Continues from Climate change and ‘myth’


Creation myths organise symbols and form templates for how we think the universe behaves, the nature of order, what is ‘natural’ itself, our place within the world, the process of development, how we can act, and what could be possible. Perhaps not all creation myths do all of this, after all that would be overly ordering, but the potential is there for them to say something about the fundamental nature of the cosmos and the world, and influence our thinking about that world.

The Western Creation myth and order

The most prominent of Western creation myths is in the Bible. It emphasises that the underlying act of creation is ordering, and that disorder is the natural and bad state of things. It sets up the opposition that order is good and disorder is bad. However, everything real and alive is disorderly to some extent, and this sets up a serious problem for Western understanding and action.

In Genesis, after the initial creation, the earth begins as chaos. It was “without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”.

God makes the world through a process of ordering; through separating out Light from Darkness, Day from Night, “the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”, the Land from the Sea and so on.

In this myth, without the ordering and sorting actions of God there would be no constructive dynamics and no life. God goes on to make sure that things reproduce after their kind (miyn – portion), in an orderly manner, and so on. 

This myth implies that the world must be ordered by someone to work, that any natural ‘rest’ state is disordered, and that virtue is putting things into order.

This idea that order has to be imposed is so strong that it even constitutes an argument for the existence of God in the standard argument by design which claims that the order we perceive cannot arise by itself so therefore there must be a God doing the ordering.  This whole argument depends on the myth that order requires an orderer, which may not be correct, and without the myth, may not even feel correct. Sometimes people compare the universe to clocks, and say that as clocks have builders so the universe has a builder. Again the same assumption is being made. In reality, we can guess a clock has a builder, because it is completely unlike anything found in nature without humans, so this is not a good argument about things which are found in nature. So if you have ever felt the pull of the argument by design then you feel the pull of this story.

You do not have to believe the myth, to be influenced by its assumptions and implications.

People influenced by this myth may think that without ongoing ordering, and recognised authority, the world will collapse into disorder and original chaos. The myth could also imply that disorder can result from the activity of people who disrupt God’s order. Christianity takes this point and insists that disorder and disobedience are regressions to chaos and evil, (so that disorder is punished eternally in hell) although in the Genesis story there is nothing to indicate the Serpent is evil as such, just disruptive of God’s apparent plan through encouraging thought and disobedience.

People influenced by the myth are likely to also hold that, as there is only one true God, there is only one true order, and are likely to claim they know what that true order is, so other forms of order are really chaos in disguise and must be suppressed. There is one truth, one plan. In this view life becomes a never ending struggle against disorder, and an attempt to suppress whatever seems like disorder. Every sign of disagreement has the potential to become a heresy which is to be suppressed.

For example, while business people and neoliberal politicians frequently claim to want business processes to work without regulation or interference, we nearly always find they have a desire to keep everyone busy and dependent on business, and to order and regulate the world heavily in their favour. We are not offered de-regulation, but a choice between a regulation which might benefit most people, or regulation which might only favour the wealthy and powerful for a short while.

Disorder and unpredictability, can become joined in the binary of good and evil. For example, ‘Conservative’ English author Paul Johnson, in an article discussing climate change demands complete predictability from climate science and Marxism, but seems unconcerned about his ability to predict the result of his favoured ‘good’ policies. For him, what he defines as ‘good’ must already be orderly, and what he defines as bad must be without order.

The Myth channels into the position that disorder arises either from: a) us not doing enough ordering or; b) from the work of those who are evil.

Life = Chaos = Evil

However, living things and living systems, are not completely orderly. Indeed the more alive something is, the less easy it becomes to predict what it will do, the harder it is to control, to keep it in what we have defined as its rightful place. Another way of putting this is that life, naturally, forms complex systems that are beyond our total control and ordering, and that attempts to order living systems (ecologies) will have unintended consequences.

The absence of total order as we expect it in the world, and the idea of the omnipotence of God, reinforces the idea that there is a power of disorder and chaos, which is evil. This force, often called the devil, or Satan, is evil because he epitomises disorder.

