The Story We Need to Tell; the Movement We Need to Build

Monster Hurricanes, Raging Wildfires, Massive Floods, Unprecedented Heat Waves…

This disastrous summer has shown that climate change is no longer a theory but a full, galloping reality. Now is the moment to organize around it, and build a movement broader and stronger than ever before.

Great efforts have indeed been made to mobilize people at places like Standing Rock and by organizations such as  And yet.. and yet.. somehow even in the aftermath of this disastrous summer it is hard to get the outrage and momentum around this issue that it deserves. It’s as if some spell forces our eyes away as soon as we try to focus on it. 

Why Do We Continue to Look Away?

The spell may be tied into the stories we are telling. In a recent article in the Guardian, environmental writer George Monbiot suggests that to truly address climate meltdown and make the enormous changes called for, we need a new story. 

Both of the major competing mainstream economic visions—Keynesian democracy and neo-liberalism—are telling a meta-story of Restoration: disorder plagues the world, and the hero fights it and restores order. It’s a powerful narrative that runs deeply through Western myths and literature. Trump played on the same underlying archetype: “Make America great!” would be a call for change. “Make America great again!” centers Trump as the hero who can restore our former glory—whatever that is supposed to be.

Our Cultural Stories

Monbiot, along with linguist George Lakoff and many others, point out that people are not motivated by facts, but by stories. Stories give the world shape and meaning, and the stories embedded in our minds (and Lakoff would say, our neural circuitry) shape how we perceive the world.

We have trouble addressing climate change—and deniers find traction in our minds—because to acknowledge climate change contradicts one of our deeply-held cultural stories, the story of Progress:  the promise that thing are getting better and better, for science has finally triumphed over nature, removing us at last from being subject to the dangerous chances and vicissitudes of the natural world. We are “Masters of the Universe,” defying gravity, curing infectious diseases that ravaged our ancestors, carrying in our pockets magic devices that let us communicate across the world.  Soon we may even triumph over death itself, and become like gods.

To admit climate change is real is to admit our own finitude and accept our limitations, to acknowledge that nature ultimately is more powerful than we are, and in the end, we die. What fun is that?

The environmental movement tends to counter the story of Progress with a story of Sin and Retribution. I would like to say Sin and Redemption—but most often the story doesn’t quite get there. It is, in its essence, a narrative that draws on some very reduced elements of a certain take on Christianity: Human beings are essentially flawed. Everything we touch is tainted. We might, through repentance, expiation and sacrifice, be able to make a slight difference, but basically we’re doomed. This narrative dovetails nicely with the Story of Apocalypse—soon our flawed nature will result in the destruction of the world. (And, just to be clear, there are many, many other Christian narratives that center creation, love and compassion.)

Is it any wonder that we have not yet motivated the masses to throng behind the climate change banner? 

The Story as the Solution

A response to climate change calls for enormous changes in our economy, technology, energy systems, food-growing systems and overarching culture, to name a few—and we need energy, excitement, imagination, outrage and optimism to make them. We can’t get there by telling people that the world is better off without them.

And the changes we need to make do not actually require self-abnegation. Here’s the hidden truth that should outrage us: to counter climate change, what we need to do are things that will actually make life better for the vast majority of people.

Climate change doesn’t require us to dress in gray lindsey-wolsey and stand in bread lines waiting for a dollop of gruel—although NOT addressing it may well get us there. It doesn’t ask us to torture little children or spill toxic substances over pristine lands. 

In fact, it’s just the opposite. To deal with climate change, we need to stop with the toxic substances already, and switch to nice clean things; stop burning stuff for energy, and instead use the flows of sunlight and wind and water that shower the world with energy every day. We need to preserve our pristine rain forests and old growth, stop using poisons on our food and rebuild healthy soil, put more people with trained eyes and hands out of the land to restore damaged ecosystems, graze animals on tree-studded pastures instead of torturing them in feedlots, and encourage more local food, local enterprises, local culture and connection. 

We need to eat better, live in healthier and more beautiful albeit smaller homes, spend more time relating to our friends and family, and create vibrant communities. Where, exactly, is the sacrifice? 


The sacrifice is simply this: the massive profits of the fossil fuel industry and the few who benefit from them. Yes, there are many changes we’ll need to make in our habits, our consumption, our systems. But those are tradeoffs, not sacrifices.

Yes, we need to consume less stuff, but we actually need to do more of the things that truly make life fulfilling and worthwhile. Everything we need to do to address climate change is exactly what we should be doing even if it weren’t a factor to make the world cleaner, healthier, more vibrant and more just. When we adopt a tone of ‘sacrifice’, we conceal the truth that the people who really have something to lose are those who have gained it at the expense of the rest of the world. 

Re-Framing the Story

A new story needs a new frame. Lakoff describes a ‘frame’ as an overarching metaphorical structure that determines how we see the world. Both Progress and Sin share a common, underlying frame. Nature is something separate from human beings.  Culture and nature exist in separate realms, and humans are separate from the natural world. In one story, we’re capable of controlling nature—in the other, we’re doomed to mess her up. In both, we exist outside of her domain.

A countering frame comes from the worldview of indigenous cultures. 

Granted, there are tens of thousands of indigenous cultures, current and past. I do not want to lump them together and erase their distinctiveness. Yet there is a frame common to many, if not most, indigenous cultures—We are not separate from nature… we are nature, part of an inseparable web of life and relationship. The plants, animals, rivers, stones, and micro-organisms are our family members.

