If We Had a Better Story Could We Tell the Truth?

violet green swallow playing with a feather; photo by Chris Maynard

Recently, to my surprise, it’s become more acceptable to tell the grim truth about our civilization. Still not acceptable, mind you, but every once in a while when I do, I’ll notice someone nodding at me, giving me a sad smile, a quiet signal of comprehension and appreciation.

tree swallows in aerial acrobatics; photo by Richard Seaman

There are three (very large) groups to whom one cannot usefully or comfortably (or sometimes even safely) tell these truths:

  1. The incredulous: Those who either know so little or haven’t had the opportunity to think about what they know, that they find the idea of collapse preposterous, unimaginable, and/or unthinkable.
  2. The hopeful: Those who believe that collapse is not inevitable or can be significantly mitigated, or believe that even if it is inevitable and can’t be significantly mitigated, we should try anyway.
  3. The deniers: Those who are intimidated or offended by, or overwhelmed with anger and/or guilt at, the very idea of collapse.

I have always found that, when in a crowd that I know contains members of one or more of these groups, or whose members I don’t know well, it’s usually unwise to talk about what’s really going on in our world. For the first group it’s a conversation-stopper, for the second it’s either disappointing or annoying, and for the third it’s an invitation to a hostile debate or a fight, neither of which serves any purpose.

So it’s usually best to stay quiet, because telling the truth always begs the question: “OK lunatic/doomer/asshole, what are you doing about it?” To which, if you dare reply honesty, their response is generally going to be “that’s ridiculous/a copout/treasonous”.

If an ‘environmental’ group were to suddenly announce that trying to prevent global ecocide was fruitless and they were going to focus instead on helping people prepare for inevitable collapse, all the other enviros would quickly turn on them. A couple of climate scientists I’ve spoken to have confided that they can never talk publicly about what they think is really likely to happen because if they did, their audiences would walk out, their sponsors would cut them off, and their employers would fire them.

If a political leader were to suggest the need to end capitalism, or that economic growth was madness, their career and possibly their life would be quickly terminated. Dennis Kucinich, the only elected politician who’s had the courage to tell the truth about our political and economic systems, is dismissed by most as a ‘kook’ and considered ‘unelectable’ by his own party.

If a business leader were to admit (as several have to me, privately) that the power of large corporations is unhealthy and often abused, that most large corporations are dysfunctional (even more than comparable-sized government bureaucracies), and that corporate activities like the Tar Sands, factory farming, and GMOs are antithetic to the public interest, they would be quickly deposed, and shunned by their colleagues (even those who knew they were right).

We all go around talking about ‘realities’ (like the ‘free’ market, ‘free’ trade, ‘sustainable’ growth and ‘democratic’ governments) that are actually complete fictions, ideals that have never existed in the real world. Yet we talk about them as if they were incontrovertibly real. And almost no one dares talk about what’s really real — such as the constant and inevitable atrocity, messiness and brutality of war as it’s fought on the front lines (and its utter futility), or the ghastly and never-ending suffering of the trillions of creatures confined, tortured and slaughtered to meet the incessant demands of our industrial food system, or the world our children and grandchildren will have to face when the debts we have run up come due and the desolation we have caused leaves them with a planet that can no longer support most forms of life.

As John Rember puts it in a lovely essay on Guy McPherson’s blog (thanks to Timothy Scott Bennett for the link, and for the inspiration):

To the extent that you can buy reality off—that you can use your wealth to move tens of miles upwind of a dairy, for example—you can say reality is for people who lack money. The real function of wealth in America is to give us the time, resources, and space to either construct an unreal world or have one constructed for us. Unreal worlds, for most of us, turn out to be better places to spend our time…

Once an imperial reality is created, real reality becomes sedition. Dissent—even the dissent of believing what you see rather than what you’re told—is suppressed, ridiculed, ignored, or violently eliminated…

Happily for the Disney Corporation and for the American Empire, growing up has become optional, and plenty of people have decided not to. You can’t blame them. Growing up means looking at the hard data, constructing your own narrative from them, and leaving the secure future for the lethal present. As a scientist friend of mine says, “Those of us with children and grandchildren cannot go there…”

We can’t talk about these things, not in pleasant company. Sometimes we wish we didn’t know these terrible realities. We carry them around like ghastly personal secrets of horrific past wrongdoing, unmentionable and unforgivable acts that must never be revealed for fear of total social ostracism, or worse.

