Beyond the global storytelling crisis


'New stories' by Chris JohnstonIt was while reading Gwyne Dyer's Climate Wars a couple of years ago that I started to accept that, as a species, we are probably not going to avert cataclysmic forms of climate change.

As this disturbing fact has come to settle within me, it has been less a source of despair and despondency (though I do have my moments!), than a form of liberation. It has allowed me to see the world with fresh eyes.

I can see that the forms of denial of what is happening both within and around us in regards to climate change is a layered and deeply structural process. This dynamic is informed by, and in turn contributes to, the continuing, unfolding crises within the financial architecture of 'Pax Americana', the cornerstone of the United States Empire.

We are not merely living through a crisis in economic or technological control, but something much deeper, a crisis in civilisation. The foundational Greek and Hebraic imaginaries, and the deep mythical narratives that frame western civilisation, can no longer contain, inform, explain and extend, the parameters of what we experience. We are living in a crisis in storytelling.

Our relationship to our own and other species, to the past, present and future, to land, culture, science and Empire are framed and informed by many layers of stories. These have been told and retold in different guises, which at are rooted in the Greek and Hebraic imaginations.

Although there are many different cultures, in the last century the hydra-headed process known as capitalist globalisation, led in the last five decades by the US Empire, has colonised the globe. The fate of the planet is the fate of the US led imperial project known as civilisation.

If we are to understand and counter the roots of the self-destructive processes that civilisation has unleashed upon the bodies, psyches and ecosystems of the earth, then we need to become 'archeologists of memory'. We must look backwards and inwards, so uncovering, deciphering or inventing new stories that will help us deal with the enormity of what we are facing. We need new stories for a new time.

Key to this reflection is the recognition that something deep within our fractured and alienated beings is the source of this profound dis-ease.  As such it is also potentially the wellspring of other, less destructive possibilities. Socrates' dictum 'know thyself' takes on a new urgent moral force.

Up till now there has been very little discussion, let alone action, directed to the social implications of climate change. What happens to a group of people who have been suckled on the glitz and speed of consumerism when their ability to consume is taken away from them? What fills this spiritual void? Why are we not probing and discussing this change together?

I recently visited Guatemala and Mexico for four months to immerse myself in another culture, to make documentaries for Radio National's 360documentaries program, and to witness first-hand the social experimentation underway in the underbelly of the US Empire.

Guatemala and Mexico have unique, intensely colourful and powerful landscapes, histories and societies. The contradictions they now face have much to do with their proximity to the US Empire, which is at many levels in a period of decline.

I learnt from visiting Central America that the US Empire is not going to unleash fascism to deal with its various crises. Fascism, in all of its guises, was the response of the nation-state, which has been superseded by the market state.

So what the US Empire has in store for us — and the research and development continues in Mexico and Colombia, as well as places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — is a new social formation that we do not even have a word for yet. It is part-narco, part-corporate, part-private military-corporation, and all nasty!

It moves and morphs at will, feeds off financial flows, emerges from the grey areas between the legal and illegal, national and international laws, has global aspirations and is taking terror to hitherto unimagined levels. Welcome to the Future!

This new monster is part of the armoury of how the US Empire in decline is preparing to deal with the crisis in civilisation. At present we do not even have the imaginary space to understand, let alone counter what is emerging on the horizon.

We desperately need new stories.

Colm McNaughtonColm McNaughton is a Walkley award winning documentary producer. His latest documentary La Frontera: a journey into the borderlands of Mexico and the United States is available here.

Topic tags: colm mcnaughton, storytelling, crisis, pax americana, civilisation, gwen dyer, climate wars



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Existing comments

Thank you for your use of one of the most powerful metaphors, ‘stories' by which we can see ourselves within our interpersonal and social environment. I wonder what a new story would look like? How will we begin to slow down the new shiny metaphors which capture and titillate without nourishment? What would the Bro Grimm say? I bet the Greeks knew about the dichotomy of the eternal external chase vs the ability and value of sitting. I look forward to your program (I think!) and hope for the promise of your freedom of seeing the cataclysm through a detached framework (which is my normal wont). At this point I declare that I own an iPhone as it does nurture me (nothing like reading the NYTimes in bed).
Dawn Baker | 29 March 2010

From Greek philosophy came the idea that empirical observations are of value, and from empirical observation came science and its language, mathematics.

The Constitution of the United States of America is one of the great products of the High Enlightenment, subsequently augmented by its embodiment of John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty".

Mill did not consider the context of human liberty, this finite world. Nor did Mill consider the impacts of totalitarian socialism in its communist, fascist and corporate forms; he was writing before any of these forms gained ascendancy. In particular, Mill did not consider the problems that may occur if the humanity of powerful people proves inadequate.

The US's encounters with Indochina in the 1970's and with Latin America in the 1980's reflect the incomplete success of its founding traditions in guiding the thought and actions of the powerful, self-obsessed psychopaths which afflict liberal democratic governing structures.

