Change the Story, Change the Future

Every culture has stories—received wisdom that defines and confines what is viewed as possible and right. When we think about how to change the world, we must think about how to change the stories.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond tells of a Viking colony that for 450 years eked out a living on the southern coast of Greenland. About 1400 A.D., after a series of harsh winters, the mainstay of the colony's diet—their livestock—began to die off. There was not enough hay to carry them through the winter. The local waters teemed with haddock and cod, a staple for the neighboring Inuit. But the colony starved, killed by a cultural story about what was “civilized” that kept them from eating fish.

As with that Viking colony, change is coming for us. And like those Norsemen, we have stories that are killing us. You can probably think of some. For example, in the U.S., we have a story—reinforced by corporate and political leaders—that says we've got to keep burning oil, regardless of its effect on the climate or its limited supply. If we don't, our economy will collapse.

Every culture has stories—received wisdom that defines and confines what is viewed as possible and right. These stories can be more powerful than armies in preventing people from acting on options that could improve, or even save, their lives. When we think about how to change the world, we must think about how to change the stories. But how do we do that?

That's where YES! comes in. At a recent YES! board meeting, we talked about changing the future by changing the stories. I realized that each issue of YES! takes on a dysfunctional story that limits our society's capacity to solve a major problem. Our editors weave together creative people's ideas and actions to tell a new story that shows a possibility that didn't seem so real before. You, our dear readers, tell us the side effect is hope.

Remember the issue of YES! (Fall 2004), Can We Live Without Oil? We featured creative thinkers and doers whose work adds up to a new story that not only can we live without oil, but in the process we can create more jobs, better foreign policy, more vital communities, and healthier bodies.

Our Fall 2006 issue of YES!, Health Care for All, focused on changing the story that universal health care coverage is impossible for Americans. Our articles that showed the political and financial feasibility of universal health care were picked up widely on the web, in e-mails, and newsletters reaching millions of people. Activist groups and state legislators used that issue of YES! to educate their constituencies. The result is to widen the scope of what is viewed as possible in the quest to fix our broken health care system.

There are deeper stories to reexamine. In our Summer 2006 issue, David Korten points out that our prevailing stories of how to achieve prosperity, security, and meaning serve the interests of the powerful by justifying inequality and domination. He describes the prevailing prosperity story thus: An eternally growing economy benefits everyone; to grow the economy we need a wealthy class who can invest in the big corporations that generate the jobs that create prosperity.

This issue of YES! tells a different story. It shows, as Ethan Miller points out (in his article Independence from the Corporate Global Economy), that the global, corporate system is not inevitable. We can create prosperity through a local, living economy that builds on our capacity for cooperation, diversity, and self-determination. In fact, many of the pieces of such an economy are already in place.

For any problem we might wish to address, powerful vested interests are happy to tell a story that “there is no alternative.” But together with creative, undaunted people like you, we can surely change those stories.

Imagine a Norse YES! that innovative Vikings read to each other on dark nights. It tells stories of respect toward the fishing culture of the Inuit, provides Yes, But How? entries for healthy ways to cure fish, spoofs the meat-eating bishop in a “No Comment” page, and provides recipes for delectable haddock dinners. A few Vikings begin to experiment, then others catch on. Maybe that colony would still be thriving.

Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network.
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