ourselves that we’re decent, concerned people, and of confirming our companionable membership in the club of right-thinking people. And we grow too tired for yet more outrage. It’s not just compassion fatigue; it’s empathy fatigue and actual physical fatigue. There is so much to be angry about. It is already more than a full-time job. 

The only thing to do is to bury one’s head in the sand, or delegate to politicians, or scientists, or one’s children, or simply generalized others. Until the apocalypse comes, flip to the sports pages. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, before they’re all incinerated. 

But there are deeper and more interesting problems, too. And if we understand them, we might actually be able to address them.

Environmental stories are almost always couched in big, global, abstract terms (“environment,” “global warming”). Yet we are small, local, concrete people. We are inherently incapable of relating meaningfully to more than a few people at a time, or to more than a small patch of land. Love is the most local thing of all.

And while it’s not true that we’re dominated by self-interest, it is true that our altruism tends to be restricted to family, friends, and next-door neighbors. “To whom do you owe a duty?” asks the English law. To your neighbor, is the answer—defining “neighbor” in a much more restrictive way than did the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The fact that environmental articles are written inaccessibly is a sign of a deep malaise that first appeared at the time of the Enlightenment. Before then, mountains, plants, and hedgehogs, as well as humans, had souls. The natural world had been seen as both an organism and a collection of organisms. 

Enlightenment rationalism pooh-poohed the souls away. The world became, and remains, a machine. There is nothing intrinsically immoral about smashing up a machine, and since morality and emotional engagement are related, you won’t get people morally excited about it either. Even when the machine you’re smashing is (as in the case of the climate) a life-support machine. 

This is reflected in the way that our brains increasingly work. In The Master and His Emissary (2009), Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and literary scholar, examined the significance of the division between the two halves of the human brain: the right brain, which grasps whole concepts and is concerned with context and relationality (what we used to refer to as wisdom), and the left, which is concerned with details, and with constituent parts. The right is the titular master, the left the emissary. But somehow, McGilchrist writes, the left, intended as a secretary—a filer—has arrogated the boss’s function and taken control. It is a tyrannical and dysfunctional ruler. The left is very good at short-term, concentrated attention, at focusing on minutiae, or the mechanical, but it is very bad at seeing the bigger picture. And what one can’t see, one can’t respond to emotionally. 

What’s to be done? 

National papers will find it constitutionally hard to change. Their focus will necessarily be on national and international concerns, and geographically local stories will suffer.

Local papers need to be encouraged to lead the way on climate coverage, to show how the pond around the corner has dried up, to explain how tadpoles’ tails slowly stopped wriggling before they died, and to describe how the smell of decomposition ruined someone’s picnic. 

We need to personalize. To use “I” especially, and “you,” and “she”—not just of humans but also of nonhumans. That needn’t mean vacuous anthropomorphism. (Consciousness seems to be fairly ubiquitous. Deal with it.) Work at empathy—both personally and literarily. Like everything else, it gets easier the harder you try. 

In my own writing, I’ve tried a weird kind of zoological Method acting. I attempted to live like a badger, an otter, an urban fox, a red deer, and a swift. It’s not for everyone, but it won’t do you any harm, might do some good, and in any event is a lot more fun than watching TV. Human interest stories sell tabloids; quasi-human interest stories should sell broadsheets. Abolish graphs. Abjure abstraction. Be particular. Be small. Weep, don’t preach. Wonder, don’t analyze. Be emotional, animistic children watching little things in a Greek garden, and know that little things are great. It’s only ever children who really change the world—as most wisdom traditions agree. Of course analysis is crucial. But it is in our bowels, not our brains, that we change.

Charles Foster is a fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. His latest book is Cry of the Wild (2023).