Chapter 3

The Narrative of Separation

“Stories and narratives matter, the narratives we have are the soil from which the regulation, the technology, the policy, everything grows, so we need to be working at that level to effect change” Ella Saltmarshe

At the heart of the economic system is a narrative.

It’s only a few hundred years old, but it’s a narrative that now defines the western world view.

And that narrative says we are separate from nature and separate from each other.

It tells us that nature is something we must conquer, control and exploit for our own benefit and protection.

That exploiting nature is normal, even 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 separation 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 have been crucial for our evolution: kindness, compassion, cooperation, empathy, diversity, creativity, care and responsibility, are seen as soft, weak – inhibitors to success.

So we think we’re separate?

Guided by this narrative, we have designed our economy with 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. 

So we create two problems –

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.

The trouble is, there is no ‘away’. 

Take plastics for example. 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. 

Plastic damages life, including ours.

credit: Chris Jordan

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.”


Wendell Berry

As our economic activity increases, so does the damage to nature

Because we think like this, we are literally changing 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.

By believing that we’re separate from nature, we don’t see this as a problem.

But we’re wrong.

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?

Human Genes

Mouse – 85% the same

Fruit Fly – 61% the same

Banana – 60% the same

source: Business Insider

source: BBC

“We are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.”


Merlin Sheldrake

Without nature, we die

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.

Source: Blue Planet Society

We are in an intimate relationship with the ocean, every minute of every day, wherever we live.

If the ocean dies – we die.

(we’re currently doing a good job of making sure that happens) 

If nature dies – we die.

“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, and all sorts of other places.

These stories are mental models, shaping how we think, feel and act everyday, they are the bedrock of our beliefs, behaviours and identities.

Like threads, these stories weave the narratives that become the fabric of our reality, guiding the way we think, feel and act everyday. What we believe, what we choose.

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 resources that we should extract and exploit, and damaging it 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.

It’s time to weave a better one.

This work is part of the effort to help us do that, focusing on the stories we create and experience everyday, and how those stories shape the way we think, feel, act – and design.

By telling better (different) stories – stories that love life.

We can design a better (different) economy – an economy in service to life.

“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.”

“Look closely at the present you are constructing, it should look like the future you are dreaming”

Chapter 4 - The Narrative of Interconnection »