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The Power of Story for Changing the Economy

by Cary Neeper

“Why is a simple story or metaphor so powerful for learning? A well-chosen metaphor puts a spotlight on our assumptions, with a mental picture that is ‘worth a thousand words.’ When a memorable image explains an experience in a more satisfying manner, we will likely use it to replace old, more limited perceptions…”

–Tasha D. Chapman, Ph.D., Adult Educational Theorist, Dean of Academic Services, Covenant Theological Seminary, Saint Louis.

Could engaging stories which illustrate the good life in a steady-state economy help change our economic culture? I think so. A good story can attract new audiences, widening exposure to sustainable economic and ecological policies and providing a vision for a stable future. In my novel, The Webs of Varok, a family made up of humans and aliens returns to their planet, Varok, intending to demonstrate how its ancient steady state economy could be a model for Earth. Instead, they find their planet and their family threatened by an ambitious traitor who ignores the culture’s ethical and legal structure in order to accumulate wealth and power, generating an economic cancer. Set in an alternate 21st century solar system, the story portrays many of the strategies ecological economists have described in nonfiction accounts of the steady-state economy, while painting a picture of localization and the use of consensus to make decisions. The villain causes unwanted growth by ignoring these policies and doing things akin to the way they’re done here on present-day Earth. Although her species has a natural talent for mood reading, the villain is able to close her mind and block others from reading her — a metaphor for our recent problems with obfuscation in the practice of law and secrecy in both economic and financial affairs.

Stories At WorkI have yet to find other novels that illustrate the steady state, though many science fiction novels have portrayed social issues and helped to change public perceptions, one of the most powerful being George Orwell’s 1984. But stories that change public perceptions can come in other forms besides novels. The soap operas of the Population Media Center offer a good example. The Center’s radio and television serials have positively influenced attitudes about family planning and reproductive health.

Near the end of the excellent nonfiction book, Enough Is Enough, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill offer “…ten encouraging fictional scenes from a steady-state economy.” We could all probably amplify these ten brief descriptions with personal experiences. In addition, they begin each chapter with an anecdote and a cartoon. These engaging story devices provide more than simple entertainment — they ease readers toward change.

While developing The Webs of Varok, I encountered a few “limited perceptions,” actually misperceptions, of the steady state. People assumed that it meant socialism, stagnation, or too much regulation. To move our culture toward change, our stories need to illustrate why these words do not apply to steady state economics.

A steady state does not require micromanagement. In my novel, Varok’s global democratic government is limited to overseeing resource accounting and to defining widespread needs and problems. Locales take responsibility for solving those problems and enforcing policies appropriate for their unique ecology. No-growth ethics are clearly contrasted with the growth policies that exist in both capitalist and socialist systems.

The past two centuries have imprinted us with rapidly developing and often beneficial technologies. Many assume, therefore, that technology can secure the future. For example, recent articles celebrate, “everyone can have an iPhone,” neglecting the limited quantity of rare earth metals needed to make them. Technology can go only so far in pushing back the limits to growth — we still need to make the transition to a steady-state economy, but many people wrongly equate such an economy with stagnation. Webs helps correct this perception by showing a less-frantic, more-equitable society, where people share large appliances, support local agriculture, and enjoy shorter work hours. Webs’ characters have more time for education, for the development of creative visions and selective technologies, and for mindful enhancements of life.

Can a story centered on such critical thinking gain popularity? Current movie producers and fiction publishers assume that fast-paced action and violence are necessary to sell stories. Countering this viewpoint are public concerns about addiction to violence among young audiences and the historical human compulsion to gain power over others. Does the deluge of vampire stories and dystopian novels provide fuel for these flames? I suspect the young public is ready for something more thoughtful and hopeful. Uplifting stories can be gripping. They can motivate us toward change.

I agree with Dietz and O’Neill: “…the transition to a steady-state economy requires art and imagination.” Engaging stories that depict solutions are one artful way of helping others imagine a different way to live. That’s why The Webs of Varok, its prequel A Place Beyond Man, and the three more forthcoming Varok novels portray a planet where life has been lived at its sustainable best, equitably, for a very long time. It’s no wonder the protagonists rigorously defend their steady state.

