Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Our global story

There were some incredible speakers at the TEDx in Stellenbosch on Friday. Lots of inspiration and some amazing work being done to end child slavery globally (it's everywhere, apparently), stimulate entrepreneurship in South Africa and help uplift women. The budding digital marketer in me loved hearing about how social media had triumphed over print media in reversing international public opinion about South Africa during the World Cup. And I even got to learn about the global and barbaric persecution of sharks (though the speaker failed to mention why they are so important. It turns out they keep oxygen-generating plankton levels healthy in the oceans and without them we will suffocate. But I had to find that out from my brother)

But the most interesting talk at TEDx, I thought, was Peter Willis's The Story of our Future. He made the point that never before has there been a singular global narrative; there have only been regional dominant narratives. And that human beings cannot function without a story. It's hardwired into our understanding of the world that there are beginnings, actions and consequences. We are motivated by stories with happy endings.

And so the dominant stories we told ourselves, and that provided context for all our actions, were:

  • In Medieval society, that God was  at the top of a hierarchical universe, in which everyone knew his or her place, and being humble and obedient and doing what was expected of you guaranteed you a place in Heaven.
  • In the Scientific Age, that the Universe functions on rules, and that if you study and learn all the rules, you can know everything worth knowing and alter the world to make it cooperate.
  • The current dominant story is that of capitalist growth. That if you work hard and buy things and spend money, you will be guaranteed a place in the mythical and always-just-out-of-reach Consumer Heaven.

The problem, of course, is that this story is rubbish. Consumer Heaven does not exist and does not make us happy, but, more importantly, the planet is finite, her resources are finite, and capitalist growth is simply unsustainable. And so we are confronted with a very bleak story: if we continue along our current path, we will destroy ourselves. If we do not, we may survive. "Maybe surviving" isn't much of a happy ending to believe in or motivate ourselves. Which is why, perhaps, there is such widespread inaction about our crisis.

The task we face, therefore, is not just one of proving the science of climate change. That has largely been done, and isn't galvanising people into action. Our task is to collectively define a narrative to believe in. And his suggestion, which echoes my man Ekhart Tolle, is that Heaven is right here. I'm thinking we need to make that a little more ordinary sounding for politicians and business leaders to get their heads around.

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