While my maternal grandfather fought jungle battles in New Guinea, my paternal grandfather fabricated battlefields on a sound stage in New Jersey. John Harbert, aka Poppy, would become a three-war veteran, retire as a colonel, and count among his honors the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. Robert Boudinot Sr., aka Gramps, was a committed pacifist and Unitarian who got a fine arts degree at George Washington University in the depths of the Depression. During the war, he helped Paramount Pictures produce phony footage for news reels with actors playing American GIs. Entwined with original shots from the front, these new scenes delivered narratives of heroism to home front audiences who gathered in movie theaters across America. When John Harbert saved the supply ship Alacrity off Cape Sudest by shoveling piles of burning gun powder off the deck, there were no cameras present to record his gallantry.
I’ve been thinking about my grandfathers’ experiences of the war while struggling with questions of how to confront our climate emergency through narrative. Crises of existential magnitude don’t just generate narratives after the fact; stories and tropes frame our understanding of events while they are unfolding. I’ve observed growing interest among artists and activists, particularly in the video game industry, to “use storytelling” to better communicate the severity of this moment. The tools we use to both reveal truths and propagate lies are being called into service to guide us to a future where life can thrive on earth.
My friend Andri Magnason’s recent book On Time and Water considers the difficulty in enlisting language that’s in a state of constant, semiotic evolution, with newly minted terms like “ocean acidification” failing to inspire the requisite terror in societies cognitively ill-equipped to comprehend their magnitude. The plaque Magnason designed commemorating the disappearance of Iceland’s Okjökull glacier preserves his haunting message to the future in brass:
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
We know what is happening and what needs to be done. What a simple statement, equally interpretable as damnation or a heroic call to arms, from Iceland’s voice of climate conscience, a celebrated writer of fiction. I’m inspired by Magnason’s example and chilled by his warning. But can we really dig our way out of this abyss of our own making by telling stories?
I’ve devoted my life to storytelling. When I was six, I discovered I had a talent for writing fiction. I set my mind to developing my gift, sought out any opportunity to learn more about writing craft and literature, met key mentors along the way, worked as a journalist before I was old enough to drive, racked up creative writing credits in college, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree, stuck to a daily writing regimen, wrote thousands of pages of unusable novels and stories, and eventually published two collections of stories, two novels, an anthology, and a collection of essays.
I’ve also learned about storytelling through day jobs, mostly in the tech sector, where I’ve used words to psychologically manipulate people into separating themselves from their money in exchange for goods and services. If, per Kafka, I write fiction as a form of prayer, I write for tech companies in the alley behind the temple, in the spirit of a mugging. In my twenties, I was as obsessed as anyone of my generation with questions of artistic integrity and “selling out,” but at this stage, the supplicant lost in prayer and the thief shaking down the unsuspecting have made peace with each other and have even become friends, like odd-couple partners in a buddy cop movie. Right now they’re looking at each other wondering if there’s a way to write our way out of the climate emergency.
The initial impulse to “use storytelling” to confront our climate crisis is to “raise awareness.” Whenever I encounter efforts to raise my awareness, I wonder how much awareness needs to be raised before it leads to a sort of numb paralysis, or whether the act of raising awareness is really about fortifying one’s own sense of importance and sustaining an illusion of accomplishment. I was aware of global warming and then climate change and now the climate crisis, which, etymologically speaking, should soon evolve into the climate shitstorm followed thereafter by the flames of hellfire reckoning. Despite ample warning, I still drive a fossil fuel-burning car, buy stuff wrapped in plastic, and occasionally eat a cheeseburger. I remind myself to check a certain degree of generational cantankerousness when I grouse about the term “raise awareness.” But if raising awareness alone were sufficient in solving our most pressing problems, gun violence, income disparity, and racial injustice should have been resolved by now.
One of the reasons I distrust awareness raising as an end it itself is that I’ve observed that the most effective modes of communications, whether in marketing, fiction, or political advertising, work beneath or adjacent to awareness. Narratives are algorithms operating on multiple planes of consciousness, designed to manipulate people into thinking, feeling, or doing something. When you really want to affect radical change, communicate in ways that your audience isn’t even fully aware. The advertisers behind the ads that appear in our streams don’t want us to be fully aware that we’re being targeted. The racist dog whistles in political ads only work if a certain degree of plausible deniability is built into their delivery. Over and over, we’ve seen reasoned argument and analytical appeals to our higher nature crumble in the blast zone of bombastic posturing and tribalist histrionics. Storytelling is the art of delivering boring truths and exciting bullshit and understanding the perverse, co-dependent relationship between the two.
