In 1843, Charles Dickens was planning to write a political pamphlet documenting the poverty of children as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. But knowing that a well-told tale would spread his message ‘with twenty thousand times the force’, he changed his mind and, on the 19th December that same year, A Christmas Carol was published. The first edition sold out within the week, and the narrative of Scrooge’s redemption has remained an annual favourite ever since, reminding us every year of the true meaning of wealth and shaping our view of Christmas itself.
Far more than dry facts, stories have power. They colour outlook, reveal worlds, bridge divides and inspire change. No less powerful are the stories we tell about ourselves. Consciously and unconsciously, we edit our personal narratives, moulding our self-identity, refining the way we think of ourselves and the persona we present to others. Yet however much we revise, one thing remains constant: we’re never our story’s villain. On the contrary, we’re capable of ingenious convolutions of fact in our determination to persuade ourselves and others that we’re the good guys.
But when it comes to the story of our species on this planet, the fact is that we are – indisputably – the baddies.
Between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10% of the global population was responsible for 52% of global emissions.Study by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute
And you don’t need a private jet or a Malibu mansion to be part of that top 10% – just an income of above £27,500. Which means, since the median UK household income in 2020 was £29,900, that there’s every chance that you, like me, are one of them. Collectively, we are the villains responsible for the worst of the climate crisis. When the experts tell us it’s the wealthy driving climate change, they’re talking about us.
In 1989, Greenpeace also used a story to make dry facts more powerful. In an advert, they compared the inconceivable age of the earth, at 4.6 billion years old, to a 46 year-old. According to that tale, it was only at the relatively recent age of 42 that the planet began to flower. Mammals evolved only eight months ago. The last ice-age was last weekend. We discovered agriculture in the last hour, while the Industrial Revolution began one minute ago. And in those last sixty seconds we few, we profligate, wealthy few, have made ‘a rubbish tip of Paradise… destroying this oasis of life in the solar system.’
And a lack of intent doesn’t excuse. As in the best stories, there’s complexity. The villain doesn’t necessarily set out to do evil, but often is motivated by an admirable desire: to care for family or friends, to safeguard a system or society they believe in, to bring about greater change. But sooner or later, the protagonist is faced with the reality of their actions. And unless their story is to be a tragedy, the consequent crisis forces a dramatic re-evaluation, that in turn launches a radically different trajectory.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is granted the gift of perspective, an opportunity to see his present from beyond his everyday, in the context of his past and his future. His villainy is clear.
When it comes to our role in the tale of this planet, that Greenpeace advert makes stark our past. As for the future we’re warned awaits, the truth is it’s already here, in floods and famines, hurricanes and cyclones, in wildfires and ice melt increasingly in line with the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios. Our crisis moment is now. This is the Christmas morning to which Scrooge awakes.
Recognising his extremes at last, Dickens’ protagonist changes dramatically. Tempering his behaviour isn’t enough; instead, he swings with a similar lack of compromise towards helping those with less. For the average Brit emitting 8.5 tonnes of carbon every year, that means reducing our individual emissions to 0.7 tonnes by 2050 to remain within 1.5ºC of warming. It means appreciating our true wealth and helping those less fortunate to achieve the same standard of living within the dwindling sliver of carbon budget that remains. It means pushing for the ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society’ that the IPCC tells us is necessary.
We can do it. We ‘wealthy’ have options. We don’t need to wait for leadership. With every choice we make, we can shape a better world. But we’re running out of time. So is our story to be a tragedy? Shall we continue as before, kidding ourselves we’re the good guys as we plough on towards the future foretold? Or do we recognise our true nature at last, embrace the radical change needed and, in our redemption, become the true heroes of our story?