Building a Better World for All: The Power of Narrative and Cooperation

Jun 15th, 2013 | By | Category: Other Resources

By Suzanne York,

Interconnectedness.  Community.  Cooperation. Creating narratives.  Social justice.  Sustainability for all.  These are just some of the themes that came up over and over again at the recent U.S. Society for Ecological Economics 7th Biennial Conference.

The official theme was “Building Local, Scaling Global: Implementing Solutions for Sustainability.”  For the most part, speakers and participants had a positive outlook for the future, yet the fear of “societal collapse” was often lurking.

There was no disagreement that humanity is at a junction: do we continue with business as usual, or finally take the bull by the horns and create an environmentally-sound and socially just world?  And looming over the path to a better world is the concern of whether or not we can we get there fast enough.

Ants, Agriculture, and Civilization

Hands down, the most unusual and even provocative discussion was on a shared evolutionary history with social insects.  Lisi Krall, an economist with the State University of New York, posited that the human transition to agriculture was not unique.  Social insects have also adopted agriculture (namely ants, termites, bees).  The characteristics of ants, for example, are closely aligned to the human experience.  These include explosive population growth, domination of the ecosystem, and emergence of a super-organism dedicated to the group goal of producing economic surplus.

Watch this short video to see how incredible and yes – similar to our human society – ant society is, as per one professor’s dedicated study of ant life.

Krall uttered one of the best descriptions of humankind at the conference, which truly reflects where society’s focus should be directed.  She said “Sustainability, caring for others and equality defined what it meant to be human for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Changing the Narrative

Many presenters believed that creating a narrative could help people confront our dire environmental and social problems.  Marta Ceroni, of the Donella Meadows Institute, stated that “Stories help us determine what we see and what we believe is possible.”  The power of narrative was a recurring theme throughout the three-day meeting.

Even William Rees, an ecologist and ecological economist – and also a realist when it comes to discussing the state of our world – noted, “Our challenge is to deliberately construct a new, more adaptive cultural narrative” (one that takes into account science and human behavior).

Rees, a co-creator of the ecological footprint, emphasized that no species in nature grows continuously, and said that people are in denial of societal collapse.  It’s hard to argue that he’s wrong.  The United Nations just released revised population growth predictions, projecting a world of 9.6 billion by 2050.  And as the USSEE conference disbanded, early season fires were raging in Colorado, a tornado threatened Washington, DC, and protests continued to erupt in Turkey.

Taking Action, Creating Hope

It’s easy to think that the problems confronting us are insurmountable, and that it’s too late.  Yet assuming the worst may lead to a “why bother” mentality and inaction.  We know what we need to do, and have the skills to solve even overwhelming issues.  Josh Farley, with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, noted, along with many others, that the problems we face require cooperation to solve.

So the question boils down to can we overcome political, social, and environmental obstacles and act fast enough?  That remains to be seen, but in the meantime we can create the narrative that there is time – and hope – to get to that environmentally-sound and socially just world.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.