WHY Stories for the Future matter
After centuries of progress, the future has become uncertain again. Every morning brings news of a new plague: dead bees are dropping from the skies; the seas are suffocating; and deserts are swallowing arable lands. We don’t know when, but we know that it is coming. And that’s how the story ends.
But does it? And which story are we talking about?
Humans are storytelling animals. We tell stories to make sense of the world and our place in it. Stories connect us to the past, to great causes beyond ourselves, and they offer glimpses of the future. They have mobilized individuals and groups into action across the span of human history and contributed to reshaping the world.
The power of stories to shape history is part of the greatest of all stories: the evolution of life on earth. Life records and processes information through DNA, which relies on random gene mutations observed over millions of years. But the emergence of language has allowed one species, homo sapiens, to develop an additional way of recording and processing information: cultural transmission. Cultural transmission does not rely on random gene mutations, but on the deliberate transmission of knowledge encoded in stories from one generation to the next. Culturally transmitted information has been so powerful that in a few hundred thousand years – an evolutionary blink of an eye – it allowed homo sapiens to take dominion over the earth.
For hundreds of thousands of years, oral stories stored information in memorable forms, allowing specialized bards to pass them down. Then five thousand years ago, this rapid process of information storage was supercharged by the invention of writing. Proverbs and stories could be written down, preserved, and transported farther afield. New areas of knowledge emerged, from organized religion to philosophy, preserved on clay tablets and other early forms of writing. Recorded on external storage devices, this information could even survive a break in transmission and be rediscovered by future generations.
Over the last five thousand years, written stories have allowed territorial empires to expand their cultural power to distant realms. Alexander the Great was inspired by Homer to embark on his conquest of Asia and exported the Homeric epics throughout his vast empire. Portable scriptures such as the Hebrew Bible allowed Jews to retain their identity in exile. The teachings of philosophers and prophets such as Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus introduced new ideas and ways of life, ushering in an age of universal philosophies and religions. The first novels, such as those of Murasaki Shikibu, offered new ways of understanding individual identity, and science told new stories that explained the origin of life and its evolution. Manifestos, aided by the printing press, called on the literate masses to change the world through revolutions.
Today, our world is faced with new challenges, from global warming to the fourth industrial revolution, that require action on a global scale. But some of the collective stories that have steered human action in the recent past, from nineteenth-century progress to world revolution, have lost their power. As a result, we have reverted to old stories: plagues and floods ushering in the apocalypse. We are lacking new stories at the exact moment when we need them most. What kind of stories could help us through the current evolutionary bottleneck and propel us into a sustainable future? Which stories that didn’t make it into the written record, or that have been marginalized, might help us now? And where can we find them?
Many of the universe’s mysteries, which have been communicated through stories for most of history, have been unraveled by science. Yet scientific papers and reports are not the only – and maybe not the best – medium to help us imagine the future. We need new kinds of science-based stories, combining the two powerful tools we possess: storytelling and knowledge.
Stories for the future offers resources for writers to generate new stories that meet the sustainability challenges of our time and build an open platform to collect and publish such stories.