To overcome our global ecological crisis, our cultural imagination needs to emanate the vision of a sustainable future. It is the ethic of sustainability that unites activists fighting for the health of our planet’s ecosystems. Threading political events into one moral narrative helps inspire action. It adds to the credibility and attractiveness of environmentalism as a united, political movement.
Fairy tales, I propose, provide a foothold in this endeavour. By comparing recent events in the Hambacher forest to Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), I hope to demonstrate the value of fairy-tales to the environmentalist movement and its potential as a politicised, moralising and symbolic form of story-telling.
Hambacher Forest: September 2018
Only eight square kilometres remain of the 12,000-year-old forested kingdom. It is the fight against the maleficent powers of coal-powered energy. We have our heroes: the forest-dwellers. These activists have voluntarily left their university studies, jobs and family-lives to defend their beloved forest. Like the three fairies who sacrifice their magical powers in Sleeping Beauty, they have gone without the comforts of electricity and running water for months on end.
And, of course, we have our antagonists: the electric power company RWE, mining, devastating the forest habitat, spewing poisonous greenhouse gases throughout the land. As commanded, 3,500 masked policemen, raven-black and goblin-like, raid the forest and begin evicting the tree-house communities by force.
Just as the fairies look a hundred years into the future to see Princess Aurora wake to the world free of Maleficent’s curse, looking a hundred years into our own future helps bring the moral heroism of “Hambi’s” activists into focus: they take their stand in what little remains of the forest in the hope that, in a hundred years’ time, children can wake to a world still populated by trees.
Framed this way, I hope this analogy captures something of the valour and adventurism that underpin environmental activism. I hope to make the fight for sustainability alluring – to dispel cynicism and crisis fatigue.
Reducing the realm of politics to such a clear-cut battle of “good” versus “evil” is, of course, dangerously simplistic. Far be it my intention to vilify the police force as they fulfil their duties to the state; and, with ownership rights to the land, the RWE has, indeed, acted within its legal rights. Yet, by veiling the intricacies of civil institutions, fairy tale analogies nevertheless help challenge our understanding of what is morally right.
Better still, this form of story-telling is communal. Fairy tales are adapted, revised and retold countless times by countless authors. They moralise, yet do not sound self-righteous.
Moreover, it is thanks to their simplicity that fairy tales appeal to a wider and, crucially, younger audience. As systemic ecological destruction is difficult to understand (let alone prevent), forms of environmental devastation are perhaps easier to comprehend when framed as ‘the supernatural’, ‘the maleficent’. The Earth’s ecology is intricate and mysterious: plucking at one strand of the web of life ruptures the chain of life-structures that depend on it. Accurately piecing together the larger ecological picture is a long and complicated task; it needs to be an on-going, collective effort. Fairy tales can help articulate the urgency of this cause without needing to explain all the complexities unravelling in current scientific studies.
Thus, one can identify two separate (though closely related) aims of environmentalism: first, the innovation of concrete solutions to systemic, environmental problems; second, the promotion of values that prioritise ecological concerns, address social injustices and improve the prospects all life forms in the decades to come. IPBES is one exemplar platform that gathers practical solutions to ecological problems. Fairy-tales can augment the moral imperative to act, portraying the curse – the ecological crisis – that universally plagues the planet’s inhabitants (though we by no means suffer in equal measure). Fairy-tales are hence an effective tool to disseminate the ethics of sustainability as part of a global, moralising, political agenda.
The battle at Hambacher Forest is one exemplar case study. Fairy-tale analogies can also be applied to other localised struggles. As fairy-tales are culturally transferable, this practice has the potential to connect local events with one overarching, moral narrative.
Granted, Disney’s fairy godmothers are not obvious icons for the environmentalist movement. Yet they are strikingly fallible, clumsy, entertaining and utterly sympathetic. Despite their quabbles over aesthetics, their strategy and the necessity of their sacrifices, they take a stand against an overpowering, malignant force – and they are successful. They are hence quite conveniently named as guardians of a sustainable world-order: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.
Thus, while it is vital that we continue to take practical steps towards a sustainable world-order, their cohesive implementation requires us to embed the ethic of sustainability into all our cultures. Dearest story-tellers, let us pave the way.
(Treehouse with rainbow flag and banner “Utopia requires freedom”)