The Greatest Story of the 21st Century

Last week’s most important news story – the biodiversity crisis that threatens our own existence – was buried by celebrity coverage of royal births, Met galas and throne games. In the United States, it was simply not reported at all by the majority of prime-time networks.

This week, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeded the 415 ppm threshhold for the first time in human history.

And just a few days ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond said the unspeakable: “The chances are about 49 percent that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050… Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.”

In our lifetimes.

For the first time in years, I am not able to focus. American comedian Jimmy Kimmel joked that “If pizza were in danger of going extinct … we’d ban together to protect our national pepperoni reserves.” But the extinction of one million of our shared planets’ eight million species due to human influence? Meh.

The haunting score to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 film, Before The Flood, fits my mood perfectly:

Overwhelmed by feelings of existential angst and rage, I turn to my favorite women writers for words of wisdom. Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities has long been my go-to. But today, I am particularly drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s sublime Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

I flip through the dog-eared pages, hunting for sapience. I re-read, then meditate upon, my favorite passage in Kimmerer’s book:

When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.

So say the lichens. I love you, Robin. Your words feel like medicine. Thank you for sharing your Indigenous wisdom. We need it desperately. Braiding Sweetgrass should be required reading for… everyone.

But later, I cried when I read poet/writer/activist Emily Johnston‘s remarkable essay Loving a vanishing world, published last week following the release of the UN’s landmark biodiversity/extinction report:

We cannot undo what we’ve done simply by being nice and Earth-friendly people  – or by killing ourselves, for that matter. And we can’t leave this world better than we found it  –  it will be lesser for a long time. But we can change the path that it’s on now, and we know how to start making up for what we’ve done. We have beautiful work to do before we die.

I am reminded of a similar quote by Paola Antonelli, curator of the 22nd edition of the Milan Triennale: “Our only chance at survival is to design our own beautiful extinction.” This was the shocking opening sentence of a fascinating interview with Antonelli about Broken Nature, the title of the 2019 triennale that explores restorative design in the Anthropocene.

According to Antonelli, who is Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City,

What’s broken cannot go back, but forward into something new. So it’s not at all final. The only thing that I consider final is our own extinction. We have, however, the power to postpone it a bit, and make it better.

The poet Johnston explains in a short essay why “making space for hope” rather than “giving people hope” should be our main objective. “We know that things will get worse… but if we dedicate ourselves to the task, we can make sure that the arc of our physical universe bends towards life, and not destruction.”

photo, Joan Sullivan, geese, Saint Lawrence, fleuve, river, Quebec, Canada

Johnston continues:

That’s why I say that we are more powerful than humans have ever been: we know now that if we simply continue on the existing path, then there is little chance for humanity, and much or most of all animal life will be wiped out too  – yet it is still within our grasp to change this, to be the people who decided not to let the fossil fuel industry kill the world. And because we can, we must. Our moral choices are stark: we are either among those who rise to this occasion, and do all we can do to love this world and right the wrongs that we have unwittingly inflicted on it, or we are among those willing to allow the world to end because we feel overwhelmed, or powerless.

And because we can, we must.

Emily Johnston

So I turn, as I often do in existential moments like this, to another woman writer for a jolt of caffeine. Solitaire Townsend‘s 2018 Forbes article, “The Epic Story of Solving Climate Change,” never fails to get me back on my feet.

Townsend explains why climate fatalism is the enemy of action. According to her,

The climate-Frankenstein story is creeping into people’s psyche, sucking the will to act from them. Today’s tragedy of climate change, with the moral that man is the real monster, is so narratively satisfying it’s become dangerously believable. For many environmentalists, giving up this story would be a wrench. Even those who understand the dangerous psychology of fatalism struggle with their own addiction to the ‘it’s all our own fault, and we deserve what’s coming’ narrative.

So how do we change the dominant climate narrative? Townsend’s answer is simple: “Only a story can beat a story.”

She explains:

Every 8-year-old knows how to kill a monster. Harry Potter knows it, Dorothy in Oz knows it, Beowulf knows it, James Bond and Sam of the Shire know it. It’s the story that killed Dracula and blew up the Death Star. At its most simple – it’s the hero’s journey.

This “overcoming the monster” story often works best when a new generation, the youth, rally against the threat created (or allowed) by the old. You have told, read and watched this story all your life. The small against the big. The downtrodden against the overlord. Plucky humanity against the growing darkness.

Here’s where Townsend gets specific:

The magic elixir of the heroic story has always been guile. Tricking the monster, inventing a solution, spotting a fatal flaw and exploiting it. From Indiana Jones feigning zombiedom in the Temple of Doom, John McClane taping a gun to his back, or Eowyn revealing her gender on the battlefields of Gondor, heroes invent and misdirect their way around insurmountable odds. This is the most crucial part of our new climate story – and we’ve already found that magical way to trick ourselves out of the jaws of doom. Electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines are just the start of the innovation explosion coming from carbon constraint. Renewable energy is the ultimate cheat of the climate monsters’ plans.

How I love this quote!

Renewable energy is the ultimate cheat of the climate monsters’ plans.

Solitaire Townsend

According to Townsend,

We must teach our children this new “heroes’ journey” story of climate change. And it’s not a small story, nor a short one. This is an epic. We face a gargantuan, enormous and near impossible task. We need our Henry V before the battle of Agincourt declaiming, “We few, we happy few”, Frodo holding the ring and nervously offering, “I will take it, though I do not know the way” and Ripley rising in her rig and shouting, “Get away from her, you bitch!”.

Townsend concludes with possibly the most quotable quote of the Anthropocene, guaranteed to inspire generations of artivists and activists:

We need swashbuckling daring, bravery and courage, guile and desperate invention, unlikely friendships and alliances forged in fire. So that solving climate change becomes the greatest story of the 21st century.


And Amen to all the women scribes with the grit, courage and guile who dare to shine a light in the darkness. Homo sapiens needs more women who climate.

(All photos by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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