On our need to create an inspiring narrative

Last week I talked about the need to start writing (and speaking about) a new ‘grand-narrative’, a new story that gives structure, meaning and purpose to human life on this planet. One significant dimension to this new grand-narrative is obviously the future. Here Grace Blakeley, writing in this week’s New Statesman, is spot on when she calls for a “new narrative, one that can translate ideas about political economy into uplifting visions of a securer, more equal future”. This is particularly relevant when responding to our current climate crisis. It’s all well and good talking about our imminent climate and ecological breakdown, as I often do, but does this actually help create such a future? I know the idea is to scare people into action, but scaring people often causes them to freeze and / or look for more pleasant distractions. Should we start talking instead about the alternative, positive and altogether more attractive future we could create if we took this crisis as a wake up call?

The future has been particularly on my mind this week. Not necessarily my future, but the future of my daughters, and particularly my grandchildren, who I have been visiting. What sort of world are we creating for them? My usual response would be to note that the two degree rise in global temperatures that we well on course for will cause unimaginable problems for my grandchildren when they are in the prime of their lives in fifty years time. All the indications are that, in addition to it obviously being much warmer, many parts of the world will become uninhabitable due to the heat, and sea levels will rise by anything up to a metre above current levels due to the melting of glaciers. The result will be less habitable land for humans to live on, less land capable of supplying food, mass migration in search of both, together with a massive increase in global conflict as people try to protect what little they have and obtain what they need to survive.

But what’s your response to such a scenario? How do you react to being cast as a character in some science fiction future, being asked to imagine a world that is totally alien to everything you currently experience? Most of us I suggest would rather not think about it in too much detail. Science fiction films are good entertainment, and can make us think, but we can leave the cinema and return to our ‘normal’ world anytime we like. Many of us accept that such a future is likely, and will try and ‘do our bit’ to prevent it happening, and a few of us (and I’m particularly thinking here of Extinction Rebellion) will actively try and prevent the story unfolding, but I suspect that most of us would rather avoid the reality altogether. We seek pleasure not pain. Why think about such a depressing narrative when we can immerse ourselves in the ‘reality’ of Love Island or Premiership football?

So how different would it be if we started to tell a different story? A story where after thousands of years of evolutionary self-obsession, humanity suddenly woke up to the fact that they are actually part of nature? That they are are just one living system amongst many? And that many, if not most of our problems start diminishing if we can live with nature not against it? How having evolved out of Africa, after having spread across the Earth and settled into relative isolation, global humanity came together again to form a single community? How learning to co-operate with each other, non-human animals and our Earth systems, rather than seeking power, status and domination, humanity discovered that they could actually flourish and be happy? That equality and respect were more effective than inequality and domination in achieving human needs?

But this new story will also need to be about the past. The future we create for our children and grandchildren will be understood and interpreted by them, in part at least, by their memories – in short by what they hear and experience as they grow up. What we say to them, how we behave as they grow up, whether we direct these actions at them or not, will be absorbed by them and will influence how they interpret the world they inherit from us. And my growing fear is that if they grow up surrounded by fear and negative talk, rather than optimism and positive talk, they too will absorb these characteristics. That they will grow into fearful and negative people.

If humanity is to survive and flourish (and that’s a big ‘if’) we will need to become creative and positive – we will need to develop an uplifting narrative to act as our guide to the future. This narrative will need to inspire future generations, and it will need to show how previous generations (us) woke up the reality of their place in nature and started to care about the world they were leaving as their inheritance.

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