A climate for changing character

Do we really need to live through social and environmental crises to learn who we are and how to adapt?

Every year the global environmental outlook seems to look more dire. There are plenty of improvements in places. But our atmosphere is becoming choked with carbon dioxide. Forests that have sustained humanity for thousands of years are being flattened for farming and mining. Nuclear waste in Japan is leaking into our seas. Dead zones in lakes and oceans are starving fish of oxygen. Famines from droughts, water scarcity, farming methods, and soaring food prices are looking more likely.

You get the picture. It’s not pretty. And it would be dishonest to paint a good story over all this—the veneer would quickly crumble.

Most stories about our planet’s future are gloomy. And regardless of what we like to say or think, if we keep living and working in the ways that we’re doing then we’re not heading for a happy ending. By “we” I mean humanity, even though some of us are causing much more benefit/harm than others.


We can respond to our world in plenty of ways.

We can stay comfortably numb. We can blame others, like businesses or government. We can feel traumatised and frozen by the scale of the damage. We can feel disoriented and confused about the source of the problems. We can feel disempowered. We can wear a mask of hope. We can try to be the hero. We can hold back the tears or bristle with anger. We can fight. We can wallow. We can feel world-weary and worry. We can make changes in our life and work. We can light a candle in the dark. We can make time to notice all the great people and positive changes. We can be honest. We can work with others. We can do what we wish for. We can sink, or keep one another afloat.


Our future is written in our words and our actions.

This morning I heard UK sustainability leader Jonathon Porritt speak at an event in Wellington. When I first heard this great man speak ten years ago, I felt incredibly inspired. Today I felt his anger. He recently wrote that “Whenever I see ‘sustainability’ included in a long list of issues to be addressed by a company or a local authority, I find it difficult to avoid exploding with rage.”

I’m easily freaked by how much harm we could do to our planet and people this century. Sometimes I also feel anger. Fear and anger are easily-provoked emotional responses that surface when we’re feeling threatened. When we see ourselves as part of something larger (e.g. a family, a tribe, a community, a nation, or our planet) then there’s plenty to feel threatened by. We want to protect what we love.

But the future is always an open book. We don’t need to live in fear or be driven (and burned) by anger. That’s a recipe for self-destruction.

What I really admire about Jonathon Porritt’s approach is that he’s telling stories about how much greater the world could become in the next few decades. He sees people’s potential. He’s spreading the seeds of change. He shines light on possibilities, which inspire other people.

Our stories reveal our inner states (i.e. how we feel and think about the world). I get the impression that Jonathon Porritt has fought for a lot over the last forty years because he cares so deeply. It’s hard to not “explode”, but he still has faith in humanity.


But I have a great fear…

When I look at how much change is required, I wonder if humanity needs to experience a series of crises that could well be coming our way, such as droughts, hurricanes, famines, wars and poverty, to learn what we need to learn for living well on our planet. What saddens me is that we already have everything that we need to avert these crises in the first place.


Fictional stories—which are based on deep observations of human beings—can teach us something here.

Stories are usually based on plot and character. It’s the role of the plot to reveal the character (i.e the inner qualities of a person, such as their courage, strength or determination). The protagonist of a story often encounters a big challenge, or obstacles, which force them to face the truth about themselves. When they resolve these issues, they “win” something worthwhile (like a lover, a race, freedom or peace).

So let us, for a moment, imagine that humanity as a whole is just one character in a big story about climate change. Do we need to go through cascading crises to reveal our courage, compassion, beauty, strength, resilience, ingenuity and real power? Or do we just think that we need to go through these crises, because that’s how our minds are used to seeing stories play out?

There’s only one way out of this hole, as far as I can tell: drop the drama and just show good character. It really just comes down to having the conviction to care for what we value.


There’s great character in all of us.

The pulling-power of any story is based on how well we can relate with its characters. We relate with these characters because they mirror our own (embodied or potential) character. We see our own strengths, weaknesses, fears, fallibilities, foolishness, beauty, power and potential played out in the lives of these fictional characters.

It’s the same with real-life people. We feel greatly inspired by some leaders or everyday heroes because they reflect part of ourself: who we deeply are and how we could be in the world. Sometimes we also feel hatred or anger towards people because they reflect part of ourself that we do not like or understand.

