Over the last few weeks, I’ve been engaging in a series of discussions within the Action Research Plus (AR+) community. AR+ supports a global community of scholars and practitioners engaged in Action-oriented Research for Transformation (ART). Thanks to that acronymn, we get to call ourselves ARTists!
AR+ has a Community Gathering coming up and has been running a series of pre-gathering conversations to explore the challenges we face as action research practitioners working for tranfsormation. I played the role of conversation starter for one of these. A summary of what I talked about follows, which was originally posted on the AR+ blog.
Chris Riedy is interested in the way that stories and narratives facilitate or hinder transformation towards sustainable futures. He led the second pre-gathering meeting, inviting us to consider our own personal stories, how they influence those we work with and the hope that we can find by re-storying ourselves.
Chris’ most recent academic article on narrative transformation is Discourse coalitions for sustainability transformations: Common ground and conflict beyond neoliberalism. He has also written a short story expressing a more hopeful path to the future, which he read from during the pre-gathering session. You can find the full story here, and it’s also part of the Our Entangled Future collection.
Chris started the pre-gathering session with a story…
It’s 1996. I’ve just graduated with an environmental engineering degree, and I’m ready to change the world. I’ve picked up a great job as an environmental consultant and I’m determined to make a difference. I’ve always felt connected to the natural world and now’s my chance to build a career looking after nature. I am full of hope.
Fast forward three years, to the cusp of the new millennium. I am still hopeful, but I’m a bit disillusioned. I feel like I’ve made some difference, on some projects. But most of the time, my job seems to involve getting bad projects over the hurdle of the environmental approvals process. I’m reducing negative impacts on nature but I’m not stopping them, let alone having a positive impact. I’m making things ‘less bad’, not doing good.
I decide to take some time off to travel, explore and think about my future. I leave Australia for the first time and travel through South America and on to Europe. I am inspired by the natural beauty of places like Iguazu Falls, devastated by the poverty in Bolivian villages and appalled by the contrast between life in the South and life in the European party scene. How can these worlds coexist on the same planet?
I follow friends to London, but my funds are running low. I need work and my environmental consultancy has an office in London and projects that need people. They send me to the Middle East – to Qatar – to work on a waste management plan for a natural gas processing facility. I arrive in what feels like hell on Earth.
The heat is terrible — maximums above 40 degrees Celsius most days. The gas processing plant is a blight on what is already a desolate desert landscape. I find myself living in luxurious ‘fly in, fly out’ accommodation with a fridge full of cold American beer, insulated and disconnected from the local culture and from the predominantly Indian workforce that did all the hard labour on the plant. The place was full of Westerners out to make a buck as quick as they could by sucking ancient fuel from the Earth.
At that point, the last vestiges of my belief that I am making the world a better place shatter. I am legitimising the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and contributing to climate change. I am in air-conditioned luxury while migrant workers do hard labour in blistering heat. I am living in the wrong story.
So I quit, and slowly, gradually, set out to write a new story. Six months later, I began my PhD at the Institute for Sustainable Futures and twenty years later I am still there, because it is a place of hope, filled with dreamers who dare to believe we can change the world.”
This story makes the shift sound so simple. That’s something that stories do – they simplify and help us to make sense of complex, messy reality. In reality, the transformation wasn’t neat or simple. It was painful, disorienting and uncertain. I could see dystopia on the horizon, bearing down on us, and I had to learn to look away to different, imagined horizons. I had to re-story myself.
Stories – or narratives – have been a constant theme in my work, although I only started to see that about five years ago. In 2017, Steve Waddell – one of our fellow ARTists – asked a group of people working on transformation what they saw as the deep challenges that were holding us back from achieving transformation. They identified six challenges, and one of them was the challenge of transforming narratives. I’ve been working solidly on that challenge for the last three or four years.
Mostly, I think about this challenge at a global or societal scale. In that sense, we are embedded in narratives that shape our practice, consciously or unconsciously. And the dominant narrative is neoliberal capitalism, which promotes individualism, competition, endless economic growth and the exploitation of nature – not exactly the kind of ideas we ARTists seek to promote.
Luckily, alternative narratives abound and they have a group of ideas in common, including:
- A world of complex nested systems and connected networks
- Regenerative relationships with nature – life enhancing
- Cooperative relationships with each other
- Human dignity and wellbeing
- Social and economic justice
A lot of my recent work has been thinking about how to promote these life-enhancing narratives and overturn neoliberalism.
But recently, I’ve also been thinking about how important our own personal story is to our work as action researchers and transformers. To find a path to the work I was drawn to, I had to re-story myself. I had to step out of the stories others wanted for me and become the author of my own story. Only then could I work with credibility to inspire and motivate others.
I’d love to hear from others about how stories and narratives have shaped your own path. What are the sources of hope in your story and how do they influence your action research? How does your story help others to transform?