That said, the US supports and nurtures scientific endeavour and broad dissemination of the resulting knowledge.

Just as the problems, defects and deficiencies of the US are visited on itself and on others, there is much for which the US should be admired, and of which its citizens should rightly be proud.

David Arthur | 29 March 2010

Probably paganism was the result of religious freedom and tolerance. Probably story telling led to paganism as well. Even then the Greek empiricism was not responsible for a suppression of religious freedom although they might have fascism in some nature. Likewise, an extreme form capitalism could be a form of fascism too based on nationalism, protectionism and chasing for market and eliminating rival countries.

But the problem with Mexico is its huge population it cannot feed - I guess. Easy money but plays a large responsibility. That's obviously greed the protagonist. Greed at the borderline means it is shared by two countries. Probably a cultural thinking is responsible for the mindset they have. Obviously, both countries are not doing enough - probably easy money again comes foremost. Probably they are too brave to die for the trade.

When money is worshipped over human values, the world will not cease its small arm sales.
AZURE | 29 March 2010

maybe new stories dont have a chance against the monster you see .....

..... but deeply held traditions?

geoff fox | 29 March 2010

The intent of this essay is remarkable, and refreshing -- yes, we see and explain and act in the world really by story, and bending our heads and hearts to new stories would go a very long way to bending the world toward a healthier and less violent life. Seems to me, though, that blaming the US for the narco-military-capitalist drive is a little specious. Empires have always been hungry for money -- is the US much different from the British Empire, or the Roman? And doesn't Australia have a capitalist economy? Is capitalism the problem, or untrammeled capitalism?
Brian Doyle | 30 March 2010

'Storytelling Crisis.' Sorry to sound a discordant note but I completely disagree with your initial comments. It is not that the old greco- hebraic stories cant cope, the problem is that they are no longer known. These tales are thousands of years old but so contemporary they can still hurt. You want to know about hubris and vanity, refugees and sexual vulnerability, power, corruption, joy and delight. They are all present in these tales.

There are no new tales, only versions of the old ones. It is a mark of cultural illiteracy, vanity and hubris not to see the old tales in the 'new' circumstances. "Those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it." The same goes for stories.

What is needed is a rediscovery of these tales, and the delight and satisfaction of hearing them again. For these tales were born to be "told", not hidden on paper, between covers and buried on a bookshelf. Take them out and sit them in the ear. It is how they were originally used, all the great teachers used tales. That way they can get to the heart, where they are meant to rest.
Ken Luxon | 30 March 2010

We do not need new stories - we need action!
There are still a lot of people who have kept their five senses, who realize that we are completely off the track, heading into a environmental and social desaster - with or without the US. Not ANY religion is a help either. No more stories please, to unite would be the the cure - yet who has got the guts, the money and the power to stand up against an army of selfish politicians and finance managers??

Wilma Allex | 05 April 2010

In my view, when context-relevant stories overwrite all the commonsense (practical & moral) ones, society needs profound renewal. Social trauma erases the nonsense, and its back to simple truths.

The scientists and researchers at have some great insights into this sort of thing, based on studies in plasma cosmology and electricity-based cataclysms in Earth's history.
Scott MacRae Collingwood | 06 April 2010

I agree with Colm McNaughten that we must find better ways of conveying to non-scientifically educated lay people what awaits all our children, if we continue down the present road of ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions: disruptive overheating of the planet, food and water scarcities, and large sea-level rises within our grandchildren's lifetimes. We need to convey the idea that humanity actually has a choice to avoid these cataclysms, starting with the ways we generate our energy (just stop burning coal!), and moving on from there to other desirable changes in public values and consumption goals.

I don't think we need new stories. The world's ethical and cultural tradition is actually full of the wisdom and inspiration to help us understand what is coming if we do not stop runaway global warming.

In writing my book 'Crunch Time' I tried to use relevant metaphors and ideas from the Bible like Noah's Ark, Belshazzar's Feast, 1 Corinthians 13.11. Also, sayings of the Buddha; Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and 'The Tempest'; Galileo; the story of Faust (right on the money, this one); John Maynard Keynes, J G Ballard's 'The Drowned World' , Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'. A book like 'Moby Dick' can help us to see that the enemy is us. Movies matter,too - great stories like Pocohantas, Wall-E, Avatar. Actually there is no end to relevant stories. The great literature of World War 2, speaking of the need for decent people to take a stand against great evil, and to strain every sinew to prevail against it, offers inspiring metaphors for the fight against global warming's threatened destruction of our grandchildren's living environment if we do not start to make big changes soon.

With respect, I think Colm McNaughton misses the value of all this rich and familiar tradition in helping to get the political challenge of climate change across to people.
tony kevin | 07 April 2010

I agree with you Colm, to an extent. There are new stories out there (e.g. Joanna Macy) to inspire and prepare us. I see the Transition Movement as our best hope for motivating us to change profoundly.
Kate Leslie | 10 April 2010


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