It’s a dark time but we have to hopeful about what we can achieve. We each have the capacity to create the change we want to see in the world. Jean-Paul Sartre insisted all his life that what mattered was not the past at all: it was the future.
“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the collective imagination of human beings.”
These words are from historian and author Yuval Noah Harari, who writes that “what made Homo sapiens the most successful...was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, he argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.”
It seems to me that everybody is talking about story.
George Monbiot, who seems to be the flavour of our moment, starts his new book ‘Out of the Wreckage’ talking about how stories shape our world, he says “stories are the means by which we navigate the world.”
Jennifer Mason, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester expands our understanding stating that “one way that knowledge of social reality is elicited is through the stories people tell about their experience.”
Charles Eisenstein, author, public speaker and degrowth activist sees stories as a system of agreements and narratives that scaffold our world, he recognises that in a complex society, power arises from these stories. He warns that people cannot hold a new story by themselves. A story can be held only in community.
Prof. Ian Hargreaves, initiator of the idea of ‘creative citizen’ and the Creative Cardiff network, sees the importance of stories in binding groups to cooperate and take collective action.
Kathryn Goldman Schuyler, whose work as an organisational consultant has focused on developing wise leaders and healthy organisations says ‘our stories are the soil from which we create the new’ ...she said “I discovered that humans could imagine what might be possible and aim to create it, to make it real. I saw that the power to create the new could come from our visions of what is possible.”
The Transition Network's REconomy project supports communities to transform their local economies, when it comes to creating shared vision and purpose they say “one of the most powerful things we can do to change our society is to change the stories we tell ourselves and each other.”
Knowing that all creative endeavour sees us standing on the shoulders of giants, I will begin here also with story.
I’ll ask lots of questions, I’m not sure if I have answers, but perhaps my questions will resonate with you, perhaps you will intuitively know the answer, perhaps asking the question is more important anyway...
How can we, as individuals within communities have new social imaginings, how can we create new narratives for our time?
We have to change how we think about ourselves and our world, can we do this through the stories we tell ourselves and each other?
For me, the story we need to start learning how to tell in order to, as George says ‘infect the minds of people’ is that of how we really do begin to start living more sustainably on the Earth, and not just fussing around the edges like we are now.
In Wales, debate about sustainability is on the table, we are lucky to be world leaders in having legislation to protect our future generations. Everyone in Wales is talking about the wellbeing of future generations, that’s got to be a good thing!
But, what few people talk about is what actions they are willing to take in their own everyday lives to support the move to a more sustainable future. How might we use stories to get more people thinking and acting on everyday sustainability?
I am eager to imagine a better world. Here’s a story for today, it’s a FutureVision, it embodies all the hope I have for a more sustainable future.
I live in an urban village called Penarth, it was a Victorian seaside town on the edge of the city of Cardiff, before it got subsumed by the sprawl. It is still fondly known as the ‘garden by the sea’. The year is 2037, I have just turned 60. I live in a co-housing community, it’s a block of 1960’s maisonettes, it is an example of an early model of shared ownership. Each dwelling has a share and a vote. The Site Council that sees to decision making is made up of a rolling voluntary commitment from all residents, each dwelling gets a 1 year tenure.
There are 12 seats on the council, each year all dwelling numbers are placed in a digital hat, 12 are chosen at random. In order to maintain consistency and stability, there are also 3 Elder seats, Elders can sit for a maximum of 7 years, their role is to support continuity. Maintenance and upkeep is primarily done by the residents, local community enterprises might be called in for larger jobs.
Residents enjoy a community garden. There is a shared workshop where one can access tools for gardening and DIY, and a laundry, we realised a long time ago that each dwelling having its own washer and dryer was a crazy way to be carrying on!
Most people store a bicycle in one of the hangers outside their block. Some people have electric bikes, there are lot’s of hills here. We have three electric cars and a van which we share. We used to have over 200 parking spaces on our land, not now, no need for them, that space is filled with raised beds and a polytunnel.
We compost all our own green waste and use it to fertilise our garden. We yield enough fruit and veg in the summer months for us all to enjoy a healthful meal each day. When it’s warm, we sit at the long tables and share that meal together. We are never short of people who want to work in the garden.
We work in symbiosis with our local community. Our energy comes from the community municipal, the grid is fed from farms in the rural hinterlands and from offshore wind, as well as other forms of regionally produced renewables. We fitted solar on our expanse of flat roof, so we also feed the grid ourselves. We retrofitted passive systems, so we use no energy to heat our homes at all.
Our internet comes from the Community Internet Service. It is virtually free, we pay a small maintenance charge each year for upkeep of the cables and admin for the Service.
