No More Stories

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tar sands
I ended a recent article with the following warning/rant about stories:

I am coming to believe that all stories, from the unactionable dumbed-down crap that we’re fed by the mainstream media, to the preposterous ‘history’ they pass off as ‘fact’ in so-called institutions of learning, to the regurgitated tripe from Hollywood, to the mountains of lies of corporatists in their greenwashing and advertising, to the formulaic and emotionally manipulative fiction to which we escape from our brutal and mind-numbing lives — are propaganda. They are meant to keep us in our place and distract us from discovering what is really going on in this world. Stories, I am beginning to think, are just more of civilization’s gunk that gets layered on us (some of it self-inflicted) from the moment we acquire the dreadful skill of human language, stuff that prevents us from being nobody-but-ourselves, and from understanding what is really needed, now, what we have to do, with all of our hearts and our minds and our senses and our instincts.

So: damn stories. If one is inclined to “rewrite one’s own story”, perhaps it’s time to give up fiction, turn off the projector, get out of the theatre and improvise living in the real world, where there are no scripts, just work that needs to be done and actions that need to be taken, if only we can readjust our eyes to the light. The director, it turns out, is a mannequin with a pre-recorded playback device in his megaphone, and the script was written by a machine using lines selected with a random-number generator.

And the part that each of us has been playing was actually written for someone else. The set is empty, the props are all falling down and blowing away in the wind. All that is left is Now.

Several readers pointed out that this is a marked change from my previous attitude towards stories. I did acknowledge that stories are powerful (even subversive), effective, context-rich, memorable, useful in visualization, and compelling, so shouldn’t I be distinguishing, they asked, between ‘good’ stories and ‘bad’ stories?

My change of heart on stories began when I began to realize the dangers of idealism (my own and others’), and began to question whether knowing and writing about what is really happening in the world (and how we might make it better) is really enough — a distraction from actually doing anything about it. I’ve come to realize that the proportion of the world who believes that we can change the world bottom-up through education or incitement is very small (though it probably includes a disproportionate number of bloggers and blog readers). 

Pollard’s Law is: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Stories, whether they appeal to the intellect or to the emotions, rarely alter behaviour: No one is going to conclude, on the strength of a story, that something they thought was optional, hard or uninspiring is actually essential and urgent, easy or fun. Stories just don’t have that much power. They don’t precipitate real change, only (at best) changes in beliefs and attitudes. And it doesn’t matter what you believe if you aren’t willing to act on it, or if your actions are limited to small personal behaviour changes.

Derrick Jensen has been hammering this point for years, most recently in his blistering articles in Orion. Corporatists know this and count on it: It’s easier and cheaper, and just as effective, for them to greenwash than to actually be responsible. You can demonstrate and write angry letters to politicians all you want, and they’re delighted: It’s a safety valve that gives you the impression you’re acting, so it makes you feel better, and believe things are getting better, when in fact they’re getting much worse, every day.

So what does have enough power to lead to real change?

My answer: Organized, collective action. More specifically, action that produces actual results, not just stories. 

Action is different from story.

  • Stories are addictive. They oversimplify complexity to the point we become complacent that we know what is really happening and that all the alternatives have been identified and considered, so that intelligent, reasonable people can know what needs to be done. We have no idea what is happening, in areas of complexity such as climate change and the end of oil, and we have no idea what needs to be done. No one knows, and the climate scientists who know most are the most pessimistic and most terrified.
  • Stories are manipulative. They are readily subject to spin, especially on complex subjects about which there can never be absolute or certain knowledge. And they are subject to censorship and the crime of non-reporting, which the mainstream media do constantly to avoid depressing or confusing their audience or upsetting their corporate sponsors and advertisers.
  • Stories give us false hope. When we live our lives dreaming of winning the lottery, or finding that perfect partner, we become complacent, malleable, content with what is, for now.
  • Stories lead us to live inside our heads instead of in the real world. They are ultimately escapist, whether they’re a novel about the past or the future, or ‘future state visions’ by some think-tank or corporatist apologist, describing what might have been or what might be. They are not real, and allow us to abdicate responsibility for what is happening in the real world, right now.
  • Stories are excuses for inaction. Somehow when we get worked up about a story, we mistake that for actually doing something about it. And we are all too willing to be reassured by stories that everything is really OK, or will be soon, when our leaders or technologies apply themselves to fixing what’s broken.
  • Stories are only stories. When children get upset about a horror story, we console them, tell them “it’s just a story.” The true horrors are not just stories.
A story is not the thing that the story is about. A story about the destruction ands poisoniong of the Canadian boreal forest and wetlands by the Alberta Tar Sands project is not the same as that destruction and poisoning. The story doesn’t have the same effect as watching it happen, living with it every day, because the story is only a story. A story about thousands of Canadians blockading and sabotaging the project is not the same as that blockading and sabotage. The story may cause you brief concern, or hope; the actions will get you years in prison, blacklisted, and perhaps killed.

