Underpinning the design of our economic system is a narrative.
It’s only a few hundred years old, but it’s a narrative that guides the western world view.
That narrative says we are separate from nature and separate from each other.
It tells us that nature is something we must conquer, control, defeat and exploit for our own comfort and protection.
And that doing this is not only normal, but good.
“Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it.
He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”
This narrative encourages us to see ourselves as competitive individuals, separate from each other, battling it out in a zero-sum world against other life.
And the very qualities that we now know have been crucial for our evolution: kindness, compassion, cooperation, empathy, diversity, care and humility, are seen as soft, weak – inhibitors to success.
So we’re separate, are we?
Guided by this narrative, we have designed an economy that runs on extractive production processes and disposable consumption behaviours.
Treating nature as an infinite resource, we create endless materials and products from it, most of which cannot be returned to the natural cycle.
1. We eventually run out of raw materials, collapsing ecosystems and society in the process
2. These materials have to go somewhere when we’re done with them, so we throw them ‘away’
Except that there is no ‘away’.
And by treating nature as rubbish dump we damage it unaccountably, making it harder to replenish what we’re taking in the first place.
Plastics are an example we’re all familiar with. Our current plastic use means that we are putting about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year, while ingesting over 50,000 airborne micro plastic particles into our own bodies. By weight, there is now more ‘dead matter’ on the planet than living matter.
By believing that we are separate from and can control nature, we don’t see this as a problem.
But this much plastic damages life, including ours.
In nature there is no such thing as waste. Waste from one thing is simply food for another.
This is the circularity principle. The cycle of life.
But we don’t think of our waste this way. We think of it as redundant, something to be ‘thrown away’, hidden out of sight.
So it piles up perilously, in our atmosphere, our soil, and the bodies of other living things – disrupting the natural cycle rather than feeding it.
“We must have limits or we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist, period.”
As our economic activity increases, so does the damage to nature
This narrative of separation has literally changed the world, transforming the geology of our earth.
The “Great Acceleration” charts human activity from the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 to 2010, and the subsequent changes in the Earth System.
Human activity, predominantly through the global economic system, is now the prime driver of change in the Earth System – the sum of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes.
The Great Acceleration trends support the proposal that planet Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. In a single lifetime humanity has become a geological force at the planetary-scale, and we are now leaving the comfort zone of the ‘Holocene’.
By believing that we’re separate from nature, that we can control it, we don’t see this as a problem.
But this is dangerously misguided.
We are a part of nature
What is ‘the natural world’, when over half of our own body is non-human?
When we are genetically so similar to the humble fruit fly?
How can we be separate from nature if we are nature?
Mouse – 85% the same
Fruit Fly – 61% the same
Banana – 60% the same
“We are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.”
Every second breath we take is oxygen that comes from phytoplankton – tiny microscopic plants drifting in the ocean.
50-85% of the oxygen we breathe is created by these tiny creatures. By believing that we can destroy nature without consequence, we have wiped out 90% of these plankton in our oceans since the atom bombs were dropped on Japan.
We are in an intimate relationship with the ocean, every minute of every day, wherever we live.
If the ocean dies – we die.
If nature dies – we die.
To love ourselves, we must love nature.
To protect ourselves, we must protect nature.
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”
What do we mean by narrative?
A narrative is made up of the stories we hear and tell everyday.
We experience these stories on TV, the news, our social feeds, and through the things we read and buy, the ways we are educated, the games we play, the songs we hear, the cities we navigate and the thousands of advertising messages we are sent every day.
These stories are mental models, guiding how we make sense of the world around us. They are the bedrock of our beliefs, behaviours, identities and relationships.
Like threads, these stories weave the narratives that define our relationship to reality, guiding the way we think, feel, and act everyday.
“Stories matter, they’re not just entertainment – they matter because humans are narrative creatures. It’s not simply that we like to tell stories, and to listen to them, its that narrative is hard wired into us. It’s a function of our biology and the way our brains have evolved over time.
We make sense of the world and fashion our identities through the sharing and passing on of stories. And so the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, shape not just our own lives, but the world around us.
The cultural narrative is the culture.”
We have designed our modern industrial economic systems based on the ‘narrative of separation’.
This has been shaped by stories that assure us nature is just a set of cheap or free resources that we should extract and exploit in pursuit of ever more productivity, and damaging nature is just an unfortunate side-effect, a ‘negative externality’ that we shouldn’t worry too much about.
But the spell is breaking, the veil is lifting, we can see it everywhere – the curtain is being drawn back.
The narrative of separation is unravelling.
We are all needed in the effort to weave a better one.
This work is part of that effort, focusing on the stories we create and experience everyday, and how those stories guide the way we design our economy.
It notices that by telling different stories we can design a different economy – an economy in service to life.
“Look closely at the present you are constructing, it should look like the future you are dreaming”