Let’s call narratives motivated by aesthetics, respect for the audience, and a healthy dose of humility art. And let’s call narratives designed to provoke an audience into making real-life decisions that result in establishing or maintaining power propaganda. Art is genuine because it openly acknowledges its artificiality; propaganda is artificial because its falsely purports to reveal the truth.
We entrust art to deliver us symbolic truths because it is upfront about being make-believe and we get suckered by propaganda because we enjoy the seduction of narratives. When audiences absorbed the news reels my grandfather helped produce, they weren’t aware they were watching propaganda. When they regarded his oil paintings, they understood they were looking at art. The difference is conveyed through context. A picture in a frame hanging on a wall in an art gallery announces itself as an imaginary representation. Fabricated scenes spliced together with documentary footage wear a disguise of nonfiction.
There’s a third category of expression between art and propaganda that we can call didactic art. According to Wikipedia, didacticism is “a philosophy that emphasizes instructional and informative qualities in literature, art and design… driven by the urgent need to explain.”
I’ll admit to a life-long, reflexive animosity toward didactic art. I’m offended when an artist purports to convey something to me for my own good. As a kid, I recoiled from stories that had morals and got suspicious when I could tell that a writer wanted to influence my behavior. Heavy handed moral instruction seemed like a violation of a holy bond between an artist and the unknown. This is why I always preferred books like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a tale about gaining mastery over unpleasant emotions, to books like The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist, a story meant to get kids to brush their teeth. One sort of story is like food, a necessary substance that provides energy that can be used in a variety of ways. The other sort of story is more like medicine, a substance designed to invoke a specific outcome, prescribed by somebody who assumes they understand better than I do what’s good for me. When I suspect artists are using art like medicine instead of food, I tend to seek ways to undermine their sanctimony by hunting for aesthetic flaws.
Didactic art wants to have it both ways; it’s at least the pretense of an aesthetic experience mashed together with the behavior-influencing to-do list of propaganda. It is expression reverse engineered from an opinion rather than the output of an intuitive, often messy, and subconscious-driven process that reverentially encounters the gray areas of human experience and reports back on what it has discovered. I tend not to trust anybody who claims to have all the answers and patronizingly deigns to enlighten me, if only because I’m acutely aware of how few answers I have myself. I’m inclined to trust those who exhibit a healthy degree of Socratic ignorance and distrust anybody who presents themselves from a position of moral certitude, even if I happen to agree with that position. The wiggle room provided by sticky questions over the rigidity of definitive answers is the entry point to art as a collective endeavor between creator and audience, as opposed to some sort of one-sided, heavy handed edict.
Didactic art tends to lose its power precipitously when confronted with reality. In the late twentieth century, the War on Drugs inspired movies and books that warned of marijuana’s capacity to turn people into homicidal psychopaths. Today, long having devolved into self-parody, those movie posters and book covers serve as the wall décor at your friendly neighborhood cannabis shop. When the Just Say No sanctimony of the Reagan era, manifest in sitcoms and ABC After School Specials, ran into my generation’s actual experiences with drugs, a certain strain of moral rectitude became its own punchline. In time, we also came to learn that drug laws were established as a pretext for a racist justice system designed to imprison Black people. On the other hand, lived experience demonstrates that drugs do indeed absolutely wreck many peoples’ lives. Then again, I can’t think of a single artist in music, cinema, or literature who hasn’t used substances to alter their brain chemistry in some manner, resulting in art that I greatly enjoy. Which is all to say that drugs are more complicated and deeply entwined in the human condition than the drug war crusaders of old would have us believe. Didactic art seeks to negate such complications to relieve us of the burden of having to make decisions based on our personal experiences and observations and our direct, shared experiences with others.
But come on, Mr. Stick in the Mud, isn’t art that endeavors to be a force for positive change in the real world a good thing? What about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s proposition that art’s dual purpose is to “inform and entertain?” And doesn’t art that hews so stringently to aesthetics for its own sake succumb to navel gazing and ignore the inescapable responsibilities of human beings coexisting with other human beings in a society? Isn’t George Orwell right that abdicating one’s moral position when creating art is itself a moral position?
