Writing a New Story

This is an article I wrote for Earth Day that was just published in our local newspaper. It’s a little different from my usual stuff, intended to engage traditional newspaper readers who are probably unfamiliar with the alternative press, and unaware of the energy, economic and ecological crises we face.

Taro Kaua'i

It takes a lot of courage to tell a story that isn’t the story of your culture. Just ask Galileo, or Salman Rushdie.

In his celebrated 2003 Massey Lectures, First Nations writer Thomas King told us “The truth about stories is that’s all we are”. If he’s right, it’s no wonder that those who deny the story of our culture are vilified.

Our now-global civilization culture’s story began as the mostly Judeo-Christian story of our fall from grace to a life of struggle, but it hasn’t really changed. Our culture’s story tells us that we must work hard, compete, struggle against scarcity and evil both without and within, and that if we ‘succeed’ in this struggle we will achieve endless progress and prosperity.

This story has brought us resource exhaustion, looming economic collapse, runaway climate change, species extinction, endless cycles of war, violence, suffering, disease, trauma, personal exhaustion, poverty, distrust, cynicism, and despair. Yet still we cling to it. It is the only story we know, and drives how we live, what we believe, and everything we do. Everything we read, hear and see reinforces it.

Perhaps Earth Day could give us the courage to recognize that our story is a story of illusion and disaster, and to start to craft and offer a new one.

The first step might be to give up our denial that something will rescue us from the precipice we now stand upon, all of us on this tiny, fragile Spaceship Earth. Denial that we can expect rescue from better leaders, or better technology, or a sudden upswell of coordinated global consciousness, or better laws or freer markets or a second coming.

In his book Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton says his extensive study of the latest climate science research has led him to this conclusion:

“We now have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.”

If your response to reading this is anger, or disbelief, or fear, that’s understandable: Like many climate scientists, economists, and students of our culture, Clive is starting to tell a new, and heretical, story, one that flies in the face of all we believe, and hope. You won’t find politicians, businesspeople, or news reporters telling this story — it’s too complex, too scary, too unbearable, too uncertain, too much out of our control.

Beyond the denial that our culture can be ‘rescued’, is only, now, the terrifying acceptance that within, at least, the lives of our children, the affluent, industrial world most of us have known for two centuries will be gone, and we have no idea what will, or can replace it.

What can help us move past this denial is a new story, one that will bring clarity and hope to what we must now face, and what the extraordinary legacy for future generations will be if we do so courageously and intelligently. That story is ours to write. It will begin when we learn about what happens when (not if) runaway climate change occurs, when an economy collapses permanently, and when a society’s accessible, affordable resources run out. These are world-changing events, but they’re not unprecedented and they’re not “the end of the world”.

Like a patient diagnosed with a life-altering disease, once we’ve learned and accepted the facts, we can start planning for what we will likely face and shift to a new way of living. Many patients receiving such news say it was the best thing that ever happened to them, that learning about the unsustainability of their ‘old’ way of life has led them to a joyous transformation to a new and more meaningful life.

My own ‘new story’ is one of a Great Migration of billions of people (and other creatures) from devastated equatorial areas to the poles, an astonishing journey that will re-teach each of us what it really means to be human, and to be connected to all other life on Earth, and of a new, peaceful, graceful, staggeringly diverse and smaller role of humans aboard Spaceship Earth several millennia in the future.

Your ‘new story’ will probably be different, and that’s fine. It’s enough that you start thinking about what that new story might be, in a way that lets go of hope of continuing our existing civilization in any form.

Whatever it is, it will be, at its heart, a story of liberation. It’s not too early to be writing it, and talking about it with everyone you know (especially your children). Earth Day would be a great day to start.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Writing a New Story

  1. Hi Dave,

    I’ve been following and appreciating your posts for years. This one prompted me to share two things. First, FYI there will be a New Story Summit at Findhorn this fall, which should be quite interesting (http://www.findhorn.org/programmes/newstory/).

    Second, it reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago after watching the moving 127 Hours. It is no longer accessible, so I will append it below. I hope you enjoy it. Take care and I look forward to our next opportunity to connect.

    In community,
    – Daniel

    (Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen 127 Hours and don’t want to know how it ends – as if? – don’t read this.)

    “We are in between stories” observed Thomas Berry in 1978. Our old Cartesian, reductionist, industrial stories are clearly dysfunctional and destructive, but new ones like those being developed by ecovillages, transition towns and millions of other initiatives and innovators around the world, have not yet gone mainstream.

    It is happening, but not always in straightforward ways. I believe new stories and metaphors are bubbling up through our collective unconscious to help us understand and cope with the coming crises of peak oil and climate change.

