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Creating New Fictions

In the face of imminent ecological breakdown, the solution starts with the stories we create for ourselves.

Text—Cyril Dion
Photos—Will Truettner & Chris Barbalis

Everything begins as a story.

 

So, first, we have a cultural battle to fight (though I dislike having to use war terminology to say so). It is critical that we present a desirable ecological vision of the future, that we establish strong cultural references and project powerful images, and that we structure a tangible project that is at once political, economic, architectural, and agricultural, and which accounts for energy and urban planning.

We need to dream, to imagine the kinds of houses and cities we could live in, our ideal means of transportation, how we could produce our food, how we could live together, decide together, share our planet with all living beings. Little by little, these new narratives will colour our representations, contaminate our thoughts in a positive way, and, if they gain wide acceptance, translate structurally into businesses, laws, landscapes.

These narratives can surely be helmed and spread by artists. And this should continue to be so, amplified via novels, films and documentaries, graphic novels, essays, paintings, illustrations, graphic works of all kinds. But the narratives aren’t restricted only to artists. Every entrepreneur who invents new ways of doing what they do, every engineer who devises new structures, every economist who imagines new models, every elected official who reinvents how their community is governed, every collective that undergoes training to accomplish something out of the ordinary, every journalist who reports on it, every person who takes their daily life in a new direction (becoming vegan, no longer using their car, converting to solar power, changing careers, adopting a zero-waste lifestyle, and so on) tells their story in a way that can inspire the people around them, as long as we seek not to convince or preach.

Choosing is fulfilling. Inventing is damned exciting. Shedding conformity strengthens self- esteem. Feeling good about yourself is contagious. Thus, as far as I’m concerned, in the 21st century, resistance starts by refusing to have our thoughts colonized, to have our imagination standardized.

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Stopping destruction and warming

Our narratives must first include everything that can allow us to slow down, to limit, and even to stop climate change and the destruction of our ecosystems, social protection models, and notions of coexistence. So down with fossil fuels, waste of all kinds (energy, food, objects), overconsumption, the orgy of animal-based products, everything that requires digging mines, deforesting, injecting gas into the atmosphere, child labour, and even adult labour in poor conditions; down with the extreme concentration of wealth and power that undermines our democracies and the ultra-liberalism that is often the architecture that leads to all of these catastrophes.

Building resilience

Unfortunately, it’s not impossible that the problems we face evolve and lead to total collapse, as contemplated by collapsologists and a certain number of scientists. And even if it doesn’t happen, the world that awaits us promises to be riddled with extreme tension and be far more hostile. Which is why it is absolutely necessary to build resilience into our territories (and why not into our living spaces!). By “resilience,” I mean the ability to withstand shocks without falling apart; adapting to survive, while maintaining a minimum amount of integrity—which means producing a maximum amount of food and energy locally; establishing drinking water management that doesn’t only rely on big centralized networks; developing the reuse, repair, and recycling of existing materials; and artisanal manufacturing, whether traditional or reinvented—as well as getting reacquainted with the know-how these activities require. Resilience also means organizing solidly connected local economy networks, where most essential goods and services are provided by local and independent businesses, while ideally establishing, in parallel, complementary currency systems like local currencies, currencies allocated to SMEs, and, why not, currencies that indirectly support commercial activities which also increase resiliency, like free currencies. In other words, we must build close-knit local communities organized around living democratic principles. By “living” I mean the opposite of what we currently have in place: voting every five or six years and (apart from associations) not getting involved in local political decision making in the span between two elections.

Why local and independent businesses rather than multinational corporations? Why currency systems that don’t solely rely on central banks or private multinational banks? Why short decentralized circuits? Because our system’s resilience depends on it.

For scientists who study natural ecosystems and, by extension, complex flow networks (like our economic, social, and political systems), their resilience essentially depends on two factors: interconnectivity and diversity. Economist Bernard Lietaer provides two particularly illuminating examples.

Interconnectivity is the ability of an environment, an animal, to feed off a very large number of very different interactions. For example, the Central Park squirrel in New York or the Parisian sewer rat are in a position to find shelter and food almost anywhere. In contrast, the giant panda, whose nutrition is limited to a single type of bamboo, is in danger of extinction as soon as its original natural habitat is destroyed. It cannot adapt.

Diversity is a more familiar notion. But we aren’t necessarily used to thinking about it from that angle. Picture a pine forest, a monoculture, intended to produce mass amounts of wood as fast as possible. The day a fire breaks out, or disease attacks these trees, propagation is swift and the entire forest risks going up in flames or becoming contaminated. Conversely, if your forest is brimming with different species—oak, beech, hornbeam, birch, hazel, elm— some will resist fire better, others certain types of infection, and the forest as a whole will seem better equipped to brace for those impacts. The same goes for all complex systems. You only have one type of currency circulating around the world, linked to a vast world market? When the time comes for a financial meltdown to hit, like in 2008, contamination is quick and brutal. The entire economy takes the fall. Jobs in your area depend on just one big company, set up with the help of massive government aid, as was the case with Goodyear, ArcelorMittal, and so many others? The day it decides to offshore its production to Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, because labour is too expensive, a wave of unemployment crashes down on the area. You grow vast swathes of wheat or canola monocultures? Your soil becomes depleted. It becomes necessary to boost it with synthetic fertilizers. Its immune system decreases. It’s more easily attacked by pests, which means you have to use more and more pesticides. You only eat one type of food? Your intestinal flora becomes unbalanced and your entire immune system is thrown out of whack. And so on. […]

At present, our systems are focused on efficiency and, by and large, resilience is neglected.

