From ‘horror stories’ to ‘love stories’.
The narrative of separation shapes our relationships with each other and the world around us, guiding us to design this deadly economy.
To help the narrative of interbeing re-emerge so that we can re-design an economy in service to life, we need to intervene in the cycle of stories-narratives-relationships.
It’s time for us to let go of some harmful ‘horror stories’, helping them to die, whilst making room for and nourishing healthier ‘love stories’.
We base this on the ‘Two Loops’ model from the Berkana Institute, which maps an approach to systems change: a process of simultaneously ‘hospicing’ or ‘composting’ a harmful dominant system, whilst ‘nourishing’ the healthy emergent system.
We notice and encourage two story reconnections, from two ‘horror stories’ to two ‘love stories’.
These are already happening in the world, but they need more energy.
They are ‘reconnections’ because they represent a retrieval of stories that we have lost touch with in the West, which we once knew well, and that have been carried by other cultures for generations.
By reconnecting to these more accurate stories, we can weave the healthier narrative of interbeing, heal our relationships, and therefore design an economy in service to life.
Currently the cycle of stories-narratives-relationships has become a death-spiral, a ‘relationship crisis’, as our stories keep us dangerously disconnected from reality.
By intervening at the level of stories, we can break out of this spiral.
The two stories we’re focusing on respond to and help to shape two relationships, which sit at the heart of how we have designed our economy:
- Our relationship to nature, and how we treat it
- Our relationship to success, and how we measure it
“We need to re-pair, to pair again with new alliances and new bodies in order to address and think with these times like we’ve always done.
Right now we are paired with certain microbes, certain textures, certain architectures
And those are secreting climate chaos.
It’s not that climate chaos is some objective reality out there. Its objectivity is relational.
To meet this crisis we need to change relationships. We need to be in relationship again, with other kinds of bodies, to make new moves.”
Quick point: when we say ‘horror stories’ and ‘love stories’, we’re not talking about stories about scary things and stories about lovely things.
So we’re not saying we should stop telling stories about despair and disasters, and instead only tell stories about hope and puppies.
At the moment, the stories we are telling are inaccurate, and lead to destruction and division – horror in our world – hence ‘horror stories’.
We’re suggesting that we should reconnect the relationships they describe with reality, to be more accurate and instead lead to love, kinship and connection in our world – so, ‘love stories’.
Each story re-connection forms a creative challenge – how do we encourage these reconnections in the stories we create, tell, carry and share?
Let’s begin by looking at the first horror story:
Slave…that’s a bit much isn’t it?
Maybe you wouldn’t say these words exactly today, but figures who were central to the development of the separation narrative did.
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 a story we’re being surrounded by every single day.
a person who is legally owned by someone else and has to work for that person.
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
Francis Bacon was a devout Anglican, and this story has some roots in the Bible:
“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 Life Sciences
Which doesn’t make much sense, given that we are a 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 that we’re its master underpins our economic design today, a fantasy 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 consequence, we end up forgetting that it’s the source of literally any value, any prosperity, and thinking it’s able to withstand all we can throw at it. But 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 ‘anthropocentric’ story carried by western religion and science, who haven’t been living in a fantasy, 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 disconnected from reality, dangerous, and certainly no longer a suitable guide for our economic design.
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.”
The latest scientific breakthroughs – from quantum physics and systems biology to neuroscience, anthropology and psychiatry – are now breaking down science’s traditional role as arbiter of the narrative of separation, and helping us to recognise the wisdom in those non-western stories.
We cannot keep designing our economy according to this lie that nature is our slave. This horror story.
Let’s accept and reconnect to the story that our modern science and ancient wisdom is carrying:
That nature is our family, not our slave.
Our community, not our commodities.
Our relatives, not our resources.
A family that we need to love.
This story about nature being our slave isn’t the only horror story here.
The other story we carry 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.
We can recognise 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 value, and therefore it provides our wellbeing, our chance at prosperity, our life.
No nature, no life – and certainly no prosperity.
“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 carry a horror story instead.
We measure our economic success using GDP – Gross Domestic Product. It’s simple, easy to remember: more GDP, more productivity, more good.
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, warned against its use at the scale we’ve adopted it.
“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.”
Simon KuznetsCreator of GDP
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 the growth of GDP.
“A murder adds about $1 million to GDP. Murder is good for the economy. So is environmental destruction.”
This GDP calculation also doesn’t include the true costs of the activities it measures. For example in the damage to nature and human health caused by the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and the ‘cost’ of the ‘ecosystem services’ that the economy exploits ‘for free’.
“Nothing in either our theory or the data proves the highest GDP per capita is generally desirable”
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther DufloNoble Prize 2019
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.
We celebrate making the most profit, getting the biggest GDP, having the highest growth possible, convincing ourselves this will increase wellbeing.
Growth is natural – children grow, but eventually they grow up. We have a word for when something keeps growing without stopping: cancer.
We need a grown up economic system, but right now it has become cancerous, deadly.
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 different, don’t we.
A better way to measure success.
“To get a sense of how unhinged our economy is from the real world, consider the fact that pollinators, earthworms, rainforests, clean air, parenting, friendship, sleep and solidarity are considered to be literally valueless according to our dominant metric of economic success.”
This not a new realisation.
Jospeh Stiglitz said in 2019 that “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 clearly it’s not.
At least, not good for everyone in the short term…but it’s certainly not good for anyone in the long term.
“Economic growth accompanied by worse social outcomes is not success, it’s failure.”
We need to refocus on what GDP is supposed to be doing.
What if instead of prioritising GDP – productivity – we prioritised the thing it’s supposed to be delivering us, ‘wellbeing’?
“I like to think of progressivism as the radical notion that people are people, and not units of productive capacity”
If we carry 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 prioritise and measure what productivity is supposed to lead to – wellbeing.
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
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 that it doesn’t reward damaging behaviour, and accounts for the true costs of our activities), or having a dashboard of metrics.
But we can’t choose any of those things unless we reconnect our ‘horror story’ about productivity to reality, as the ‘love story’ about wellbeing.
If we can do that, we can help to weave the narrative of interbeing, choose the upgrades to GDP and stand a chance of stopping our household from catching fire, flooding 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”