The value of ‘small stories’ – they show us what’s next

I have been reflecting on why I collect and share these stories, as part of a paper I am working on for a journal, and as I was reviewing the first draft of the paper, I had a really useful insight – that the stories matter because they show us the shape of the emerging new paradigm.

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

If you study systems and how they change, you will probably know about the ‘two loops model’. It was developed by the Berkana Institute and it helps us to understand how systems change. In essence, the dominant system – our idea of how the world works – shapes our collective thinking, until it begins – like every natural system – to break down and eventually collapse.

But eventually, as that loop begins to run down, a whole range of experiments develop, and one or more of them will eventually form a new system to replace the old one that is dying. If you think about it in terms of energy, the old system is the use of fossil fuels to power our world, and the new shoots are wind energy, solar power, and so on.

As I was thinking about other ways to describe this, I thought back to the dramatic opening ceremony of the London Olympics, in which Danny Boyle choreographed the journey from England’s ‘green and pleasant land’, when most people lived on the land, to the pandemonium of the Industrial Revolution. Somehow, when the paradigm shift is shown in this dramatic way, it becomes so much clearer than when we talk about it.

The gentle rural scene was rapidly disrupted, as“seven smoking chimney stacks with accompanying steeplejacks rose from the ground, along with other industrial machinery: five beam engines, six looms, a crucible and a water wheel (one of the few items left from the rural scene).

But when Abraham Darby used coke to smelt iron in a blast furnace in 1709, he was not part of the then dominant model – he was one of those small emerging and unusual stories, that collectively ended up driving the world’s paradigm change from rural and agricultural, to urban and industrial. His Shropshire furnace led to mills, looms, engines, railways, ships, cities, weapons, conflicts and prosperity that built today’s world and became the dominant system. It also shaped our idea of the world as a mechanistic place – a machine.

Now that system is running down, and solar energy, wind power, biomass and biogas are the equivalent of Darby’s smelted iron as we move towards a world that will be powered, much more sustainably, by renewable energy. What is it going to look like? We don’t really know, just as in 1709, few people could have predicted today’s world.

But we have hints from all these stories. It is a world that will value nature’s ecosystem services, not the ability to extract minerals and substance from the earth and the ocean. It is a world that is much more likely to have mini-grids of renewable-source energy, from the electric vehicle in your driveway to the solar panels on your roof to the windmills in the sea and on land. It is a world in which animals’ ability to shape our land and water will be valued and recognized and we will co-create landscapes that are more wild than domesticated. It is a world in which we will repair the damage we have caused to the land so that we will be able to restore the full water cycle and recharge the aquifers below the surface, as well as remove many of the dams we created for power but which have disrupted many natural systems including salmon spawning. It is a world in which we use natural systems to protect our coasts from storm damage, and in which we recognize the value of ‘blue forests’ as much as the forests on land. It is a world in which we recognize ‘cool burning’ as a tool that lets us manage forests sustainably.

We will use things we now consider waste, to do everything from making paper (so we don’t have to cut trees) to generating electricity and mining minerals that we would otherwise cut into the ground to get, to making our roads more resilient. We will not just recycle – we will reuse, recognizing that our economy must be a circular one. 

Our picture of the world will be one in which we recognize that there is a sweet spot – between ensuring everyone has what they need for a good life, and exploiting natural systems beyond their tipping point (the ‘doughnut’ economy). One in which the idea that people who own shares in companies are the only ones whose values matter, is replaced by a world in which a wide range of ownership models exist – from employee-owned companies to publicly-owned banks – and we return to the idea of ‘the commons’ – the areas we share among all of us, like the common grazing areas that used to exist in the UK before the Industrial Revolution. In turn, this is inevitably going to change the way we organize our societies, and our politics.

We don’t see it so well now because our dominant thinking model is a deficit one – we find it easier to see what doesn’t work than we do to celebrate what gives life to a system (an appreciative model). Although this is changing through the pandemic, which is altering so much of how we thought the world operated. Think of how our idea of ‘work’ and the ‘workplace’ has changed and how that in turn is affecting where and how we choose to live. Think of how our ideas of how farmers should market their products to consumers have changed, so they can sell directly to us. Think of how our ideas about restaurants and take out food have changed. Think of all the experiments with ways to provide people with a guaranteed income that are occurring, in so many places. This will be a world with much more direct connection, locally and globally, and many fewer intermediaries – and to manage it, we will need to develop good skills in managing and taking part in participatory process.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it this way: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”  No better description of paradigm change exists, to my mind. And it becomes self-evident, I think, through the power of sharing the ‘small stories’.