6 Oct 2011

What stories are we telling ourselves?

At least one story is always running through our heads. If someone cuts us off on the road, we may mutter, "Idiot!" – thus implying the perpetrator has particular characteristics and motives. If a group of hooded teenagers walks past us, we tense up – indicating fear around youths with particular characteristics. If we dig deeper, we uncover stories -- assumptions, beliefs, worldviews.

As education for sustainability practitioners, what stories are we telling ourselves? If we look at our behaviour first, this will indicate the narrative. What are we teaching our students? How are we behaving with our colleagues, family and friends? What is our underlying story about the future of humanity, climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion and social (in)justice?

Do our actions imply that we think:

humanity is doomed?

catastrophe is inevitable for the vast majority of the population?

technology will protect civilisation?

everything is fine, nothing needs changing?

Are we acting quietly, cautiously (but calling it "strategically")? If so, what does this imply? That there is time?

Do our own actions imply that action on the above challenges is:

needed urgently?

important but not a priority?

ineffective? misplaced?


Perhaps your own answers to these questions are too private to post in comments below. But have a think. I've had to face my own stories in the past few weeks and it's been radicalising.

Storytelling mother, 40, seeks others who believe it's urgent and that people are powerful enough to prevent catastrophe and to create flourishing communities worldwide... having zesty fun along the way. Be in touch.


  1. Great questions!!

    I think some people have a story like "It's not too late to stop climate change from reaching a tipping point beyond which it becomes irreversible - all we have to do is X (where X is turning lights off, putting the DVD player on standby, carbon capture and storage, cradle to cradle design, cap and trade, solar panels, voluntarily reducing our consumption, electric cars etc.) The problem is that all the Xs I've come across don't go anywhere near the scale of cuts that are required, even if they were all applied together - not given the timescale involved and the current trajectory, which is entirely in the opposite direction.

    So the story that I'm telling myself is "Whether it's too late or not for climate change, there are still many reasons for a massive reduction in consumption and a redesign of how we live along ecological principles. That's because of all the other problems that over-consumption is causing - biodiversity loss, water scarcity, ocean acidification, pollution etc. And not just that, the solutions we are coming up with are things that are beneficial in their own right and will lead to higher wellbeing, like green spaces, more cycling, more time with friends and family, more craft work, growing vegetables, less clutter, commuting and obesity. And we have to do it anyway because peak oil won't let us carry on as we are.'

    The story 'We have to do X because otherwise we'll end up with irreversible climate change' is too easy to dismiss by saying that climate change isn't happening or that because of tipping points and the current trajectory X is too little too late. Whereas the larger picture of the multiple damage done by current ways of life, the multiple benefits of changing those ways, and the inevitability of change is harder to dismiss.

  2. Hi Arran. I completely agree that we need transformative change, a system change larger than most people can even imagine. Cradle to Cradle design isn't meant to be limited to products; it's meant to encompass the whole economy -- the whole way we do things. And the goal has to include health, equity, justice.

    I agree that your final example qoutation is simplistic. Someone may say, "We have to do it but it's impossible to do it, so we're screwed." So I think part of the story we tell ourselves has to include what we feel is possible and who the change agents are (or aren't).

    I worry about people giving up, working at the edges for reasons that do not reflect reality.