93. Stories for change – restoration or transformation?

George Monbiot’s book, Out of the Wreckage, is the second this year to explore the idea that what the planet needs is a new story. Like Alex Evans in The Myth Gap, Monbiot suggests that people are mobilised to action by stories, not by facts and evidence.

Image © WWF https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASwq1XITrOI

This is clearly an idea whose time has come, and one which resonates with a “post-truth” world. I won’t rehearse again my concerns with the anti-rationality of the idea, which I covered in a review of Evans’ book.  And, in fairness, Monbiot advocates a new story based on science. I do agree with both authors that we need new stories to confront the challenges of our times.

Stories, as I said in my review of The Myth Gap “are among the oldest human devices for encoding and sharing knowledge. They have the huge advantage over collections of facts that they tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.”

Monbiot goes further than Evans in suggesting the structure of this new story.

“Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.”

He calls this the Restoration Story and says “stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them, even our fundamental values.”  He suggests that this is an archetype, which is common to both social democratic and neoliberal narratives, and he may indeed be right in saying this.

Restoration – The Tête-à-Tête, from Marriage à-la-mode, William Hogarth

However, the interesting thing about the idea is how timid it is, with its narrative of “restoring order”. And it isn’t the only archetypal story we tell about the future. I know this because I did some research a few years ago, analysing 64 futures scenarios (“Futures and Culture”, Futures 44 (2012) 277–291). All these stories fitted into four broad classes – Progress, Catastrophe, Reversion and Transformation.

  • Progress is, as the name suggests, one where existing trends lead towards the expected goals. This story was dominant during the brash optimism of the nineteenth century.
  • Catastrophe is also simple – the outcomes prevent us realising our expected goals. In the darker years of the twentieth century, dystopian visions became more common.
  • Reversion, which is essentially Monbiot’s Restoration, is a little more complicated, and involves a return to previous conditions in order to maintain viability. These stories often have a sentimental view of a simpler earlier time.
  • Finally, the Transformation story involves, as the name suggests, a fundamental change in the “rules of the game“, leading to a new and unexpected end-state.

I would suggest that to get out of the wreckage we need Transformation stories not Reversion stories. Monbiot would probably agree, but perhaps he might want to rethink his narrative archetypes.

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