Maybe it’s not so much that art should be devoid of morally instructive content than that such content is more powerful when it is revealed through aesthetic investigation rather than illustrating a settled argument. Marshall McLuhan believed that art often operates as an early cultural distress signal to which the aesthetic antennae of artists are attuned. Margaret Atwood and Franz Kafka transformed the ambient cultural anxieties of their respective societies into drama and metaphor, but I imagine their work would fade into oblivion if they didn’t live up to their primary aesthetic responsibilities as storytellers. If anything, Sinclair Lewis’s revelations about factory farming in The Jungle are more relevant now than ever, but does his prose continue rewarding us over time? We might argue with Orwell that devotion to aesthetics for its own sake is itself a defensible moral position, an assertion of beauty’s intrinsic value beyond mere set decoration for convictions. While the particular political conditions of their eras fade away, the underlying human conditions with which artists wrestle persist through history, encoded in the substrate of human nature. It is their artistry, not their opinions, that gives champions of expression access to this nature and ensures the enduring relevance of their work.
There’s a wonderfully bitchy quote by David Foster Wallace that I used to give to my writing students to make the point that the virtue of an artist’s ideas don’t earn them a pass when it comes to craft. Here’s an excerpt from a syllabus Wallace provided to his own students (emphasis mine).
If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.
In other words, the fervency of an artist’s convictions don’t grant them license to give craft short shrift. I’d take it a step further and argue that an artist’s commitment to aesthetics should grow in proportion to the strength of their convictions. To best confront the political or cultural conditions under which an artist chafes, it behooves them to bring the full force of their creativity to bear. I believe this attitude can prove especially critical when calling upon art to confront the species-obliterating, existential crisis we’re facing right now.
Like basically every American man in his late forties, I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of my life thinking about Star Wars. I’m especially fascinated by how those movies influenced and were influenced by the zeitgeist. The original trilogy, released in 1977, 1980, and 1983, hit screens squarely within the Cold War era, a period when Americans lived in fear that the Soviet Union would nuke us to oblivion, and vice versa. This fear was so pervasive that it provided one of the main premises when I ran around in the woods playing war with other boys, all of us understanding that at any moment we could be vaporized by a distant, inscrutable people who ate a lot of beets and waited in line for hours just to buy toilet paper.
Sometimes this fear of the USSR was expressed explicitly. In the movie Red Dawn (1984), a group of high school kids in America’s Mountain time zone band together as guerilla soldiers to repel a Soviet invasion. The made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983) delivered a vision of nuclear Armageddon laying waste to the American suburbs, and more than 100 million actual Americans tuned in to watch the broadcast in rapt horror. (There’s even an episode of The Americans, a show about Cold War spycraft and skullduggery set in the 1980s, which revolves around the characters watching The Day After.)
Star Wars, a science fiction movie about the destruction of a super weapon, tapped a collective cultural vein where persistent fears of nuclear annihilation flowed. To live in the USA or USSR during the Cold War was to live with a Death Star hovering over our heads. If that metaphor seems belabored, consider that the movie star who happened to be our president for most of the eighties came to refer to his missile defense program, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as Star Wars.
In retirement, my army colonel grandfather became involved in a military industry lobbying group called The High Frontier, which advocated for SDI. Today, the High Frontier has evolved into the branch of the military referred to — often with a smirk — as Space Force. As a kid, I was treated to Poppy’s lectures, many conducted around campfires, about mutual assured destruction, nuclear disarmament, and the vapid self regard of my and my parents’ generations. In one exchange captured on video, Poppy addresses me, “Hey, Ryan. Ask me if I’m a member of the Military Industrial Complex.”
“Are you a member of the Military Industrial Complex?” I dutifully reply.
“I am! And proud of it!”
One undeniable fact about my three-war veteran grandfather was that he hated war. While my pacifist grandfather’s hatred of war was conceptual and guided by a strong moral center, my career military grandfather’s hatred was based on such experiences as seeing his jeep driver’s head blown off by a sniper on the Korean Peninsula. I heard him say “No one hates war more than those who fight it,” so many times that it came to be a sort of motto. I can appreciate that he wanted a world free of weapons. The whole point of Star Wars (the defense system) was to destroy warheads from space before they could destroy us. Poppy even spoke about hoping the Soviets would adopt our space shield technology too, so that American ICBMs would likewise be destroyed. All of this seemed crazy because it was; the agreement that discouraged two superpowers from nuclear obliteration, after all, was named MAD. The nuclear arms race had pushed humanity to the point where it was no longer possible to commit homicide without simultaneously committing suicide.
