Creating Narratives for a Better Future
In January 2019 a group of interested folks—academics, civil society leaders, activists, environmentalists, and organizers—met at Lancaster University to discuss how to shape a new economic narrative. This new narrative emphasizes what the organizers from WE-All (Wellbeing Economy Alliance), Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures, and the Green Economy Coalition call a “wellbeing economy.” The idea of new narratives that can help frame both the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene—the emerging era in which humanity’s activities are actually impacting the climate—is exactly what the Metanarrative Working Group of the SDG Transformations Forum is working with in the interest of creating transformational system change.
The premise of the working group and the Lancaster meeting was relatively simple in theory, though much more complex in practice. Somehow, collectively, we need to generate a new narrative to replace today’s dysfunctional dominant narrative—neoliberalism. In my view that means that we need to generate resonant and widely shared core ideas (memes) that people in different contexts can use as they see fit to shape local narratives, but that are consistent enough to spread a new message about wellbeing, dignity, and flourishing for all.
My thought is that there will be many such narratives, hopefully based on a shared “memes,” where memes are defined as core units of culture like ideas, words and phrases, images, and symbols that readily convey their meaning from person to person (or mind to mind). In many respects, it is on the basis of widely shared memes around liberty, free markets, free trade, globalism, and laissez-faire government that neoliberalism itself has been propagated over the years. The task here is to find an equally resonant, albeit broader in scope, set of memes that can be powerful ways of framing understandings of what it means to be human in the world in today’s fraught and complex context. That probably means collecting and then figuring out ways to spread new ways of thinking economic and social wellbeing from and to a wide range of people around the world. If the meeting made nothing else clear, it was that we all bring our own values and meanings to this type of task.
…a new narrative needs to encompass and go beyond economic thinking.
The ideas surrounding Neoliberalism are distinctly economic. They overlook essential aspects of being human in a natural environment, the full message of a new narrative needs to encompass and go beyond economic thinking. It could, for example, include our relationships with each other and with Nature, our creative, artistic, and spiritual tendencies, and new and emerging understandings of sciences, history, and politics, to name only a few important domains of thought and action. As the idea of wellbeing economy suggests, any new narrative needs to bring about wellbeing—flourishing even—for all in an inclusive way that allows everyone, everywhere to experience dignity and worth.
In my view, a new narrative needs to reframe our human relationships in important ways, recognizing the importance of self-understanding and reflective practices. It needs to reflect the importance of relationships with people we care about—and people well beyond the ones we already know. Importantly, it needs to reflect a new understanding of our relationship to Nature. In short we need to move from thinking we are “in dominion” over and okay with exploiting Nature and her resources towards, as author and opinion leader David Korten says, recognizing that we are living beings born of a living planet.
Meetings like this one get you carefully thinking about the words that you choose, particularly who is included and who is excluded by different concepts and ways of framing ideas, stories, and narratives. Also it raises questions about how language and ideas (memes in my framing) shape our understanding of the world around us.
Some of the ideas that resonated for me in the context of this meeting to frame and shape an emerging new wellbeing economy narrative include the idea of “we all” having agency to bring about new stories, ideas, and changes wherever we are. Here “we all” includes all people, no matter their station in life, and, for me, other living beings as well. Agency means that we can each take our own set of actions towards building a better world, an understanding that draws from complexity science, which suggests that in the types of complex systems represented by human communities at all levels, change can begin wherever you are. Change, from this perspective happens in giving voice to new ways of thinking and being together, in creating shared experiences that generate belonging and a safe sense of “home,” where home is where you feel you belong. In belonging, we can experience connectedness with others of all stripes and our own worth—or dignity and freedom, things that the current system does not always provide.
How to accomplish this shift in narrative is still a work in progress, as is what the actual narrative, or even its core memes, will look like. Yet one thing that came across clearly from this group of folks was the need for more and better conversations, conversations at the table, in the pub, and in the taxi. Such conversations can raise up questions about what wellbeing, what dignity, and voice, what “enough” means today. Maybe that’s one key to collectively shaping a new narrative.
Sandra Waddock is the Councillor for the Forum’s Metanarrative Working Group, Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, Chestnut Hill, MA USA. (firstname.lastname@example.org)