With the release of the IPCC's 6th report on climate change earlier this week, the reality of our planet's situation was put into grim context. But whether talking about narratives of 'climate doom' or hope for the future, the stories and language we use to reference such topics have a huge impact.
Reflecting on our Ocean Activist Training Camp and his personal project Stories for Life, Sea7 host Dan Burgess explores the role of stories and storytelling when it comes to the enormous challenges we are currently facing as a species.
On the week of June 7th two strands of work collided. I started the week hosting an international online gathering for Stories for Life from my studio in Bath, before heading to St Agnes in Cornwall and the home of Finisterre to host the groundbreaking Sea 7 ocean activist training camp. The week finished in the ocean at Falmouth where I took part in the G7 protest paddle out organised by Surfers Against Sewage.
Although these events at the time seemed separate I realised in the days after my return from Cornwall that they were all utterly entangled, interconnected.
The Stories for Life project, a collaborative effort with co-writer Paddy Loughman, the Green Ecomony Coalition and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance that I’ve been guiding since late 2019 explores the role of stories and storytelling when it comes to the enormous challenges we are currently facing into as a species. It’s a resource for anyone working with stories who is seeking to step into service on our home planet right now. It's not a campaign or a prescribed solution, rather it offers two critical ‘story seeds’ for urgent cultural story evolutions for people to cultivate their own diverse expressions from.
It proposes that the stories we live by weave the cultural narratives from which all human systems are designed - policy, economics, technology, governance, law etc are all shaped by the stories we live by everyday.
“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller.” - Rebecca Solnit
Stories aren't frivolous entertainment, but are the coding that shape what we believe, what we choose, who we are, the way we think, feel and act every day. Stories shape our understanding of the world and the way we act in it. And therefore stories shape the world itself.
Think of a story if you like, as a unit of narrative, like a tile to a mosaic or threads to a tapestry; together several stories weave a broader narrative, a narrative that forms the fabric of our reality.
The fundamental narrative that sits at the heart of modern human systems today and shapes the design of things such as our economy is that we are separate from nature and separate from each other.
This narrative of separation insists that nature is external to our economy, to our progress, rather than the foundational source of all value and all life.
The separation narrative suggests that we can do what we like to control the natural world to support human progress, it encourages us to see ourselves as competitive individuals, separate from each other, battling it out in a zero-sum world against our fellow humans and other life.
This narrative is no longer fit for purpose.
It is deadly as it is shaping systems and behaviours which are destroying the conditions for life on this earth.
This narrative is dangerously disconnected from reality, and is blocking the new, upgraded economic and social designs from being chosen.
Stories for Life proposes two big cultural story evolutions required to weave a new narrative of interconnection - a narrative that most indigenious cultures have lived with for thousands of years and that the latest science from neuroscience to physics and biology is catching up with - that narrative says all life is intimately entangled - interconnected - and that human health and planetary health are one and the same.
Destroy one, and the other cannot flourish.
We have been designing our modern human systems over the last few hundred years (a bat of an eyelid in earth time) around two particular #horror stories.
Firstly the story that Nature is our Slave, secondly the story that Productivity (alone) is how we measure success.
Look around and you’ll begin to spot these stories and their impacts everywhere - let’s look specifically at water and the ocean - whether it’s Seaspiracy and the decimation of fish stocks as a result of industrial fishing, the ever increasing levels of pollution and sewage in our rivers, chemical runoff and livestock manure from industrial farming, ocean plastics, the destruction of coastal ecosystems of sea grass and kelp, acidification of the ocean through absorbing the excess planetary heating from burning fossil fuels, the list goes on.
The human systems we have constructed treat the waters our lives depend on much like slaves, and we are mostly oblivious to it, with productivity success metrics unhinged from reality and how life actually works keeping us distracted from what really matters. Life.
We are not measuring the destruction that these stories are creating. And if we did look to measure our economic success by the health of people and planet, then right now we’re failing massively.
This is the narrative of separation at work.
Our gathering took place on World Ocean Day, and we kicked off by mentioning to participants around the world that wherever they were on the zoom, we were all in intimate connection with the ocean, this great life support system of our earth is providing us with every second breath of oxygen. That fact alone still blows most people away, it’s not a story deeply ingrained in our modern cultures - no blue no green, no water no life - if the ocean dies, we die.
Stories for Life proposes that we must call out and drop these horror stories rapidly and evolve to carrying waves of #Lovestories in our cultures. Stories that help us see nature and our fellow non human beings as our extended family, where we measure success not by productivity alone but by collective human and ecological health and wellbeing - the health of all life.
So what does this have to do with Sea 7?
Sea 7 brought together leading ocean activists, scientists, designers, innovators, conservationists, campaigners, film makers and more who are working tirelessly to heal the damage in our ocean, rivers and waterways.
There is so much amazing work happening, so much possibility, much of it hinges on leaving the ocean alone to regenerate, and I encourage you to dive into the archive stream and explore properly.
I’d also suggest watching the film that launched Sea 7, because I think it’s speaking to a narrative of interconnection.
The day after Sea 7, I joined about a thousand other inspired humans young and old on a paddle out in Falmouth organised by Surfers Against Sewage to protest to G7 leaders about the ocean and climate emergency and why putting the ocean at the heart of climate action is key. Sign the petition here
Photos by Cat Vinton
I left Cornwall humbled and inspired by the people I had met and spent time with and the energy for change, but the lasting reflections for me are - why is this still happening? Why are we still protesting, why are we spending so much energy trying to stop destruction and pollution? Why is our ocean in so much trouble?
