Our Collective Narrative: How Story Can Help Envision the Future

Douglas Cohen has been described in many ways, from “sustainability leadership specialist” and “catalyst for a regenerative future” to “facilitator” and “trainer.” Douglas is a revered change agent and leading thinker, and his bio celebrates his “leadership development, sustainability literacy, and systemic change literacy, especially for tomorrow’s leaders.” I was lucky enough to take part in a very interesting exercise on how to create sustainable communities with him during a Marylhurst University Sustainability Advisory Council (MUSAC) get together, which helped to crystallize the sometimes ellusive idea of examining alternative futures.

Mr. Cohen, acting as facilitator, informed us that we were all now part of the “culture of the committed,” simply by being attendees. This declaration reminded me of positive workplace leadership strategies focused around alignment and engagement in order to create a committed group working towards common goals. Doug’s invitation to be a part of the narrative (which we are all a part of whether we accept the invitation or not) was a successful strategy, and reminded me of my social responsibility to step up to the proverbial plate.

Our collective talents and problem solving will be needed to overcome the most pressing of our earthly crises. Better yet, I’d like to borrow – and turn on its head a bit – the famous Margaret Mead quote that goes

“never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”

I propose that, in fact, only our collective efforts will determine our future success, and this is particularly true regarding climate change. I hadn’t, though, imagined the idea that we could create an integrated narrative and use scenario planning in order to recognize the plot and therefore, the plot’s subsequent outcomes.

Doug began the meeting with a rapid-fire backdrop of the myriad organizations he is involved with, as well as mention of the Boston based think tank called the Tellus Institute. A quick Google search reveals that Tellus gathers data from teams of thought leaders hailing from varying disciplines who conduct research “to advance the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and humane global civilization.” From this work, Tellus has created a scenario planning toolkit that allow the “user to create, evaluate, and compare alternative futures based on current data and hypothetical trends.” One of the results is called the Great Transition Initiative. It is here that the use of envisioning an alternative future, and to me, the use of story and narrative, act as real forces in scaleable change.

How, though, do we transition from the narrative to implementation? First, we create the collective narrative. Our exercise for the hour was to gather around one of four quotes* that Doug provided for us. Choices included the great quote from Paul Hawken that says:

“If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Another quote by William Gibson says:

“The Future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

The quote that drew me in was:

“We are a Society in search of a good post-capitalist model.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Doug himself created this last quote. As four of us gathered around the “post-capitalist” model, others congregated around the idea that resonated with them the most and we began generating discussion. It dawned on me after the fact that we were in the process of envisioning alternative futures by discussing these various quotes, and I’d be interested to hear some of what came forth in the other groups.

Our group talked about localized economic systems, shared resources, and the behavioral paradigm shifts needed to realign the manner in which we share resources (or don’t) within our communities.

Like with any self-governing group working towards common goals, it proves to be especially difficult to implement some of the great thinking that comes from these collaborative efforts. To go from conversation to action can be a daunting task, and one that seems to often stall the forward motion of committed and compassionate people. While I’m not yet clear on how Mayrlhurst and MUSAC will use the beginning of this “narrative thread” to get from here to there, continuing the experiment in order to collectively create the overall University fabric is an exciting endeavor.

Above all, Douglas Cohen proved to be a generous connector of plot. Specifically, of our own combined narrative that provides us with the leading questions, and ultimately answers, to help us create strategies and solve the climate crisis within our own communities. In creating this story together, we create our own opportunities to also become the actors in a regenerative future. I imagine the ongoing conversation and work ahead will help us to envision our path and begin to implement some larger scale strategies towards that goal.

*There was also a longer quote by David Orr which I’ll update this post with in the near future

Comments

  1. 1 Timely Update regarding the Tellus / Great Transition Initiative [GTI] cited in this post.
    A recently launched global organizing effort, The Widening Circle [TWC] , is underway on several continents and convenes to concretely catalyze the Global Citizens Movement [GCM] element of the Great Transition. As a member, doug joined the 1st assembly of the working group in NY last week (Mid Dec. 2011) Those interested in following these developments, You Are Invited. Comment, follow up and reach out.: This is an All Hands on Deck moment for the Human Family…More as we go…

  2. Hi Doug,

    Thanks a bunch for dropping by, and thanks for the update on The Widening Circle. This work is visionary and incredibly exciting. Onward, to a fruit bearing 2012!

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