Summiteer, Peter Reason, reflects on his experience of the New Story Summit: Inspiring Pathways for our Planetary Future, held at the Findhorn Foundation and Community 27 September – 3 October 2014. He traces the history and context of movements like the new story and outlines where he sees potential for the new story movement going forward into the future.
Throughout the week of the New Story Summit at Findhorn, I often found myself asking myself, “Where did this begin? What are its antecedents?” I recalled the suggestion of the great systems thinker, Gregory Bateson, that through the last 2000 years of Western thought there had been a struggle between two forms of understanding. On the one had there have been those who asked, “What is the world made of?” and on the other hand those who asked, “What is its pattern?” The first question leads through the mainstream of Western thought and action directly to the materialist worldview to which so many of us are now objecting. The second runs as a kind of undercurrent bubbling up and influencing the mainstream from the Pythagoreans through the Gnostics, the Alchemists, and the Romantics to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and so presumably to our meeting at Findhorn.
One the men in the Youth Council wondered if the difference between his generation and their elders was that they had grown up after the end of the Cold War, so had not inherited the polarized thinking that arose from that power struggle. As I heard this, I reflected that we needed a longer sense of the history of our movement. At least some of those present have memories reaching back to the beginning of the Cold War and even earlier – I remember as a small boy listening in the late 1940s to the BBC News reports of the Berlin blockade and airlift, terrified that something unimaginable called war was about to break out.
But life continued through the austerity of the 1950s until the uplifting times of the 1960s when we were invited to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’ of the mainstream into a time of ‘peace, love, freedom and happiness’. Those of us involved in encounter groups, organization development, who lived through the women’s movement, civil rights movements, the spiritual renewal that went toward what Theodore Roszak referred to as ‘the making of the counterculture’ really did think we were going to change the world! And to some extent, we did; I was pleased to see Charles Eistenstein acknowledge the contribution of aging hippies in his book The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. We knew it was possible then, and many of us still do now.
As a footnote to these reflections, I recently discovered that my Aunt Joyce, as a young adult and Christian Socialist in the 1920s and 1930s, was a member of a utopian camping, handicraft and world peace movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Members of the Kindred adopted new tribal names and attempted to return to a simpler rural lifestyle – at least during their Kin gatherings camping in the countryside. The similarities with my own experiences in alternative movements are startling. But Kibbo Kift morphed in the late 1930s in the Green Shirts, marching in London in opposition to the Brownshirts, a peaceful movement seemingly turning toward polarization and violence. And if the 1960s brought the counterculture they also brought the beginning of rampant consumerism.
It seems we will find many antecedents to what we are now calling the New Story. My personal memories need to be seen the context of the long history of liberationist and ecological movements. These include the radical democracy of the Levellers and Diggers in England, anti-colonialism, liberation theology and Freirian pedagogy. We are part of a long tradition.
I don’t want sound like I am saying, “We’ve seen it all before….,” but since those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it seems important that we know the history and context of movements like ours. This is particularly important because the Western worldview has exerted such a grip across the world, threatening to drive other perspectives to the margins and beyond. So it is worth asking, “What persists through these movements, what needs to be discarded, and what should be renewed?”
One thing that, while not new, has taken on a greater emphasis is our ability to think in terms of a “new story”, which reflects, I suggest, an increasing ability to think in patterns rather than things. This has important intellectual roots in the 1960s and in particular in the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who in 1962 introduced the notion of ‘paradigm’ in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm is the taken-for-granted structure within which scientific inquiry takes place. Most science can be seen as ‘puzzle-solving’ within an accepted paradigm – the development of a new antibiotic or inoculation takes place within the paradigm of allopathic medicine. Revolutionary science changes the frame, as happened for example when Copernicus showed that Earth rotated around the Sun, when Descartes separated res cogitans from res extensa, mind from matter, and Einstein showed how space and time were inextricably linked. As the frame changes, a whole new set of puzzles arise. While the word “paradigm” was originally coined to refer to science, and has lost much currency through gross misuse – it is not uncommon to hear of ‘new advertising paradigms’ and suchlike – Kuhn’s work enables us to see much more clearly that all our conversations and sensemaking take place within overall frameworks of understanding. We can call them paradigms or worldviews or, for that matter, “new stories”.