The science is clear, compelling and screaming ever louder at power. Despite all the efforts, it seems to me at least that meaningful change at scale is not happening fast enough. Most of the action we currently take is direct action, it is what activist, scholar and systems thinker Joanna Macy would call holding actions, halting the destruction of ecosystems and slowing climate breakdown, critical work but on it’s own not enough.
To move towards life sustaining and regenerative cultures we will need a rapid shift in consciousness and that brings me back to stories.
You see the problems in our ocean like the problems within our landscapes and the problems with the polluted air we breathe are driven by the way we relate to these complex intelligent living systems, how we perceive them and therefore how we treat them. It is our dominant worldviews, our mindsets and beliefs that perpetuate the issues we are facing. All these relationships are driven by the stories we hear and tell everyday. The stories shape our worldviews and beliefs and therefore our actions.
We see ourselves as separate from these critical systems that create and sustain life on this earth, and these perceptions are informed and sustained by stories that we are told day in day out from the moment we’re born and that we continue to tell ourselves.
But look at the floods and fires raging around the world in this last month, we are not separate from nature. We are a part of nature. What we do to the natural world we do to ourselves. In many ways we are the weather.
Here’s a quick thought experiment…
Do you see the ocean as….
A distant, vast wild place? An economic resource? An industry for tourism? A holiday destination? An enabler of sport and recreation?Where you get your fish from? A dangerous place?
Or do you see it as…
The great life force on this earth? Planet ocean? Driver of our climate and weather? A living relative to the salt water blood in our veins? A diverse thriving community with powerful capacity to heal?
Do you see the rivers running through your town as murky, insignificant urban waters?
The arteries of our landscapes connecting us to the ocean, the great blue heart of our planet? When you walk by a gurgling stream does it connect you to the ocean in your soul? When you leave the beach do you make gratitude for the waves and the gifts they gave you?
And when it comes to water...
Why do humans have the ability to swim and dive deep underwater like no other land living mammal? Why is it that crying, sweating and jumping in water makes us feel instantly better? Why have thousands of us discovered the healing power of cold wild waters during lockdown for our anxious minds and bodies? Why has a film about one man’s intimate relationship with an octopus become a worldwide hit?
What if we began to story the ocean and the waters around us as part of our extended earthly family? How might we talk about them differently? What would you do differently? How would that feel? What are the stories we are sharing with our young? How would our relationships change and therefore our behaviours? Can we imagine a world where human economic systems are in harmony with natural ecosystems?
Because this is the kind of paradigm shift we need to make within the next decade.
Campaigning alone is not enough, we must change how we relate to this earth, to the ocean, to the waters around us, to one another and to the more than human world.
“Because our footprint on the Earth has never mattered more than now. How we treat it, in the spirit of gift or of theft, has never been more important”. - Jay Griffiths
Who speaks for the ocean?
In some Native American cultures there was a story - Who speaks for Wolf
And no doubt versions of this exist in many indigenous societies, in short it suggests who speaks for the more than human world within our human centric cultures when we are making decisions and actions that have impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity and non human life around us - life we now understand to be critical for human flourishing.
So I’m wondering - Who speaks for the Ocean?
To speak for the ocean wouldn’t just mean to protect, regenerate and steward the ocean where it exists physically.
And to stand up for the protection and regeneration of the scaled, finned and shelled beings.
It would mean to demand an end to this fossil fuel centric civilisation which is driving temperatures up, acidifying our ocean and wrecking life in water and on land.
It would mean to steward and regenerate our rivers, streams and waterways where 80% of marine pollution begins its journey.
It would mean to actively care for the health of insects, of the feathered and the furred.
To deepen our understanding of plant intelligence.
And to regenerate our soils which all water and life runs through.
To open ourselves up to this vast natural intelligence we have not made.
To be in service to life.
Because all life is interconnected and everything connects to the ocean.
As we begin to understand that we cannot thrive on land as humans without a healthy thriving ocean and waters, and what we do to the waters of this earth we do to ourselves, can we sense a growing swell of a new ocean story bubbling up?
To evolve the dangerous narrative of separation requires the imagination of storytellers and story carriers everywhere to speak for the ocean, to carry these new stories of the ocean and all of its diverse life as part of our extended family.
And everyone of us has a role to play - brands, citizens, designers, writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, media owners, artists, activists, scientists, conservationists, teachers, content creators, film makers, parents - because we all tell stories everyday.
We decide everyday what words come out of our mouths, on our social feeds, in our communities and workplaces, through the platforms and channels we communicate through, through the things we create.
We decide which stories we want to carry and live by and which ones we need to drop that no longer serve us or future life.
I believe we must find the courage and imagination to evolve our stories as a core part of our activism.
To feel our way into carrying new love stories about our relationship with the watery world we have not made, yet which keeps us all alive, and begin to weave a new cultural narrative of interconnection. Because ultimately culture shapes politics, policies and economic design and we are living in a time where nature meets culture head on.
And if no one speaks for the ocean then who speaks for life ?
"Look closely at the present you are constructing, it should look like the future you are dreaming" - Alice Walker