Finding common ground in transformative sustainability narratives

The latest Transformations to Sustainability knowledge brief explores discourses and narratives around transformations to sustainability. James Waddell finds out more.

Stories help us understand others and ourselves. They unite us by forging connections and conveying shared values, culture and history. In other words, they provide meaning to our collective life. From childhood tales to political discourses embodying our hopes and fears for the future, narratives underpin every human life.

It’s no wonder that we need narratives for our societies, nor that doctrines use the power of narratives to dominate them. The problem we face today is that we can’t seem to move past a narrative that has been told for 40 years. Of course, reducing everything to narratives would be naïve, but neither can we underestimate their influence. Indeed, the neoliberal discourse still dominates, though it has shown us time and again its considerable flaws. Its model for growth has been revealed to be unsustainable by its dependence on overexploiting resources and degrading the natural environment, and by growing inequalities within societies and throughout the world.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all interconnected, humans to other humans, humans to the natural world, humans to animals, and so on. It raises the very serious question of how to ensure a sustainable future, if only we cease disturbing the natural balances of our world. And so, in light of the crisis, couldn’t we imagine a different future, where our economies and societies have internalized the lessons of the pandemic? What if we could come out of the COVID-19 crisis with a new vision for our societies?

We’ve certainly learned the importance of public health, but we’re also reminded that we must protect our shared home. If we constantly and ruthlessly exploit our planet to quench the unquenchable thirst of a small segment of our population, we will face dire consequences. This pandemic is just one example of how unsustainable methods affect the whole of humanity.

So, the question must be asked; are we stuck in the broken narrative of neoliberalism? As George Monbiot points out in a TED conference, discredited stories are usually replaced by new stories. Yet, the neoliberal narrative shows resilience.

As the latest Transformations to Sustainability knowledge brief shows, perhaps we’re not completely stuck in this failed narrative, it’s rather that no strong alternative narrative has emerged to challenge the old one. We need a new compelling sustainability narrative to replace our failing model. With a new narrative, we can envision a transformation of our economies, technologies, institutions, but also our human values and cultural norms.


Finding common ground in transformative sustainability narratives


The brief – and the peer reviewed paper on which it’s based – asks whether common ground between narratives on sustainability could create a powerful alternative narrative to challenge the dominance of the neoliberal capitalist discourse. This question is asked at an opportune time, as old stories are losing their grip, but new ones have yet to emerge.

The difficulty with today’s sustainability discourses is that they share very similar endpoints but disagree on the road we must take to achieve them. The inherent contradictions between approaches, such as neoliberalist reformism on one end and radical social change on the other, are illustrated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that embrace social justice, human wellbeing and ecological integrity while committing to continued economic growth.

Nonetheless, the brief identifies common ground between alternative sustainability narratives: ‘a view of the world as made up of systems and networks; a relationship with nature that is sustainable, regenerative and planet-centric; human interdependence and cooperation; the goals
of human wellbeing, justice and plurality; and agreement on the value of participatory governance, a new economic system, prioritizing different human values and participatory knowledge practices as potential strategies for transformation’.

It then rounds up the common ground in five memes* – or key elements for a new narrative – that can be researched and articulated to form a shared sustainability narrative: worldviews, the human relationship with nature, human relationships with each other, the goals of transformation and strategies to achieve transformation. Could they be the building blocks of a storyline that would mobilize a discourse coalition to challenge neoliberalism? For now, it seems the common ground is significant enough to offer hope for developing a new shared narrative, enabling us to guide the transformation to a more sustainable future.

* the building block of a narrative or discourse; a replicable idea that can be transmitted (not an internet meme).


The Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme supports and advances international, transdisciplinary research with a focus on the social dimensions of the causes of and solutions to sustainability challenges.

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