So really all the world needs is more of us showing courage, creativity and compassion. We need more people showing us what we could do, if we really put our minds to it. We need more people taking leaps of imagination and conviction. We’re part of this planet and its collective intelligence. We’re limited by our beliefs more than anything else. We don’t need to create our own crises.

Easier said than done? Maybe. But let’s get on with it.


Forest dwelling

I am the forest and the forest is me. These words drift into mind as my attention rests in the silhouette of a lancewood tree.

It’s my last night in the bush. The forest holds all the folds of the hills, stretching down the valley to the glowing sea. The spiky rimu standing next to me is a tree and also forest. The grey warbler bouncing notes around the valley is a bird and also forest. I’m a different creature here – being human and being forest. We all drink the same breath, swapping different elements.

The first star appears in a runny pollen tinted sky. A tui sings as we roll away from the sun. These tui sing different melodies to their urban cousins (who mimic beeps of backing trucks). Only the “khh khh khh” is the same. Sometimes I’ve caught my mind mimicking this Coromandel family. My whistle is poor in comparison.

Dozens more birds are now singing in the valley. For a moment the forest is a cathedral. Now it’s a symphony. Notes hang in the air like fireflies, then fade into leaves and bark. A crescendo is reached. Then the orchestra softens. Two tui sing a final duet, followed by silence. One tui rises again. Long pause. The other tui replies. L o n g e r silence. This exchange continues for a while. They’re like two young lovers saying farewell on the phone. “You hang up”… “No you hang up”… “No y” – then a morepork abrubtly pipes up and tells them both to go to sleep.

Tomorrow I’ll return to the city. Roaring rivers of cars will replace the “brishhhh” of ocean-cloud-rain-fed streams. Songs of mobile phones, car alarms, wailing sirens and beeping pedestrian crossings will compete with billboards squawking for attention. Steel and glass buildings will fill the forest with more creatures like me, wearing cotton, wool or polyester skins. Aromatic clouds of coffee will allure us into cafes with their scents. Laughter will erupt from people sharing stories over meals. Colourful trinkets will dazzle us from shop windows. The city can feel dull or shimmering, depending on who is about.

In some parts of my city the feathered relatives of these woods still sing and flutter. Trees sculpted by wind and light, standing solitary or in clumps, echo memories of this vibrant forest. Quietly these trees continue to share and sweeten our breath. And sometimes, for those who notice, they do a little jiggle or boogie in the wind.

I return inside my hut and set the alarm. It’s the first time I’ve looked at a clock all week. I ponder what a difference it will make to start the day again by “being alarmed”. No matter. It’s time to return to time.

I came to this forest seven days ago to recharge myself and to rekindle some old connections. Now my body feels like a field of cicadas buzzing in the sun. Old tensions have unfurled. I’ve remembered the feeling of being at ease.

I wonder what will happen when I leave this forest. Connections can fade, but they’re never severed. Connections grow stronger when we feed them with attention. We live in a world of endless worlds, where landscapes smear together. We are the forest, and the forest is us.


Putting our whole mind to greater use

Sustainability issues such as climate change, food/water security, and the future of our energy systems are messy and complex. That means we need to use all of our capabilities to avoid harms and grow greater benefits. So why do most governments, businesses, and many NGOs only use half their brains?

The first thing that most organisations do when they become interested in sustainability issues is to create a sustainability strategy, measure impacts, write a report and look at the science. This “left-brain” approach creates more knowledge and control.

What’s missing from this picture are more “right-brain” approaches. This involves growing a culture of people who care about these issues, and the capacity to innovate. This is also the realm of visionary (imaginative) leadership.

We’re really missing out if we’re only using half our brain. Most of us tend to be left- or right-brain dominant, so organisations and groups need a blend of different people and thinking styles.

I’ve placed stories on the right-side of the brain in the illustration above, because stories play a powerful role in growing cultures. Stories can also be imaginative, and engage people through metaphors and gritty sensory details. Stories actually activate both sides of the brain though: they connect feelings, experiences and intuitions (processed on the right) with language (processed on the left). Stories also create a context for communicating important facts and numbers.

This left/brain model is simple, but it’s based on real differences between the two hemispheres. As Daniel Pink writes in A Whole New Mind:

… we enlist both halves of our brains for even the simplest tasks. But the well-established differences between the two hemispheres of the brain yield a powerful metaphor for interpreting our present and guiding our future. Today, the defining skills of the previous era—the “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age—are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders.”

