Sept. 20 in Manhattan offered a glimpse into our human predicament.
Some of us were celebrating the dedication of the Johnny Kaw statue. Kansas needed its own Paul Bunyan, a superhero who tamed the unruly forests of North America. His tool of choice was an ax. Johnny Kaw is a 24-foot tall superhero who dug out the Kansas River, subdued tornados, summoned drought-ending rains, cultivated the lands with wheat, and even invented our precious sunflower. His tool of choice was a scythe (and, presumably, a plow).
Close by, some of us were in Triangle Park, participating in the Global Climate Strike, a movement of children led by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Stockholm, Sweden. Greta might just become a mythical figure. Her tool of choice is her voice. She, too, has a “superpower,” as she herself has described it: Asperger Syndrome, and selective mutism, which means that she “speaks only when necessary.” The “climate crisis,” as she calls it, is worth her words. And, because the adults have refused to act, she has been speaking a lot over the past year.
On Sept. 20, millions of children and adults in more than 150 countries tried to bring attention to the climate crisis. In Manhattan, some of our children showed up in Triangle Park holding signs that read: “You had a future, and so should we.”
All of us were acting out myths that Friday. But not all myths are equal. Some myths withstand scientific scrutiny. The 24-foot-statue is, in this sense, entirely mythical. The climate crisis is very real. But, while entirely mythical, Johnny Kaw’s story has had very real effects in our world.
The climate crisis is, in no small part, a result of Johnny Kaw-type myths of human supremacy — the belief that humans have a right (indeed, perhaps even an obligation) to dominate nature for their own ends. The consequences of this myth continue to play out across the planet, to our peril. What now? This is the question that those gathered in Triangle Park were trying to grapple with.
Those of us gathered in Triangle Park were celebrating the idea that we do not only inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow the Earth from our children.
Make no mistake: the axes, scythes, and plows of our superhero ancestors gave us revolutionary increases in our standard of living. But we know now that this “progress” has come at a very high price for the Life systems that support us.
Our children will render judgment about our myths. They will decide how well-spent was our $300,000 on the Johnny Kaw statue. Our children will determine the morality of our myths, because they will live with the consequences of them.
Until then, in the precious present, let us choose carefully the myths we celebrate, evaluating them at least in part on their effects on the people that will ultimately bear their consequences. And, let us have some humility about our ability to dominate an infinitely complex world.
The superheroes of the past carry axes, scythes, and plows. But, real superheroes do live among us today. They carry only their voices. If we let them, these voices might carry us into a future in which we all can celebrate Life.
Matthew R. Sanderson is a social scientist at Kansas State University whose research focuses on rural ecological and social issues.