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2009 © Chris Lyons /

The tales we tell ourselves could change everything

What story do you tell yourself about what’s going on in your life and in the larger world? Is life getting better and better, every day in every way? Or are we going to hell in a handbasket? Or do you imagine something else?

According to Harvard motivation theorist David McClelland, the waxing and waning of civilizations, and the growth and decline of economies, are heavily influenced by the stories we tell ourselves and our children. If the predominant images in our folktales, children’s stories, and popular myths are positive, and emphasize moderate risk-taking, creative initiative, personal responsibility, and long-range vision, McClelland contends, then our society as a whole, and the economy in particular, are more likely to flourish.

From the late 1930s through much of the 1960s, films like The Wizard of Ozand It’s a Wonderful Life and books such as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich reflected and fueled a relatively prosperous era. Conversely, today’s most popular movies, novels, and video games present chaotic, postapocalyptic scenarios in which the human condition is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Consider, for example, Blizzard Entertainment’s online role-playing game World of Warcraft, Tom Perrotta’s bleak after-the-Rapture novel The Leftovers, and much of today’s pop music (Lady Gaga’s defiant anthem for the dispossessed, “Born This Way,” comes to mind). Dystopian novels like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Michael Grant’s Gone have eclipsed vampire novels as the most popular genre for adolescent readers. Roll over, Horatio Alger.

Since our business and political leaders today seem to believe that the best way to solvency is through cutting rather than creating, I’ve recently been wondering: What sorts of stories should we be telling ourselves and each other to create a more positive future?

One choice is to ignore reality altogether, as a number of influential politicians (and even some “scientists”) are doing when they downplay the seriousness of our environmental crisis. Even as the American South suffers record-breaking heat and drought, Republican governors Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Rick Scott of Florida have stated on the record that they don’t believe that humans affect climate change. Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry dismisses global warming as a “phony mess.” Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma, asserts that climate change research is a waste of time.

When the likes of Perry, Fallin, and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann interrupt their fairy tales to acknowledge the existence of problems such as massive debt and unemployment, their solution is to close their eyes and pray. And while prayer can be a powerful, positive choice, without a plan of action it’s nothing short of massive denial.

In the new book The Great Disruption, Australian Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International, takes a clear-eyed, albeit dismal, view of our immediate future that jibes with the darker aspects of popular culture. He believes the limits to growth have long since been exceeded. We’ve cut down too many trees, added too much nitrogen to the soil and water, and put too much carbon into the atmosphere. Widespread famine, armed conflict, increased species extinction, and massive loss of human life will result–and soon. “This is not speculation,” Gilding writes. “This is high school science.”

In the midst of his dark tale, though, Gilding reminds us that humans typically rise to the challenge of tough times. “As the full scale of the imminent crisis hits us, our response will be proportionately dramatic, mobilizing as we do for war,” he writes. “We will break our addiction to growth, accept that more stuff is not making our lives better, and focus instead on what does. . . . The crisis itself will push humanity to its next stage of development and allow us to realize our evolutionary potential. It will be a rough ride, but in the end, we will arrive at a better place.”

Not the Rapture, but the Rupture. The Great Disruption. It’s scary to contemplate Gilding’s scenario, yet every young person I’ve talked with about it, from ages 12 to 28, responds with some variant of “Right on!” “It’s about time!” And “Let’s get on with it!”

I too find Gilding’s vision somehow freeing. Instead of trying to persuade our neighbors and legislators to change their ways, and their stories, we can focus our energies on moderating the effects of the Great Disruption and rebuilding a more just, humane, and sustainable future for all. But hang on–it’s going to be wild and bumpy from here on out.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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