Stories, empathy and social change

One of the greatest powers of stories is that they can enable us to see/experience the world through another person’s eyes. This encourages empathy (the ability to share and understand the feelings of another). This animated talk by Roman Krzanric explores the role of empathy in social change. He suggests that all great social movements, and the rise or fall of civilisations, have depended on empathy.

Stunted action on issues like climate change is partly due to an “empathic gap”—between people in “developed” and “developing” countries and with future generations. We therefore need to learn how to expand our abilities for empathy and imagination across time. We can encourage this by sharing experiences, stories and meaningful conversations.

As Roman Krznaric writes:

The traditional way to think about social change is about changing political institutions – new laws, new policies, overthrowing governments and so on. I think social change is actually about creating a revolution of human relationships. It’s about changing the way people treat each other on an everyday basis.

Mind melding with stories

What can Mr Spock teach us about about the power of stories?

Here’s a good definition of storytelling: “a technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge with another individual… allowing more than one mind to experience memories and sensations.”

That’s actually the definition for “mind meld” on Wikipedia. For the non-sci-fi crowd among us, mind melding is one of Spock’s special powers (Spock is an “extraterrestrial humanoid” in the Star Trek universe).


The brain science on storytelling tells us that stories can really meld minds.

Brain scans show that when we imagine a flashing light, the visual area of our brain is activated. When we imagine someone tapping on our skin, the tactile areas of our brain are activated. When we are immersed in a powerful story, identifying with the characters, our brain responds like we are really experiencing what the characters are experiencing. That’s why we often hold our breath during high-suspense moments at the movies.

As Lisa Cron describes in Wired for Story:

“Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain devotes so much precious time and space to allowing us to get lost in a story is that without stories, we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age, when if you waited for experience to teach you that the rustling in the bushes was actually a lion waiting for lunch, you’d end up the main course… Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future.”

Stories can even change the structure of our minds. According to Jonathan Gottschall, “it is an axiom of neuroscience that “cells that fire together wire together.”


Great stories are visceral.

Visceral is one of my favourite words. It’s related to our nervous system and means “relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect”. Stories can bypass many of our rational defences by appealing directly to our feelings.

That sounds a little spooky (just like a vulcan mind meld). In the wrong hands, stories can be dangerous. In good hands, stories build empathy, compassion and understanding.


Which brings us back to Mr Spock…

I must admit to loving the latest Star Trek movie. More than a few of my friends have raised their eyebrows as I’ve talked excitedly about this film. “It’s not just sci-fi!” I tell them. It’s an indictment of corruption and the American government’s response to terrorism! It’s a journey into the human heart! It’s about reconciling reason and emotions! At this point the raised eyebrows are usually accompanied by a tilt of the head.

Even if you’re raising your own eyebrows, read on: one of the main themes in this movie is the tension between our rational-analytical mind and our emotions. Rationality is embodied in the character of Mr Spock. Wild emotions are embodied in Captain Kirk. There’s a split between these parts/characters early in the story, which needs to be reconciled for peace to reign.


Here’s where mind melding seems to differ from storytelling:

Telling a story that melds us together depends on a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence. We need to deeply understand and respect the people we would like to “meld” with. We can’t meld with other people unless we are open to feeling what they feel. And if we are being manipulative or inauthentic the defence shields are rightly likely to fire up.

The interesting thing about Mr Spock, with his mind melding powers, is that he seems to lack empathy. Apparently vulcans are characterised by their attempts to live by reason and logic alone, with no interference from emotions. That’s why he seems so cold. But according to authoritative Star Trek geeks, “It’s because vulcans are capable of experiencing such profound emotions that they have developed techniques to suppress them.” There’s more to being vulcan than I realised. They have become machine-like in their reasoning because they fear what they are capable of without strong emotional stability.


Reconciling the tensions between our hearts and heads is one of the greatest challenges that we humans face.

Spock and Captain Kirk remind us that we need more stories that speak to our hearts without getting over-powered by emotions .

And to bring this back to Earth…one of the most moving stories I’ve seen this week is this trailer from a film about albatrosses and pollution:

It’s hard to not feel what the film-maker / storyteller feels as he walks us through these scenes. Watch it if you have a quiet moment.

