Storytelling, biodiversity and COVID-19


People love to tell stories. We tell stories to children, swap stories with friends, read books and watch TV shows and movies. Storytelling also shapes the way we see the world – politicians and PR specialists are always trying to manage the narrative around what they are doing, while the media look for stories that can drive their reporting and get people hooked. Good storytellers can grab a topic and dance around it from every angle, using characters, settings, metaphors, rhythm and rhyme in order to explore it fully. All novelists, poets, orators and musicians explore topics in this way.

Story time. Image from here.

Evolutionary psychologists and behavioural economists have carved out an intriguing new field of identifying and understanding humanity’s psychological biases – the hard-coded bugs and exploits baked into our rationality and intelligence. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel Prize winner) highlights the risks of using heuristics (handy mental shortcuts) unconsciously, and getting the wrong result. For example, he introduces a concept called ‘What You See Is All There Is’ (WYSIATI) – the idea is that humans make decisions based primarily on the ‘known knowns’, which are things we have already experienced ourselves. However in real life, big events are usually driven by the surprising and often unpleasant playing-out of ‘known unknowns’ (the things you vaguely know might be important), or even worse the ‘unknown unknowns’ where you simply had no clue. Maybe this bias is why storytellers often like to throw plot twists and surprises our way – they know just how shocking and jolting these tricks can be for their audience.

This work on human cognitive heuristics is interesting and important. But it can also be overstated – some of its popularisers see it as a fundamental challenge to humanity’s confidence in our own rationality and intelligence. This is a bit unfair – human rationality isn’t the same as “being great at logic and probability”. For example, whenever we need to make a decision, we humans first need to come up with a shortlist of options. To do this we take many factors into account – such as our cultural norms, metaphysical assumptions, moral sense and our social position. Only then do we use logic to test the soundness of these options and probability to gauge which of them is likely to succeed. At the end of the day, the cognitive heuristic work critiques only a narrow slice of human rationality.

By contrast, human storytellers have been looking at the full spectrum of human rationality for millennia. Each generation absorbs an inheritance of stories from times gone by – and decides whether to keep them, modify and elaborate on them, or forget them. The stories that we hang onto act a mirror for critiquing ourselves and the people and society around us. Some stories stick around around for a long long time and become immortalised as ‘classics’, with language and ideas that resonate with many people – for example both the Iliad and the Tower of Babel story in the Old Testament spell out how overweening pride and hubris make us blind to impending disaster.

The very best stories are so compelling that they go beyond the exploits of individual characters and speak to something fundamental about the universe and human experience that goes beyond a merely scientific understanding – in a prophetic way that speaks powerfully about what forces are really at work behind the scenes of what we see taking place around us. In my opinion, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Bible all tick this box to varying degrees.

The biodiversity crisis

Now to our present situation – we have remodelled the world to an extent undreamt of by the humble architects of the Tower of Babel. See here:

“Of the estimated 0.17 Gt of biomass of terrestrial vertebrates on Earth today, most of this is represented by livestock (59%) and living human beings (36%) — only about 5% of this total biomass is taken up by wild mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.”

Biomass of different terrestrial vertebrates – then and now. Image from here.

I find these figures absolutely devastating – it is a real life case of foolish Monkey who set about cutting a branch from a tree, but did so while standing on that very same branch (despite repeated warnings from Giraffe) and ended up falling down a chasm. (See the story as told by Paul White, here on page 191). This story was told to make a point about repentance, and the consequences of not repenting when the need to do so is plain obvious. My challenge to Christians is to reflect on the ‘true’ meaning of Genesis 1:28 where we are told to “fill the Earth, and subdue it.” I found this thoughtful discussion quite useful.

My challenge to all readers is to read up on the ecological history of your area (the fairy tern is a good example for Aucklanders), and to mourn the passing/diminishing of its original biodiversity and ecosystems. Then when you next can, go and visit a nearby ecological reserve and try to engage with it in a new way (for example try to identify as many different plants, fungi and animals as you can).