But as long as we stay quiet, we’re complicit. We can’t win.

Or can we? Perhaps if we had a better story we could tell the truth. Perhaps the reason why we dare not talk about what we see and know when we’re among the incredulous, the hopeful and the deniers, is that we, too, are seeking an alternate, more bearable reality than the terrible one we have come so late to know.

As I write this there are a dozen violet-green swallows flitting outside my window, soaring over my hilltop home and down into the valleys all around. Swallows are very adept at turning in mid-air, in a way that looks a bit clumsy but is actually ideally suited to catching insects in mid-air. They will also fly near larger birds in the hope of catching their moulting feathers in mid-air. The two pictures above depict this.

But I also know that swallows will perform these acrobatic feats, including catching and releasing feathers blowing in the wind over and over again, for no apparent reason. Just for fun. The fact that doing this is good practice for more serious pursuits is not the point — most wild creatures play as their principal means of learning new skills, but clearly take great pleasure in doing so for its own sake, just because it’s fun. [If you’re a skeptic, look at this bird behaviour, or this one, and tell me this isn’t pure, calculated, play].

Maybe the birds are telling us something. Their story, their way of coping with reality, is to play, to take joy in every moment. Maybe that is the story of all wild creatures: That life is play, delight, pleasure, laughter, living in Now Time. Maybe that should be our story, too, those of us who can no longer believe the invented stories of our culture, and who can no longer bear the story of grief and shame and anger and sadness and fear for our future that we have told ourselves about this terrible, real world.

I keep thinking that what is missing in my life is more fun. Perhaps instead of looking for friends and activities that are fun, the birds are showing me how to be more fun, more play-full. It occurs to me that people are happiest with me when I am playful, laughing, fun to be with. My youngest memories, which I recall with great fondness, were times of seemingly endless play, imagining, creating, running around, laughing, mimicking, experimenting, discovering, interacting with pure joy and pleasure with everything and everyone I could see.

How did I forget how to play? Is it the same reason that John Cleese now has to set aside a time and place to be creative, and follow a regimen (thanks to Bill Anderson for this link)?

More importantly, how can we re-learn how to play? Loren Eiseley once wrote:

on playing with a young fox

for just a moment
I held the universe at bay

by the simple expedient
of sitting on my haunches before a fox den
and tumbling about with a chicken bone.

it is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish,
as Thoreau once remarked
of some peculiar errand of his own,

there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.

My guess is that we could re-learn to play the same way the swallows and the ravens and the young foxes learn to play: By instinct (or in our case, reconnecting to our instincts); by watching other wild creatures at play and following their example; and by practice. [If you have any thoughts on this I would welcome them: I don’t expect much insight on this from online resources or from ‘experts’ in pedagogy.] Reaching back to those earliest memories, my sense is that most of it is about just being open — to wonder, to possibility, to finding out, for no other purpose than because it’s fun, joyful, pleasurable, irresistible.

Suppose we could do this, be this, and model it every moment. Suppose we filled our lives, and the lives of those we met and those we know, not just with earnest love, but with fun, joy and pleasure. Suppose we lived the story of being calmly, attentively, blissfully real — of being an appreciative, present and essential part of life’s unfathomable wonder and beauty, relishing every possible moment. And suppose we then began to tell the truth of what is happening in the world, opening people’s eyes up to the terrible reality of the real, teetering, fragile, suffering, desolated world. All the while smiling, with our eyes shining, gentle, relaxed, aware, at peace and full of humour. How would the incredulous, the hopeful, and the deniers respond to this dreadful message then? How might it change our own sense of unbearable grief, anger, shame and fear?

