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We Need More Than Vision
Last week I spoke with Kim Stanley Robinson, author of a the acclaimed climate-fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, about the role of writing, of art, of fiction in particular in the face of a crisis. He gave a fascinating overview of science fiction’s response to the world over the past few decades, exploring the role of stories, narrative, and how citizens can both grapple with and demand change in their societies.
This was such a wonderful interview. To me, the most important idea Stan raised was there being a story for the future—a story for what we must do, a story with which to build the world—and, therefore, the most important one we can tell. One version of this story is laid out in Stan’s novel, The Ministry for the Future, an almost step-by-step plan for making progress towards a sustainable future.
But why is telling that story not enough? Why is telling that story not enough to get people on board, to make people realise the magnitude of the problem? Why is the story of how we achieve sustainability and protect humankind, the biosphere and our planet not enough to get people going?
Is it that—perhaps—we are missing the story for right now? A coherent story that explains why that second story of the future is necessary; a story that reveals exactly what is wrong with the present moment, and why every moment we reinvest in it detracts from the possibility of bountiful, healthful and equitable life for all.
The problem isn't that we don't have the science or that we don't know what's going on. The problem is cognitive dissonance, that huge amounts of the population all around the world don't know or don't believe the facts. So how can we create a story about our present that adequately reveals the need for action? And why is envisioning a better world simply not enough to inspire action?
Have we become so alienated from one another that we just don't care enough to create a world in which everyone is safe? Is it that the story that we live in now is one of scarcity and fear? That it’s therefore almost impossible to imagine a world of wellbeing and abundance? And, because of its very unknowable nature, that better world in which we keep everyone safe is not only alien, but dangerous?
What does this story for now look like? And does it involve talking about how the world could be, or does it involve really nailing on the head how the world is?
What is the story of the world that we live in today?
It is a story of exploitation and extractivism, of inequality of oppression.
It is a story that was written in the blood of slavery.
It is a story that dictates some human beings to be worthy of luxury whilst others are not even awarded dignity.
It's a story in which the vast majority of humankind has disappeared into the ether of history as if they never existed in the first place, even though without them, none of us would be here today.
It's a story in which main characters are appointed so by birthright, and firmly believe themselves to be the protagonists, rather than living their own subjective experience of this world, just as everybody else does.
It's a story of sending children down mines to dig out cobalt for our batteries. It’s the story of 80% of fashion workers in Bangladesh suffering rape.
It’s the story of corporations finding loopholes by creating products in international waters to they can maximise their profit.
Ours is the story of celebrating dangerous men simply because they have been celebrated for forever.
Our is the story in which women are silenced and people of colour exist as people of colour, rather than just people.
This is the story in which whiteness knows best.
This is the story where men don’t know how to say sorry to one another.
In our story, nobody seems to have the pen anymore.
It's the story we live by, but don't want to take responsibility for.
The story which cannot admit to its own fiction.
It's a story that promised heaven and hell and the earth to men, and has flailed wildly to find meaning in those empty promises.
It's a story in which you and I don't exist. But “they” do.
This is merely a story, and in which people live and die. Yet we overcomplicate it because we didn’t believe meaning could be found in the laughter between friends, in the squeeze of a lovers’ hand, or that the kiss of a parents’ lips on their child’s forehead is meaningful enough.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.