It’s all a question of story.
That is how Brian and May Nattrass start their exploration of where we stand on the path of waking up to our new global realities and responsibilities.
The stories we tell ourselves are always rooted in time. They explain the past. They comment on the present. They speculate about the future.
When the stories about the city across those three timelines are aligned, we have some sense of stability in our lives – psychologically, biologically, culturally and socially. Because together those stories govern our emotional ups and downs, locate us in a life purpose that gives our daily activity meaning, weave together knowledge from different domains, underpin how we educate the next generation and even sustain us when life is difficult. Those stories about the city mean we awake in the morning and know where we are, what we are going to do, who we will be with, and assure us that we can answer our children’s questions about their homework.
But what happens when the stories keep shifting and the alignment breaks up? What happens when we carry a picture of the future from stories of the past and we arrive at that magical date and find that what was predicted has come true but with consequences we never imagined and never intended?
In the next few blogs I am going use the inspiration of the Nattrass’ inquiry into our Evolutionary Crossroads (published in the Integral Leadership Review), to look at three stories that impact our cities differently than we imagined when they were first told. I have selected city-related stories about Women, Transportation, Climate Change – as they represent stories we tell about ourselves at three different scales – but with interconnected impact: Personal, Organizational and Global.
This week (March 8, 2015) we celebrated International Women’s Day. That is a new story that recognizes the importance of women around the world – at every scale from self to family, to neighbourhood, to workplace, city, country and globe. Newscasts celebrated the anniversaries of the formation of many women’s organizations in cities in the developed world and featured the voices of women in cities in India, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America speaking out as individuals calling their sisters to action.
Behind these stories of today lies a history/herstory (in cities of the developed world) of women’s emancipation to vote; empowerment to speak and act as men’s equals; participation in the work place; and control over reproduction. Paralleling and enabling these culturally transforming changes, systemic changes to the technology and tools of daily life have allowed women to amplify their physical strength, reduce the time they spend doing housework, enter the work force and optimize their family activities.
The pictures that General Electric featured in their 1950’s ads for household appliances created the modern myth of the benefits of technology for women, promising greater freedom, more leisure time and more happiness. But, while we can now measure those intended outcomes with some satisfaction, we also reflect with equal horror that the gains in strength, effectiveness and influence have not regularly resulted in greater freedom, more leisure time and more happiness for women – or their families. Instead we have unintended consequences where all those gains have resulted in many women compressing more and more work into more and more time-starved lives, attempting to care for both younger and older generations in the family (because technology has also enabled life extension), volunteering for a myriad of socially valuable causes and becoming stressed to the point of illness.
What is wrong with this picture? What is the matter with this story? What is the meaning of this story? What impact could a deeper understanding of this story have on the health and wellbeing of our cities?
This picture describes the dilemma of the modern woman stretched on the rack of the traditional city of family stability, the modern city of organizational work and the post-modern city of social interaction. Such a stretch is unsustainable because while technology has provided so many more options for women, it has created an unsustainable existence where the expectations for women are not matched by the resources to support them in changing roles (that ripple out across the city). As the shift in women’s relationship to the rest of society marked one of the earliest cultural shifts of modernity, revised stories to explain this shift have gradually emerged. But no consistent story supports women’s new roles. They are caught in the transition between the Old Story and the New Story – still in the stage that the Nattrasses call the “Critical Phase” where most women know life as very stressful because they experience it as unsustainable. They are caught in the abyss between the stories about the “Critical Phase” and “Transformational Phase” – where the story of unsustainability is dominant, but no clear picture of the story about a sustainable life has emerged.
Something about this dilemma reminds me of my mother – who as an educated home economist, was an early adopter of the views of environmental sustainability awakened by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. In the 1960’s she retold this story to the teenager who was me. That story has germinated within me for decades – until I have awakened to the larger story of sustainability and resilience, I have discovered, thinking about the new story that the city needed to tell when it had passed the metric as the habitat for more than 50% of humanity. Now I realize the power of the stories my mother chose to tell had an impact on me as the next generation – and I see that the stories all mothers tell shape the expectations of the next generations.
In the last 2 years I have worked closely with a group of women who have collectively inquired into how humans (especially in cities) are Gaia’s Reflective Organs. We have been curious about why we have only attracted women? But perhaps our job has really been “women’s work” – to learn a new story, to answer our children’s homework, to share with our co-workers in other spheres of influence and to change how we create sustainable home economies?
On reflecting on women’s roles in cities, I am struck by the impact that they have on storytelling. And also by the track record of early women innovators who told new stories that are changing the world and the stories we tell about our cities – from Rachel Carson on environmental impacts, to Donella Meadows on systems thinking, to Joanna Macy on the “Great Turning” of worldviews.
With these inspiring new stories from women – from mother, communities of practice, innovators – perhaps we are glimpsing one of the ways that the Dalai Lama imagines that western women will change the world?
Women have a critical role as storytellers to bridge the Old Story through telling new stories that criticize, evolve, shift and transform into a New Story that once again can align past, present and future. And women have more power than ever to make that difference because not only do we (still) live longer than men, we have become ubiquitous in homes, work places and the world’s civil societies.
In today’s, cities, more than ever, “People need stories, more than food to stay alive.” (Lopez & Pearson, 1990). But they also need women as storytellers to share their personal experiences of unsustainability and give meaning to how we must all wake up to the reality of unsustainability in our cities that impacts daily life. The Nattrasses remind us that in order for us to change this story and move forward into living a reality that sustains our cities we must start with where we are. So when women tell their stories to the next generation, they are creating the transitional bridges that some day will tell how we grew up into our new responsibilities as citizens and cities who became Gaia’s reflective organs. When we tell those stories will truly enable Gaia’s sustainable health and wellness. That is one way, women will help transform the Old Story into the New Story.
Lopez, B., & Pearson, T. C. (1990). Crow and Weasel. Berkeley, CA: North Point Press.
Macy, J. (2005). World as Lover, World as Self. Berkeley: Parallax Press
Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
This blog is one of a series that explores the relevance and application of ideas to the Integral City, in the articles published in the Integral Leadership Review – Canada Issue, 2015, curated and Guest Edited by Marilyn Hamilton.