The stories we tell ourselves govern our way of life. They form the bedrock of our worldviews, underpinning our perception of reality and directing the course of our society’s development. It should therefore come as no surprise that many of the differences between one society and another hinge upon the stories prevalent within their culture.
Storytelling is, as far as we know, unique to humankind. Since the cognitive revolution some 70,000+ years ago humans developed the capacity for abstract thought and complex language, and with it the ability to pass information from one person to another, from one generation to the next, transcending the barriers of time and distance to store, transmit and accumulate knowledge.
Our gift for storytelling has enabled us to instill cultural values, ensuring that they are internalised, reinforcing desired behaviours and reducing the likelihood of undesired behaviours. Our stories also enable us to collaborate with large numbers of people, over time and distance, and in a flexible and coordinated manner. Without storytelling it would be extremely difficult to motivate any sort of action on a large scale.
But the telling of stories is a double-edged sword. Storytellers hold both great responsibility and great power – the power to influence, even determine, the behavior of whole populations, for better or for worse. Recognition of internalised concepts as stories enables us to alter our detrimental and unsustainable worldviews in favour of views that are more in line with natural world realities. We are, it seems, both the master and the servant of our own mythology, our servitude all the greater if our mastery is the lesser.
Many of the stories of our culture are so deeply embedded that we fail to recognize them as stories at all, instead assuming that our limited and filtered worldviews are rational and objective assessments of reality. Dancing hand in hand with our culture of mythology is our culture of denial. Time after time when confronted with conflicting alternative worldviews, or realities that strike a chord of cognitive dissonance, we deny that our own worldviews are faulty. We insist that any challenge to our most sacred of beliefs must be wrong, our confirmation bias serving the maintenance of the status quo. In this way we trot blindly along our trajectory toward the dead end of our beloved way of life.
The adoption of a more honest set of new narratives for a worldview in sync with reality is no simple challenge. Many a message, along with its ill-fated messenger, has been rejected as we consistently fail to dislodge our minds from the comfort-zone of embedded myth. To strive to see the world as it really is, and not as we wish it to be, is perhaps our greatest challenge. Such a journey beyond our comfort zone is not one that many take willingly, and is one that may cause us to question much of what we hold to be self-evident.
The Chosen Ones
The wisdom of our dominant global culture – the whitewashed culture of the ‘developed’ western powers – proclaims that ‘we’ are the chosen ones, destined for the promised land, and that we hold dominion over nature. Most people do not explicitly hold these stories to be true, yet the power of story lies beneath the surface. One need only scratch the surface to find that these narratives are embedded in our very psyche and form the basis of our way of life.
Our culture views itself as special, superior, elevated above all else. While those of other cultures, other ways of life, are inferior ‘unpeople’, we are the ones who are fit to govern, fit to hold power, fit to reap the rewards of Mother Nature’s limited resources. In times of scarcity – both real and perceived – we behave as though our very identity qualifies us to land among the haves, and not the have-nots. Our contempt for refugees landing on our shores, for indigenous peoples standing in the way of our resource acquisition, for the starving masses and the sweatshop slaves whose lack fuels our privilege, all belie our deep acceptance of ourselves as the chosen ones, the ones destined for the promised land.
As it is we who are the chosen ones then it is only right that we hold dominion over nature, a concept whose origin long predates biblical references, and whose allure is so strong that even those who have long since cast off the mantle of religion subscribe to and repeat it as though it were absolute truth. The Earth is there for us to plunder, the animals are there for us to enslave, and woe betide any being whose way of life conflicts with our desires. We fear wild nature and seek to tame it, fencing ourselves into concrete enclaves within which we foster the belief that all else is beneath us. We distrust the wisdom of Mother Nature, adamant that our own technological offerings are superior to her craft. We punish the natural world for its inferiority to our perceived greatness, tearing up forests, vacuuming oceans, blasting the tops off mountains, creating vast swathes of desert, and bleeding our rivers dry, all as we enslave, torture and murder non-human animals in factory farms in a daily holocaust of biblical proportions.
