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Changing Stories: Using Narrative To Shift Societal Values

By: Jonathan Dawson
Senior Lecturer, Economics For Transition
Schumacher College

There has, in recent years, been a growing recognition of the power of story to frame how we understand the world around us and our place within it. By ‘story’ in this context, I refer to the grand societal narratives, those clusters of beliefs and cultural norms that give shape and meaning to the human cultures within which we live. In general, these stories are so deeply rooted and so thoroughly embedded within a society’s language, behaviour patterns and rituals as to be all but imperceptible. They constitute the bedrock of beliefs that are widely, if generally unconsciously, accepted to be universally true, even though they tend in fact to represent a distinct break with the dominant societal stories of previous epochs.

Consider the revolution in worldview and sense-making provoked among those living within the Copernican era by the discovery that the earth is not after all the centre of the universe. The ramifications spread far beyond theorising about astronomical patterns to challenge every tenet and assumption of the entire civilisation. For a period, before new meta-stories arose, there was a profound societal lack of meaning so intense that the foremost response was to call in the inquisition to keep the lid on the box.

Just as stories that persist beyond their sell-by date can keep us locked into societal patterns that no longer serve, so worked with consciously they can provide a powerful tool for transition. So it is that a growing number of thoughtful people are framing our current global crisis as fundamentally one of meaning, in which the dominant societal narrative no longer enables us to make sense of the world. As Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci put it as long ago at the early 1970s, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’

I find myself attending a growing number of gatherings focused on seeking to work out what is the new narrative that could help us usher in and make sense of emerging future. Much theorising and furrowing of brows tends to be involved. I want to suggest that such a venture – trying to work out on a conceptual level what the new story might be – may not, in fact, be the most useful pursuit at this stage.

For a start, it seems to me that we already have a pretty clear understanding of what are the bones of the new story. Today’s dominant narratives were forged in the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. They rest on Cartesian dualism and speak of man standing apart from the rest of the natural world and manipulating it for his own benefit. Humans are seen to be the sole source of consciousness in an otherwise meaningless and inanimate universe in which selfish genes fight for supremacy in a world characterised by scarcity and survival of the fittest. In the economic realm, markets are seen as the battleground in which this drama plays out, with money the ultimate arbiter of exchange and measure of wealth.

The emerging new story is built on a marriage of findings and developments in holistic science and human ecology, and drawing generously on insights drawn from ancient wisdom traditions. There has been a revolution in the natural sciences since the static, mechanistic, equilibrium-based models of Victorian period from which the fathers of economics-as-mathematical-science borrowed so heavily. A deepening understanding of natural ecology reveals life to be characterised by webs of symbiotic, interdependent systems, where selection is made on the basis of resilience and adaptability. Gaia theory posits the Earth as a living, self-regulating system. Complexity science points to a dynamic world of co-evolution among species in surprising, unpredictable and elegant ways to changing ecological conditions.

Meanwhile, the anthropological record describes multiple modes of production and distribution in human economies, with gift and reciprocity playing a dominant role for most of the human story. The evolution of money and markets is shown (in, for example, David Graeber’s extraordinary Debt: The First 5,000 Years) to be a relatively recent arrival on the scene and to have coincided with and to remain inextricably linked with war and slavery.

Studies in the burgeoning fields of neuroscience and psychology paint a portrait of human motivation far richer and more nuanced than that of the crudely rational caricature that is homo economicus. In the words of Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origin Of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics: ‘The myth of the purely self-interested human……takes a hit. Empirical studies find that human behaviour is not selfish, but rather attuned to eliciting cooperation in social networks, rewarding cooperation and punishing free riders’.

The unifying narrative that emerges from these insights speaks of interdependence in place of isolation within a vibrantly animate earth whose health and wellbeing arises out of myriad relationships in a dizzyingly rich web of life. In the social and economic spheres, cooperation and reciprocity emerge as key elements both of the human make-up and of how people have for much of the history of the species gone about providing for their needs. It also speaks to the importance of regenerating the commons as a space beyond state and markets where people can satisfy their need for affection, identity and participation in human-scale communities and bioregions.

In one of the most thoughtful recent texts describing the shifting of stories that we are living through, Andreas Weber speaks of the transition from Enlightenment to Enlivenment; that is from separation in a dead world devoid of meaning to re-engagement in a world teeming with life, subjectivity and agency.

The suggestion here, in short, is that the challenge at hand is less to do with further theorising about new meta-narratives than enquiring how we can give those stories that are already emerging more traction. How to facilitate the rolling out these stories into the lived experience of the growing number of people struggling to find meaning within the currently dominant narratives?

Here too, thinking and theorising may have their limits. Former nun and celebrated author, Karen Armstrong, suggests that the power of the great monotheistic religions lies less in the tenets of their belief systems than in their practices: ‘“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.’

As an educator, this really resonates. My experience is that learning that is limited to the conceptual level is generally pretty shallow, expanding knowledge but rarely engendering transformative change. If knowledge of the facts were sufficient in itself, the daily news diet of humanitarian disasters, ever more frequent weather-related events, ecological collapse and financial implosion would surely have effected the shift already. The morale is that the path to a profound transformation of consciousness and values is one that can be discovered only in the walking.

This is a critical insight with regards to the shifting of dominant societal narratives. For, more than in any other sphere of human life, this requires deep embodied experience. We need to absorb this depth of understanding at a cellular level.

