A Narrative Practice for a time of crisis

Co-authored & co-hosted with Stina Heikkilä

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Remember back in December 2019 when the international climate negotiations floundered in Madrid, and it seemed like all the progress made since the Paris Agreement was backsliding?

It’s hard to locate any point in time before COVID19, but this is our starting point:

  • Coming from a background of international organisations working on sustainability, climate change and science advice to policymakers, we had one of those light bulb conversations in Paris late 2019 about how climate was now everywhere — thanks to Greta — but that the dominant narratives were not connecting with our felt experience.
  • In fact, many dominant narratives continued to rely on appeals to higher authorities and sources of power to “fix” the problem. This felt stuck. And it was feeding a growing sense of helplessness, anxiety and despair.
  • We didn’t have a solution, but rather an intuition that the dissonance could be addressed by personal action. So we sat down to design an activity that was about creating small, intimate circles of narrative practice to wipe the slate clean, and start afresh.

This article describes how we started the experiment in the pre-COVID19 era, and what we learned along the way while adapting the activity to the lock down context in France.

We hope this story can be a resource for others who might be thinking about coming together as we did to “go back to the drawing board” on climate narratives, or the other big systemic shifts currently in spate.

Origins of the Circle

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

In December 2019, Paris was paralyzed by a public transportation strike over the government’s pension reform plans. During the chaos where people were walking two, three, four hours a day just to get to work or to a doctor’s appointment, the sociologist Bruno Latour published a piece in Les Echos reminding people — as he does every couple of months — that the planet is in trouble and that everything we’re telling ourselves about the climate is not working.

This piece struck a chord with a lot of people, and inspired us to think about what we could do along the lines Latour was suggesting. Which was to gather in small groups and talk about what matters most to us, what we live for, what we want to protect. In this way — like the “cahiers de doléances” dating from the French Revolution where people documented their lists of grievances and hopes — we might have a hope of “talking” our positive climate futures into being, rather than the learned helplessness that had become the norm.

So we created the “Climate Narrative Circle” and found a willing audience at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Paris, led by a group of international masters students.

Mytam Mayo-Smith helped us to gather a group of students and was a guiding light throughout the design and delivery of the activity.

“Although climate change is now very mainstream in the media, it can be an isolating encounter. Normally, I thought about and processed climate issues on my own. News articles, including video footage of floods, hurricanes and droughts, took over my private imaginary space, and created panic that I chose to temporarily bury to have a normalised sense of living. The climate narrative circle was a purposeful space to process the narratives around climate and nature, as well as the facts.“ — Mytam Mayo-Smith, coordinator of the Climate Narrative Circle at the CRI

Session One: The energy in the room knocked our socks off

The kick-off in February was exciting, and the promise of Latour’s prescription felt alive in the room as we spent three hours together on a Saturday morning sharing on the first theme:

Describe the situation you are in, reading a series of texts ranging from a commentary on Earth system tipping points from the journal Nature, to a speech from Greta Thunberg and an extract from Richard Power’s Pulitzer-winning novel “The Overstory”.

The energy, emotion and creativity in the room built throughout the session, and finished with a session dedicated to creative writing, and sharing from that exercise.

If you want to picture the format, think sharing circle plus book group plus writing workshop.

And it worked. Almost magically. Reconnecting to what’s alive and important for us, and connecting that to a narrative about climate change.

We were really excited by the energy and brilliance of the students from the first session.

People expressed their hopes, fears, aspirations, frustrations. It balled up into a great mass of energy that built continuously. One of the participants wrote:

“If my house was on fire, I would take the fire with me.”

The room exploded into applause. We couldn’t wait to do it all over again in 2 weeks.

Session Two: Trouble on the eve of the lockdown

Saturday March 14 was our next meeting. A big climate march was scheduled that afternoon. But COVID19 was everywhere. The French government had not yet ordered a lockdown (that happened two days later when Macron declared “We are at war”). We decided to play it safe and move the group online. Not everyone was happy about this.

We followed the same format, this time taking the Latour question: “What do you live for”. We read texts from the Ecotopian-Lexicon, including the Inuit word “Sila”, we read a text about environmental narratives that used to be all about appealing to a higher order, and how re-wilding narratives offer a fresh, empowering alternative to that.

“We spoke about the “Sila” which was a word that referred to the interconnectedness of everything going around us and how humans have a responsibility in striking a balance between their inner and outer environment. The interconnectedness of our cosmos ensures that we end up paying for every action we take as a race and in turn highlighting the importance of taking responsibility for what we do as it could come with very high implications” — Shibu Antony, participant from the CRI.

