In my lectures on trust and risk management, I often start with the declaration: Man is a story-telling animal. We are not inherently rational beings, rarely ethically correct and usually quite vain about our role in the world. We rarely remember facts (unless they support something we are emotionally attached to), but we love a good story.
Look back at your distant memories – they are probably not about facts or details, but rather about events unfolding within stories. Our narratives (the overarching frame for the stories we tell each other) underlie our values, position us in society and guide our decisions. Our stories used to be religious or civil religious based and only told at certain times of the day or week. Now our digital story-telling tools have proliferated and we receive so many conflicting messages that trust and rationality suffer from the burden of contradiction.
Environmental NGO lobbyists have grasped this and have told a good story about how evil industry pollutes and poisons and how simple it would be for us to save the planet from their globalised greed. Industry replies with facts, science and data. Guess who wins in this story-telling standoff?
The story today that everyone tells is built around the narrative of sustainability. It is not a linear story, but rather a series of anecdotes: a selection of random messages interlaced with values and aspirations built on evolving narratives about man’s place in nature. These stories on how to live sustainably rely on selected experiences, commonly shared beliefs and a hope for the future (with all of this, who really needs to use science or data).
Sustainability implies a story of man as the protector of nature, the savior of future generations and the proclaimer of the just (hence its moral proclivity I had mentioned in the first part of this blog). These broad-stroke declarations are filled in with anecdotes that need not be consistent.
- We can be sustainable merely by changing a light bulb (never mind the increased mercury pollution) or recycling (don’t mention the energy use and wastewater problems).
- Sustainability is blessed upon society via solar panels and electric cars (disregard the increased CO2 to manufacture these temples).
Not all narratives are the same, and some are stretched.
- Planting GMOs will solve world hunger and reduce carbon emissions.
- Nanotechnology and specialty chemicals will combat climate change.
Whatever the narrative, we can pluck an anecdote that will fit our view of the good and the just – indeed the sustainable is best left as an empty vessel to be filled with our interests and rhetorical gamesmanship. As something anecdotal, sustainability is relatively contradiction-free, making the political debates so much more interesting when choices become difficult.
Should we be concerned about this random, anecdotal nature of sustainability or should we celebrate this passe-partout for rationality? Well, when organisations like the UN tend to embrace such vacuums as major global initiatives, I tend to make a sound when I breathe. Rio+20, the upcoming UN conference on sustainable development (now dubbed the “green economy”) has delighted in the anecdotal and has let the stakeholders take over the asylum. So strong is the temptation to purify our ecological self-esteem … so easy is it to twist the stories to make everyone feel heroic, that the UN has decided to release the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference six months in advance. All that is left is to fill in the personal stories and shared anecdotes. I wish I were joking, but they are even suggesting a science-based organisation for sustainability on a par with the IPCC (who could possibly say no to that? … definitely not the scientists!)
The Risk-Monger would like to be a delegate to Rio+20, but he fears that the story he would tell there is not what others would want to hear. Can anyone help him?David Zaruk