So our conflict with the Soviets retreated to a front where clear winners and losers could be allocated — culture. On one level, the Cold War was essentially a high school popularity contest featuring enriched plutonium, and in 1989, America pop culture dominated the planet. Star Wars had trained millions of us to consider the destruction of a weapon as an event worth celebrating with medals and a score by John Williams. We produced Levis, the planet’s most kickass pants. Sylvester Stalone and Bruce Willis deadpanned quips while mowing down bad dudes in cinemas worldwide and Madonna was a vision of unabashed, entitled sensuality reveling in a material world. And in a move that historians of the future will puzzle over, the newly liberated nation of Czechoslovakia bestowed a cultural ambassadorship on their musical hero, the brilliant freak composer Frank Zappa, who once wrote a song with a chorus that went “Ram it, ram it, ram it, ram it up your poop chute!”
No wonder we won the Cold War.
While nukes still slumber in silos dreaming of trajectories, the ambient anxieties of the Cold War have been mostly unraveled by mutually assured absurdity. We seem to have come to a similar, Strangelovian moment with regards to our climate, an existential paradox implicit in Greta Thunberg’s withering judgment, “We are the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Our Scandinavian, teenage personification of climate conscience puts a fine point on our present contradiction: market places can’t exist if places don’t exist.
Funny word, marketplace. At some point, we decoupled it and began speaking only of markets, lifting the term from its grounding in physical reality into the realms of the conceptual. As we migrate our sensoria online, that second part of the term becomes more insistent, as physical places more urgently demand our attention. There are no markets without places. When those places disappear, where do you expect to spend your money, and on what? And why?
These questions arrive at a moment when narrative delivery systems, chiefly video games, have become ever more intimate with data drawn from the real world. Game engines have at last crossed the uncanny valley to render photorealistic avatars, board meetings commence in virtual reality, jpegs break art world sales records, and the data we use to measure the health of the planet entwines with the platforms through which we entertain each other. Cloud computing allows us to store and access GIS, IoT, LiDAR, and other data that measure everything from rates of deforestation and ocean salinity to the electrical signals pulsing through fungal mycelium networks. The cloud is also how games are built and delivered. All these converging and intermingling technologies are obliterating the boundaries between the representational and the tangible, to the point that our stories do not simply ripple through human spheres of culture, but can directly impact the health of actual biomes. Welcome to the century of the metaverse, our ever-growing, collective virtual space that some consider the ultimate retreat from physical reality. It might prove to be exactly the technology we need to save life on planet earth.
The metaverse, dependent on the physical world to power its servers, is positioned to return the favor by helping us invent new reasons to value the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, and the water we have no choice but to absorb every day. Earth will adapt to this carbon crisis of our making by offering up its resources in the form of abstractions to a species of primates that increasingly lives in the abstract. A tree will become less valuable for surrendering its lumber than for serving as the living source of its digital representation in a game world. A marsh becomes more valuable in proportion to its biodiversity not because those animals can be hunted and killed, but because game worlds will be designed to yield more virtual treasures the more species in that marsh recover and thrive. As we develop economies based on ephemeral goods in the metaverse, we can direct the proceeds to preserving, restoring, and protecting the physical world, not out of a patronizing sense of charity, but selfishly, because the fecundity of the planet will bear fruit in our digital lives. As the earth becomes more valuable to us for digital resources than physical resources, it will become even more beautiful than we dared dream it could be.
The question then isn’t really about how to “use storytelling” to convince people to adopt practices that result in better ecological outcomes. That’s a twentieth century, algebraic way of looking at the problem, rooted in the unconnected passivity native to legacy media. The solution to our climate catastrophe isn’t to make a sufficient number of people feel shitty about how they live in hopes that they’ll become just as enlightened as we privileged few imagine ourselves to be. Rather, we can harness data in the cloud, drawn from cameras, temperature gauges, drones, satellites, and a web of instruments all over the planet, managed by powerful AI and machine learning algorithms, and bind this data in a positive feedback loop to our inexhaustible capacity to entertain ourselves. I’m saying it is entirely possible, using existing technology and data sets that are largely free, to design video games that become more fun the more the planet heals.
Our story, then, is about the moment that human beings, facing certain doom caused by burning dead dinosaurs, realized that we can harness our insatiable hunger for fantasies, whimsies, and diversions to pull plastic from the ocean and carbon from the sky. This is a story about making entertainment that heals coral reefs and plants trees by removing the bottleneck of conscience from the equation and replacing it with data lakes, IoT monitors, digital twins, analytics dashboards, game loops, and virtual goods marketplaces.
The heroes of these stories are the very people who consume them, because consuming these stories results in a more habitable planet where more stories can be told. The space between the protagonist on a heroic journey in an imaginary world and the person absorbed in that story in the real world is about to collapse. This has never happened before in the history of art. We’ve never been able to convert narrative into consequential action like we can now. In this century, we will entertain ourselves back from the brink of planetary disaster, heroes of the last story left to tell.