Let’s evolve ‘horror’ stories into ‘love’ stories.
The narrative of separation shapes our reality, and designs our now deadly economy.
To evolve this narrative and redesign an economy in service to life, we need to intervene in the cycle of stories–narrative-reality.
To let some ‘horror stories’ about our economy wither and die, whilst birthing and nurturing healthy ‘love stories’.
We base this theory on the ‘Two Loops’ model from the Berkana Institute, which maps an approach to system change: a process of simultaneously ‘hospicing’ a harmful dominant system, whilst ‘nourishing’ the healthy emergent system.
We have a hypothesis for which ‘horror’ stories need to evolve into ‘love’ stories.
We see two big story evolutions, based on two fundamental driving forces in our narrative of separation:
- How we view our relationship to nature
- How we measure success
Each forms a creative challenge – how do we encourage these evolutions in our stories?
Slave? That’s a bit much isn’t it? Well…
a person who is legally owned by someone else and has to work for that person.
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
We might not think it, but it’s a story we’re telling every day…
We might not literally think like this now, but important figures in the development of western science and culture did, like Francis Bacon (the philosopher, not the artist).
The new man of science must not think that the ‘inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted or forbidden.’ Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ put ‘in constraint’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts”
And it’s still how we act today.
Francis Bacon was a devout Anglican, which is likely where he picked this story up – a story which had been around long before him:
“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’.”
Genesis 1:28, English Standard Version
His influence led other scientists and philosophers to make it a central premise in their worldview – a moral position:
“The purpose of science is “to make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature”
And although we maybe don’t directly call nature our slave today, that morality is still with us – we still talk about ‘defeating’ nature, as the CEO of Verily Life Sciences (an Alphabet company) did in 2015:
“Only through truth are we going to defeat mother nature” Andy Conrad, Verily
Which doesn’t make much sense, given that we are part of nature.
As Rachel Carson – the author of Silent Spring – put it:
“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
And yet this story underpins our economic design today. A foolishness which is revealed by Forum For The Future’s key insight in their ‘Five Capitals’ work:
“Much of the value that economies create is built upon a natural foundation – the air, water, food, energy and raw materials that the planet provides. Without nature, no other value is possible.”
By treating nature as something that we need to defeat, or even just as an ‘externality’ that we can damage without concern, we end up thinking of it as stronger than us, able to withstand all we can throw at it. But it isn’t, and it can’t.
“The problem with the notion that nature is indestructible is this: it is wrong. Once economists accept that they are mistaken on this count, it could revolutionize the way in which we calculate economic progress”
Cultures who weren’t influenced by the story carried by western religion and science, that nature is our slave, maintain until this day a different story:
“What you people call your natural resources our people call our relatives.”
We are gradually realising that our story of nature – as separate, something to relentlessly enslave and exploit – is flawed, dangerous and certainly no longer a suitable underpinning for our economic design.
“An economy that requires ever-increasing levels of production and consumption in order to keep from crashing apart is an economy that is fundamentally incompatible with the web of life.”
Jeremy Lent summarises it neatly:
“It’s our view of humans as essentially disconnected, begun in agrarian civilizations, exacerbated with the Scientific Revolution, and institutionalized by global capitalism, that has set us on this current path either to collapse or TechnoSplit.”
Brilliantly, it is now modern western science – from quantum physics and systems biology to neuroscience and psychiatry – that is helping us to recognise the wisdom in those non-western stories.
We cannot keep designing our economy according to this flawed story – this horror story.
Let’s accept the story that our modern science and ancient wisdom is telling us:
Nature is our family.
This story about nature being our slave isn’t the only horror story here.
The other story we tell ourselves is that the economy runs on money, and that therefore productivity – the making of more money – should be encouraged as our principle priority.
But we know money doesn’t fuel the economy – energy does.
“In nature’s economy the currency is not money, it is life”
As we lean into this understanding that we are a part of nature, we start to realise that by valuing it properly, we can properly value ourselves.
That we live in a reciprocal relationship with nature – a give and take relationship, not a take-take-take relationship.
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
Which reveals that ultimately, the most important thing for us, and therefore our economy, is nature.
It provides all the capital, and more importantly it provides our wellbeing, our life.
No nature, no life – and certainly no economy.
“Only gradually is it beginning to be seen that ecology is actually a more important science than economics – that the profitable exchange of goods within the ship is a less urgent matter than how to keep the whole ship above water.”
But that’s not the story we tell.
We tell a horror story instead.
GDP is simple, easy to remember – Gross Domestic Product – productivity.
It’s been useful because it’s so simple.