This storyteller’s only words are powerful: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?” Filling the spaces between us are really the final frontier.


The buzz about stories

Every day when I ride home from town I see the billboard above that’s been there for over a year. It’s just one example of the word STORY being used to attract attention. Business leaders say that marketing is dead and storytelling is more important. Tourism campaigns shout that stories beat stuff. Social media platforms tell us they’re here to help you “tell your stories”.  The world that I’m seeing is buzzing with stories. I’m playing a part in this too: you are, after all, reading from a website called Storypot.

Why has the word STORY entered centre stage? Why is it being used so often now? Is something significant happening? And what does this mean for the meaning of stories?

As my wise friend Lauren Sinreich cautioned recently:

“When someone comes up with a good idea or an interesting way of framing things, we tend to exhaust it until it’s lost its magic. We did it with the word “sustainable,” we’re doing it to “innovation,” and “storytelling” is next.”

What’s the buzz?

I love Lauren’s observation that words can work magic in us. That was definitely my experience with “sustainability”. It’s also been my experience with “stories”.

Two years ago I didn’t use the word story to describe most of my work. My perspective only shifted last year. I was going through a big transition and struggling for direction. Then (as I wrote at the time) a series of signposts with “stories’ popped up to guide me on my way. “Stories”, like “sustainability” connected many pieces together. My mind lit up with a lot of aha’s and I found enormous energy. 

When a word starts conjuring changes in our life or work there are two things that can happen:

  1. we can just re-describe what we were doing in a new way, without making major changes (e.g. “We’ve always been committed to sustainability! We just didn’t use that word before”), and/or
  2. we can let the word lead us in new directions (e.g. “We’re learning what sustainability means and making changes to our work.”)

Lately I’ve been reflecting on why I became so attracted to “stories”, what I’ve been learning, and why this word still has power in it.

Why are so many people talking about stories?

“Story” means different things to different people. Depending on our interests, some of the roots to the growing conversations about stories include:

  • the influence of the “linguistic turn” in Western philosophy, as people became more aware of how we make meaning through language and narratives
  • a more reflective culture, as people realise that “my story” is not “the story” but only one view of the world
  • breakthroughs in neuroscience that show our brains are wired with stories, and how this relates to learning and empathy
  • concerns about the “narrative collapse” in societies, as people lose faith in old stories from religions, governments and other authorities (which leads to a search for new meanings)
  • the shift from broadcast media (based on one-way communication) to social media (which is more conversational in form)
  • an eternal fascination that people have for myths and fictional stories.

But if I could boil down the current interest in stories to one simple statement…

I’d say it’s because stories are humanising.

In a world where so many of our workplaces and technologies treat people like machines, many of us are hungry for more fulfilling experiences.

It’s now easy to exist in a silicon world: gazing at our computer screens, buying stuff on-line, playing with smartphones and using automated checkouts at the supermarket. I used to like saying hello to the bus driver as he clipped my tatty paper ticket. Now I scan my travel card and hear an automated voice.

Many businesses have realised that we prefer to deal with people who we like and trust than with a faceless corporation. So experiences are being personalised through stories about people connected with their business. It gives us a warmer, friendlier experience to see a human touch.

Organisations are also realising that they can bring more life into their workplaces by encouraging people to share their stories. When we step beyond the comfort of our professional personas, people have a remarkable way of connecting with one another. An organisation with lots of life in it is more likely to encourage learning and innovation.

Here’s a short story:

This morning I remembered a moment five years ago that led me to leave my last full-time job. I was writing an academic article. One of my managers told me that I couldn’t use the word “I” in the article. I had to say “the author”, as if I was some distant disembodied entity. So “the author” drew a line and regained his humanity.

A few weeks after I left that job I participated in a “climate action hui”. Sixty people from around New Zealand were gathered in a room. We formed a circle and introduced ourselves. As we went around the circle, most people told us their job title. I wasn’t representing anyone in particular, so I just said “I’m Nick. I’m a human being and a concerned citizen.” The room smiled. Some people confessed that they were also human beings. We were all on equal terms.

Funnily enough, the relationships that grew between myself and others at that meeting led to some of the most interesting projects I worked on that year.

Stories have lots of pulling power.

I’m curious where this buzz could be taking us. In some ways, I don’t think people want stories per se. We want to feel connected, validated, understood and inspired. Sharing our stories is a natural and powerful way for everyone to experience this.