Here in New Zealand, most of the forests are gone, almost all of the wetlands drained, and many weird/wonderful/poorly understood species have gone extinct or been relegated to a tenuous existence in reserves or on small offshore islands. There is a relatively strong conservation movement which is seeing some interesting developments – it is starting to go beyond merely rescuing species from extinction, and now thinking about how to rehabilitate them in the country at large. This will require bipartisan political support and universal buy-in from around the country.

How will this happen? By having a compelling story to tell people. Here is one way of laying this story out 1) show a picture of how things used to look in this country, 2) tell the history of how we came to where we are and 3) lay out the relevant options for putting things right again.

My Covid-19 lockdown reading list has taken me through the human and ecological history of Wairarapa Moana and Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). It is has been fascinating to see in detail the various human players in the story – with Polynesians as the first human arrivals, with Māori as tangata whenua, and with Pākehā as settlers and colonisers.

Hauturu. Image from here.

When I read these books (and others about New Zealand’s history) I am consistently gripped by a set of recurring themes: alien encounters, old vs new, immense loss and forgetting, broken promises and apathy, creative and diligent pragmatism, desire for fairness and equality, unexpected luck and providence, reconciliation and new shared visions of the future. This story doesn’t merely exist in my story-loving primate mind. Rather it cuts across spheres environmental, historical, cultural and spiritual. As events unfold, they will take their place in this story and new themes will emerge.


We are in the middle of Earth’s Sixth Great Extinction and while this is mostly something being inflicted on other species by humans, there is a very real backlash as well. In the summer of 2019/2020, unstoppable bushfires swept through Australia. These were quickly followed up by the unstoppable SARS-CoV-2 virus that is still sweeping through millions of humans around the world. Both events have clear links to the impact of humans on our planet.

This virus is an unthinking biological foe of humans. Our huge global population is no defense – uncontrolled, the virus spreads exponentially. It can take two weeks to from the time-of-infection to get a positive test result for having the virus. You can spread the virus for several days before becoming symptomatic. All of these characteristics make the virus easy to underestimate (“oh it’s not a problem here yet”) and impossible to control or eradicate without economically-devastating lockdown (kind of like a debilitating nation-wide immune response). This is one of Daniel Kahneman’s ‘unknown unknowns’, a black swan event, a king hit… warnings were sounded, but ignored and now we are in a big mess.

What’s more, this pandemic isn’t just an unlucky fluke that could have happened in any time or place. Rather, it hits right at the heart of our environmentally callous and hubristic society. The irony is that despite squashing wild terrestrial vertebrates down to a fraction of their historical biomass, the increased animal-human proximity has only made it easier for one of them to infect us with a virus. The prevailing theory at the moment is that SARS-CoV-2 came from bats (who are basically airborne biological weapons factories with terrifying viral loads), via pangolins and into humans. Pangolins – who are being driven towards extinction by the wild meat trade – will no doubt remember 2020 as the year that humans got what was coming to them! The story of humanity overstepping our mandate and get burned as a result is pretty compelling – whether you call it karma, poetic justice, or ‘divine warning shot’.

It is a huge test for governments and societies around the world. It will test everyone and everything everywhere. Useless leaders will be shown up. The risks and limitations of globalisation will be highlighted, as will the connection between zoonotic pathogens and the biodiversity crisis. The ability of humans and our institutions to be strong and creative in the face of adversity will shine out. Crazy stuff is going down – the Reserve Bank of New Zealand bought $33 billion NZD of government debt with a flick of Adrian Orr’s magic wand. Scott Morrison’s right wing Australian government doubled their unemployment benefit at the drop of a hat. Global CO2 emissions for 2020 are on track to drop 5%, but for pretty disturbing reasons.

It’s not a question of whether or not things will change. It’s more about what will change, and who will succeed in making the most of the opportunities that are whizzing by. Will it be lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry? Will it be big tech companies? Will it be environmental and ‘social change’ activists? Who will have the ear of the governments working to rebuild the world’s economy? What do you think the big election issues should be in 2020? (not just for the USA, but also for New Zealand!) These are important questions to consider as we cool our heels in humanity’s great collective ‘time-out’.

Carl Larsson: Skamvrån..NMB 267
Time-out, painting by Carl Larsson from here.

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