While this idea is common, it has been challenged by fiction. One of the intellectual breakthroughs of the Dungeons and Dragons game was to suggest that some demons can be ‘lawful evil’, and exhibit orderly evil – they keep contracts and their word is their bond, although they will look for loopholes. Disordians suggest chaos is part of world order. Michael Moorcock pointed out in his novels that extreme order, like extreme chaos, is equivalent to death. He suggested we need balance, but this idea is still precarious.

In conventional thought, insects and bacteria, however radically different, seem chaotic. They get everywhere. They are out of correct place. They eat things we would rather they didn’t and spread disease we see as disorder. They are vermin, plagues. The only way to solve this problem within our myth, is to kill them. And hence we try and kill them, and disrupt the ecologies that depend on them, creating more disorder…. We become Daleks, exterminating all that is not immediately useful to us, and driven by that extermination, to exterminate even more.

The problem

When our virtuous one true method of ordering starts obviously producing chaos, then there appears to be no way forward; any movement from the perfection of ordering appears to risk disorder. We may feel we have to strengthen our mode of ordering rather than relax it. We need more neoliberalism, applied even harder, rather than less. We need more development, more consumer goods, more growth, rather than less. We need more fossil fuels, rather than less. We may even need more pollution, to free up business creativity, rather than less.

It is likely that our ordering urges produce more disorder, which then promotes more of the failed ordering, which produces more disorder and so on. We cannot try something new, until the social order starts obviously collapsing (and even then we might delay), or new people rise up with new ideas and take control to impose their order.

This is the model of many of our approaches to climate change and, so far, it has spread through the world, bringing disaster with it.

Other styles of myth

This approach does not have to be the only way. Other creation myths might suggest that order will arise if we stop doing things, or may suggest that chaos has a constructive role in the universe, or is not removeable.

In Hesiod’s myth of creation, Khaos, the void, is one of the primal principles, along with Gaea and Eros, that reproduce with each other in order to make the Gods and other forces. In this view of the world, ‘being’ itself is productive, and ordering arises through ongoing interaction and development, which may or may not be harmonious.  Khaos is vital to this process, even if uncomfortable or dangerous.

Elsewhere Hesiod declares that there are two forms of Strife, “wholly different in nature”.  One form of strife fosters war and battle, and the other prods us towards action and culture. This second strife is enabling.  In this myth strife and disorder can be valued and there is no single source of order.  Good people can fail, there is no personal safety net in virtue. 

As a another example, Gregory Bateson reports an Iatumul myth from Papua New Guinea in which the great crocodile Kavwokmali was paddling hard, mixing up the mud and the water.  Then Kevembuangga came along and killed Kavwokmali with his spear and the mud settled and the dry land was formed.  In this myth, making ‘chaos’ takes work, and ‘sorting out’ occurs if that work is stopped.  People with this myth might aim to remove the sources of disturbance and allow order to settle out or emerge.   They may be more motivated to surrender their orderings in able to allow the ecological disturbances of climate change to settle down themselves once the work of disordering has been stopped.

While some Chinese Creation stories suggest that the myriad things were blended together and needed to find their way out of chaos, the stories are not uniform. Taoist philosophy has a different approach to order and disorder, which it is useful to elaborate. The West has little of the Taoist sense of working with nature to find its own level.

The most well known Chinese story about chaos (hun-tun) comes from the Chang tzu and is roughly as follows:

The Ruler of the Northern Ocean was Shu (Heedless) the Ruler of the Southern Ocean was Hu (Sudden), and the Ruler of the Center was Chaos (hun tun). Shu and Hu were continually meeting in the land of Chaos, who treated them very well. They consulted together how they might repay his kindness, and said, ‘Men all have seven orifices for the purpose of seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing, while this (poor) Ruler alone has not one. Let us try and make them for him’.  Accordingly they dug one orifice in him every day; and at the end of seven days Chaos died. [Chuang Tzu, Chapter Seven, Quoted from, The Texts of Taoism, trans. James Legge (New York: Dover, 1962), 1:266-267.]