“In wildness is the preservation of the world”, Thoreau wrote. Perhaps in wildness we can also find our true story, and through it the means to help the frightened, anguished people of our world awaken to the world’s terribly reality, and its astonishing joy.

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14 Responses to If We Had a Better Story Could We Tell the Truth?

  1. Philip says:

    Solutions and coherent stories don’t really belong in everyday life. When my family gardens together, we play together, we eat fruit, we feed the friut to the pet sheep and goats, my kids hands in the soil, we are in the moment. Birds and nature. I have to shoot the rabbits now, they raid the garden to the point we can’t play in it. It feels playful to kill them (we eat them), but they now can’t play. Play is part of survival. Trying to playfully connect with our food has given me more grief (as over the years it makes me more aware of our comming collective failure) but is empowering.
    Dave you see it as it is….you communicate. You mention in your last post that less people are comming your way. You may not be trying to save the world, but it is clear you are trying to save something. The collaspe will come in stages. An event at some point will mean we embrace different values. We will change what matters to us when we are hungry. Those that laugh and play with their eyes shinning, gentle, aware will be the ones we look to. It will be the way we survive. The challenge for humans will be the same as it always is. Prevent our ethics crumbling in the conflict of our needs. I need to go, the dog and the kids are in their usaul playful state, wondering why boring dad is on the puter.

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  3. Tom says:

    Thoreau also wrote in the same essay

    The world with which we are commonly
    acquainted leaves no trace
    and it will have no anniversary.


  4. I couldn’t agree more. The story can’t be told with terror or it becomes little more than terrible. Since you’ve quoted poetry (Loren says it beautifully), I’ll quote too, from the last lines of my favourite, equally apt poem – Yeats’ Lapus Lazuli:

    “There, on the mountain and the sky,
    On all the tragic scene they stare.
    One asks for mournful melodies;
    Accomplished fingers begin to play.
    Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
    Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

  5. Michelle Holliday says:

    You’re on to something important, Dave. I came to similar conclusions in Using Improv to Save the World: http://www.solarium.cambiumconsulting.com/content/using-improv-save-world-real-time

    “[T]he overarching problems humanity faces are so complex and require such a high degree of creativity, collaboration and inspiration that improv may be the only effective means of solving them. Rational, linear, individually-generated solutions are simply not up to the task. The challenge will be to find ways to play together even in the face of unthinkable disaster.”


  6. I’m reminded of Bob Black’s piece, The Abolition of Work:


    Maybe we need to run candidates on that platform.

  7. Sandwichman says:


    Grappling with much the same dilemmas you are, I’ve had the following [inchoate] thoughts over the past few days.

    One has to do with the relationship between critique, collapse and schadenfreude. I wonder if there isn’t a temptation for social critics to expect the worst in anticipation of being able to say, “I told you so” (albeit posthumously)?

    Second, it seems to me that who we are and what we can entertain believing is fundamentally somatic, not ideological. People only use words and ideas to represent the convictions that they literally embody because they have accumulated them imperceptibly over their lifetime. There is value in speaking your truth, though, not because you will persuade anybody but because there is someone out there for whom your truth will help them articulate something they already thought but didn’t know how to say.

    The incredulous, the hopeful and the deniers can’t even comprehend what you are saying enough to disagree with it. The best they can do is make a gesture of disagreement by conjuring up a straw man to refute.

    Third, geology can be a wonderful tonic for the nostalgia-for-civilization blues. Especially large, very old geology. Driving east of Kamloops this morning there is a sublime scene of rugged peaks fronted by heavily-eroded silt bluffs, the residue of a 50-million year old glacial lake subsequently carved by the South Thompson River. Fifty million years from now no one is going to care whether our civilization averted its self-propelled environmental collapse. If there were still people around they probably wouldn’t even be able to tell whether or not we did.