The good news is that this is a path that we have already embarked upon – even if many on that journey have not yet phrased it in these terms. Moreover, there are three reasons for believing that this forward march into the gradual realisation of a new unifying narrative centred on values of connection, interdependence and cooperation may well gain greater traction in the years to come.

The first lies in the sheer scale and range of the crises currently converging on human civilisation. These are likely to render no longer viable many of our current social and economic practices – practices that embody and reinforce old stories of separation and domination. There is compelling and growing evidence, for example, that feeding a growing human population while protecting soils and conserving water resources is incompatible with fossil-fuel driven industrial agricultural systems. The long supply chains that lead to the supermarket door are already looking dangerously brittle and vulnerable as energy prices continue their upward trajectory. Meanwhile, in parallel, myriad experiments are blossoming in the development of community-based and agro-ecological farming methods adapted to the specific ecologies of particular places. Each of these involves an experiment in exploring a new, transformed relationship with living systems as well as with other people

Similarly, the peaking and likely rapid depletion of commercially exploitable fossil fuels will oblige us to shift to living off real-time solar energy budgets. The transition is already well under way, with tipping points in terms of price and uptake of renewables already being activated. Once again, the new systems, many of which are engaging and mobilising community participation, entail not just technological innovation but the lived experience on the part of participants of a new type or relationship with earth systems and other people.

As with food and energy, so the converging crises driven by climate change, the peaking of fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources and financial meltdown are opening up myriad opportunities across society and the economy. To repeat, these are opportunities not just for developing different kinds of kit and doing things differently in a purely material sense, but also for inhabiting and embodying new ways of relating to self, others and living systems.

The second benign trend resides in the nature of the information technology revolution we are now living through. Here, the internet is enabling the emergence of dispersed networks of producers and consumers that use web-based platforms to collaborate on joint initiatives, to share goods and services among themselves and to opt for access rather than ownership – as in the case of car-sharing, for example – on what is known as the collaborative commons.

According to Jeremy Rifkin, author, consultant and senior advisor to the European Union, ‘Sharing represents the best part of human nature. Reducing addictive consumption, optimizing frugality, and fostering a more sustainable way of life is not only laudable, but essential if we are to ensure our survival.’ His belief is that ‘conventional capitalist markets will increasingly lose their dominant hold over global commerce and trade as near zero marginal costs push an ever greater share of economic activity onto the collaborative commons in the years ahead.’

Once again, such a trend is opening up opportunities for people to experiment not just with new technologies but also to engage in new types of relationship more based on collaboration and generosity than maximising personal, private gain. The Freecycle Network, that facilitates the sharing of recyclables, describes its model as ‘changing the world, one gift at a time’.

Third, in response to the crisis of meaning affecting our societies, a growing number of people are choosing to create and work for organisations that are devoted to generating social and ecological wealth – cooperatives, social enterprise, B-corps, Transition initiatives, ecovillages, organisations campaigning and fund-raising on behalf of diverse ethical concerns. This is the territory mapped out by Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest, where he invites us to interpret this unparalleled explosion in empathic behaviour as the earth’s immune system activating.

Of course, these are not separate but mutually reinforcing trends. Communities are using peer-2-peer crowdfunding and community share issues to create food and energy cooperatives to build resilience in the face of the converging crises. Maker spaces and innovation hubs bring young creative people together to collaborate in the development of digitally-enabled solutions to a range of social and ecological crises.

The point is that these are not just isolated acts of futile resistance in the face of a monolithic and all-powerful economic system. They are, rather, acts of disruptive subversion built on the opening up of space for new and more generative forms of social and economic organisation to unfold. This is what Gus Alperovitz calls ‘evolutionary reconstruction’, a process beyond evolution and revolution in which transformation in institutional structures and power is effected by the cumulative effect of myriad grassroots initiatives.

For the last 15 years, I have worked in two centres of transformative education: the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland and now, Schumacher College in Devon, England. In both, I have sat through countless closing circles in which course participants, many of whom were on programmes lasting just a week, have spoken of the transformative power of the experience they have just lived through. The term ‘homecoming’ is frequently used. This has often been a source of some wonderment to me given how simple and uncomplicated is the recipe served up in such places: a balanced offering of intellectual stimulation and experiential learning; time in nature; moments of silence for reflection dotted through the day; working in teams in the gardens and kitchen; spaces for singing and cultural sharing; high quality, lovingly prepared, local vegetarian food. That’s pretty much it!

My growing realisation is that the power of this recipe resides in its ability to open up a space for people to have an embodied experience of reconnection with the land and with others in ways that enable people to remember and reconnect with who they truly are. This feels like a tremendously powerful insight. For, it suggests that an essential element of the journey to a new story fit for the 21st century may involve little more than creating spaces in which people can enjoy a lived experience of relations mediated not by the competitive logic of the market but by care, community and cooperation. And, as suggested above, there are solid grounds for believing that trends in our societal and economic development are likely to open up a greater number of just such spaces.

Will this be enough to effect a shift in societal narratives and economic behaviour? Of course not. However, it represents a critical part of the journey. Ultimately, the transition to an enlivened and sustainable human civilisation will not be achieved by theorising – though this may be an important part of the process. It needs to be experienced, inhabited, co-created by people working together in multiple places and experiments. The story of the path to sanity is being discovered and recounted through the walking of it.



Originally Appeared as a guest blog on