    One recent example is the movie 127 Hours, which chronicles the true story of mountain climber, Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) and his incredible efforts to save himself after his arm was pinned by an 800 pound rock while canyoneering.

    In many ways, Aron’s story perfectly parallels where we are as a species. We have become cocky and careless and have forgotten simple tools that have helped in past emergencies. We’ve fallen from on high and are now truly “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

    And like Aron, it’s taking us a while to fully grasp the severity of our predicament. Our water (i.e. oil) is running out, but there’s still some left, so we think maybe it’s not so bad. But we’re so thirsty! And, oh shit! We just spilled some! This can’t be happening! Okay, don’t panic. It’s a big problem, but we’re smart! We’re strong! By brains or brawn, we can come through unscathed.… Right?

    Wrong. In the end, it’s too little, too late. Like Aron muses, our whole life, all of our actions over thousands of generations have led to this moment… to this decision that is almost too horrific to even comprehend.

    The thought seems insane! Cut off our what?! But this is part of who we are! We would die! And the pain! The pain would be just too much…. No, it’s better to just wait. Maybe someone will come along to save us. Maybe if we just keep chipping away at the problem, we’ll be able to pull out of the situation.

    It all comes down to this moment. This generation. Instead of 127 hours, we have maybe 127 months – around 10 years – to make the ultimate decision. Are we willing to cut off our lifeblood of oil; break the very bones of our economy; go through some intense pain … in order to survive as a species? Or will we wait it out and die as cowards?

    Our story can still have a happy ending. Aron Ralston not only survived. He was transformed. He healed. He became a father. Now, he’s climbing new mountains and inspires others to accept change and take control of their lives. If we accept our destiny and collectively take this hero’s journey, we will renew the world and our role in it. Distant generations will sing our praises. This is our mythic moment folks! Let’s get crackin’!

  2. emily says:

    For better or for worse- and I am really divided about this at the moment- I think that the future will involve geoengineering. This won’t solve all of our scarcity problems- but it will, at least for a time- help with global warming. Of course if this engineering should ever be cut off for some reason we will be plunged into even quicker and deeper warming. And it is likely to be energy intensive, and require fossil fuels- which we have a limited supply of. But I don’t know how to stop global warming. I could cut my energy consumption by 90% and it wouldn’t do anything. Everyone on the planet would have to do the same thing, and there is no way to accomplish that. Voluntary changes in consumption will never get us there, and governments have no stomach for anything else- particularly if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage with other countries.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Emily — the people doing geo-engineering don’t have a clue about what they’re doing, and have no understanding of complex systems. They’re more likely to precipitate another ice age or make the situation much worse, than achieve any kind of stable offsetting of the current warming. Having said that, since it will be cheap enough for any large nation to do, I expect that it will be done. We can only hope whatever they do messes things up just enough to get them to stop, and no so much the damage can’t be undone.

  4. Geoff says:

    It seems to me that as a complex system, life at any scale of organization occurs and recurs as interconnected cycles and patterns of smaller and larger scales in both space and time. An individual human being/doing may die with dignity and live on in memory, but only within the embrace of a community that forgives what cannot be undone. Perhaps a civilization also may die with dignity, but only within the embrace of a community of all life that also forgives what cannot be undone. I think writing the new story is as much about how we ask forgiveness and let go of cycles and patterns of the past that even now we are reproducing in the present, as it is about how we learn to accept and nurture in the present new patterns that emerge and merge into the future. I don’t suppose we ever create a new story “from whole cloth” by clever design and a clean break from an old story.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Eloquently put, Geoff — thank you! I think the best ‘new’ stories are collective and emergent. My new story ideas have come from conversations with groups of people, from game-playing, and from scenario exercise. And from fighting the orthodoxy about what constitutes a ‘good’ story — that such stories ‘must’ have leaders and heroes and struggle and conflict and global significance.

  6. Hugh Aitken says:

    I am just reading A.C. Graylings “The God Argument” which is focused on analysis of the arguments that support religious belief. He proposes a new way the outlines a world view that will liberate us to create new stories that can proved a new morale basis future development removed from the influence of the historical power structures of religion.

    There is a growing undercurrent in our society where everyday people across the full spectrum of our communities are reflecting on their lives and are taking action to make changes for the betterment of family and wider community. The old structures have been failing for the last 50 years and the environmental issues are now effecting everyone. How we evolve our society is critical and as you have identified it is fundamental that we need to create new foundation stories.

    Your blog is a great catalyst for these new foundation stories.

Comments are closed.