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  • Tell me a story

    Gene Miller

    One little change on that third note has the power to make you feel hope or dread…lit up or left in the dark.

    —Online discussion of the emotional difference between major and minor musical keys 


    A SHORT LETTER TO THE EDITOR caught my attention a while back. It seemed remarkable for its emotional nakedness, its anxiety and despair, and because it captures the viewpoint and sentiments of an ever-widening slice of the public. In part it stated: “We are in a mess that has no way out. Our governments play at governing. For us the people? I don’t think so. Yet here we are in a global crisis that is not being taken seriously… People are doing without, fighting to survive…but nobody is listening. Promises made. Just words. Blah blah blah…How much more is going to be thrown at us before we say enough and actually do something?”

    Hold on to the writer’s closing phrase, “actually do something.” Isn’t it a fact that we do plenty of somethings, but somehow they seem to be the wrong somethings; or maybe they’re the right ones but in the wrong proportions or sequence, or the wrong people or agencies are doing them, or the social signals seem either over-simple or obscure and indecipherable; and in any case they don’t produce the change or results people are hoping for.

    If we try to build some picture of our times, free of the conceit that “this is Canada and we’re different,” we must be sure to include: 

    • the significant and enduring social trauma, far beyond health impacts, imposed globally by the Covid pandemic;
    • economist Mohammed A. El-Erian’s widely circulated contention that the roiling global economy signals that globalization as a way of understanding civilizational evolution and the aspirations of governance is changing, maybe passing; and that national postures appear to be more territorial, more defensive;
    • a world-wide movement asserting Indigenous rights, land and natural heritage ownership;
    • the demographics of aging and stresses of mass migration as Canada ‘seeks’ 500,000 immigrants per year;
    • the folly of faith in a ‘return’ to previous economic, social, or political states of relative or seeming stability;
    • the rootless physical and emotional geography of the digital space, and our quickly shifting protocols for social interaction; 
    • an emergent ‘Age of Worry’ flowing from emanations and transmissions of pending ecosystem collapse.


    Such conditions (likely, among others) are exerting enormous pressure on social memory and turning the past into an opaque yesteryear drained of lesson or guidance. The “neighbourhood” is now in many ways electronic and it has permitted or imposed a very new and often dislocating set of adjacencies, different scales, different social frameworks. All of this is exciting and terrifying. Consciousness is crowded by ‘nows’ packaged as social ideologies that compete for attention and adherence. This reduces and challenges custom, continuity, tradition, habit, stability, security. It makes people less certain, more vulnerable and manipulable. It is no wonder that soft (or not so soft) dictatorship and autocracy are spreading throughout the world.

    In numerous FOCUS Magazine columns, I have suggested that when a civic (or a national) community loses, or runs out of, ‘story’ or a defining and broadly shared narrative, it puts its identity—its ‘us’—at risk. Intentional and purposive cooperation gives way to social abstraction. Under such conditions, citizens (people who think of themselves as civic stakeholders) can easily become lost and confused, an unmoored public lacking story or purpose and open to bombast and a range of social threats—not least, confusion and immobilizing anxiety about where things are headed.

    By “story,” I mean not heritage buildings or an Old Town, physical “leftovers,” the residue of legacy, but more the passage of social purpose through time, the ‘why,’ the ‘what we’re here to do’ of a place. Yes, this takes community-scale time and effort to consider, and no, we don’t have very good protocols, probably because social agenda consanguinity was long-assumed but infrequently tested. The extraordinary level of everyday social noise today and the division of paths—lifestyle choices, we call them—makes even the modelling of wide-scale conversation difficult.

    Also, let’s acknowledge that current conditions, as bulleted earlier in this piece, are a difficult platform on which to build a programme of cultural or social direction. Citizenship requires story, a populace that says “this is who we are.” In its absence, story remains a waiting challenge.

    What do we do to ensure that story takes up more space on our busy and crowded dial? Please understand: story is existential, story is a social project, not something ‘they’ do for ‘us,’ but more like planting more trees, or housing the homeless, controlling flood risk or, in a rural setting, bringing in the harvest.

    Why take on this work, here in Victoria? Because we have the particular social skills and emotional makeup: the aspiration for community and a desire to perfect the world cleverly masked by an annoying inflexibility and tendency toward self-righteous judgment of others; because, beneath our stodgy reputation, we are a community of social innovators; and because we are as a community capable of self-disappointment and guilt, a sense of failure, which can be re-packaged as a debt to the world and to the future to be exemplars, to succeed, to demonstrate that such effort can still produce recognizable outcomes, even or especially now as our civilization shudders. Consider: we are leaving work, we are leaving the family, we are bestowing human-generated intelligence and imagination upon AI; we are leaving Earth. As civilization ruptures the past, how do we discover or invent new grounds for story?

    With the possible exception of software engineers, social media designers and any others who may be riding the current wave and who feel sure of landing on the far shore, these are anxious, minor key times for many of us. 

    Now, behaviour entirely precedes order, and globally and at home, brutality, hostility, antipathy, a clawing, high-stakes ideological opportunism have grown to the scope of social pandemic. If we hope to hear a major key within the lifetime of now-living generations, we could not do better than to return to story; that is, to a re-crafted and re-imagined meaning of home.

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.

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