Do the climate change deniers have it right? Are we all just a bunch of Chicken Littles running around screaming, the sky is falling? I have struggled with this question—not only because I respect science. Which I do. I respect people who gather data like the amount of CFCs and water vapors and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. But I have struggled mainly because I have problems with the story of Chicken Little itself.
I resent the way, no matter which version you read, the narrator always tells the reader things than Chicken Little can’t possibly know, so we spend the whole story judging her. The narrator always tells us right from the start that it’s an acorn that hit her, even though she doesn’t see it. So we know all along that she’s jumping to conclusions, getting the whole farmyard riled up for no good reason.
Climate change deniers appropriate this story as proof that people who go around saying, “the sky is falling, we’ve got to tell the king,” are wrong. And this is hard for me to say, but those idiots are right on. I hope you can indulge me just for a few minutes, to think this through, because, as much as the Chicken Little story bugs me, I believe it the definitive folk tale for our climate debate, maybe even for our entire fate as a species.
Let’s start with Chicken Little. And I don’t know why she’s called Chicken Little because her size has no impact on the story, not like Snow White who’s really pure, or Puss in Boots, who likes to look gallant so he can impress people.
But anyway she’s walking along in nature and gets bonked in the head by something—which we know, thanks to the narrator—is an acorn. Only she doesn’t see it. She looks around, nobody in sight, no obvious cause like a bird flying overhead. So she thinks, “Oh no, I don’t see what hit me. It must be a piece of sky! Oh no, the Seychelle islands are disappearing. The sea levels must be rising. I’ve got to tell the king!”
And off she goes, and runs into Henny Penny. That’s another irritating thing. Everybody Chicken Little runs into has a rhyming name that has no payoff, story-wise. The name Henny Penny would be great if the character is frugal, always saving a penny, and that has some impact on her character arc. Maybe it will be her ruin!
Or maybe it will save the day. Like she’s been hording this one grain of corn for no reason, but when the dam is about to break due to “global warming,” Henny pulls out that one grain that everyone scoffed at her for hording, and lodges it in the right place, and the dam holds and the farmyard is saved! But no. I guess it was just the easiest rhyme the writer could think of. I’m still in awe of this story, though. Bear with me.
So Chicken Little tells Henny, “The sky is falling! I’m off to tell the king!” And Henny’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ll go with you!” Off they go, and run into Turkey Lurkey—Lurkey not because he lurks about and gathers intel which is used against our friends at some crucial point, but just because it rhymes—and they tell him, “the sky is falling, we’re going to tell the king!” “Woah,” says he, “I’ll come with!”
So along they go, and gather a few other friends with lamely rhyming names, Goosey Loosey and Ducky Lucky, and finally Foxy Woxy. And they tell Foxy, “The sky is falling! We’re off to tell the king.”
And Foxy’s like, “What? No way!”
“It’s true! Chicken Little’s got the bump on her head to prove it!”
“Woah, that’s intense,” says Foxy, “Well I happen to know where the king is right now, I’ll take you to him!”
So they all follow Foxy through the forest, this is another CHEAT in the story. The narrator tells us where Foxy is actually leading them, so we can all laugh at how gullible they are. He gets to the entrance to his den and says, “The king is right through there.” And they file in, and Foxy traps them, and kills them, and eats them. End of story.
So why is this brilliant? What makes this smug and lazily constructed story the one thing we should all be reading? It ain’t the acorn. It’s what Henny does about it.
If we really believe the sky is failing, why do we allow ourselves to take one ride in a car that burns fossil fuel? Or spend one minute longer in the shower than we need to? Or accept even one plastic fork at a picnic?
If Chicken Little had thought, “I’m Little but I’m mighty,” maybe she would stayed right there and searched until she found the cause of that bonk on the head. But searching for a piece of sky is lonely. Talking is comforting. Talking lets us focus on our listeners. Are they getting your message? Do they believe us?
I can’t stand here and tell you the glaciers aren’t melting, or there aren’t holes in the ozone. But how do so many of us, including myself, respond? We read the emails and sign the petitions and write to the oil companies and recommend the documentaries.
We’re so busy spreading the word that we walk right into the fox’s den, the fox with the bright red hair and the distractions that keep us thinking we’re doing something when in fact, all we’re really doing, is talking.