Every culture tells itself stories. Ours has realized the power of story in unique ways. Not just the multimedia forms of books and movies dovetailing into one another, but also video games and even marketplace items. Everything has a story now, we are led to believe, from milk to cereal to whiskey to soap, if there’s a product, chances are good it has a narrative.
Perhaps the stories with the strongest hold on us are the ones that aren’t obviously stories, the ones that don’t begin Once upon a time (or even They say). I recently came across such a story, one central to our culture. Published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), it had a terrible, dry title – Policy Changes for the Next 50 Years – and a narrative full of uncertainty. One thing the authors were certain of, growth would continue, economic growth that is, but it would slow. They described how much it would slow with numbers. And a graph.
In my opinion, it wasn’t a very good story; it was narrow and self absorbed, though there were some bits I liked. (Some may say that that isn’t a story at all; it’s a report. I disagree; one is not exclusive to the other. Either way, that’s a subject for a different piece.) It recognized events such as climate change and an exponentially rising population. And it knew that these were too uncertain to factor into its predictions and recommendations.
The first of these, The Dark Mountain Manifesto, states:
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unraveling. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths. It is through stories that we weave reality.
We as a species are facing converging crises because of the stories we tell ourselves. We need different stories. Stories that are not anthropocentric.
We have had those sorts of stories before, from cultures that had much healthier and respectful relationships to the land and the non-human communities that shared it. The oral myths of just about any indigenous people fits the bill. The Dark Mountain folk launched a tony literary series guaranteed to be seen by very few.
Regardless of my opinion about Dark Mountain, it did strike me as an unintended response to Policy Changes. It proffered a perspective much different and much wider than economics, the concerns merely of humans. And it did call for looking at the crises converging on us while …reject[ing] the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
Then I came across New Avengers, a terrific science fiction series. The multiverse is collapsing, one universe colliding with another. The earth of each universe is the convergence for this collapse, referred to as an Incursion. Both universes perish unless one of the earths is destroyed. The “heroes” seek to save their earth. “Everything has a solution,” they say. And they seek such solution(s) at the cost of their own souls.
Black Swan, witness to an unknown number of Incursions, tells them that they are only putting off the inevitable. “Everything dies.” The immortal Franklin Richards informs Captain America that there is no solution and no work around for this situation. It’s simply how things are. A realization shared by some characters and ignored by others in lieu of short term actions.
New Avengers seemed to echo and extend the position taken by Dark Mountain. How does one move forward from such a dire place?
Perusing Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay The Counselor, this popped out:
I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.
Things certainly became no rosier. Perhaps there is a benefit to not panicking, but also to not hoping for a best outcome. Perhaps there is something in accepting that at some point, growth stops, seas rise, everything dies. Perhaps then we can collectively look at what may actually be coming our way, not to solve it, but to respond to it somewhat consciously. To respond to it humanly.
Finally, I came across these two quotes from Robert Bringhurst.
Humans, like penguins and seals and lichens and rocks, are interesting because of what they are, but what they really are is in large part a set of interrelations with the world in which they live. The more they recede into a world of their own making, the less truly human they become.
A culture based around the factory, the parking lot, and the supermarket, astoundingly disrespectful and inconsiderate of the land in which it lives, might be changed into a culture that felt a real and articulate kinship with the ground beneath its feet.
What sort of culture do we really want to live in? Plastics in the landfill? Mercury in the water, in our food chains? Or something else?
I thought of one of the bits from Policy Changes that, as mentioned earlier, I did like. “As a consequence [of slower human capital accumulation] earning inequality could grow… the OECD average [level of inequality] in 2060 might be close to US levels today.”
Buried in Policy Changes is a warning for the other 33 OECD countries (the US is a member) that within 40 years, inequality could be as bad as it is in the US today. That’s a much different story than the one America tells itself about prosperity.
I thought about this and about the stories humans tell themselves about their place in the world, about growth, about progress, about separation. I considered the story fragments quoted above as telling their own narrative – one of denial, consequence, realization, reckoning, and repositioning.
I sat outside and gazed at the Ortiz Mountains and at the wild aliveness surrounding myself – the curve of the valley, framed by waves of hills and the mountains; the many different grasses interspersed through the fields; the antics of ravens, nighthawks, and blue jays; flow patterns in the wash – each it’s own story, each implicit in the stories of the others.
Without these others, these non-humans, and their stories, we have no stories of our own. And no life.
Perhaps we should listen to them, again.