We have a food assembly, where items are purchased in bulk from a range of local producers and distributed amongst us to save on costs. Farm to plate is the norm. No food travels more than 30 miles. Most food is distributed through a network of cargo bikes, so it’s more likely grown less than 10 miles away. We eat seasonal produce, we just don’t see pineapples anymore, and nuts are rare, mostly we have hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, I haven’t seen a brazil for years! But that’s all we haven't worked out how to grow in the Farmeries.
The young people who are into Minimalism came up with the idea of the Farmeries. They stopped buying stuff, and the shopping centres slowly began to close. A group of urban farm activists negotiated to run an experiment in the Queens Arcade, one of the oldest shopping centres, they managed to crowdfund a swanky hydroponics get out, and within months they were producing enough salad to supply all the independent restaurants on the nearest high street. That was just the beginning.
Our own high street is unrecognisable, when I was 40, I remember we had Costa, Tesco, Sainsburys, Coop, Edinburgh Woolen Mill. They are no more. 15 years ago, the local people took back the Town Council, a form of Flatpack Democracy like that which came out of Frome in the early years.
The first thing they did was roll out a huge campaign for shopping local. People just stopped buying from the big names, they left when they realised the town was just not profitable for them anymore. The other thing that happened which changed our high streets was that the Regional Council implemented a long fought for regulation on scaling and multiple ownership.
Profit making businesses were banned from scaling. This meant that the rise of the chains we saw in the noughties was stopped in its tracks. Cafes, shops, services, if you wanted to open a business, you could open one, that was it, no more could one individual own 5 cafes in different suburbs of the city.
This brought a flourishing bricolage of independents to the high streets, it’s aim was to support more social and community enterprise at hyper-local level.
What we have now is a thriving artisan economy. Our local food store is 100% packaging free. You have to take your own reusables. You just cannot buy high fat high sugar high salt processed foods any more, except in the eccentric shops that fill the arcades, most people can’t afford to buy that stuff now anyways. Most people can’t afford to buy anything with Sterling any more.
Since the rise of the local currencies, sterling went out of favour, being the preserve of the uber rich 1%, and as they got outcast, sterling became useless for most people. Now we have the Penarth Pound, it’s basically a digital exchange tool. I get top up on my chip from community work I do, I can only spend this in local places. I also get Citizen's Income, which I can spend anywhere, a monthly sum paid to every person from birth to death.
The only place where you really see cars these days is in rural communities. There is an exclusion zone around our town, so you can’t drive there anyway. You have to park up and borrow a bike to get near. Our cycling infrastructure is world leading, you think Copenhagen is good, you should see what we have done in South Wales. Everyone rides bikes, it’s just the norm. We have a volunteer run community bike shop, this is where my husband can be found most days.
We have a Library of Things on the corner of every block and terrace, I remember there being a corner shop there when I was a child, now it’s more drills than newspapers. They have weekly repair cafes, so you can go and learn how to fix stuff. We barely throw anything away now. We just mend, and we make. There’s a Hub on the high street where you can go to use facilities to make clothes, there’s 3d printers, you can make anything really. And there’s always someone there to show you how to do it.
Not many people go to work in traditional firms anymore, there aren’t many left... most people spend time on the urban farms, the Hubs where they do skills sharing or in the Sheds, big workshops for making and art and performance and theatre and science and all things creative. This is what the children do as well. They learn more from actually living than they do from sitting in classrooms learning about living. There are always learning opportunities to be had, and they are open to all. Most of the old school buildings were turned into Sheds, they are now centres for learning and adventure.
It’s pretty nice living here. I have time to write when I want and make things, time to be with friends and neighbours. Time to live and grow and connect.
This is the world I would like to live in, it holds all the elements of a sustainable community. It’s a long way from reality for me in the place where I live now. For some of you, depending on where you live, these things will be more available. These are not imaginary creations, these things exist, but not usually all together in one place.
Perhaps it is the way we tell our own stories then that has power for us as individuals who seek change in the world. Perhaps we can use our collective imaginations to extrapolate to the future we all want.
The contemporary zeitgeist seems to be calling for a move beyond individualism towards community. In towns and cities across the globe we are witnessing the emergence of a myriad of projects and initiatives that all seek to harness to power of the collective, to bring us together, building social capital - that which bonds us.
More and more we are becoming aware of our interdependency, of our deep interconnectedness with the world around us.
When I was 10 years old, I remember travelling in the car on Easter Sunday morning to church, past the Victorian boating lake where the swans live. On the road a swan had been run over. In an instant, as I saw the dead swan, I was overtaken by a deep rupture of pain, the tears flooded, I bawled and bawled. I think this was the moment when I new about this deep connection, looking back, I suppose it was also a lesson in suffering.