Another philosopher of science, Stephen Toulmin in his book Cosmopolis, traced the origin and development of Cartesian materialism to the religious wars that raged through Europe through the seventeenth century. Toulmin pointed out that Descartes’ philosophizing caught hold of the Western imagination because it was more than clever intellectualizing, by articulating a seemingly unshakable basis for knowledge it responded to the failure of religion to provide secure base through faith. Toulmin argued that this materialism, originating from Descartes and cemented by Newton, provided the unshakable ‘single vision’ that Blake railed against and which persisted through the eighteenth, nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. It underpinned not only scientific inquiry and engineering but also justified colonialism, empire, patriarchy and other authoritarian tendencies. Toulmin suggests that it wasn’t until the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s that this worldview began to seriously lose its hold on the Western imagination.
In this perspective, we truly are at a turning point – although those of us who hailed the ‘new paradigm’ were sobered by the conservative reactions to which it gave rise. We also learned that you couldn’t just hope and think yourself into a new worldview: the shift in consciousness is far more elusive. But the possibility of a ‘new story’ arises out of this earlier work: Because we have a much deeper understanding that our world is shaped by our consciousness, we no longer have to be captivated and dazzled by the story we create. We have learned, as the postmodernist Jean-François Lyotard famously put it, to be incredulous toward metanarratives (including our own). We can see through our stories, appreciate their constructed nature and the authenticity of other stories.
My feeling as I participated in the New Story Summit was that we were assembled as a much broader community than many of the “old” new stories, which were often at heart exclusive. We are now a global community that encompasses different peoples and perspectives, each holding a different strand of the new story. We are collaborators, problem solvers, ceremonialists, anarchists, technologists, gardeners, meditators, extroverts, introverts, and many more. And we reached beyond people to encompass other living beings, the landscape itself and, for some at least, subtle presences as part of this community. This is, I think, a new emphasis. The New Story Summit showed us how to incorporate diversity into our new story.
I think this enabled us to have a greater appreciation of the Shadow that all stories cast. As we look back we can see that earlier movements had no sense of the shadow they cast: the white middle-class exclusiveness that was part of the second wave of feminism, the narcissism that was part of the counterculture, the way the “sexual revolution” in many ways served men more than women, the assumptions of superiority that were part of development economics, and so on. But even our wonderful gathering at Findhorn casts a shadow that by its very nature we cannot yet peer into – and the “We don’t know” initiative is clearly a reflection of this.
I also think our emphasis on story carries important novelty. I have long appreciated Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s articulation of the Universe itself as story. We deeply understand and can communicate our vision of a just and sustainable world through different forms of narrative. In our ‘weaving’ ceremony, Stephanie Tolan pointed out to us, that in literature there are sagas, novels and short stories. So in the New Story it seems to me we can see sagas – the overarching stories of an evolutionary universe of which we are a part; transformational tales – re-envisioning economics, energy, law, education and all the other fields of endeavour; and heroic stories of those putting the new story into action – tales of women working for resilient communities in Congo, of meticulous work articulating how we can evolve a zero carbon economy, of the development of a global policy action plan, of activism that interrupts degenerate political discourse, and so on.
I was one of the older participants (although a long way from being the oldest!). My eldest grandson is only a few years younger than the youngest participant at the summit. While I carry a deep alarm for what the future may bring, I carry with this a sense of gratitude for where we are now. For there is so much going on! There are so many bright, young voices, so many from the majority world, so many powerful women and sensitive men, so many diverse visions and projects carrying the work forward! Sometimes in my younger days I felt I had to be part of everything, contain the whole of new economics and be a ceremonialist (and everything else). I am grateful that I can focus now on what I think I do best – writing and supporting other people writing to express the new story in its many different forms – and appreciate the way others carry other parts of the new story.
I suppose above all, I want those of us involved in the New Story to dream new dreams and find new forms of action, but not continually to re-invent the wheel. We are part of a tradition, a long countercultural story. We will be stronger to the extent we know where we come from.
Professor Emeritus, Bath University
Researcher on co-operative inquiry and action research