Narratives of what?

Narratives of what?

I recently had a day with friends at ARCIO (Action Research and Critical Inquiry in Organisations, Department of Management at the University of Bristol ). The day was titled Gathering Hopeful Narratives of Sustainability. Reflecting about it since brought our network aspirations to mind. The day was described as ‘aiming to begin to generate, collate, and amplify hopeful, optimistic and inspiring stories of existing and emerging work for sustainability. Our broader aim is to challenge and move beyond current narratives of sustainability, which are dominated by a focus on technological solutions and the business case, or alternatively limited by ‘gloom and doom’ thinking and the perceived need for self-sacrifice and martyrdom amongst agents of change. A further aim is to begin to develop a research agenda, drawing on the potential of rich and innovative qualitative and action research methods to engender and support transformative work for sustainability.’

I was inspired by the possibilities of narrative (stories in any medium) to help folk think differently and cope with what is happening. For instance how stories can:
 be multi-voiced, there is no one story, there are always varieties of experience
 interweave, blur, merge future, present and past
 cope with uncertainty, be messy, complex, cope with ‘thick’ realities
 be an aid to sense making esp about relationships
 connect and gather people, create dialogue – more democracy even?
 be emergent, folk can keep re-creating them to accommodate what is need at the time

People in the room certainly seemed to be focused on ways of working and communicating beyond the usual collection of case studies where we often get emphasis on the output/outcome (‘…yes, its an impressive new Neighbourhood Centre …’) backed up by facts about funding, decisions and personnel but not necessarily much insight into how it happened, the dynamics and interplay (‘… well, I walked out when he said it was never going to fly …’). And well beyond the conventional media approach of grabbing (dramatic) bits of a story often to manipulate response. I came away with a reinforced sense of the values in and the values of story as a helpful agent in our troubled times. Writers, artists and communicators understand all this and more.

I was less happy though with the understandings of sustainability in that ARCIO room. Post Rio, years ago everyone talked about the ‘three legged stool’ of sustainability ie there had to be economic, environmental and social wins for anything to be called sustainable. It all had to work together. Now folk struggle with the essential integrated starting point of sustainability; so they can talk about environmental sustainability (a peg leg stool?) as a desirable achievement. It makes me wince, in just the same way that I winced when I saw Tim’s post of the article, via BBC business news, titled ‘Nature’s gift: The economic benefits of preserving the natural world’ . So many of the troubles the world faces seem to come from these partial (not integrated or holistic) understandings ie. sense making without looking at wider relationships/implications.

Another example is one of the stories from the ARCIO day. It was about how one group of communities from a very deprived area had overcome another group of communities, the better off NIMBYs, to get planning permission for an extraordinary project. This is for a motorway service station to be run as a social enterprise to benefit the deprived communities beside motorway, featuring local produce and exemplar sustainable design and construction. Ticks lots of boxes. I have been a keen supporter of this idea for years and tried for a different approach involving all the parties. However pleasing it is to see the deprived communities now empowered and successful, and this social justice triumph was applauded at the ARCIO event, a greater achievement would have been a win win including support from all the surrounding communities probably accomplished through a process of dialogue to understand longer term mutual benefit.

I don’t use the term sustainability now that anything vaguely eco can be sustainable (three legs gone out the window etc). And I miss not having a replacement term for what we need to aim for. But more to the point I miss the sense of campaigning and working for a vision. In the past activists were motivated by a vision of what life could be like. Now the discourse comes more from places of fear about climate change, peak oil, food security, population explosion, population movements, collapse of money etc.

I know our brief is to reflect on environmental change but I suggest that we need to be aware of the whole picture, what we used to call sustainability, and entertain some vision.

I would be glad to talk about this more but will not be back until end of Jan. I am going to Cuba as a volunteer and to investigate what might happen when the blockade is lifted. Greetings, Alison

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One Response to Narratives of what?

  1. Steve Bottoms says:

    Hi Alison. Back from Cuba yet? Just to say how much I appreciated this posting and would love to talk about the implications further – whether here on the blog or in person in Scotland in a couple of weeks. Looking through our notes from the Fountains Abbey event (I’m just about to do a posting about this), I’m struck primarily by the complexity and ambivalence of our responses to the site and its various narratives and possible futures — and only a ‘holistic’ conceptualisation of that complexity, through creative means, could start to do justice to the questions/issues involved. Of course, this is precisely the value of the arts, as you keep pointing out to me… their ability, at their best, to capture and process something not just three-legged but positively hydra-armed… I guess I’ve been coming from the opposite perspective – as an arts person feeling the need to be more “useful” in the current, ahem, climate… and thus wondering how we can be more “direct” about raising awareness of environmental “issues” (without resorting to tedious didacticism). But as you suggest, we need to think more broadly than that kind of issue-based focus, which always misses out part of the equation – and so maybe the very things I was starting to feel frustrated with (ambiguity, indirection, layered complexity) can be our greatest assets. And maybe the network’s focus on sites – and thus the multitudinous stories that can be excavated or spun out from them – is precisely what we need in order to think this through further.

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