Call for Elemental Storytelling beyond the Multispecies Storytelling

It’s time for the Storytelling Revolution. We need to go beyond humancentric storytelling. Donna Haraway (2016) has called for ‘multispecies storytelling.’ I support it, and want to call for something beyond it, an ‘Elemental Storytelling’ of water, air, earth, and fire elements. Why? Because ‘True Storytelling’ has to be more than humancentric, and more than multispecies. Neoliberal economics of market capitalism is pushing ‘greenwashing’, the myth making of ‘triple bottom line’ that is just the profit bottom line, and the ‘circular economy’ that is just the growth economy of elemental resource extraction.

The decline of elementals has played a supporting role in the history of philosophic and religious thought, and all that humancentric storytelling. The Industrial Revolution, and the Post-industrial Service Revolution and the Digital Revolution are not leading us to the green revolution to deal with emergencies of the Anthropocene . I joined Extinction Rebellion, but I am not convinced rebellion will get politicians to make policy changes, or prompt the monarch, the oligarchy, or the democracy-archy to make the systemic changes needed to keep average global temperature to the 1.5 degree Celsius jump since the Industrial Revolution. As Hannah Arendt (1963: 22-23) put it its time for “No-rule” no-archy, no single rule monarchy or tyrant, no corporate rule oligarchy, and no majority rule demos (democracy).  I was born in the U.S. and it demos has elected the tyrant, who installs fossil fuel executives and climate deniers in the institutions. Brexit is making its exit, and Australia and Brazil are setting the Earth on fire.

I have been teaching university classes and facilitating workshops in Europe, US, and down under, in the relation between ‘True Storytelling’ and the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals as their problem-based-learning experience.

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Figure 1: True Storytelling and the 17 UN SDGs https://truestorytelling.org 

Teaching at the universities around the world, I noticed ‘Climate Change Is Conspicuously Absent From College Textbooks’ (see Marlene Simons, 2018). This is certainly true of the business-as-usual texts used in core courses of the world’s management schools. As partial remedy, I assign Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, Schumacher’s (1973) Small is Beautiful, and Paul Ekins (1993) Limits to Growth.

If only the UN and EU Agenda 2030 would work. The problem is becoming widely known. Agenda 2030 has been colonized, co-opted, and corrupted by business storytelling, by the business modeling myth making in the plots of triple bottom line (3BL) and circular economy (CE).

Triple Bottom Line (3BL) has the core drivers (greed, growthmania, and fear) and manifests visions spirals of waste, pollution, degradation, depletion, exploitation, poverty, corruption, deprivation, and increasing inequalities of Globalization mythology.

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Figure 2: Triple Bottom Line (3BL) always put Profit on top of the pyramid, overpowering Planet and People

The Circular Economy (CE) is another version of TBL, one that is always about pursuit of economic growth, by reusing, repairing, remaking, reusing (material recycling, aka remanufacturing), as if that circularity would actually result in consuming less and less of the Earth’s natural resources. CE is bing pushed by McKinsey & Company. (2014) and a flock of consultants colonizing the EU and UN Agenda 2030.

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Figure 3: The Circularity Logic of the Circular Economy (CE), adapted from Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) & Zink & Geyer, 2017)

“The concept of the circular economy is intended to align sustainability with economic growth – in other words, more cars, more microchips, more buildings. For example, the European Union states that the circular economy will “foster sustainable economic growth” (see How Circular is the Circular Economy?).

My colleagues Francisco Valenzuela and Steffen Böhm have an excellent critique of CE. And the Guardian (2017) put it this way “Circular economy isn’t a magical fix for our environmental woes“.  It’s no wonder the EU and UN are so enamored with CE:

“Little wonder. The circular economy model – which aims to use closed-loop production to keep resources in play for as long as possible – is presented as a pragmatic, win-win solution; an almost magical fix for our environmental woes… But this vision ignores the fact that on a finite planet endless economic growth is not an option. And it fails to see that solving our ecological crises means diluting the power of global corporations – not propping them up” (Guardian 2017 by Micha Narberhaus and Joséphine von Mitschke-Collande).

Research by Zink and Geyer (2017: 593) questions the CE engineering-centric assumptions.

“However, proponents of the circular economy have tended to look at the world purely as an engineering system and have overlooked the economic part of the circular economy. Recent research has started to question the core of the circular economy—namely, whether closing material and product loops does, in fact, prevent primary production.”