Same material, same people. But energy flagged on Zoom, people were quickly drained and couldn’t engage. It was disheartening and we wondered whether this was one of those activities that could only work in-person.

Here was the universal thing that millions were experiencing worldwide as they took their events, their school and university curricula, their protest marches, their yoga classes online.

You feel disconnected. It takes energy to engage and the return on investment is low. People are really distracted. If you have to talk, you feel like no-one’s listening. Everything takes too much time. You want to go to the bathroom, you want to check Twitter, you want to walk away.

Session Three: Letting go. The road to renewal.

Preparing the final session was where the deep learning kicked in.

In order to make it come alive, we had to let go of what we were aiming for in the pre-COVID19 world. Which was to generate a new set of climate narratives from a deep sharing and writing exercise that required the energy of people feeling safe in a room together to ignite.

Our starting point was to streamline the content, and refocus on what people cared most about in that moment — 10 days into the lockdown.

What they cared about was supporting each other through this exceptional moment, this intensely human moment.

So we built from this perspective. A shorter format where there was time to share around the third question: “What do you want to protect?”

We dropped the readings this time, and went straight to the writing prompts. We spent 15 minutes with our cameras off, yet connected, holding each other “accountable” to the exercise.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

“The virus has also proven to be a test of solidarity and responsibility that people had towards their fellow beings. One of my reflections was regarding how humans had evolved and how the younger generations today are actively involved in combating such issues. Compared to the older generation where the focus was mainly to ensure the well-being of yourself and your own family. There is a major shift towards actually taking responsibility to ensure that the people around you don’t suffer because your well-being today depends on the people around acting responsibly” — Shibu Antony, participant from the CRI.

Lessons Learned for the Big Unknown.

Like in wartime, we have no idea where we will all be in three, six months time.

But what did we learn?

We found, ultimately, that the group discovered solace and therapy from the space created to write together. That special, quiet time of 15 minutes where we all turned off our Zoom cameras and wrote in our notebooks. Everyone learned something about the writing that happened there. About what’s going on with them right now. Many of us realised that in our normal, busy lives, we hardly ever take time to write freely from within. This created a shared felt experience that even defied the disconnectedness of the Zoom format.

“The circle affirmed that emotional processing is important in a time of crisis, and this is best done with an intimate group. By starting the circle with reflective questions, I had the opportunity to focus and be introspective. Writing is therapeutic and slows down my mind. To be able to write my answers and share them, reminded me of my values and how I seek to live. Sharing with others, who did not intend to judge, made me feel sane and validated” — Mytam Mayo-Smith, coordinator of the Circles at the CRI.

Looking ahead, a few reflections.

  • This vibrant youth voice is missing from a lot of professional climate policy and activist circles. We’re not talking about the visibility of youth — thanks, Greta — but rather their voice at every table, in policy-making, in decision making. When it comes to imagining the future, Mytam’s generation are the experts. Ignore them at your peril.
  • As organisations start adapting to a new normal, we think this exercise could be a part of the internal retooling process. Allowing teams and groups to start drafting the stories that will shape their collective future, the narrative tropes that will inform our sense of agency. Could this be a mainstream team-building exercise? Could it help to collate and compile the new sustainability charters of organizations from a values perspective?
  • Participants of the circle were unanimous that this writing practice has value, yet it’s hard to build into a daily routine. How can we come together to support each other to turn it into a habit?

Let’s build a healing bridge to the recovery with narrative together!

Finally, we want to share an invitation to get in touch.

If you’re designing online events that have a focus on sustainability, climate or just re-thinking the future, please let us know if you’d like to include a narrative circle in one of your tracks. We’d be happy to collaborate on the design and facilitation of such a circle online.

What we can offer is anything from the “starter kit” to a customised approach for the needs of your group.

Ditto if you’re doing team-building work and feel that this activity would work as a way to get people to share more deeply about the values they want to surface in the post COVID19 economy.

Finally, if you are involved in online learning — whether it’s school level or adult learning — and think this is something that could fit with your curricula, please let us know!

If you’d like to contact us about developing a Narrative Circle, please follow us on Twitter and send us a message! @ylld @heikkilastina

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Stories from the participants and hosts of Climate Narrative Circle

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Denise Young 楊 玲 玲

Denise Young 楊 玲 玲

Host of upcoming podcast “New Climate Capitalism” and co-host Climate Narrative Circle. Fellow @EHFNewZealand

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