Later on I came to know that swans mate for life, and on hearing the poet laureate Gillian Clarke tell a tale a year or so ago about how she came to write a poem after she saw a swan die and the RSPB took it’s dead body to its mate so that he knew she was dead, if they hadn’t that swan would have pined and searched for his mate for the rest of his days - why does that hurt so much and at the same time feel so joyful, why does that rupture my soul and touch me so deeply?
How might I use story now to conjure this kind of emotional resonance to wake people up to the collective destruction we are inflicting on our Earth?
The social entrepreneur, Premel Shah believes that connecting people creates empathy, empathy creates generosity. “In a world where so many people are disengaged with the problems we face, it’s essential to human scale the problem and create pathways for everyday people to help.” I wonder how we might use story to encourage all folk to give generously of themselves in the pursuit of a more sustainable future? How can we create a drive towards Everyday Sustainability?
A few years ago, when I was learning to be a teacher of adults and spent time trying to successfully deliver classes to groups of young people with behavioural issues I recognised that there was nothing I could do to change the behaviour of the individual. I saw that the only thing I could change was what I did, in order to get a different response.
Later, when I came to be interested in understanding how social change works, I applied this learning to discern that the only way I can change the world is to change myself. I think Gandhi might have come to this insight first, but...there we go..
And now I know about the strange attractors and this all makes sense. The Lorenz Strange Attractor has come to be more commonly known as the butterfly effect after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly's wings might cause a tornado. It’s about how small changes can have large consequences.
I can change the world, you can too. We all can.
It may be so that individual behaviour change does not address the structures of power or change the system. But there is power in individual action no less, the strange attractor is proof of that. And that’s why I feel that everyday sustainability is important.
We understand that change in a part of a complex system affects the overall dynamic of the whole. We also know that patterns run very deep and often need big jolts to reform. Then we know that situations arise out of context through emergence. I like Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s explanation of how emergence can support us with social change, they write: “Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global level.”
Perhaps it is difficult to get people to believe they can do things for themselves. Perhaps our model of consumer capitalism has got just a bit too cosy. We don’t just need a new story, we need a new paradigm.
Donella Meadows, systems thinker extraordinaire, talks about leverage points in a system at the level of paradigm. Whilst changing a societal paradigm is hard because societies resit paradigm change more than they resist anything else, at the level of the individual paradigm change can happen in a millisecond. Dana says “All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.”
For me, everyday sustainability is about individual choice to live lightly on the Earth. In our present reality we are constricted by the choices we have, the range of affordable sustainable products and services is limited.
The future is upon us, we are killing our planet, the time for sitting round talking about it all is over. We have to do something. As changemakers, how might we show other citizens that something different is possible? How can we spark curiosity about our everyday environment to support people to think differently?
How can we encourage people to change their everyday routines and to start acting differently?
I see that sharing, as a movement, has the capacity to move us from where we are to where we want to be. There are a range of tools and principles that we can harness to make our cities, towns and villages and the communities within them, thrive. As a model it fits with our current time, but paves the way for a more cooperative and community focused future. The online platform, Sharable, expresses this movement, stating that:
“New and resurgent solutions are democratizing how we produce, consume, govern, and solve social problems. The maker movement, collaborative consumption, the solidarity economy, open source software, transition towns, open government, and social enterprise are just a few of the movements showing a way forward based on sharing.”
What interventions in the social field might we make in order to induce more sharing behaviours, individually and collectively?
We need awareness, we need to be noticing the patterns and behaviours that form our habits. It is these habits that keep us reproducing our unsustainable lifestyles. We have the capacity to make a choice between acting in habitual ways, or taking a different step, a new turn, forging a new path.
Then when we tell other people about our efforts in conversation, perhaps we shape and change their world too with our story. It is our responsibility, as members of the human community, to start having conversations about how we can ensure a more sustainable future. We each have a contribution to make towards living more sustainably, why should we leave it up to someone else?
What’s important is for you to connect with what is really important for you in your life, now, in this moment.
Values, intentions, actions
It seems to me that generally speaking, our values have become decoupled from our intentions and actions. We need to realign them and we need to recognise the social and environmental impact of our actions.
We can use story to communicate values. Earlier I mentioned Charles Eisenstein’s view that a new story can only be held in community. To some extent we can achieve this holding by surrounding ourselves with people who have similar values.
But at some point, we will need to begin having conversations with people who have different values if we are going to begin to shift mindsets. Viewing ourselves as leaders in our collective pursuit to build a better world can invigorate us to act.
