Eucatastrophe: the sudden and unexpected change of fortune for the better. J R R Tolkien

Image: Gandalf exorcising the demons from King Theoden in Peter Jackson’s film of Lord of the Rings

Tolkien’s inspiration for climate advocates

Sometimes I wish I didn’t know as much about climate change as I do. For my entire professional life, I have been obliged to stay up-to-date with advances in climate science, as well as every intricacy of political manoeuvring in relation to climate policy. I would sleep much better if I had never paid any attention to it.

You see, I don’t reckon we are winning. And if you pressed me into looking forward and objectively considering if we are likely to deal with climate change before it is too late I would say, ‘Nup, we are stuffed.’

I could bore you with talk of how the world isn’t cutting emissions fast enough and even if countries meet their pledges to the Paris Agreement we still won’t keep well under the 2 degree target that separates global pain from global catastrophe.

I could also drone on about how the world’s climate is being much more sensitive to carbon pollution than we thought it would be. For instance, how ten years ago we thought no matter how much crap was pumped into the atmosphere, the Antarctic ice cap would hold firm, but now we know it is melting from underneath and sliding into the ocean.

Sure there are battle-by-battle victories: we managed to get some sort of global agreement on climate change, the uptake in renewables is better than expected and countries like China have stepped up to play a leadership role. But when you look at the big picture, that is the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere and how the climate is responding to this pollution, it gets clear how screwed we really are.

This makes it hard for all us climate-aware folk on two levels. One is the obvious woe-is-me rumination that is personally gruelling. The other problem is that doomsday talk is really unhelpful in motivating the public into caring about an issue and getting people to change their actions or political outlook.

We’ve got two decades of social research that says people turn off when a problem is so dire that it seems unsolvable. This is why environmental groups are so keen to talk up the successes of renewables and to focus debate on local binary issues like whether the Adani coal mine should go ahead. So we are left with this dichotomy where on one hand the situation is so dire, but on the other hand if we want anything to get any better we can’t communicate openly about how dire it really is.

This is how I have begun to resolve this in my head: I turn to hobbits. Well not really specifically to hobbits, or dwarves or any mythical creature from a made-up land. I think about two themes that JRR Tolkien delineated in The Lord of the Rings.

“To Tolkien, eucatastrophe could only come about if you had faced up to the inevitability of ‘the long defeat’ and soldiered on regardless.”

One of these themes Tolkien called ‘the long defeat’. This is the idea that so often in the world you find yourself fighting for a cause where there is very little chance of success, but you fight for it anyway because it is the right thing to do and because you can’t imagine doing anything else. In The Lord of the Rings this sentiment appears time and time again, whether it is the folly of sending two hobbits alone into enemy territory and thinking it will work out well, or the many occasions the heroes of the story rode out into battle against superior numbers.

In the moments of quiet between battles the protagonists often mulled over whether there was any hope, or if this even mattered to their mission. Sometimes they would decide there was no hope. Other times they saw glimpses of hope. But most times they resolved that whether there was hope or not, they would push on regardless. The discussion of whether there was hope or not, at least among the characters most centrally connected to the storyline, seemed to galvanise action rather than paralyse it.

The other theme that Tolkien inserted was one he described as eucatastrophe. He defined this as a sudden and unexpected change of fortune for the better. Think about the late arrival of Gandalf et al. in the battle at Helm’s Deep or about the arrival of the eagles to rescue Sam and Frodo from the eruption of Mount Doom. To Tolkien, eucatastrophe could only come about if you had faced up to the inevitability of ‘the long defeat’ and soldiered on regardless.

Tolkien found the twin themes of ‘the long defeat’ and eucatastrophe in folk tales, in history and in his personal interpretation of Christianity. I find these two themes help me understand how I should approach the existential issue of climate change.

“our struggles keep alive the chance of success”

In ‘the long defeat’ climate activists can ground themselves in the enormity of the task we face. When sharing war stories among ourselves we can acknowledge our struggles and it should not dissuade us from keeping on fighting, it should bind us together in the struggle. But when communicating outward we can focus on how our struggles keep alive the chance of success. I don’t know what the eucatastrophe for resolving climate change might be; a technological breakthrough perhaps, or maybe even an outbreak of global political will to fix it, but I know without the ongoing slog of day-to-day climate activism we won’t be in a position for these miracles to happen.



