Monday 4 April 2011

Communications - A New Narrative

I feel like this is the moment to come to terms with our history in so many ways, because this is a crisis born of the industrial project that was fuelled by colonial extraction and mass dislocation. It all comes together with this crisis. When we talk about storytelling, all of our stories are in crisis and we need new stories about how we got here, at whose expense, who paid the price, how we’re going to do things differently. That means learning from the very people who got the worst deal out of the industrial era (Naomi Klein interviewed by Rob Hopkins - Transition Culture)
Our life is determined by stories. Stories we are told by our parents, by our culture, by the Empire that has ruled us for thousands of years. Some of these are ancient and reworked fairy tales, Cinderella being one of the most enduring. You are really a princess. Your ugly sisters are making you tend the fire and work in a kitchen. One day a fairy godmother will come and you will go to the ball and marry a prince and live in luxury for the rest of your days. We love that story. Partly because it resonates with the beauty of our real inner selves, but mostly because it ends with riches, with feasting and nice clothes and aligning with power. It’s a major upstory.

How do you tell a downstory? Downstories are hard to find in our culture. There are plenty of upstories that don't work out that act like scary cautionary tales (if you don’t make it to the ball, you never get out of that fireplace and will always wear rags). But how do you go about telling the story of Transition, of the energy descent we have to make as individuals and as a people? How do you turn the coach back into a pumpkin and the princess back into someone who can tend a fire?

How can you tell the story that is not about individual people making it OK, but about whole communities turning themselves around? We hunt for analogies but they are hard to come across. We find people pulling together during WW2 and imagine that Digging for Victory was all like an Ealing comedy. But that is to ignore the very real drama of war and government progaganda. No matter how urgent our situation, carbon reduction quotas and climate science don't quite fit into a narrative that will help us face reality together.

Here's Paul Kingsnorth writing on his blog, Dark Mountain:

I think that the poets have been cowed into silence by the dominance and urgency of the quants’ narrative. How to reassert the importance of stories, then, is perhaps a key question now. Green poets might perhaps start by observing that worlds are not ’saved’ by the same stories that are killing them. They might want to observe that saving worlds is an impossible business in the first place, and that attempting to do so is likely to lead to some very dark places. Or they might try and explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to this, time and time again – arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away (from The Quants and the Poets)

The fact is we don’t have to go outside ourselves for a new story; we just have to retell our own and be prepared to listen to others as they tell theirs. Here's one:

Once upon a time there was a girl who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She lived in the big city and went to the park and had lovely party dresses and dancing lessons and when she grew up she wrote for shiny magazines and bought herself a little flat and drank champagne and had lots of friends and lovers. She was successful, threw parties and went all round the world. And then on her 35th birthday she left everything behind and never returned.

She did what? This is my story. You could think it ended there and then with that exit. But you would be wrong. It was the beginning of a new narrative. How I went travelling, like scores of my contemporaries, in the 90s to connect with the Earth, to shift our consciousness in order to deal with the legacy of Empire. How I came back to England in 2001 and had to begin my life again at the bottom as a nobody. This is not just my story of course. There are thousands of us out there who chose the red pill, walked out and gave up the game. Who went on the road and sought answers, who got enlightened in forests and mountains, who became activists, who started again. There are thousands of people in Transition who know how to downshift because they have done it themselves from all classes, all income streams, all professions, all situations.

But who is going to tell these stories? And who is going to listen?

For several years I tried to publish my downshifting story, but no publishing house or magazine would take it. Not because it wasn’t any good, but because it is a Cinders story. It’s got suffering in there and the reality of the kitchen. It’s got a lot of questions about civilisation, about the family, about media. Because if our culture started officially publishing this kind of stuff it would challenge the Cinderella-enthralled status quo.

Then in 2009, I discovered, like millions of other people before me, the liberty of blogging. Blogging unshackled everyone from agents and editors and publishers. Suddenly we could write what we wanted, and like the Levellers who took full advantage of a decade of free press, we wrote unceasingly. The premise of this community blog, This Low Carbon Life, was to record the daily stories of powerdown among 12 Transitioners: to give value to the small steps we take to create a world that won't tear people apart and that treasures the earth. I didn’t want to tell the story on my own. Because the story of the moment is not an individualist story. My personal powerdown (and no one else’s). It’s everyone’s story. You need to hear everyone’s story in the new narrative. That’s how it works.