I am not referring to the traditional conception of leader. Our current model of leadership is not fit for purpose, one person with a vision charging ahead into the future hasn’t served us so well.
We are living with complexity, uncertainty and unpredictability, we need to reassess what it means to be a leader and we need to find ways to work in a world that’s constantly changing.
For Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U and founder of Ulab, a MOOC which has engaged over 100,000 people worldwide in activating change... (this guy sure knows how to start a movement) … anyways, for him...
“This leadership arises from people and groups who are capable of letting go of established ideas, practices and even identities. Most of all, this leadership comes as people start to connect deeply with who they really are and their part in both creating what is and realising a future that embodies what they care about most deeply.”
This leadership, which here I will call co-leadership, because it is something we have to do together, isn’t just about holding a shared vision. It is about inspiration, here’s what Otto has to say about that:
“All real creativity and profound innovation and all deep civilisational renewal are based on the same source: the capacity for sustained attention - the capacity to immerse ourselves in something, stay with it, and then finally, when we are lucky, catch the spark of inspiration and move with it, in order to bring the new reality as it requires”.
It is also about following.
Being a leader is important, but what's vital is being the first follower, because that’s what builds the momentum. You can see more on this on YouYube, search for ‘crazy dancer’ by Derek Sivers.
To build a better future then, we all need to be crazy dancers, we all need to hold a shared vision of the future we want, our role as co-leaders is to share that message, and we need to follow people who do crazy dances we like too.
If we find someone whom we find our values are in alignment with, we should follow, that's the only way we will come upon a collective vision, and that's what we need right now.
Business leader, Margaret Heffernan puts it like this: “There's a lot at stake now, we won't solve our problems if we expect it to be by a few supermen or superwomen, now we need everybody. It is only when we accept that everybody has value that we will liberate the energy, imagination and momentum we need...”
Creating new visions of the future is one of the things that distinguishes the Transition Network’s approach I mentioned earlier - rather than campaign against a grim and disastrous portrayal of the future, they say we should start by creating a positive vision of a future we want.
What is that vision of a sustainable future for us, now?
A realistic pursuit would be for us to aim to build sustainable communities, like the one from my FutureVision story earlier. It’s realistic because we all live somewhere, so we have a place from which to begin.
So, what are the ingredients for sustainable communities?
They are built on values that are good for people and the earth which foster a sense of belonging and support reconnection to our landbase. The economy is collaborative and is enabled by internet technologies and connected distributed networks of people.
A place-based focus encourages meaningful interactions and trust, embracing openness, inclusivity and the value of the commons, bringing power and control back into the hands of the people through ownership of commons via cooperatives and community land trusts in which assets generate wealth for people not corporations.
Enterprises emerge that contribute not to profitability and growth but to human well-being, built on a culture of collaboration and shared ownership. Consumption is redefined as a collaborative shared co-production of services and products supplying fundamental human needs, this focus on the foundational supports civic engagement and the creation of meaningful work in a thriving local economy.
We see the localisation of food production and distribution through growing initiatives and the widespread use of renewable energy. Initiatives by local people are supported, development and regeneration is genuinely bottom - up, participatory democracy practices are standard, mediated by internet technologies.
And last, but possibly most significantly, sustainable communities enable individual and collective creativity because they create conditions in which all people’s needs are met, people can flourish.
The folks from the Public Interest Research Centre believe that “to build a more sustainable, equitable and democratic world, we need an empowered, connected and durable movement of citizens.” To support this movement we can harness the power of the internet to bring us together through our network platform, Campfire Convention.
Call to Action
We have individual responsibility to act, now, towards a more sustainable future. We all need to be leaders, and we need to follow, because it’s the first follower that starts a movement. And we need to show others how to follow too.
We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives - we need story to help us deliver the message about a sustainable future. In the act of weaving a new story with our words we can weave a web of strange attractors.
I have asked a lot of questions, my sense is that we don’t have the answers yet, we need to look outside of ourselves to see what’s happening, here, in this room, between us, in our communities and in other places.
It’s a dark time but we have to hopeful about what we can achieve. We each have the capacity to create the change we want to see in the world.
Jean-Paul Sartre insisted all his life that what mattered was not the past at all: it was the future. One must keep moving, creating what will be: acting in the world and making a difference to it.
I like this existentialist theme…Be realistic: demand the impossible.
And don’t forget the importance of stories for building a better future.
It is clear to me we are gathering. The future is coming.
We can collectively imagine the world a new.
Keynote: Campfire Convention 002, Union Chapel, 4 November 2017.
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