“All my relations”—“aho mitákuye oyás’iŋ,” is how the Lakota say it. 

According to Luisah Teish, author and priestess of Oshun in the African diaspora traditions, the Yoruba frame is that we are all cells in the body of God. 

Like cells, we each have a unique function, and we are all part of a whole. No one of us is charged with being the sole savior of the world, yet we each have a vital role to play in an alive, dynamic and ever-changing world. 

The elders of Standing Rock evoked this frame brilliantly in the campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline, with their call to action: “M’ni wiconi—water is sacred.  Water is life!” Activists were not called ‘protestors’ but ‘water protectors’.

Inherent in the understanding that we are part of a living earth is honoring the sacred—that the things that sustain our lives, such as water, have a value that supersedes profit or convenience, that they are not to be despoiled but must be cherished and defended.

A Story of Connection

This framework of interconnection and relationship is our common, human heritage. It underlies the beginnings of European and Middle Eastern cultures even as it continues in unbroken lineage today in many parts of the world. The most deplorable, basement-dwelling, video-game and junk food addict is nonetheless descended from skilled trackers and sensitive foragers and able hunters, from people who lived close to the earth and understood our deep interrelationship with all aspects of the living world. Had they not, they would not have survived.

Indigenous mind is not something exotic that European-heritage folks need to appropriate from other cultures.  Europeans, too, have ancestors who lived in close connection to the natural world for tens of thousands of years. But the remnants of Euro-indigeneity, the traditions of magic and nature spirits and herbalism, the understanding of the world as alive, dynamic and infused with consciousness, were attacked and driven underground by the Witch persecutions and the rise of mechanistic science and capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries**. 

** That’s another long story and I do not have the space to tell it here, but I would refer people to the appendix in my book Dreaming the Dark, as well as Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, and David Kubrin’s Marxism and Witchcraft.

In the Time of the Great Meltdown

From the framework of interconnection and interrelationship, we might reframe climate change as not just about carbon numbers, but as massive ecosystem degeneration—which includes human social and political systems. It’s Meltdown Time—and the solution is not just Restoration but regeneration—massive ecosystem regeneration on a global scale, informed and guided by a resurgence of the indigenous.

In the time of the great Meltdown, we must reclaim our ancient understanding of our sacred relationship to the earth and all living beings. Each of us has unique gifts and a unique role to play. We have the knowledge, the skills and the technology we need.

While we face powerful opponents, when we commit to the work of regeneration, we find great allies: the living indigenous cultures who survive today, the ancient teachings and wisdom, the gifts of modern science and technology applied to serve sacred values, boundless creativity and the resilient earth herself with all her creatures.

Together we can regenerate the land and create just and thriving human communities living in sacred relationship with one another and the earth.

7 comments to The Story We Need to Tell; the Movement We Need to Build

  • Mike Wold

    Where can one find David Kubrin’s Marxism and Witchcraft?

  • Philippa Rampton

    Thank you, Starhawk on your article, ‘A story to tell.’ You summed up the issue so beautifully. Humanity needs to pool all of its resources to make the change happen. The challenge is that at present the ‘power’, the control, the decision making is coming from those who have no connection to nature and the land. These are city people, some many generations back who have no memory of nature, they have ancestral memory but it’s somehow waking them up to that is key. We live near Glastonbury, U.K on an organic farm and yet a walk into town you encounter folk though talking their talk, can not walk their talk. They live in their own illusions. Yes, the script needs to written and the veil of illusion lifted so we can connect to the one, not the myriad of the many.

  • Beautiful Starhawk! Love to you, hope to connect soon, Susan Silber

  • Linda Finch

    I relate strongly to the Lakota spirituality as well as with those of indigenous cultures. Your articulation of life in the time of Trump and those who deny climate change, etc. as a time of meltdown leading to rebirth is one of the most positive messages I’ve heard in awhile. Thanks-and Good Yule!

    Linda Finch

  • Thank you, Starhawk, for such a beautiful reminder at such a powerful time. Many in America are celebrating sacred holidays in this season, and more people are realizing how deeply they are all connected. While some are shocked to discover the ancient pagan origins of Christmas traditions (like trees and stars should be owned by one religion!) many are feeling a profound sense of connection. From the story of the Hanukkah lights to the prosperity candles people light today, from the feast of Thanksgiving to an upsurge in recycled, locally produced and handmade gifts instead of mindless corporate commodity gorging, many people are thinking more about the reason(s) for the season – in every season. The ultimate foundational “reason” is… the Earth! And the Sun, and the rest of the natural universe, not any human construction or concept. Of course. How could we have been so silly. Even those who believe that Nature is God’s creation and not Her own Divine Self are taking their sacred commitments more seriously. I am not despairing. I am so grateful to be alive in this surreal and sacred moment of profound transformation and incredible possibility. You have been feeding both my outrage and my optimism for almost three decades and I am deeply grateful. Onward! Love & blessings from Vermont, Dawn

  • Jonathan Cornell

    I read most of The Spiral Dance” and I can relate to your love for human potential without expoloiting nature and other people, have a sense of oneness and using our creative abilities. Thank you!

  • […] the garden, the environmental movement is coming to the conclusion that we need to tell better stories if we are to convince a wider audience that we can and should be working towards a better world. […]

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>