Action is different from story. Whether you want to create a new community or a new enterprise or a better world, you don’t tell a story; you act. The process for acting to co-create any of these things is:

  • Find collaborators who share your purpose, principles, intentions and sense of urgency.
  • Research what is needed.
  • Together, innovate approaches that meet that need.
  • Keep experimenting and improvising, trying these approaches until you succeed in meeting that need.

So if your purpose and sense of urgency is about climate change, step 2 (the research) has already been done for you — George Monbiot’s book Heat describes precisely what we need to do to stop it. If you haven’t read the book, here’s a summary of what is needed, put a little less delicately than Monbiot does, and supplemented with some additional ‘musts’ that have come to light in the three years since Heat was written (Monbiot today is much more pessimistic than he was then):

  • We need to immediately and completely stop burning coal, abandon the Tar Sands and all other forms of dirty energy, and invest several trillion dollars in a complex set of new energy generation and carbon emission reduction methods (electric cars using electricity from wind farms and natural gas, carbon scrubbing etc.)
  • We need to immediately cease all oil exporation and start rationing the use of known oil reserves, because just burning what we already know exists will push us far past the 350ppm tipping point that will unleash massive and debilitating climate change (loss of the world’s forests, massive desertification, constant devastating storms, sea level rise engulfing a billion people, waves of pandemic tropical diseases to humans, crops and food animals etc.)
  • We need to immediately ground all aircraft, since no foreseeable technology can significantly mitigate its huge impact on atmospheric emissions
  • We need to substantially shut down and completely reengineer the retail and cement industries which are responsible for a large percentage of CO2 emissions; most retail business would be replaced with delivery-to-home alternatives, with substantially all packaging of consumer goods eliminated or replaced with simpler reusable packaging
  • We need a moratorium on nuclear energy development, and huge investment in waste storage, security and decommissioning of existing sites, because nuclear power brings with it immense risks of accident, sabotage and long-term toxicity
  • We need to require all buildings everywhere to be built (starting immediately) or retrofit (over a short time horizon) to much higher standards of construction and insulation (heat, light, windows, appliance, water heaters, smart metering to ration use of air conditioning etc.), and much higher standards of inspection and enforcement of these standards
  • We need to immediately begin researching and then reengineering the electrical grid from alternating to direct current to reduce electrical energy loss
  • We need to replace our extravagant, toxic, nation-destroying industrial agriculture system with one based on local, organic production (and move to become vegetarians)
  • We need to shut down expressways to auto traffic and substitute high-speed, high-amenity bus/train service in all urban, suburban and exurban areas (much of this technology remains to be invented)
  • We need to give up believing in impossible solutions: carbon capture and storage, cap-and-trade systems, local energy co-ops, personal wind turbines, the hydrogen economy, and biofuels; and also in the belief that telecommuting and home-based businesses can replace more than about 15% of our economy

That’s what’s needed, now. Forget about simply using compact fluorescent bulbs, taking the one tonne challenge, recycling and composting more.

We need to stop corporations and governments everywhere from:

  • mining and burning coal
  • developing the Tar Sands, offshore shale and other high-polluting energy sources
  • exploring for new oil (especially in the arctic)
  • operating aircraft (especially military aircraft)
  • developing new nukes
  • traditional cement manufacture
  • operating factory farms
  • building cheap crappy houses and energy-wasting shopping malls
  • making air conditioners except for essential services, and
  • building new roads for cars.

How are we going to do that? Not by telling stories. Not by petitions and letters to politicians and to the editor. Not by writing policy papers for the local Green Party.

We have to do what Jim Hansen, one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists, has started to do. We have to act in a collective, organized way. We have to find new, ingenious ways to blockade and sabotage (without risking health or safety) the developments above, until we stop them. Our planet, our civilization, our descendants’ future, depend on it. We may never get governments with the courage and will to spend the trillions needed on infrastructure and technology that Monbiot describes above (which would have to be paid for entirely by the rich, not fobbed off as additional debts on future generations or funded through cuts to essential services). We can’t wait for governments to do what they inevitably must do. But we can damned well stop what is destroying our planet now.