I’m also very grateful that I re-oriented my work around stories. Last year I re-described some of my previous work through a “story” frame (because that’s how I re-understood what I’d been doing all along). The difference in my work today is that it’s far less analytical than it used to be. What makes a story more than just a narrative—how we make sense of the world—is that there’s life in it. Working with stories involves embracing the complexity of humans in all our messy, brilliant beauty. We have to muddle through this complexity with as much clarity as we can muster.


End of The Road

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running… Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I’m at the end of the road.

Road2Road5Sunlight fades in the heavy air. The beach is littered with human remains: plastic, polystyrene and dozens of lonely shoes that have been cast away like hermit shells. I prod a pile of waste with a stick and find a bottle of Royal Mirage perfume half-buried in the sand. Its fragrance is long-since spent. The small print says “it’s a mirage that isn’t a fantasy”.

This beach isn’t a fantasy. I’m in Kochi, Kerala, India. I’ve been wandering through crumbling buildings all day. Artworks from around the world are scattered around town for the Indian Biennale exhibition. Art often spills into the dusty streets. The art makes the buildings more beautiful. The buildings accentuate the art. I’m immersed among expressions of what it means to be alive.

This beach isn’t an artwork. It is a kind of statement though. It’s a fragment of the damage that we’re doing to our planet. Life is muted here, like the light. Even the ocean is silent. The air absorbs all sounds apart from the caws of circling crows. It feels like a scene from the story The Road. My eyes sorrow the landscape. An oil tanker glides silently across the horizon.

I sit for a while in a sombre state. The scene becomes imprinted on my mind. Then I stand and turn to leave. I notice some tourists at the end of the beach having a different experience. They’ve made some space among the waste to rest upon their towels. They offer their skin to the sun, wishing for a tan. Or maybe they’re just tired.

A boy approaches me as I stand here. “Where are you from?” he asks me (like hundreds more before him during my travels in India). “New Zealand”, I reply. He tells me he’s from Kochi. “What is your name?”, he asks. We share names. Then he says something that stops my breath: “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”


I look into his eyes. He’s serious. I don’t know what to say. I’d just been experiencing this place as a wasteland. But to this person it’s beautiful. I worry it would break his heart if I tell him what I really think.

I face the beach again and gently say to him “Yes.” Then I pause and add—truthfully—“it’s beautiful.” Because he’s right. I can see some of the beauty that he sees in this place. The light is developing a golden glow. It softens the landscape with delicate strokes.

As the boy walks on I’m filled with deeper sorrow and appreciation. I’m sad that his beautiful beach is so polluted. I’m sad that he doesn’t see what I see, because my eyes have been trained in different landscapes. I fear for what happens to people and places when decay becomes beautifully normal.

But this boy also gave me a great reminder. He reminded me that beauty is everywhere, when we make time to see. Many of us are lucky to live in much healthier environments than this beach. How often do we really notice and appreciate the beauty that we easily take for granted?

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”  ~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I’ve often believed that people are more likely to protect something (or someone or some place) when they recognise its beauty. I still believe this. Noticing beauty in that beach, for example, helped me to see beyond the waste. But there’s also a danger in looking at places with a glazed romantic gaze. Beauty can be pleasing, but it may not lead to strong connecting. We can look at a landscape like TV, as a detached and distant observer. We stay separate from the scenery. Our experience is only skin deep, like sunbathing on a polluted beach.

Loving a place is like loving another person: it requires lots of attention. When we give a place our full attention, our boundaries blur and soften. We see with all of our senses. We feel more of life’s rhythm. And we may also find that some places speak to us—like this beach in Kochi whispering loudly for my care and attention.


I notice some silent creatures as I turn to leave the beach. Somebody has painted faces of people and birds on the rocks. It’s a nice reminder that people can bring more beauty and life to any place. This isn’t the end of The Road. Life has a powerful ability to regenerate, if we let it.


Note: This was a story from my travels in India earlier this year. I’m now settled back in Wellington, New Zealand.


Life is not a story

Life is not a story, but how we make sense of our lives and work is through stories.

There’s a beautiful passage in the Life of Pi that:

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

I’ve often been curious about the interplay of experiences and stories. So in very few words and images, here’s how I see this “dance”:



Note: Click on the arrows or the side of each image to go to the next slide.