I am in a book club and we are reading “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, a book I recommend to read if you have concerns about your world and your children’s future, our world and everybody children’s future.
In chapter I, they talk about how the stories we choose to believe in, the stories we tell ourselves, shape our actions and everyday decisions. As somebody who has studied sociology and psychology I know how hegemony and groupthink work, how stories are imposed and underline all what we do. What we call culture is nothing else than a collage of stories that a group of people chose and eventually became unwritten (and sometimes unspoken) “laws” that rule our lives. Each generation, few have the courage (and the wisdom) to challenge these “rules” and their legitimacy.
These have all something in common: they were useful and valid at one time, because they responded to needs, available resources or circumstances, but when these needs, resources and circumstances are no longer around; these rules become uncomfortably rigid and obsolete.
And what are the stories we tell ourselves these days?
First, there is the story of “Business as Usual”. This is, sadly, the most widespread story of our time, the one most people allow their lives to be led by.
This story talks about continuous growth and progress. It is the story of more development and more consumption, where having more people living as Westerners do is considered the “right” and “normal”. This is the story behind most economic and social decisions coming from current government, industries and other institutions. This story is based on the flawed belief that we have plenty of resources in this Earth and that they will last forever, so we can use them as we wish. It is also based on the assumption that humans are somewhat “superior” and separated from Nature and were born to rule over the rest of the species. According to this story, technology and human ingenuity are so powerful and limitless that they will solve any challenges we may have.
If you live in a “developed” country such as US, Canada or many EU countries or one of the fast-developing countries such as China, India or Brazil, it is easy to believe that this story is true: most of the things you think you have the “right” to have or you have “accomplished” are based on the fact that you were born in a time and place where by chance you had access to them. These circumstances are also based on unfair exploitation of resources and people from poorer and unregulated countries…this is a difficult to swallow reality that many wouldn’t want to face, much less to accept as partially responsible for. Unfortunately, the “business as usual” story is based in wishful and poor critical thinking and a bit of ostrich behavior: I tend my business and “others” will care for theirs. I’m not responsible for what happens in places I don’t see, I’m too small to have an impact and I’m too busy with my own life.
The first story is also a story of denial: “climate change doesn’t exist”, “they” will find a way to solve it (I wonder who these “they” are), “peak oil is a creation by big oil companies to keep the oil prices high”, “there is enough food in the world to feed 9 billion and more”, “animals and plants have gone extinct in the past, so what?”, “the poor are poor because they are lazy”, “more investment will create more development and jobs”, “we will find a way to colonize Mars”, etc….
The second story is a story of giving up. This is the story of nihilists and frustrated who think everything is already lost and nothing we do will make a difference. People who believe in this story know how the first story (business as usual and wishful thinking) will end and feel powerless and small. This story goes something like: “civilizations have failed and collapsed before, animals and species have gone extinct, we are going the same way but bigger and deeper, there is nothing we can do, everything is too complex for us to intervene, and it is out of our hands”.
They are, in many senses, right. Look at the picture: economic decline, resource depletion, climate change, social division and wars, mass extinction of species…and these are just the tip of the iceberg. Intentionally or not, we humans have managed to ravage the world we live in and destroy many things in our way, and all to be not more, but less happy. We have managed to destroy other species habitats and, on the way, we have also destroyed entire local economies and ecosystems other human depended on. The damage is not only to those different from us, but to ourselves. And we have managed to steal the future from our children and our grandchildren, because we are too blind to see beyond our quick “needs” and “wants” of today, our greed and gluttony.
This second story is, as the first one, dangerous. While the first one allows us to continue ravaging and destroying with a happy face because we have chosen to be ignorant, the second story allows us to continue doing exactly the same but this time with a grumpy or powerless face. It allows us to complain and blame without actually doing anything. I call this the justifying of the selfish, the lazy and the irresponsible ones.
Fortunately, there is a third story going on. This is the story of awakening, taking responsibility and assuming risks. This is the story of the great turning, as the book calls it, the story of those who know where the first story is taking us but refuse to accept the second story as unchallenged fate.
I see the third story developing in many places and from many corners. It looks like mycelium, as a friend of mine described it: “Mycelium is the vegetative part of the mushroom. It’s an underground network that connects to the root systems of trees, plants and other mycelial webs. This underground network is intelligent and actually transfers information and nutrients across the forest floor to maintain the health and vitality of the host ecosystem”.
I see this third story in all those who decide that their individual lives can’t be “too busy” to allow them to avoid taking responsibility for their children’s future and how their lives affect other humans and species livelihoods. I also see it among those who accept the challenge of stretching themselves beyond the obvious and their own comfort zones. Those who become involved and start risking their jobs, their reputations and even their family dynamics because they see the need, the call, to do something.
They lose a lot, but the things they gain are far more rewarding.
These are the ones who work towards social justice and integration, the ones who don’t just ask for democracy but act it; the ones who plant trees and grow plants to attract beneficial insects and restore the soil, the ones who save water and educate neighbours; the ones who protest when something is wrong and have the courage to accept when they may be also wrong.
I think they know that there is a chance to be defeated.
Outsiders sometimes express their belief that people who chose this third story are arrogant. I ask, arrogant? Who is more arrogant? Those who think the world was created so they could use and abuse it as they wish, or those who see themselves as part of a giant ecosystem we should care and protect so we all can continue living?
The thing you may want to ask yourself is: what story do you choose?
“It’s 3:23 in the morning and I’m awake because my great-great grandchildren won’t let me sleep.
My great-great grandchildren ask me in dreams
“What did you do while the planet was plundered?
What did you do when the Earth was unraveling?
Surely you did something when the seasons started failing, as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying.
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
What did you do once you knew?”
~This poem is by Drew Dillinger a young social activist, cosmologist, and Thomas Berry scholar.
Have all a great day ahead…and choose your story well!