But only if we stop believing in stories.

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26 Responses to No More Stories

  1. Eugenie says:

    I totally agree. But I have to admit I am here, in a small village in the Netherlands, feeling paralized, not knowing what to do… Alone with my children..dh is at work.. AARRGGHH… WHAT can I do? And I am SO much prepared to do something.. but what? And even more important: with who???Eugenie

  2. Chaitanya says:

    How can we do away with stories ? Even Derrick Jensen has a story of “how the world should be” in his mind. Its just that majority people simply don’t agree with major part of his story, or, because his vision of things is so radical and disconnected from the present, majority people do not see a practical / evolutionary path towards implementing that story. No wonder he’s talking revolution now a days.But Jensen probably hasn’t come across Pollard Law. We don’t take up difficult things voluntarily, especially if there is lack of clear story for whats ahead, and if we’re not absolutely convinced that the new story is worth the hassle. So, until then, we do what we must, what’s easy and what’s fun. We change bulbs, experiment with wind turbines, and send petitions. Who knows where it ends. Maybe we’ll get lucky , or maybe Nature will force us into a new story.

  3. Ivor Tymchak says:

    I’m sorry Dave, I have to disagree. Stories precipitate action. I only need to point to the world’s organised religions to demonstrate to you how stories can alter the world. Also, stories explain the world. Science is a story. Viewing the tar sands operation would be meaningless without the reference of other material – lush forests, for example, show an alternative ‘story’.A story is a cutting tool; use it maliciously or benignly. You have visualised the cut, now you want to cut. Don’t disparage the previous step just because you want to move on.

  4. Steve Bean says:

    Stories are usually stressful. If you find one that isn’t, go ahead and keep it. Otherwise, question the stressful thoughts that make up the story until your mind is clear and you’ve learned to love reality.Eugenie, you’re alone with your children, which is it? With whom do you do something? Clearly, with yourself and/or your children.Ivor, stories do precipitate action. When the stories are stressful, the action typically leads to more of the same. Fortunately, absent stories, we can (and do) act out of love.

  5. Eugenie says:

    I am sorry, Steve, but remember WOII? Stressfull story it was, he? That positive thinking of positive ego leads us nowhere but into a rotten and dirty swamp. Open your eyes and see what is right in front of you, without making ‘let’s us be love’ stories..There is no real wisdom in positive ego. It is false, sometimes dangerous and most of the time without compassion.Just my 2 cents..Eugenie

  6. Dave Smith says:

    Two things: The exceptions to your rules-Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon. They walk their stories every day. They write essays, they tell stories, they live their stories. Berry says he will go to jail before he will allow his animals to be electronically tagged. Second thing: some of the most powerful and harmful stories are what professional sports has become, on and off the field, told over and over and over at all hours: social darwinism, survival of the fittest, authoritarianism, hierarchy, elitism, male dominance, etc., etc. My favorite New Yorker cartoon: woman standing with flowers at her husband’s grave; the tombstone reads: He Watched Sports

  7. John Graham says:

    Here lies the rub with Pollard’s law:Any “must” is part of a story. Even if the story is “I / we / they must survive”. You kneecap your quest to be nobody-but-yourself by putting the socially-constructed “must” first.And with this post I read a very familiar story:Dave tries to save the world by changing our stories about what we must do.More power to you.If you’re damning stories, you’re damning our humanity, and damnation is a story too.Regarding the Alberta Tar Sands: apart from stories, they are out of sight, out of mind. They are not “reality” to me (and that’s a fact), unless those stories are part of my reality.It takes great faith, it can seem a great gamble to follow the path of working with what you stumble upon in unmediated reality.It seems to bear good fruit. Some kinds of stories seem to bear good fruit too. Some kinds of actions seem to bear good fruit too.A systems thinker or a Taoist could tell you that we’re just not in a position to tell which is the best path in the long run, based on short-term fruits.We need them all, and I don’t think it’s helpful to get stuck in one groove or another. I figure if we all act in each moment in the direction of what we think is our higher good, and allow whatever feelings arise…allow that we are mostly unfree to do so, but use each each scrap of freedom we have to wrest more… then…then… or how about now?The interplay between “stories are all we are” and the some-time implications that “stories only lead us astray” has been of deep interest for me lately so I’m glad you’ve broached the topic, and thanks for the Monbiot/Dark Mountain links in your links of the week.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    I almost always agree with John but not this time. As I noted on the facebook comments thread on this srticle (www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=120781296233&comments=) I am not arguing that stories are not powerful or effective, or useful for conceptual learning. Changing people’s beliefs and understanding is important. What I’m arguing is that this almost never leads to real actions that lead to real results. My real purpose for writing this article is to cajole myself into more action and less writing of stories of what is happening and what is possible. I really think there’s something to my argument here. We get things done by getting together in real time and real space with people who share our values and intentions (whose idea of ‘what we must do’ is the same as ours), researching what is needed, innovating solutions, and then improvising over and over until something that works emerges. That’s how stuff gets done.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    We need stories to help us understand, and then focus, on, what needs to be done .. after that, stories become less useful .. but something comes before deciding to get into action.

