Shared Horizons and New Stories

Originally posted May 2011:

Four things cropped up yesterday, to slow me down and make me reflect, on what was otherwise a fretful day. I was fretting because it was the day of the AV referendum and most people were voting against a small step towards better democracy. Also I had heard all the bad news, again, but this time worse than ever. (The Arctic melting faster than thought, higher temperatures predicted than thought, clearer realisation that time is running out…) The four arresting things were:

1. The Hot Science conference in Australia, about the role of museums in climate change communication; 2. George Monbiot’s articleresponding to Paul Kingsnorth about the role of stories in helping environmentalists find their way; 3. Finishing Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change‘; 4. Ending up with late night discussion on the power of the media in influencing people’s political decisions.

So, I was reflecting on the role of: museums and heritage; the narrative arts (or all the arts, if you want to say art is all about stories in the broadest sense); education; and the media…in both their institutionalised and informal states, in dealing with the problem to end all problems, that of the planet’s state of health.

I was struck by how difficult it is for everyone, in each of these sectors, to tell a story that is big enough, and to bridge technology and imagination in ways that are nuanced and practical enough. In many debates about how to change attitudes towards the environment, too often we conflate all the contributing sectors into two sides: ‘science’ and ‘communicators’, and call for more interaction between the two. Will that be enough? Do we understand enough what that looks like? What might it look like in these four domains?  First, museums.

Hot Science Global Citizens is a major partnership project between museums and researchers in Australia of a scale that we can only dream of in the UK. It explores the agency of the museum sector in climate change interventions. In the UK, work in this area is patchy, small scale or specialised. Examples include the Science Museum in their planning of climate exhibitions, research by individuals such as Lucy Veale, the Happy Museum project (albeit with a focus on wellbeing) and some work by MLA/Renaissance including a training toolkit I’ve written called Museums for the Future (soon to be launched).

I was keen to follow the Symposium proceedings, which included two admirable UK speakers, Mike Hulme from UEA and Giles Lane from Proboscis. I could only follow by Twitter, trying to stay awake for their day/my night, so I can’t accurately report proceedings (while awaiting papers to go online). The talk was mainly about how to communicate the science of climate change, and how museums might need to broaden their horizons to help. I commented that the whole museum paradigm needs to shift from one of communicating knowledge to one of problem-solving. Elaine Gurian had said that our idea of museum communities needs to change from being place-based to ideas-based. I think the shift needs to be from ideas to problem-solving (in places, with ideas). Museums are the right places for situated problem-solving because of their unique three-fold function: 1) they are places to experience culture and to gather with others, 2) they expose us to knowledge beyond ourselves (increasingly, with digital culture, forming part of a global knowledge ecosystem), and 3) they conserve material heritage so that we combat destruction and promote learning and creativity.

The Twitter discussion also hovered around a question about the need for new climate icons, to draw attention to the potential loss of things that people really care about. I wonder though about whether we are already fatigued with too many icons. I suspect people believe they could actually bear the loss of things they might simply appreciate but don’t know that they need, such as birds, trees or coastal beauty spots. I think people need to know how the whole damn lot of icons is connected, how they all go down together in environmental collapse. Alongside that, people need to understand that climate change is not separate from other aspects of environmental disruption. The debate seemed a little limited by focusing on the role of science museums and on the challenge of communicating climate science. Engagement needs to broaden from climate to planet, but retain meaning in people’s lives by focusing on how we live in places.

On to the narrative arts…

George Monbiot wrote an interesting piece, responding to Paul Kingsnorth, the founder with Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountainproject. Monbiot summarised the big problems tearing apart the environmental movement encapsulated in his point number 7: We have no idea what to do next. I feel his desperation sometimes, but I think it was interesting that he didn’t mention the adaptation, resilience and transition movements that are making positive headway in bridging technology and culture to know what to do next. However, I was heartened that he admitted the potential in Kingsnorth’s call for new stories, as the environmental movement is too led by numerical strategy. I felt, though, that Monbiot’s notion of stories needs expansion. Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because the narrative arts, in treatments that are not too dogmatic or closed, offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is stories not telling us what to do but being a way to work out what we should do. The call for new stories has to be for content that relates to this extraordinary crisis, and moreover for new forms of engagement. The forms of engagement have to be powerful enough to push against the mainstream stories that quietly or overtly endorse consumption,innerism and violence against the other. The Passion, by Wildworks, performed at Easter in Port Talbot, is a good example of the kind of participatory storytelling that could be powerful enough. Richard Kearney explains the role of stories in terms of mythos (plot), mimesis (recreation), catharsis (release), phronesis (wisdom) and ethos (ethics). If we can expand this to how narrative engagement might help tackle George’s problem:

– Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems

– Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see

– Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm

– Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations

– Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.

The other two domains (media and education) will have to be dealt with in a much more cursory fashion, but I have written about them in more depth elsewhere.

On media, while the BBC was covering the referendum and elections, there was some Twitter discussion with Dougald Hine and others about the need for new TV and radio formats that don’t reinforce political differences through antagonistic debate, but which enable more creative problem-solving. I like this idea very much. My Flow co-director, Mark Stevenson, is already focusing  his attention on some ideas for broadcast media to enable people to reclaim the future, solve problems in positive ways and take action.

On education, I will just urge you to read Keri Facer’s book on Learning Futures. This makes a very strong case for schools as centres for community problem-solving. She argues that we have been developing our vision for education with a far too narrow vision of the future, and that we should be embracing:

– The emergence of new relationships between humans and technology

– The opportunities and challenges of aging populations

– The development of new forms of knowledge and democracy

– The challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption

– The potential for radical economic and social inequalities

I entirely agree with her thesis but my only disappointment is that the challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption in particular were not actually addressed, albeit listed as not commonly considered. The book helped us imagine a future school, but it didn’t actually help us imagine the future. That is the challenge for us now, for new stories and learning structures, which help us imagine how bad the future could be whilst simultaneously imagining how we can work it around to provide the means to thrive.


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