LOTR was loosely based on the German composer Richard Wagners ‘Ring Concerto’, but essentially was a way for Tolkien (half German himself) to escape from the horrors of WW1, and the loss of his wife. I think a better analogy when considering climate change, is perhaps to a lemming, where the mantra is – ‘its not our fault’; ‘we can’t do anything’..and finally ‘we don’t mind dying’ – this is the defacto denialist-lemming response, ultimately. Also, I just noticed how you categorise Adani as a ‘local binary issue’ rather than what I understand as an incredibly convoluted (cynical?) deal where by Australia is selling coal to India that it doesn’t want to buy (their coal power stations only burn a particular kind of coal? really?) as well as other countries, with a CO2 potential equal to the entire emissions output of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. I think this is almost a denial of the possibility of there being answers, rather than a denial of climate change being well underway at this stage. Maybe a more engaged focus on answers rather than problems could aleviate the tension. If you would like to read about any of these answers please follow me on twitter – @reupdateinfo where there is a link to my website and more reading. Just to continue, Australia is a perfect candidate for solar & hydrogen which will enable you to produce natural gas at lower cost than importing it – I think NG is about 3 times the cost there than in the EU or the US. You could then also export to Japan, to maintain your economy, rather than resigning yourself to the economic slipknot you are in.

Daniel Williams | 28 June 2017  

Thanks for your article which gives me some heart in the midst of despair.

Christa Ludlow | 28 June 2017  

I relate very well to this severe existential dilemma, as I’m sure many of us do! I used to work for Greenpeace, and I certainly felt that the job was a severe threat to my mental and emotional equilibrium. Yes, I do whatever I can because anything else would be a betrayal of my son and particularly my grandson, and of everything else I love about the world, which is most of it. Also we don’t have anything like enough knowledge of reality to be sure that there is no hope. Look how quickly the Eastern Bloc fell apart! Perhaps the sheer awfulness of Trump will even work for us – we don’t know. We must do what we must.

Keith Price | 29 June 2017  

A lot of the high temperatures on earth come from the heat generated by the sun falling on desert soil. If we irrigate the desert, the green vegetation will absorb 90 percent of the sunshine and lots of the carbon dioxide, as well as shade the soil and keep it cool. If we use our potential wind and solar power to pump the rain water that presently wastefully runs out to sea, we could irrigate our arid farm land. Not only would this lessen sea rises, and slow climate change, but create jobs and wealth and help feed the hungry and starving. Unless, of course, selfish politics stand in the way.

Robert Liddy | 30 June 2017  

Yes, Tolkien’s trilogy does thrill the soul to maintain a vision which enables the long-defeated to continue fighting. A shorter read, but equally encouraging is Camus’ essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Science keeps up the good fight to maintain knowledge and social awareness of climate change, and engineering continues to develop new ways to mitigate, but not to reverse, it. Meanwhile, political activists and advisors to politicians continue campaigning for policies which might slow the major impacts of climate change. But where are the economic strategists who are working on the necessary economic changes to enable us to better adapt to the changing climate? The recent white paper on northern development in Australia made no mention of adjustment for climate change. What are the pipelined changes in urban planning along our coastlines to allow for rising sea levels and the accompanying higher peak tides and storm surges? As the subtropical zone moves closer to a Perth-Sydney line, will the necessary changes in pastoral, agricultural and horticultural industries find that major markets and transport systems are adapting too slowly to meet those changes? Or am I missing a significant component of the climate change action?

Ian Fraser | 30 June 2017  

‘I know without the ongoing slog of day-to-day climate activism we won’t be in a position for these miracles to happen.’Yes, Tim, this is the heart of it and this is what keeps us going so let us never lose hope.

Joanna Elliott | 30 June 2017  

thanks. thoughtful piece. . selfish, short sighted, easily bought above all, power brokers are the bitch glitch in the machine. maybe trump will provoke enough exasperation to give eucatastrophe a nudge? have a hope.

jill | 30 June 2017  

I have been studying weather and climate for just on fifty years. I see the temperature trends in my study and it is not a good look. Like many others doing similar work, I despair at the inability of our leaders to see the warning signs. Robert Liddy it is not the solar radiation falling on our deserts that is causing the temperature rise, that is a constant in the radiation balance. Carbon Dioxide is the villain as it is a greenhouse, heat trapping gas and we are putting more of it into the atmosphere . While irrigating the deserts may reduce surface heating , it would also upset atmospheric pressure patterns and wind flows, likely impacting on rainfall patterns in unexpected ways . Lastly where would we obtain the vast amounts of water required ? If the oceans are the source, desalination would be required, using vast amounts of energy to achieve a doubtful benefit. Would n’t it be a lot simpler to reduce fossil fuel consumption?