  10. Paul says:

    Sounds like an iterative process. Story helps us to imagine what we might do in the world, and what effects it would have. Then we take action, learn, innovate, cooperate, evaluate. Then we share our story, or others create a story about us, so that others can get some ideas of what needs to be done.The iteration is through society, not necessarily through our own thoughts and actions.But, to your last point, Dave, please go ahead and cajole yourself into more action at the expense of less story-telling. And as you discover what you want to do, and as you do it, PLEASE share with us to help us, in turn, imagine possibilities and create new relationships. May the useful stories spread, and may we resist the ones that maintain us in chains or indolence!

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Stories help us imagine, yes, but do we really then take action? If that were the case, why don’t some of the best entrepreneurial stories, the best intentional community stories, the best transition movement stories, provoke a flurry of adoption by others? My guess is that the viral nature of stories is such that they can prompt us to take a very simple action (like buying an iphone) but not an action of any real consequence leading to real change. What we need to do instead is learn to collectively organize better, strategize better, and collaborate better.More discussion at (www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=120781296233&comments=)

  12. Siona says:

    I still fall, with delirious enthusiasm, on the story side of things. It’s stories that give hope, and stories that determine the realm and horizon of what is possible, and stories that give any action meaning. WIthout the story, why act at all? What would be the point?So I say: tell stories! Tell stories that empower and inspire and invigorate! Tell stories that lead people to fall in love with the world, and with each other. Tell stories that lead people to care. And whatever. If we just stuck to sitting about and telling stories around a campfire perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. ;)

  13. mattbg says:

    Stories are absolutely manipulative and counter-productive. The people that prefer them tend to not like reality very much. Stories make it acceptable imply a lie and then pass off your lie as creative license.Obviously, I like fiction. But it has no place in educating anyone about the truth. If you can’t find an example in reality then you should re-think your intentions.On the other hand, you have just discounted some peoples’ entire oral and unwritten history. That is OK with me, too.Abandoning stories is a part of growing up.

  14. mattbg says:

    Want to add: I almost can’t believe I read this here. I thought you’d never give up stories.

  15. Paris says:

    “we can damned well stop what is destroying our planet now.”Our bloody ancestors haven’t found any way to stop it for thousand of years.What makes you believe you could do it? false hope stories? or your shooling? or too many years in corporate business? probably a mix of all…by the way you forgot one major contributor to global warming: deforestation! yep exactly that pretty thing that has been going on for centuries…and that no one has ever stopped so far!so please one story to explain how 21st century human being can suceed where their ancestors have failed for thousands of years

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    This thread just keeps getting more and more interesting, especially added to the one over on Facebook. It’s amazing how sacrosanct stories have become — it’s blasphemy to criticize them. Now I *know* we’re addicted to them. As for Paris’ comment: you may be right about ultimately stopping the destruction, but we can, through blockades and sabotage (again: done carefully and humanely, which is where our ingenuity has to come into play) selectively stop the production of some of the worst polluters. If we’re clever and persistent enough, they may well just give up and go do something cheaper and easier. We just need to work to ensure that the ROI on toxic investments is lousy, and I think if we direct our imagination and energy to figuring out how to do that, instead of writing stories, we can do it.

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    For those who still believe in stories as something more than a useful learning tool: Imagine that some redneck, who used to complain on talk radio about ‘libruls’, is presented by some very powerful stories that he was mistaken, and he turns into a liberal who now tells his old buddies they’re crazy and writes letters to the papers supporting various liberal causes and beliefs. He may have changed beliefs, and echo-chambers, but what has really changed? He never did anything about his beliefs before (other than sharing them), and he still doesn’t.