Legge takes the standard Western here and writes: “But surely it was better that Chaos should give place to another state. ‘Heedless’ and ‘Sudden’ did not do a bad work” [ChuangTzu, p. 267]. 

But the fairly obvious point is that, trying to impose an order, which seems to be beneficial elsewhere, can bring something else to an end. Through their well-intentioned ordering Hun-Tun, Shu and Hu killed a being who had treated them kindly, and who provided a place for them to meet. Through rigid conceptualisation and putting fixed boundaries in place we loose touch with reality – we no longer flow with the tao.  The consequences were not necessarily good for Shu and Hu, not to mention Hun-Tun.

Legge’s translation of the names as ‘Heedless’ and ‘Sudden’ (although there are other possible translations), suggests the killers did not pay attention to unexpected consequences or adjust their actions according to those results, they just acted without thought or feeling according to their preconceptions.

Taoist philosophy, seems to posit that the natures of things are inherently un-understandable, and thus must be allowed to express themselves with their own dynamic. They have an intelligence or dynamic which cannot be completely expressed in language – the ‘tao which can be tao-ed is not the ongoing tao’.  Tao is process, it is not static and thus cannot be encapsulated by static or unchanging categories.  This notion has resonance with what we might mean by saying that the world is a complex system. Thus:

The actual world presumed by Taoism is anarchic since it is without archai or principii serving as determining sources of order distinct from the order which they determine. The units of existence comprising nature are thus self-determining in the most radical sense (Hall 1974: 274). [although we can be skeptical about the phrase ‘units of existence’ as there may be no unchanging atoms of any relevance, but this shows the difficult of exact expression.]

As everything is constantly in a state of transition from one state to another, the universe is flux rather than expressible in fixed reasoned categories (Hall 1974: 275-6). Similarly the interplay of the ‘principles’, reminds us that nothing is entirely bright, active and ordering (yang), and nothing is entirely dark, passive and ordered (yin).  An excess of yang produces yin and an excess of yin produces yang. 

Sufferings and harm arise from imposing willed action upon the flow of tao without sensitivity to its flow, its existence, its intelligence, or its ‘needs’, just as Shu and Hu, imposed regularity on Hun-tun.

My understanding of the Confucian text Doctrine of the Mean (which may be wrong) suggests that the best we can hope for is to produce temporary islands of order in the chaos and flow, and that (being all we can do) is enough. This is not a bad thing, this is the nature of things. Eternal Order does not arise from human action, therefore we watch for the conditions to make order, and let that order pass when the conditions change. We do the best we can, attentively, and that might be enough.


Western myths clearly distinguish order from disorder. Ordering is creative and good. Disorder is bad. The myths do not encourage a conceptualisation of disorder as arising from beneficial acts of ordering. The myths do not encourage us to consider the existence of what seems to be beneficial disorder, or to conceive disorder as a necessary part of the process of life. If bad things happen then: a) there is a disordering force working against us, or; b) the ordering is to be classed as evil, rather than: c) the beneficial order had unintended, or unexpected, consequences which have been ignored because of that order’s supposed benefits. This formulation is particularly problematic when we are faced with the likelihood that complex systems are not orderable, and that living systems are not orderable.

These mythic templates do not help us to realized that unintended consequences are almost inevitably going to arise from our actions, and so it is hard to change direction. It is difficult to attend to the unintended. We tend to stick with the harmful acts that have been successful so far, because they must be good or, on the other hand, perhaps we aim overthrow the whole corrupt existing order because it must be ineluctably bad.

Never-the-less, there are ways of relating to disorder (even if they are not immediately available to us), which inculcate different ways of behaving and understanding. Perhaps knowing these other stories and feeling their resonance might change something in the ways we can approach the problems we face, as when the order of fossil fuels, which produces the orders of our societies, also generates the disorders of climate change.

Perhaps we can learn to work with the flow of the cosmos, and with the unintended consequences we generate, rather than to persist in destruction.

Continues in Myths of Climate 02: Eden and the Fall.