Here's Sharon Astyk cross-posted in the Energy Bulletin:
Nor do I believe for one moment the oft-quoted claim that we are too spoiled, unlike our grandparents and ancestors to give things up. I think, rather, that no one has asked, no story has emerged - despite my attempts and the attempts of others to write one that takes into account events. Perhaps our collective attempt to disseminate such a story, a new way of life will evolve, as events do. Perhaps we can offer collectively, as we repeat, embellish and expand the narrative that says "You do not have to do that, you can choose these things instead...and come join those of us making more of less." We need such a story more than we need nuclear power or coal power. We need it nearly as much as we need air (On Baby Harp Seals, Coal Plants and Nuclear Power)
We need that new narrative because our desire to live in fairy palaces is destroying the earth. We are constricted by living in a left-brain, number-fixated, quant world. We are pressured by happy-ever-after Hollywood stories, by American dreams, by our own sentimentality, by our desire to vanquish the enemy. But there is one thing that has a more powerful allure than all of these. And that is a story with love and redemption in it. People will go a long, long way so long as there is meaning at the end of their struggles. Because of us this dear world got to be free.

There has to be meaning in what we have experienced in the rise of our lives, in order to make sense of the fall. There has to be meaning in being born with a silver spoon in my mouth and writing about those party frocks. The meaning is in the letting go. I know what it takes to leave the city, to give up restaurants and holidays and being a success. You know what it takes to move out of a house, a job, those relationships, those material debts. And you also know why you did it.

I know why I left the city. I left because I wanted to break free. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be able to talk with anyone. I wanted to know the world and myself in a way that my upbringing and culture never allowed for. I never went back to my early life because when I looked back I saw it for what it was: a gilded prison.

Letting go was not loss. Letting go was liberation.

We’re busy people in Transition. As Shane Hughes from Transition Bedford once said: we’re holding two worlds at once in our hands, an old and a new one. Both of which make demands on our attention and our time. But if we could make time and space to speak with one another in a way that allows us to see what we are really doing with our humble woodpiles and shared meals, with our vegetable gardens and community events, Ingredients and Tools, our blogs and meetings and struggles to understand, it would bring a nobility and depth of meaning into all our actions. It would give us courage and common cause as we meet outside the Palace walls.

We need to know that each of us are holding the story of this changing world within us. And that it’s time we began to listen to each other and join those pieces up . . .

Comma butterfly and pasque flowers by Mark Watson; Amelia and the Angel by Ken Russell, 1958, from Beginning Again.


  1. What a beautiful post Charlotte. I would love to have some transition fairy tales, I think they would be amazing. Such as an inventor who can make new things out of 'rubbish'.

    There are a few stories out there already, a lot of the religious ones actually have some resonance.

  2. Many thanks Kerry! The kind of story I'm really interested in is creative non-fiction. Reporting, with both feeling and a sharp eye for detail, what is going on in our collective lives as everything moves and shifts.

    I don't think there are any literary models for what we are experiencing right now in Transition - which makes all of us pioneers. inventors, discoverers, transformers . . .

  3. interesting post - in my case (being a bloke) the fairytale is more Peter Pan - from age 18 to 38 (I'm 39 now) I managed to juggle a professional career in IT with weekends of hard partying on the dance music scene, and somehow survived it all, including all the pills, powders, potions and occasional run-ins with the Police!

    Then I moved here, after seeing a lot of bad things happen on the party scene (not just due to cops closing things down) felt I *had* to grow up.

    one caveat I'd raise though is that its really easy for people like us who've *had* our fun, who have *been* intrepid adventurers or princesses and who still have at least some the revenue stream from our careers (I now do IT/Finance work for a medium size family-run business in Mid Suffolk which is very receptive to pragmatic green thinking).

    Its gonna be *much* harder for 20-somethings growing up with a (perhaps understandable) sense of entitlement, who are used to the hypermobility of having a car always to hand, and day jobs which are less mentally or physically demanding than 10-20 years ago and leave lots of time/energy for weekend hedonism.

    I feel a bit of pity for those who are in that age group, and their parents, as its going to be a much rougher ride for them..