  18. Melisa Christensen says:

    I thought quite a bit about this post yesterday. I’ve sort of thought this for a while. It was interesting to read a new perspective on it so well stated.

  19. It seems to me that stories are a pretty fundamental part of human existence, like it or not. I do agree that they often have little to do with reality, are tempting to use as an escape, and are dangerously easy to exploit, but they still play a big part in defining our core values and beliefs. Before you can take collective action, you have to either find people who already share your values or convert some…and that happens mostly through shared stories, I think. Now, if you’ve been lucky enough to find a group of people who are united in a vision, everyone may not be inclined to take action when the moment comes (and that’s the real challenge here for which stories alone may be inadequate) but stories had to exist to at least get people on the same page in the first place so they are an important foundation. Fear and outrage (inspired through stories? …but we’re all pretty jaded and de-sensitized by now…) or maybe power and wealth are probably much better motivators when it comes down to forcing action…

  20. Siona says:

    Dave: I’m empathetic to your feelings that stories are somehow addictive, or useless when it comes to creating real change. Still, I wish you would take into consideration the experiences of those individuals and cultures who have, at one point of another, not been able to tell their stories, before discounting their value. Your denigration of storytelling, to my mind, betrays an unexamined privilege–it sounds as though it’s coming from someone who has always been able to tell their story, and always had it acknowledged.If you’ve had much interaction with either trauma victims who’ve had their stories invalidated or unrecognized (“Don’t be crazy”) or heard of the stories of entire peoples who’ve had their histories erased as a result of their voices being muffled, I think you might feel a little differently about the tremendous power of storytelling. Story telling may not be sufficient (I’m agnostic on this), but it is necessary. Sharing stories IS “doing something.” Or so I think.

  21. Ivor Tymchak says:

    It’s always good to have your most obvious beliefs questioned. That way, you can rigorously reappraise them. But in this instance Dave you seem to be saying, “No more gravity”. OK, go ahead, ignore it and do things differently. Kinda tricky isn’t it?It’s the same with stories. We can’t function without them. I think the point you are making is that stories are a distraction from doing something practical. This is completely erroneous. Some people are followers, others are leaders; they both employ stories however. Going back to your point about a redneck becoming a liberal, what if that person was a doer instead of a talker? Stories changed that person but that person is now helping immigrants instead of beating them up. That’s good isn’t it?

  22. Jon Husband says:

    For those who still believe in stories as something more than a useful learning toolDave, please read carefully this excerpt from your last comment, esp. that which is in bold font. You are usually pretty careful and precise .. but I found it an useful and quick exercise to juxtapose your italicized comment above against your bullet list of the nasty aspects of stories.Yes, stories can be all that you suggest, when used for the range of purposes you ascribe to them. Nevertheless, I think that the wise use of story in the appropriate places and ways supports your statement that a story can be “an useful learning tool”.Perhaps on this blog you could interview, or debate, the issues you have raised with respect to stories with your friend Dave Snowden. I think that would be most interesting.

  23. Jon Husband says:

    Beth Kanter blogs about (and posts a YouTube clip) the way(s) Maori and Gourma Creation stories prepare the ground for action towards positive social change:What Do Maori and Gourma Creation Stories Have In Common With Social Media ?”

  24. Steve Bean says:

    You lost me, Eugenie. Did you mean WWII? If so, I’m still lost. In any case, I think I understand what you’re saying about the positive ego. I was referring primarily to the egoless state of being that can be experienced when thoughts are examined thoroughly.

  25. melbert endaya says:

    no. for me in order to save our world we should reduce the population of the world up to 90%….

  26. Penny Walker says:

    The other thing that it’s useful to understand about stories, is that sometimes archetypes and archetypal stories are framing the way we talk to each other about what’s going on, and even framing the way we think about what’s going on or perceive what’s going on.For example, an archetypal story about the Faustian bargain is one way of simplifying our understanding of the sticky end which awaits modern technological capitalist society (the payback from the Devil is that we have wrecked the planet). The useful aspect of this is that it makes communicating the problem easier – it fits into a familiar frame. The downside is that using a familiar frame may blind us to other ways of looking at the situation, which may be more fruitful in identifying and inspiring effective action.If we recognise that we may be unwittingly using an archetypal story to organise our understanding of the situation, then we can experiment with breaking free of it. If we don’t recognise it, then we’ll be trapped within it. Penny

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