Activism & Storytelling: Level 3

Mister Fox is a passionate believer in the power of story. And he will yammer on about it at any opportunity. This is the third and final part of his discourse on Activism & Storytelling, which he delivered from atop a small hill, silhouetted by a full moon, to a wily band of radical animals who believed a better forest was possible, and that brave individual and collective action could make it a reality.

Level 3: Change the story, change the world. Beyond strong motivational narrative, beyond consistent organisational stories, the real gold, and the real challenge, lies at the invisible layer of story as the operating system of society. There are stories that behave like mythologies: they explain the world, our role in it, and define the borders of what’s possible and what’s not. “The Earth is the center of the universe, and the sun and moon and planets revolve around it because God created it for humanity.” That was once a story most of the world believed. It explained the world, and the place of everyone in it. It drove rituals by which people measured their time and honored the story. Then along came Copernicus, with a different story, and things got a little messy, until the story of the scientific method grew strong enough to challenge it. The belief that order and prosperity in South Africa depended on empowering whites and keeping non-whites subjugate and separate was a perfectly functional mythology until Biko, Mandela, and a generation of activists broke the spell of the consensual hallucination. They proved true Vaclav Havel’s famous paean to whistleblowers, civil disobedients, and freedom fighters: “Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal.”

I was born into an era in which, in the US, we lived under an economic mythology that was just about to crumble as I entered high school (dressed as I was in psychedelic polyester shirts and bell-bottom jeans). The Earth was believed to be limitless and growth could go on forever. Malthus had talked about the limits to population growth in the 1800s, and been met at the border by Major Disagreement and General Scoff:

If the principle of population were so active and the multiplication of mankind so rapid as Mr Malthus asserts it seems very strange that the world which is so many thousand years old should not yet be half peopled … That period therefore when countless millions are to languish in all the extremity of want which Mr Malthus represents as such an approximating woe and an object of such immediate alarm is either never likely to arrive or else is placed at such an immeasurable distance as to be no object of apprehension or dismay.” (Dissertations on Man, J.Jarrold, 1806)

By the 60s and 70s, other stories were chipping away at that happy delusion: books like The Limits to Growth, Silent Spring, the Population Bomb, Future Shock. But nothing illustrated the story of Earth’s limits better than the single image of Earthrise over the moon’s surface: a vision so profoundly startling that the Apollo 8 astronauts who first witnessed it dropped everything they were doing — no small feat for military-trained precisionists — to gasp in awe and fumble for every camera in the capsule. The story that we lived on a pale blue marble in the vastness of space changed the way we viewed ourselves and our planet, and changed the course of civilisation. There was the stage upon which every single human story had been acted out, and where the human story might begin and end.

If stories are the operating system of the world, where are the data ports through which they can be hacked? The advertising industry has known that for decades: in the emotions and values with which a good story attaches like a trojan horse virus to a longing in the human heart, unleashing an action that purports to cure that longing: be beautiful, buy this; be stronger, buy this; make more money, buy this. In the activist world, I fear we too often think that we win hearts with facts. That rationality will win the day. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who raised the alarm about climate change in the US, tried for a decade to calmly lay out the facts in the voice of science, expecting them to wake humanity up, such was the horror any literate person could see in his stats. But our world isn’t shaped by rational behaviour. It’s shaped by emotional alignments, by consistency heuristics, by irrational leaps of faith, by stories that attach like cocoons to a longing in our hearts and release a delicate winged creature of such beauty we must follow it, chase it toward a better world, trade in our day to day satisfaction with what is for the creative pursuit of what might be.

All of us love to listen to the stories around the campfire: this was how, for millennia, we learned what berries to eat, how to avoid bears, how to look for the magical wood that burned all night. Stories taught us how to be human beings, taught us how to coöperate and live together, and helped us become the dominant lifeform on the planet by helping us share information in way we’d remember it, in ways that would help us survive. Storytelling made us collectively smarter.

Today our greatest storytelling has been harnessed for commerce. The Koch brothers, coal magnate brothers who have reaped the benefits of the industrial age to become billionaires, are loath to see the milk cow die. They dump truckloads of money on US presidential candidates to put question marks around climate change and to decry as “unamerican” anyone who would think of taxing carbon. In a time that demands change, the stories the Koch brothers tell — that change is impossible, it’s too expensive, that it’s being proposed by people who are not like us — hold back a better world in favour of the one where Corporate giants roam the Earth feeding quite happily on what’s left of the landscape without much concern in their tiny brains for any of those asteroids up there in the night sky, heading our way.

Those of us who do look up and see those asteroids urgently need to become better story-tellers, story-crafters, story-masters. When Occupy Wall Street broke into the public consciousness, it was an alternative story to one of the most powerful mythologies about the United States: The American Dream. Instead of the land of golden opportunity, in which anyone had an equal chance to achieve wealth, Occupy introduced the concept of the 1% and the 99% as characters in a very different story of wealth disparity. Instead of the vision of a class-blind, gender-blind, color-blind system in which anyone could excel with hard work, Occupy charted the increasing gulf between ambitions and possibilities for the middle class and the billionaire class. What Occupy failed to do was prescribe a solution. Enter Bernie Sanders with a plan, not only to redistribute that wealth, but to put it to work fighting climate change, providing health care and education for all Americans, and reducing military spending. And millions of people respond to the story of an unlikely Don Quixote who actually may have a point about those windmills, and become listeners to his story, re-tellers of his story, champions of his story, characters in his story. Occupy painted the picture of a broken land, creating space for someone to say “I have an idea” — to venture out of the village to slay the dragon, to wrest the treasure from its lair, and return it to bring peace to the kingdom. The stage is set for a hero, but it won’t be a lone one. Bernie’s story, or the story of whoever eventually seizes this story’s flag and successfully carries it up the mountain, will only triumph if millions of people believe it to be a flag they believe in.

If a story gets told in an empty forest,” says Mister Fox. “It isn’t a story.” But a story that gets told on a mountain, to a forest full of beating hearts desperate for hope, can be the next great story in the epic of the human journey. The one that reminds us that humans are artists of the impossible, better than our lesser natures, and capable of overcoming any obstacle fate or our own hands might choose to lay before us.

I’ll be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Oxford March 8th 2016 Berlin on October 5th 2016.  London March 21st 2017  Sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

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