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At present, our systems are focused on efficiency and, by and large, resilience is neglected. Evaluating an initiative in this light is a valuable barometer. It’s why businesses like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola could never become sustainable, despite the clear efforts they make to lead us to believe they can. A model based on the standardization of food (eating the same Big Mac everywhere by quashing local competition), which depends on massive potato monocultures, intensive livestock breeding focused on cattle (a major cause of global warming), and ultraflexible wage policy, […] is the exact opposite of what we just described, even if shops start consuming less energy, meat is locally sourced, and potato monocultures use less water.

Ecologist Pierre Rabhi’s joyful brand of austerity compels us to dramatically reduce our consumption, our use of materials, and our materialistic bulimia, and focus on nurturing our human qualities: empathy, knowledge, intelligence, the ability to cooperate, and, ultimately, joy.

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Regenerate (the planet and oureconomic and social models)

The damage is already considerable. So it’s not just a matter of hitting the brakes and getting ready for resili- ence. It’s also a question of regenerating, repairing, stimulating, and healing; inventing new ways of prod- ucing, getting around, inhabiting, and exchanging; replanting forests, returning certain species to the wild, and capturing the CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s what models like the symbiotic economy and the blue economy propose. We now need to dedicate a large part of our collective effort to these activities.

For example, by taking up permaculture and applying it to market gardening, using many techniques like natural soil fertilization, stacking, agroforestry, combined cropping, densification, and creating microclimates—all without using fuel—soils would regain their fertility; they would be able to store CO2 and recover their biodiversity while maintaining their production levels on smaller surfaces. Thus, there would be more room available for wildlife to flourish once more.

By replanting forests, we would absorb part of the carbon in the atmosphere while rebuilding soil life, preventing erosion, and giving species space for shelter and food by reducing temperatures across entire areas.

By allowing marine life to rebuild itself (by drastically limiting industrial fishing, prohibiting deep-water fishing everywhere, putting a stop to the dumping of mountains of garbage, especially plastic, in the ocean), we’d allow the world’s largest carbon sink to do its job of trapping CO2 and releasing oxygen (the world’s oceans provide around 40 per cent of the oxygen we breathe). By committing to economic development models based on such approaches as the symbiotic economy, we would need infinitely fewer materials to make our objects, and also build cities where agriculture, phytopurification areas, and trees could act as our air conditioning units, reintroduce biodiversity, absorb rainfall, improve our living environment, and produce renewable raw materials.

Ecologist Pierre Rabhi’s joyful brand of austerity compels us to dramatically reduce our consumption, our use of materials, our materialistic bulimia, and, focus on nurturing our human qualities: empathy, knowledge, intelligence, the ability to cooperate, and ultimately, joy. We must free ourselves from excess to enjoy the essential—a narrative that in many ways agrees with that of minimalists, zero-waste families, and decreasers. We’d live with bare essentials, primarily use low-tech tools, be very close to nature, and develop our inner lives. For Rabhi, human beings would organize around “oases” where together they would produce the majority of their food and their energy (used in an infinitely more limited way than it is now), where they would sow the seeds of their autonomy to avoid having to rely on multi- nationals. By limiting the superfluous, local economic activity could develop to meet needs, through means that are “as simple and healthy” as possible. Architecture would use local, recyclable, and renewable materials. Heating would be wood-based. Handicrafts would be redeployed, reintroducing indispensable know-how into the community. Friendliness, harmonious relationships between generations, between human beings and animals, would be at the core of the project.

 

Imagine if the majority of human activity wasn’t devoted to making money, increasing profit, boosting growth, inverting the unemployment curve, stimu­lating household consumption, gaining market share, selling, buying, curtailing the terrorist threat, safeguarding our gains, reimbursing our credit, and diving into forms of entertainment designed to make us forget the lack of meaning in our lives and our intensifying fears of death, but instead was about understanding what we’re doing on this planet, expressing our talents, increasing our physical and mental abilities, and cooperating to solve the massive problems our species has created, to become better, individually and collectively. What if we spent the better part of our time doing what we love, being useful to others, walking in nature, making love, having passionate relationships, creating—sounds impossible, right? Utopian. Naive. Simplistic. And yet. The seeds of everything I just described already exist in French schools, Dutch eco-neighbourhoods, Scottish eco-villages, fab labs in the United States, in Danish industrial areas, in the daily lives of millions of entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, architects, and farmers. These stories are told through their tangible results. Today, we badly need this movement to gain speed and traction, these little narratives to proliferate and feed bigger, more inspiring ones that can give rise to an irresistible movement. […]

Imagine if, as a whole, the productive and creative energy expended by everyone on the planet who works every day wasn’t focused on keeping the economy running, but on engaging in activities that gave them an irrepressible urge to jump out of bed every morning, and this energy was harnessed for projects with ecological and social value. There’s a pretty good chance the world would change in no time.

This excerpt from Petit manuel de résistance contemporaine, by Cyril Dion (Actes Sud, 2018), has been slightly edited, and translated from French, for the purposes of this publication.

In this essay, the author of the Demain documentary puts forward different potential solutions—collective, individual, political— to thwart the imminent threat of an ecological breakdown, with the idea in mind that any social transformation starts with the stories we tell.

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This article is featured in Issue 05.

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