A New Story of Us

I was reading a New Yorker piece about Dutch painter Frans Hals when this biographical sentence jumped out: “His father was a cloth-worker, and it made sense to settle in Haarlem, a flourishing center of the textile industries.”

This recounts events from about 1585. It’s been a very long time, in other words, that human affairs have revolved around (or within) urbanized industrial civilization, our fates governed by the logic of macroeconomic growth and, at the level of individuals, by economic struggle and competition.

Yet at the time Hals lived, most people didn’t live that sort of life. True, “globalization” had already begun, largely driven by the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves from Africa. But most of humanity didn’t yet live in big cities or take part in this kind of proto-capitalism. Millions in North America, Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and even Europe were still living as hunter-gatherers or small-scale village agriculturalists.

In Hals’ time, that is, the very crux of our modern understanding about what society is like (or for) and what people are like (and for) was not universal. It was just coming into being, though within a couple centuries – a blink of the eye in human history – it would be well on its way to taking over the world.

The notion that the world is a crate of “resources” that can be broken apart, bought and sold, and that humans are chiefly economic creatures, is not inherent in our nature. Nor is “economic growth” crucial to human survival, comfort or prosperity.

As Carolyn Merchant describes in her book The Death of Nature, for most of human history, all of these ideas would have been foreign to all living humans. Consider, for instance, the Native Americans’ inability to comprehend the European-introduced idea that the land can be portioned off, bought and sold.

People thought of life as they properly understood nature: as embodying a cyclical, not a linear narrative. One season turned through the next, a constant round of life becoming death feeding life, like dead leaves decomposing into living soil. Resources like land, game and water, meanwhile, were held in common rather than accumulated by specific individuals.

Our story of us now, half a millennia after Frans Hals, is very different. Life is about labor and consumption. Success is churning more of the natural world into consumer products, and burying whatever’s left over. The dead leaves, along with our banana peels and old shoes and cell phones, don’t become living soil. They become landfill.

The danger of this story is that it travels in only one direction. If we don’t have more – if there isn’t “economic growth” – we feel as though we are failing. Our story of us is up, up, up, and bigger, bigger, bigger, faster, faster, faster, no matter what it does to nature or to ourselves.

At some level – maybe not the deepest, but certainly not the most superficial – this is what’s behind our environmental crises. To enforce a linear story on a planet of cycles is not sustainable. That means it’s destructive. And because we rely on that planet totally, that means it’s suicidal.

I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s new book Sacred Economics, about the meaning and uses of money. Eisenstein reminded me about this notion of the narratives that drive us forward. He calls the narrative that a culture lives by The Story of the People, and he has his own reads on why ours is so far off the mark. (His chief culprit, in what I’ve read so far, is the financial construct called “interest” – the idea that money can “grow” even though the natural riches it purportedly represents are constant.)

We need a new story. Maybe it’s actually an old one, or maybe a new version. But it’s got to be a story not of “more,” but of “enough.”

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