There are a growing set of critiques of CE (from my critique of CE on Wikipedia). For example, Allwood (2014, 446) discussed the limits of CE ‘material circularity’, and questioned the desirability of the CE in a reality with growing demand. Does CE secondary production activities (reuse, repair, & remake) actually reduce, or ;displace,; primary production (natural resource extraction)?  The problem CE overlooks, its untold story, is how displacement is governed mainly by market forces (McMillan et al., 2012). It’s the tired old narrative, that the invisible hand of market forces will conspire to create full displacement. of virgin material of the same kind (Zink & Geyer, 2017). In the Journal of Production, the critique of Korhonen, Nuur, Feldmann, and Birkie (2018) is that “the basic assumptions concerning the values, societal structures, cultures, underlying world-views and the paradigmatic potential of CE remain largely unexplored.” 

How can Multispecies and Elemental Storytelling Help? Humancentric storytelling is insufficient to the task of responding to the growing catastrophes of the Anthropocene era. A multispecies  storytelling (Haraway, 2016) takes us closer to understanding the nature of living systems of Earth.  It can help us begin to deconstruct the fallacies of 3BL and CE myth making. We need to start Gaiadialogues, storytelling conversations with Gaia. My colleagues and I are working with several labs at European School of Governance on such an initiative (read about it here).

I want to take it a step further by suggesting Elemental Storytelling as a Gaiadialogue. As you know I have been writing about the element water, and how its being colonized and co-opted, even corrupted by water capitalism, by the privatization and commercialization of water.

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The book is in review at World Scientific Press. It can be downloaded here until it is published. As global warming happens, Gaia’s water on the surface, in the atmosphere, heats up, and since water is life, less life will exist on Earth. A hotter ocean water kills fish and the coral reefs. Hotter climate meals the ices sheets and glaciers, raising the sea levels, and putting coastal communities at risk. With hotter oceans and atmospheric vapor there are more hurricanes that are more intense. The global warming heats the ocean water and it becomes more acidic. As global warming occurs more of the water is retained in the atmospheric water vapor, and less falls to earth, so there is less fresh water in the hydrological cycle. If and when the average global temperature exceeds 4 degree Celsius increase since Industrial Revolution, growing food will happen near the poles, and most of humanity will find the Earth very, very inhospitable, as will most all living species. This is what multispecies storytelling is telling us.

There was several thousand years ago a reverence and respect for the elementals: water, air, earth, and fire. Now the elementals are treated as less important than humans and all the species.  We have to find a new path to a zero-growth capitalism (Ekins, 1993), to small is beautiful (Schmacher, 1973), or we are in for a very silent spring (Carson, 1962) for our grandchildren’s children.

References

Allwood, J. M. 2014. Squaring the circular economy: The role of recycling within a hierarchy of material management strategies. In Handbook of recycling: State-of-the-art for practitioners, analysts, and scientists, edited by E.Worrell andM. Reuter. Waltham, MA, USA: Elsevier.

Arendt, Hannah. (1990). On Revolution. 1963. New York: Viking Press.

Carson, R. (1962/2009). Silent spring.

Ekins, P. (1993). ‘Limits to growth’and ‘sustainable development’: grappling with ecological realities. Ecological Economics, 8(3), 269-288.

Haraway, Donna J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Korhonen, J., Nuur, C., Feldmann, A., & Birkie, S. E. (2018). Circular economy as an essentially contested concept. Journal of Cleaner Production, 175, 544-552.

McKinsey & Company. (2014). Moving toward a circular economy. Accessed Sep 8 2019 at www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-andresource-productivity/our-insights/moving-toward-a-circulareconomy.

McMillan, C. A., S. J. Skerlos, and G. A. Keoleian. (2012). Evaluation of the metals industry’s position on recycling and its implications for environmental emissions. Journal of Industrial Ecology 16(3): 324–333.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: a study of ecomonics as if people mattered. Vintage.

Valenzuela, Francisco;  Böhm, Steffen. (2017) Against wasted politics: A critique of the circular economy Organizing for the post-growth economy Ephemera Journal. 17.1: pp. 23-60.

Zink, T., & Geyer, R. (2017). Circular economy rebound. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21(3), 593-602.