The Tar Sands and the World Tree – can Ragnarok be avoided?

Norse mythology tells of Ragnarok, a cataclysmic disaster akin to ecocide. In order to avoid this fate we need new stories that reunite human experience with nature.

Robert Holtom
25 November 2013

Slash and burn deforestation in the Alberta Tar Sands. Credit: Shutterstock/ Christopher Kolaczan. All rights reserved.

What do the “selfish gene,” homo economicus and the idea that human nature is immutable all have in common? They mix selective evidence with supposition, and masquerade as truth. Contemporary narratives, often woven in the mainstream media, further naturalise these taken-for-granted constructs to the point at which questioning their veracity becomes almost unimaginable. Fortunately, this triptych of so-called truths share another characteristic - they are stories.

For thousands of years, stories have been used by people to understand themselves and discover their place in the world. But stories are also used to strengthen and legitimize certain beliefs, and like other technologies they can be used to undermine or strengthen the search for social justice and sustainable development.

Take the above stories as examples. The theory of the “selfish gene” tries to convince us that human evolution is governed by a single, self-interested motive; homo economicus posits that human reasoning can be condensed into a glorified cost-benefit calculation; and the idea that human nature is immutable reduces the rich diversity of peoples and cultures to a small number of fixed character traits that are fed into policy making.

All three of these stories are dangerous. They stifle our imaginations and lead us to adopt a narrow range of “solutions” that are built around self-interest and competition. These solutions create more problems of their own, and they contribute to the destruction of communities and of the environment that surrounds them.

Isn’t it time we told ourselves a different set of stories?

In contemporary capitalist mythology, the world is a mere resource, something to be mined, exploited and profited from, with little regard for current and future generations. The impact of this story is already being felt right across the world. Take, for example, the boreal forests of Alberta in Canada. These swampy coniferous forests, typical of the high northern latitudes, are over eight thousand years old. They house large quantities of wetlands, teem with biodiversity, and act as a huge carbon sink.

Unfortunately, they are also home to the infamous “Tar Sands” – deposits of bitumen that form one of the dirtiest sources of energy in the world but are still irresistible to global oil companies. These companies engage in large-scale felling of the forests, open-cast mining, and steam-assisted gravitational drilling, operations that are hugely polluting and energy-intensive. They require large quantities of water - between 2.4 and 4 barrels of water for every barrel of oil that is extracted. And they leave behind huge toxic tailing ponds - lakes of poison in which numerous bird populations have already been extinguished.

The Tar Sands are also exceptionally dangerous to human beings, not least to the people who actually operate the mines and drill sites, but also to the communities that call the forests home. They include First Nations communities like the Beaver Lake Cree, who have documented rising levels of cancer and other diseases as their soils and waterways have become polluted by toxins that leach from the Sands.

There is a name for destruction on this scale: “ecocide.” It is defined as “extensive damage to, destruction of, or loss of ecosystem(s) in a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

The Eradicating Ecocide Initiative was established in 2010 to fight this problem. It aims to make the mass destruction of ecosystems a legal crime. In 2011 a mock ecocide trial was held at the UK’s Supreme Court, and a jury found two fictitious CEOs guilty for their companies’ activities in the Tar Sands. The law of ecocide is also restorative, as well as retributive, calling on companies, governments and banks to repair the damage they have done.

Paralleling these efforts, the European Citizens’ Initiative is collecting one million votes in support of a Law of Ecocide in the European Union. And many First Nations communities in Canada are protesting the destruction of their homes and livelihoods as part of a national movement called Idle No More, which calls on all people to live with greater respect for the earth. In recognising the rights of the natural world, making ecocide illegal would not only foster the healing of decimated land, it could also ensure that communities who depend on these lands for their survival might flourish.

As this devastation unfolds a new story is emerging, one that reaches back to much older myths that portray a radically different relationship with the Earth and its natural resources. Take the story of Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, for example, a giant ash that’s also known as the “world tree.” This tree was the centre of the Norse cosmos, a meeting place of the gods and the three sisters of fate who were believed to decide the destinies of all human beings. A whole mythical world was dependent on Yggdrasil, just as the contemporary world is dependent on a thriving network of bio-diverse forests.

By reinventing the stories through which we live, we may be able to ensure that myths like the “selfish gene” that have been used to justify human greed do not become self-fulfilling prophecies. Both the Norse myths and the stories that are emerging from the Tar Sands transcend the binary view that nature and society are separate from one another, and they weave the human experience back into the larger earth community in which it belongs.

At the heart of these stories is the recognition that our world cannot live without forests. Trees form a vital part of the carbon cycle, transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. They store much of the carbon they process, which means that they can act as carbon sinks at certain times of the year. In all of their diversity, trees have a central role to play. For example, the needles of pine trees catch mist and facilitate falling moisture to enrich the soils beneath. Tree roots stabilise soil and prevent further erosion. We rarely thank them for it, but trees do an awful lot for us as humans.

Norse mythology also tells of Ragnarok, a cataclysmic event of clashing gods, natural disasters, and the whole world drowned in water. It’s a story that seems disturbingly prophetic for our times, but from the flood emerges new land, and two humans who repopulate the species. We still have time to prevent future manifestations of the Ragnarok mythology, but to do so means keeping Yggdrasil alive.

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