Naming the dominant stories of civilization


Last summer, I attended a course at Schumacher College, a veritable Shangri-La of New Story in theory and practice. It’s a beautiful, gentle place overflowing with wonderful, brilliant people who actually walk the talk, and have been for over twenty years. I went to the Dark Mountain course, which brought together the two founders, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, with a self-selected smattering of people who identify with their Manifesto, “Uncivilisation,” and other writings.

We spent a lovely week telling stories, listening to master storyteller Martin Shaw, and talking about a wide range of aspects of this threshold upon which we live. One of our ongoing conversations was about the ways in which the dominant stories show up and what they would have us believe. (Not the “they” that people like to blame when feeling the tightening screws of power-over dynamics, but “they” as in the stories themselves.)

Maybe I’m just geeky this way, but naming the stories was a real kick. Paul and Dougald put butcher paper up on the walls and we just went to town making lists and lists, all week long, naming the stories humming along in the reactor core of our modern world. The impetus for this came from “The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation” at the end of the Manifesto, specifically item #3:

“We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.”

After reading this last April, I printed out the Eight Principles and taped them to the wall above my desk, to remind me every day that I am not alone.

Later in the week, we allowed ourselves to dream of new stories that are emerging or those that we would like to see in place of the dominant ones.

One of the great gifts of doing this exercise with a group is the range of perspectives that somehow also find much common ground. There’s a magical congruence of both diversity and alignment. Sometimes another person would say exactly what I was thinking, like noticing how the story of scarcity binds us to fight each other for survival. Or I would hear echoes of another voice, say, Charles Eisenstein’s observation that our insistence on measurability as a litmus of value gives us deadly tunnel vision.

I’m going to resist the temptation to “curate” these lists, because there is a liveliness to them in their raw state, as transcribed from the butcher paper. So, without further ado, here they are, starting with dominant stories (of which there are many) and continuing on to new/emerging stories. Which ones resonate for you? Do any confuse or anger you? Are there any with which you disagree? Please add your voice to the conversation, using the comment form below.


Progress: the natural direction of human civilization is towards a collectively ever-better life.

Nature: as separate from “us,” inanimate, deterministic. Matter is “stuff,” spirit isn’t real. We are a rogue species, a blight and Nature / Earth will be well rid of us. We don’t belong here or deserve to be here.

Human Centrality: that the world was made or has naturally evolved to bring our species to the fore, and that hence the world is here for our purposes.

Objective Reason: intuition & imagination are sloppy. There is an objective “truth” (and it is ours)

Control / “Activism”: all problems have solutions.

  • Corollary: We get what we want by coercion. With effort and intelligence we can control and determine our future.

We have grown out of stories: we no longer need stories, since we have science and objectivity and rationalism

Commensurability: everything can be measured against everything else

  • Corollary: Instrumentalism: only the measurable & quantifiable has value

Scarcity: we are bound to fight each other to survive

Duality: the darkness within / between us can be disavowed

One or the other must be “the truth”:

  • Individualism
  • Oneness / Interbeing

The Fall: at some point it “all went wrong”

Together these will save us from all conceivable challenges:

  • Technology
  • Cleverness / information

Redemption: there will be happy endings if we work / pray hard

  • Corollary: Salvation: we (God, ingenuity, enlightened elite, technology, etc) can “turn it around” (“save” civilization)

Linearity: time in a line (see “progress”)

Collapse: everything will fall apart, quickly and dramatically (see “the fall”). Also an extension of the “progress” story

The Noble Savage: that the important truths of how to live optimally can be learned from listening to “uncivilized” aboriginal peoples

Good guys and bad guys: conflict is inherent and inevitable

  • Corollary: Competition – in every society there are winners and losers and it’s a zero-sum game

Sacrifice: everything worthwhile is “hard” and conversely: easy things are suspect and less valuable

  • Corollary: Struggle: life is necessarily hard work, hardship and constant struggle to survive

Information: having the right information is necessary and sufficient for optimal decision-making

More is better

Righteous Minority: small group of people with the right knowledge / beliefs who save the world / rebuild from the wreckage

Beauty: anyone can be perfectly beautiful. Beauty = goodness. Everyone already is beautiful.

Centralization: by centralizing, globalizing and standardizing systems they’ll be more effective and efficient

Choice: we have real choices in our lives, and the quality of our choices determines our degree of self-realization

Hero: great changes in history were the result of the work of exceptional individuals (or “a small group of determined people”)

Happiness is expected: you are supposed to be happy

Failure is “a bad thing”: you shouldn’t do it

Someone is in charge / control: they are superior to you

There is a “right answer”: and you “ought” to know it

Meaning: that human activity is driven by the search for meaning and purpose, and that life has one

Original sin: humans are inherently sinful and need control and perpetual improvement

Perfect “markets”: deregulating and non-interference in individual attempts at self-realization and self-optimization give the best possible collective outcome

Perpetual growth: through human ingenuity it is possible to make and do more and more with less and less forever

Rationality / knowability: the complexity of the world can be fully known and predictable

Self-determination: with hard work and a little good fortune, anyone can be / accomplish anything they set out to

Wealth = happiness: happiness depends on and is proportional to material prosperity


Doing is more important than “being”

Nature is “fallen” and needs correcting

Order: the world runs according to a set of pre-determined rules (scientific, legal, economic, etc) which are correct and cannot be changed.

  • Corollary: we have no power to change things
  • Corollary: we have power to change things

There are good myths. Our mental structure relies on myths and beliefs

Urbanization: urban living is the good life


The god of shopping is dead

There is time to listen to each other

The re-enchantment of the earth

Take what you need and compost the rest

The prototype

Ecocentrism: humans are not separate or apart or more important. Nature is not a “resource”

The sacred: rebirth of a sense of intimate meaning within, and relationship with, all life

Interconnection / cooperation

Community / collective intelligence

Holism / holarchy

Animism: sentience, wildness, wonder, awe, strangeness, “other”

Multiple voices: allow various views and not just human voices

Introspection / self-awareness: contemplation of connection between “inner” and “outer”

Uncertainty: constant change

Atonement / penance: choosing to take responsibility


Being a good ancestor

Everything is a story

Wildness: inner and outer. Be-wild-erment

Transformation: as process, not goal

4 thoughts on “Naming the dominant stories of civilization

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