I recently came across an article by British journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot.
The article helped me realize I’d lost my way: I have been feeling hopeless about my own contributions to our environmental crises. The article awakened hope – and hope is a powerful antidote to despair. I’d like to share with you a summary of the key points in the article with an offering that perhaps it might be able to help you too shift to a more empowered perspective (if you needed a bit of inspiration!).
The key foundation of the article is Monbiot’s four observations. He said these observations have come to him only in the last few years and have made him hopeful for our future, despite its seeming bleakness.
His first observation is that there have been two dominant and competing stories emerging from the last half of the 20th century. One story has to do with a society that cares for all and the other with the power inherent in each individual. Monbiot labels these political stories: social democracy vs neoliberalism. They could be loosely described as left and right-leaning ideologies. Since these two narratives are the ones that are at loggerheads, the hope for our future lies in creating a third story. As Monbiot tells us: “The only thing that can displace a story is a story.”
Creating a shared vision is also a key leadership quality, cited in multiple studies on leadership including Kouzes & Posner as well as Daniel Goleman. We are in need of a third story or vision – that people from both polarities can buy into and believe in.
Monbiot’s second observation may be able to help with the construction of this third story. Monbiot observed that both political narratives have a similar story structure he calls the “Restoration Story”. As Monbiot tells it, each political narrative has “nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.”
The social democratic story’s villain is individualism – individuals imposing their individual will and interests above collective ones. Government is the hero serving the interests of all. The neoliberal story’s villain is government – governments imposing their collectivist will and interest above individual ones. The entrepreneur is the hero serving the interests of the market.
From my own experience as a conflict resolver, I am reminded of the two great forces in conflict: the individual’s needs and the needs of the relationship. This seems akin to the false dichotomy in these two narratives: either the rights of the individual or the rights of the collective. Don’t we need both individual interests and freedoms preserved as well as communal ones?
Monbiot’s third observation is that having a Restoration Story seems to be the key structure in other societal transformations and movements. His fourth, and last, insight is that until we can create a new narrative to replace our present dominant ones, we will stay in this paradigm.
His article is a cry for a new story. As he explains: “You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.”
Monbiot outlines this new Restoration story in a very particular way. He emphasizes a picture of humanity at our finest – the angels of our better nature. He tells us that decades of research in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology has concluded that we humans posses an unparalleled degree of altruism, are exquisitely sensitive to the needs of others and seek to create moral norms that reinforce these tendencies. He goes on to say we have survived because of our ability to cooperate as a species.
As a mediator for the last two decades of my professional life, I would agree. I have seen pain and conflict, not as our primary nature, but as an outgrowth of circumstances. I go into disputes with this lens on, looking for, and calling forth, that better nature.
The villain, the force we need to be redeemed from, says Monbiot, is the political narrative that we are exclusively and extremely competitive. Such a view of our human nature causes us to fear each other more than if we had another view of each other. As Monbiot wisely points out: “our perceptions.. change the way we behave.” We lose our belief that we can come together for change and feel alienation instead. I know this place in conflict. It is when no one can see the common ground as yet and each believes the other holds the power to hurt and the power to change.
So if the villain is the belief that we are nasty and brutish, Monbiot’s Restoration story is to evoke our kinder nature and thereby our innate desire to contribute to each other’s lives. This is reminiscent of one of my heroes, Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of non-violent communication. Marshall would say people want to contribute to each other’s lives and to help make life more wonderful for each other and that speaking the language of compassion helps evoke that part of ourselves.
The new Restoration story says we social animals need each other and being kind helps us contribute more. Monbiot calls this new Restoration story the Politics of Belonging. To sum up, this new story confronts the evil forces of blame, hurt, alienation and hopelessness with the heroes of kindness, compassion, inclusion, pluralism, challenge and understanding. That’s my kind of politics!