If we are to see the world as it really is, and not as we might wish it to be, we are forced to reflect on our impotence. Although we have the power to influence our environment – as evidenced by anthropogenic climate change – we are, as is abundantly clear from our humble submission to nature’s most awe-inspiring feats of destruction, not in control. We are not the chosen ones, we are not destined for the promised land, and we do not hold dominion over nature. We are, instead, a hairless ape, a complex animal with a skill for storytelling and a penchant for building things, and ours is only the latest in a long series of civilizations to teeter on the brink of self-annihilation. We are a one-trick pony hellbent on ploughing through the Earth’s resources, building temples to the God of Progress, narcissists in love with our false reflection.
The Entitled Ones
From our story of dominion over nature stems our concept of ownership. If we are able to dominate the natural world then we are also able to own portions of it, buy and sell them as we see fit, and accumulate wealth from the production of goods from its looted resources. We tell ourselves that we are entitled to own regions of nature’s kingdom, and we compete for this perceived entitlement, destroying the very amphitheatre in which we stage our battles. Our competition for ownership unleashed the atrocities of war, slavery and imperialist conquest, with the fallacy of entitlement being the very concept with which our culture of empire justified the decimation of the indigenous peoples of all the lands we conquered.
We believe that we deserve what we have and that we have what we deserve, thus perpetuating the cycles of wealth and poverty. Our sense of entitlement to own knows no bounds – the enslavement of our less-entitled brothers and sisters worldwide facilitates our insatiable hoarding of ever more stuff; the rape and pillage of our life-giving biosphere is what affords us our glitzy shopping malls and highways between havens; the grabs for land and water that cause the starvation of our fellow humans is what enables us to self-pityingly experience obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – the maladies of our own affluence.
Like the Nazis we claim that arbeit macht frei – our work will set us free – if only we work hard enough we will get what we deserve. We believe that our desires remain out of reach due only to insufficient effort on our part, and that those who have what we desire have earned it through the sweat of their labour. Those who toil under slave-like conditions, mining the rare minerals from which our shiny gadgets are made, must simply not be working quite hard enough. Those who labour around the clock to produce the designer finery in which we sip lattes and self-aggrandize our own accomplishments must simply not be putting in quite enough time. Yet the truth is that we in the west are simply able to pay for all this. We know better the rules of the game and are born on the winning team.
The truth that needs to be told is that hard work by itself, without the propellant of privilege, is rewarded, in most cases worldwide, by exhaustion, and not the promised livable wage, much less the American Dream.
Despite our destructive ways, and perhaps because of our faith that we are the chosen ones, we rely on the story of the rapture as our pathway out of the mess we have made. There is, after all, no way of turning back from the precipice over which we are headed when we believe so absolutely in pursuing our trajectory. After our tribulations on Earth are over we will ascend to a higher plane of being, rescued from our fate at the eleventh hour by the savior of our faith’s choosing. In the meantime, business as usual will do just fine so long as we hold firm in our faith in salvation.
The invisible hand of the ‘free’ market has long held pride of place at the centre of neoliberal economic faith. Provided we please the corporate gods with our striving toward endless economic growth the ambrosia of wealth will trickle down, rewarding each according to his or her place on the pyramid of entitlement. Wealth redistribution would simply upset the apple cart; with insufficient wealth at the top, how would it ever trickle down?
The story of our society’s consciousness shift – that great coming together of all peoples under one banner of shared values after a mass-epiphany whose trigger is unknown – is a popular means of bypassing our responsibility to make good. If only we believe hard enough, we will experience the rapture of a sudden shift in consciousness that will leave us all on the same plane of understanding, finally ready to act as one to magically manifest the means of our salvation. We just have to wait for the quantum world to work its magic.