Cary Neeper is a writer and an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion.  For more information, please visit the Archives of Varok.

A Steady-State Defense of Arts and Culture

by James Johnston

Politicians, pundits and average people have increasingly antagonized artists to make what they do “accessible” and legitimate their trade in monetary terms. In one infamous interview on an upstart Canadian news channel, a hapless anchor attacked one of the country’s most prestigious contemporary dancers in a stunning display of vitriolic ignorance and objectionable theatrical bullying.

The pervasive (and especially North American) notion that the arts need to be assigned a monetary value in order to be legitimized is quite simply misplaced. Arts and culture provide intangible value to society; they transcend monetary values just as they transcend history. In a future clouded with economic and environmental uncertainty, subsistence endeavors such as the arts should feature more prominently in society as we move towards a steady state.

Part of the problem is that the lines are often blurred between industrial mass culture and more traditional forms of culture. Populist commercial products that people can easily “access” will almost universally be more profitable because they are less symbolically coded. Most of us can access the thrill of a good beat or a car chase. Mass culture therefore often survives with little invested “capital,” simply because it reaches and entertains a wide audience. But what is popular and profitable is not necessarily artistic.

Ironically, it’s those so-called “elitist” art forms that are the more endangered species and in need of greater support and understanding. I’m talking about the ones that have their own intrinsic worth as reflections of identity or history, like performances of cultural dance, taiko drumming, Chopin, jazz or Inuit throat singing. These practices are not accessible to all people and will even be detestable to some, so their preservation requires that audiences put effort into understanding them. That’s why so many trained artists have no choice but to share their craft as educators.

Steady-state art? Chris Jordan's "Cans Seurat" depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the U.S. every 30 seconds.

What about modern art? I can’t defend contemporary stuff wholesale. Some of it will sink and some of it will swim. But whether it’s a play written about a small community or a graphic that reflects nothing more than a mood, such artworks are created to show us something about ourselves — something to nurture our souls. That point is lost when you persistently have to defend their economic worth because frankly, few of these things will ever be profitable in narrow monetary terms, and why should they? Unlike mass culture, these creations are not intended to be accessible to the largest possible swath of humanity! But tax dollars are certainly not being “wasted” to support artists who are often almost obsessively dedicated to what they do, few of whom apply for grants in the first place.

So, beyond monetary terms, how can we come to understand the economic role of arts and culture? We should come to view the arts primarily as a subsistence endeavor which produces enough for artists to live simply and frugally. It’s a form of voluntary simplicity much like subsistence farming or running a small business; precious little to criticize in a steady-state economy. These endeavors don’t demand much: they don’t add to the debt burden, and they don’t consume a huge volume of material or financial resources as they go about enriching our lives. Artists also often live in affordable geographic areas that are dilapidated (like inner cities) and in need of the kind of vibrant renewal the arts provide. Artists in fact contribute far more to society than they consume.

Last but not least, what about the artistic product itself? If the product is not necessarily profit-producing, what legitimizes its worth? Some would argue that only endurance can legitimize the artistic product. As an impulsively self-gratifying, increasingly narcissistic society, the idea that we can only come to know something in time is a hard reality to accept. But some of these curious, inaccessible modern works will indeed become classics in time. Think of the 20th century works of Beckett or Joyce. They still aren’t really accessible in that you have to work at understanding them, but they are remarkable creations and have to be respected for the way they hold a mirror to society (and don’t narcissists need mirrors?).

It is the responsibility of both the artist and the average person to understand the socioeconomic contributions of the arts. Understanding and enjoying the arts is a lifestyle choice that will sometimes require us to get off the couch, step away from the television and into art galleries, music and dance halls, places of worship, and libraries. The process has the positive side effect of building stronger relationships and communities. Not everything we experience will be perfect (and some of it may be bad), but that’s part of the adventure… because every once in awhile, we will come across something that changes our perspective a little.

And there’s never been a better time to start thinking, seeing and doing things a little differently.