Can Storytelling Help Make a Better Future?

Can Storytelling Help Make a Better Future?

Usually, when we talk about "a better future," we do it in the context of one particular story, a story our Western society has believed in for a long time. This is the story of a historical arc of progress, promising that the future will always be better than the past.

This story has gained support, in part, from technological advances: the steam engine was more powerful than the horse, but inexorably gave way to the internal combustion engine, which, the story implies, will give way to high-efficiency electrical motors, etc. On the societal level, feudalism was better than slave societies, capitalism is better than feudalism, and the current forms of capitalism are better than previous forms.

In the long term, I believe in that story. To be sure, as it is commonly told it usually discounts the losses that come with each innovation, not to mention the systematic exclusions of certain groups from “advancement,” based on race, class, and more.

But there is another problem: The dominance of this story can make it hard for us to think about the bumps and disruptions that will have to happen, for a better future to come about.

Rough Road Ahead

I think there are some very large bumps coming our way. Our economic system needs constant growth to survive, resulting in an escalating exploitation of natural resources. As a result, we are visibly damaging the very ecosystems needed for the flourishing of life on earth.

This means that, at some point, some form of serious collapse is in our future. We already have an increasing division between rich and poor. If the overall size of the pie decreases in the future, you can be sure that the slice for the rich will be the last to shrink. That will cause major disruptions for those who are already struggling to survive. Eventually, those disruptions are likely to bring down the entire growth-dependent system.

No one knows exactly what will happen, of course, but if we take the long view, the odds favor catastrophic events within the next few generations.

This is Hard to Think About!

As you read this, how are you feeling? For me, it's upsetting. I have to struggle to think for more than a moment or two about our collision course with our environment—never mind to think about what might come after a major disruption.

Why is it so difficult to pay relaxed attention to these questions? A strong reason is that we were born and still live within the system. We have been conditioned, browbeaten and bribed to accept this as the nature of the universe and the best possible economic system.

You're probably familiar with one or more of the very numerous novels and films of post-societal-collapse in which society has devolved to a violent dystopia based on fear and scarcity. Such devolution may happen. But—and this is the good news—even though disruption is indeed highly likely, there is no reason to assume that the only possible outcome is dystopia.

Can we influence how things turn out? In my mind, there are two vitally important questions to think about:

1. How can we make a collapse—and the landing after it—as soft as possible for the largest number of people?

2. How can we help something better come out of the painful transition?

I’m not suggesting that it’s futile to try to change our course before any collapse can happen. I am saying that, even if we can’t imagine preventing a collapse, at least we can begin to imagine and build what might come after.

The City in the Sky

One day, I was doing my best to apply my creative intelligence to the possibility of a major economic change. I had already learned that I couldn’t think about this for long by myself, so I had a listening partner with me. Even so, I kept wanting to think of something else, or to reassure myself that this topic wasn't that urgent.

But then, as I was trying vainly to imagine a possible future, an image came to me. I described to my listening partner what I saw: a distant city on the horizon, seeming to float a little above the ground. It looked a bit like the Emerald City of Oz, but I couldn't really see the details, which were shrouded in swirling clouds. I could see lights moving in the city; I certainly got a sense of lively motion and energy.

Once I had described the shrouded, floating city to my listening partner, I saw something else. I saw a roadway that began near my feet and first headed away from the city, but then curved around and began to rise above the earth, leading in the distance to the city. The city was vague, but the pathway was clear!

As soon as I described the roadway to my listener, I thought, "I don't know anything about what the society of the future will be like. But I know some values that will be important in getting there.”

Once I said that, I had another thought: "I know how to teach those values through storytelling!" 

The Values of the Future, Through Storytelling

Thus was born “The Values of the Future Through Storytelling,” a list of eight values that I believe will be important to the shaping of an improved future society, plus ways that the very processes of storytelling (apart from the content of the stories) can give people experiences that reinforce those values.

I have written 7 articles detailing some of the eight values I’ve identified, as well as why each is important to the future and ways to give people a non-threatening experience of each value. Once the series is completed, I’ll be looking for a book publisher. For now, I continue to write 2 articles a year and submit them to NES (New England Storytelling, where the articles have appeared in the organization’s newsletter—which is so far only available to members).

I have also continued to teach online courses about this topic through the Transformative Language Arts Network.

How About You?

Have you been thinking about how storytelling can help with our future? Are you working on something similar—or taking a completely different approach? How do you respond to all this?

Please leave a comment, below. I look forward to some lively discussions!