Friday, September 17, 2010

Stories of Meaning

When talking about taking a strategic approach to sustainability, among the most powerful tools we have are stories.  That may sound weird for a lot of people "strategic" brings to mind action plans, hard-nosed business decisions, grand plans in theaters of war - but really it just means you've started with the end in mind and you're being smart about moving towards your goal.  In our case, that goal is a sustainable society.

As we know, sustainability can be defined scientifically with four sustainability principles - three ecological principles to ensure we're not systematically undermining the very life-support system of which we are a part, and one social principle to ensure we're not systematically undermining people's capacity to meet their needs.  Right now our society is unsustainable, and with regard to social sustainability, that is evidenced through a deterioration in the social fabric globally.  (This piece talks about Gallup data showing America's declining trust in our institutions, and this graph shows it visually).

Stories of meaning are one of the most effective ways we can rebuild and strengthen the social fabric, and to remind ourselves that we're all in this together.  I often intend to use this blog as a venue for stories of meaning, and I usually fail to - spending more time on SSD theory or news or actions we can take.

Luckily there is Subhankar Banerjee who recently launched I've only read a little bit so far, but the stories and writing are great, and the concept is phenomenal.  I highly recommend checking it out.

Stories of meaning and building the social fabric are so key because at the end of the day sustainability is about people and working to ensure a high quality of life for as many of the people on the planet as possible and for as many future generations as possible.  To do this requires that we respect and live in harmony with all other living systems.  This point was brought home again to me today by a friend who sent me this article in Newsweek by George Will.  It references an piece by Robert Laughlin that has a correct (if obvious) thesis - the earth system has changed dramatically over geological time and will continue to do so, irregardless of if humans cause any big changes or not.

But Will's article interprets Laughlin's piece in an incredibly misleading way - insinuating that as a result of this fact, we shouldn't do anything about correcting our unsustainable path.  It takes advantage of the fact that the human brain has a tough time dealing with time - often one of the trickiest components of systems thinking for most people - and neglects to point out that all of human civilization has happened in the past 10,000 years - a time of relatively stable climate and a unique balance of ecosystem conditions with which humans have co-evolved.  Changing those conditions radically (by continuing to violate the first 3 sustainability principles) will not "hurt" the planet - but it will make the planet unlivable for human civilization.

Will's piece is the opposite of a story of meaning - it's a twisted story that sows doubt, breeds passivity, and encourages people not to think too much, worry to much, or act at all.  (It also includes this ridiculous statement as if it's a fact and a foregone conclusion:  "Someday, all the fossil fuels that used to be in the ground will be burned.") 

So don't spend much time on it - instead, cruise over to and get involved with strengthening the social fabric around the world.

Stay going.

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