    The take away from these thoughts is humble but not all that grim. We can tell a better story, even the truth, and it is vital to do so. We just can’t expect any extrinsic gratification from it. Or as Kafka remarked to Max Brod, “there is plenty of hope — an infinite amount of hope — but not for us.”

  8. Paul Fast says:

    Hi Dave I have now read some of your blogs after Don Marshal steered me to them. I have been reading about the economic collapse for a number of years and I think you are right about the general collapse surrounding or coming out of that. Have you read Charles Eisenstein “The assent of Humanity”? He is of the same drift and traces our problems to dualism and the separation of life from nature as early as the earliest eucaryotes. His final chapter is a hopeful view of the post-apocalyptic civilization. I am glad you are finding and practicing joyful living I think that is the only way to stay sane with the knowledge that you have.

  9. I wonder if I fit into your “hopeful” classification. It all depends on what you mean by “mitigate”.

    I firmly believe that if we can just voluntarily cut our fossil fuel usage by 80% each generation, there will be no collapse, just a smooth transition to a low-energy future. Nor do I think that number impossible, I read an article by a member of Twin Oaks how they used approximately only 20% of the energy the typical American uses. Where the next 16% and 3.2% come from I have no idea, but those are problems for the next two generations. (There is a dark side to this too, one which I suspect the Powers That Be have embraced: 80% reductions in energy use can simply, painfully be achieved by 80% reductions in population.)

    I have a different story to tell, which I am doing on my blog. The future will be a long, hard struggle, but soon the worst will be over, and eventually (in a few millenia) we will surpass where we are today.

    I do have to thank you for this post, I think play will play an important part in our future — I need to include that in my blog.

  10. Thanks for the insight and honesty, I think a lot of people feel that way and maybe are not so scared anymore to say so? The bit about being hostages to children and grandchildren is true, BUT they desperately need us to be honest to allow them a chance perhaps? As a grandparent how I hope I can get your “lightness of being” so I might be able to communicate honestly, but happily, with them. I love the bit about the swallows, do read the bits on my website about the swallows that live with us!

  11. Aleah says:

    Thank you for this beautiful, insightful essay. You’ve articulated why I find myself spending most of my free time alone in the forests and canyons. I usually have the initial desire to find the solitude needed for reflection and writing, but I end up simply observing the wildness around me: bird acrobatics, curious scavengers, moonsongs from nocturnal wanderers… It is perhaps the only time, in this wild, unencumbered, real space, I feel lighthearted and joyful. You are on to something – life is in moment.

    We can only speak our truth, Dave. Even if we spoke out with a smile and happiness in our heart, denial bites back. Other people’s feelings are not our responsibility. Every moment is unique to each of us. Even in play, the function of pernicious fantasy seems to outweigh play as an authentic expression of self-liberation. But we have each other – those we can be ourselves with – and wildness, where I, for one, never feel alone.

  12. KevinM says:

    Why is it different at this particular moment in history? I don’t deny that we may be seeing a debt-fueled over-consumption induced ending to the Western empire, but empires have fallen before.

    The modern world can survive burning fewer things for energy and lower government funded social welfare.

  13. Martin says:

    There is nothing to be done save to enjoy the current moment to the fullest.

  14. chetana says:

    Insightful piece. We live in a world with different realities…some better than the others. The ability to purchase a better reality does not make it unreal. It is still real. Coz we are now aware enough to see different realities and aware which nourishes our souls, hearts and bodies, the deal is to make such a reality accessible and universal at some point. That will come to happen. In many ways we are living in better times and as a woman I didnot have to fight for life opportunities that my grandmumma fought for. A green, peaceful, playful, natural, creative world will come to be. More and more of us are making that choice than ever before! The rate of when it will happen depends on our collective choices.

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