But it is too simple.
“The reduction of a society and culture to dependence on mathematical abstraction has infantilised a grown-up civilisation and is well on the way to destroying it. Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of religion.”
Even its creator, Simon Kuznets, thought it should never be used as the sole metric for measuring the success of a whole nation.
GDP is able to be so simple because it is indiscriminate. We tell the story that productivity is success, no matter how you do it.
So guns, addiction, crime and cleaning up pollution all add to growth of GDP.
“A murder adds about $1 million to GDP. Murder is good for the economy. So is environmental destruction.”
When we talk about ‘growth’, this is what we’re talking about. GDP is what we grow, assuming that more GDP is better. It’s supposed to be a proxy for wellbeing – the more GDP, the more wellbeing.
So we tell a story about how making the most profit, getting the biggest GDP, having the highest growth possible, will increase wellbeing.
GDP is supposed to be helping us manage our household, but our household is on fire, flooding, polluted, full of rubbish and running out of food and water. So we need something else, don’t we.
“Growth” is capitalism’s PR campaign. It takes what is primarily a process of extraction and accumulation and peddles it as something natural and good—a framing so effective that few people ever even think to question it.
This is actually not a new realisation, we’ve questioned it before.
Jospeh Stiglitz says “it’s time to retire metrics like GDP” and way back in 1968, Robert Kennedy said “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.
“For too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Sen. Robert Kennedy
Growth of GDP is supposed to be good, but it’s clearly not.
“Economic growth accompanied by worse social outcomes is not success, it’s failure.”
This is like if you started eating bananas, because you wanted to be healthy and have more energy in your day.
But then you only ate bananas, and loads of them. After a while, you started to feel unwell. You started to sleep badly, feel sluggish, be sick, and your organs started to fail.
Would you keep eating bananas?
We need to refocus on what GDP is supposed to be doing.
What if we focused on life, instead of productivity?
“I like to think of progressivism as the radical notion that people are people, and not units of productive capacity”
What if instead of prioritising GDP – productivity – we prioritised the thing it’s supposed to be delivering us?
If we tell the story that productivity is all that matters, we miss what really matters.
As the saying goes – “what gets measured, gets managed”. GDP is supposed to be about generating wellbeing, but by measuring and managing GDP alone, we’ve clearly lost sight of that wellbeing.
So what if we told the story that Wellbeing is what matters, that Wellbeing, both human and ecological, is success?
It doesn’t mean that we stop caring about productivity, it just means that we focus on what that productivity is supposed to achieve – wellbeing – measuring and managing that instead.
Wellbeing = health, in the broadest sense
Connection: A sense of belonging and institutions that serve the common good
Participation: Citizens are actively engaged in their communities and locally rooted economies
Dignity: Everyone has enough to live in comfort, safety and happiness
Fairness: Justice in all its dimensions at the heart of economic systems, and the gap between the richest and poorest greatly reduced
Nature: A restored and safe natural world for all life
Wellbeing Economy Alliance
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Given that GPD, the big metric we measure our world against, is all about productivity and money (instead of wellbeing), it’s not surprising that we also think that ‘wealth’ is about productivity and money.
Which is interesting, because that’s not what it meant originally…
“It is significant that the word wealth comes from the anglo-saxon word ‘wela’ meaning wellbeing, which is the condition of being contented and healthy”
Again, we’ve lost sight of what it was supposed to be. Wealth wasn’t about money, it was about wellbeing, quality of life. By becoming obsessed with money, we’ve neglected the wellbeing.
But people don’t want to neglect wellbeing, they want to prioritise it:
“80% of Britons believe the UK should prioritise wellbeing over growth”
Reflecting broader trends about what kind of world people want to see post-Covid-19:
“What will life look like after Covid? We asked and over 57,000 people across the UK responded.
They told us they wanted a fairer, kinder, greener, more connected Britain.”
There are many solutions for upgrading GDP, like the Genuine Progress Indicator (which is like GDP, except it punishes damaging behaviour), or having a dashboard of metrics.
But we can’t choose any of those things unless we evolve our ‘horror story’ about productivity into that ‘love story’ about wellbeing.
If we can do that, we can help to weave that narrative about interconnection, choose those upgrades to GDP and stop our household catching fire, flooding, polluting and running out of food.
“If we are to survive as a life form on the planet, at more or less the scale of our present occupation, there is no other way. Collectively we must come to the realization that there is no exterior to our ecology. There is only one environment and everything is entered on the balance sheet. Every positive. Every negative. Everything counts. There can only be true prosperity if it is global prosperity, and we can only count our wealth in peace when we count it together”