GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 285-11
Presentation Time: 11:10 AM


DUGGAN-HAAS, Don, The Paleontological Research Institution, 92 South Drive, Amherst, NY 14226, ZABEL, Ingrid H.H., The Paleontological Research Institution, 1259 Trumansburg Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850 and ROSS, Robert M., Paleontological Research Institution, 1259 Trumansburg Road, Ithaca, NY 14850,

Fire struck Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016 looking like hell on Earth, burning 1,500,000 acres, destroying 2,400 homes and leading to the evacuation of 90,000 people. While it is difficult to make causal links between individual events and climate change, this type of disaster is predicted to be more common in a warming world.

The story of Fort McMurray shares much with biblical stories. Scientists prophesied disaster, and disaster came to pass. Prophecies are more than simple predictions - they are parables intended to lead to repentance. Fort McMurray’s economy is built on the extraction of oil from tar sands - making Albertans carbon-intensive, and arguably in need of environmental redemption. The process also produces mountains of sulfur, a.k.a., brimstone.

We have been telling apocalyptic stories as long as we’ve been telling stories. Environmentalists have been telling modern versions of these tales for generations. From the Book of Genesis to The Lorax, humans love a good story of paradise lost.

There are at least five reasons for exploring these issues:

  • The kind of story is very commonly used, though often without recognition (or awareness) of biblical and mythological roots.
  • Such approaches may have substantially different outcomes for different people within the same audience.
  • In school settings, there are good opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, particular to language arts and the social sciences. 
  • Attending to these issues is a vehicle for building understanding and appreciation of complexity. 

Understanding the use of mythological rhetoric can help identify problematic claims. If an argument is grounded in a paradise past narrative, or promises a simple cure for multiple problems, or if the rationale is grounded in a narrative of good and evil, be suspicious.

Such stories are highly motivating for certain individuals, but ineffective for others. For some, they are not merely ineffective, but the opposite of effective, motivating people to work against the storyteller’s goals.

What can we do to make apocalyptic/lost Eden stories remain effective for those they are effective for while avoiding the problem of them being anti-effective for others (all while being true to the science)?

This session draws from the forthcoming Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change.