Another popular form of bypassing is the ever-popular faith in technological rapture, the earnest belief that if we only keep propelling technological progress we will be able to undo all the harm that we have done with our insatiable urge to concrete over nature and produce more shiny toys and gadgets. We may even be able to set free our slaves. Even Marx believed that the proletariat could be freed from their servitude by the rapture of the Industrial Revolution, that man would no longer need to work under the yoke of his master if he could instead become master of the machine. Alas, we wait in vain. For all our technological advances we are yet to free ourselves from servitude, having become instead the servant of our own desires. Endless technological fixes can never be the savior of a people whose problems are caused not by a lack of technology, but by an erroneous set of worldviews.
In reality we are unlikely to ever magically coalesce around a shared set of values – at least not without a great deal of propaganda; technological advance will be stymied by resource peaks long before we are freed from servitude; and the invisible hand is just giving us the finger. There will be no rapture.
Re-writing the Story of Us
We face a gargantuan task in bringing a more realistic narrative to a society founded upon a denial of reality. Our task is not without precedent, however. Works of literature as diverse as Plato’s The Republic, to Thomas More’s Utopia, to B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two have attempted to re-write the narrative of human society, to demonstrate a better way of being human.
Certain pivotal points in our history have sparked entire movements of trajectory-shifting narrative, injecting truth between the fictions with which we bypass reality. The First World War brought forth a wave of literature telling of truths obscured by the mainstream media propagandists of the day as power elites secured their privilege. While newspapers were pressing young men to enlist in the army to “fight for their country”, cajoling them with narratives of duty and heroism, poetry was flooding back from the battlefield, telling truths of the horror that was. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est provides a bitter and vivid account of life in the trenches in the age of chemical warfare as well as an enduring critique of the popular myth – a brazenly alternative narrative to that of the ruling class. The final four lines hold a raw and bitter beauty of a truth that had to be experienced to be told:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
The Romantic era of the mid to late 18th century brought forth attempts to positively influence the course of social development through narrative. While the founding fathers of economics were busily concocting fairytales of the invisible hand of market forces and Enlightenment scholars were proving humanity’s rightful place at the peak of nature’s pyramid, romantic poets were weaving a narrative of the natural goodness of human nature and our connection to Mother Earth. It was theorized that, contrary to popular contemporary and historical belief, in a “state of nature”, humans would do good, not harm, but that civilization as we had created it provided a hindrance to our natural expression, with William Blake claiming that: “urban life and the commitment to ‘getting and spending,’ generates a fear and distrust of the world.” They proposed that the structure of society had led to a culture of servitude and oppression, and that abandoning materialism and ownership for values in line with the needs of the natural world would provide a much-needed fresh start.
It is clear that our old stories aren’t doing the job of instilling sustainable values and practices, and that we need a new story of us that is at once more truthful and empowering, inspiring a level of social change thus far unachieved by our era of access to information. With carefully constructed cultural memes, crafted with responsibility and integrity, it may be possible to reach far more people and internalise the values of a sustainable paradigm.
We need to replace the myth of humanity’s dominion over nature with the truth that we are simply a strand in nature’s complex web. The narrative of entitlement must be replaced with one of solidarity – perhaps something akin to the African concept of Ubuntu, in which it is said that “I am because we are”. The story of the rapture needs to be replaced with one of responsibility and agency – that we both can and must work to be the change we wish to see.
All attempts to re-write the story of us have been incremental. No grand re-writing has occurred, nor is it likely to. Instead we take on our own chapter of the story, and re-write it with the truth of our own experiences, presenting the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. The challenge now before us is to craft a new mythology in which our heroes are ordinary people like ourselves who pave the way toward a sustainable future. Rejecting the high positions held by our heroes and gurus of old we must remove the pedestal and aspire to a heroism we can all achieve. We are to be the heroes of the new story of us, for as the Hopi wisdom reveals, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.