Gavin O’Brien | 30 June 2017  

Gavin O’Brien: “Would it not be a lot simpler to reduce fossil fuel consumption?”,, Why could we not do both? It would necessarily have to be done gradually, giving time to assess effects. The vegetation would absorb carbon dioxide, and hopefully feed the hungry, and generate jobs and wealth.

Robert Liddy | 30 June 2017  

I’m a deplorable denialist of the catastrophic global warming scarenario, but the green movement’s knee-jerk rejection of nuclear power as a viable option just shows they’re almost as uncommitted to seriously reducing CO2 levels as I am. That said, some greens (such as Monbiot and Hansen) have, risking excommunication, dared to break ranks with the party line re. nuclear. And that schism seems to be widening just now: “Climate change is an energy problem, so let’s talk honestly about nuclear” (The Guardian, June 28 2017) Nevertheless, I admire the chutzpah of the Greens invoking Tolkein this way. Let’s face it: had the hobbits the ideology of the greens, at Helm’s Deep they would have swapped sides, joined the Uruk Hai, and fought against Gandalf and the Rohirrim on the ground of cruelty to horses. [BTW, excellent suggestion, Robert Liddy even apart from global warming controversies. And IMO nuclear-powered desalination plants would be very helpful in bringing your proposal to fruition.]

HH | 30 June 2017  

Thanks Tim for a very nice combination of arts and sciences, with a tremendous psycho-social message. The Australian Association for Literature Conference – this July 17-19, at the Gold Coast – will include papers on our desperate need for much more interdisciplinary translation. Back in 2015, psychology professor Robert Gifford wrote about the reasons people refuse to contemplate hard facts (1). The last few weeks, New Scientist has run a series on the global warming problem, with various solutions being researched. E.g. hydrogen fuel has great possibilities. Yesterday, Nature had a terrific article on practical reductions in carbon emissions (2). My recent contribution has set our current problem in the context of two different sorts of human approaches to nature (3). Indeed, the old adage: “A little knowledge is dangerous” has proved true. The global spread of WATIC (Western aggressive techno-industrial commerce) lacked the deeper Earth Systems understanding that Clive Hamilton advocates in his new book (4).——————————————————– (1) Robert Gifford ‘The road to climate hell’. New Scientist 227:28-33 • July 2015 DOI: 10.1016/S0262-4079(15)30744-2. (2) Christiana Figureres et al. in yesterday’s Nature 546: 593-595 doi:10.1038/546593a. (3) My own, more humble effort at: (4) Hamilton C. 2017 ‘Defiant Earth’. Allen&Unwin.

Dr Marty Rice | 30 June 2017  

It is interesting comparing your article with Alan Kohler’s ‘Smart city leaves coal in the dust’ in the Weekend Australian Business Review of 1/7 -2/7/17. Kohler coolly and analytically points out that the Adani mine project simply does not stack up economically, something that Green polemicists in their pseudo-religious zeal do not concentrate enough on. Given the sort of ideological dispute going on within the Greens, courtesy of Lee Rhiannon and the Green Left and the NSW Greens, many Australians, like myself, who believe that climate change is happening, are extremely wary of the Greens and associated organisations attempting to take the lead on this issue. It is something which has to become mainstream. I am not sure articles such as yours actually do much use except bring out the normal Greens cheer squad, which is not really useful changing the general public opinion. Most people, perhaps heavily encouraged by populist politicians, look to the projected job growth in regions of low employment, such as Townsville. Kohler also very soberly debunked this. You could do worse than take a leaf out of his book. More fact, less polemic should be the order of the day.

Edward Fido | 02 July 2017  

A wonderful summation of how it feels when no one seems to care, but in the end the perfect reason to keep on going!

Val Bosher | 03 July 2017  

This is very true: “So we are left with this dichotomy where on one hand the situation is so dire, but on the other hand if we want anything to get any better we can’t communicate openly about how dire it really is.”

Greg Foyster | 15 July 2017  

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