The Story of Sustainability

We’ve all heard of The Story of Stuff. But The Story of Sustainability?

This past weekend, we had the pleasure of hosting Dennis Paige, founder of Swiftdeer-Paige, at Inn Serendipity to share a program on storytelling with our community of friends and family. Awarded the 2008 Grassroots Conservation Leadership Award from the Audubon-Chicago Region and the Chicago Wilderness Habitat Project, Paige has been entertaining and teaching thousands of people about the most pressing ecological issues of our times while inspiring a more balanced relationship with the web of life through the craft of storytelling. He’s been at it since 1989.

Paige’s hour-long program was a reminder of how far we still need to go on our journey of creating a “Story of Sustainability” that most American’s can embrace, not just a few. Obviously, the present American story of never-ending growth, executive bonuses, consumer-based economy, and more jobs is not compatible with the long term sustainability of a finite planet – especially if you recognize that despite our technological know-how, two thirds of the planet’s human inhabitants still cannot drink a glass of safe water, for example.

Elements of a Great Story

According to Paige, the elements of a great story are imagination, believability and content. Our group of local friends, bed & breakfast guests and family members circled around Paige as he orchestrated various activities to help our group, who ranged in ages from 4 to 80, become better storytellers and understand this ancient art and craft of storytelling. In terms of the content, it’s all about the problem, resolution and moral of the story.

“It’s about stepping out of yourself and embracing the world,” advises Paige, who got his start in storytelling when acting as an interpretive naturalist at the Spring Valley Nature Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, peering out from a Lakota teepee overlooking the tall prairie there. During the 1990s, Paige traveled around the country putting on storytelling programs entitled The Dream World of Dr. Earl, the Crusty Earthkeeper. “I’ve always had the desire to go into theatre and entertainment,” says Paige, who trained at Chicago’s famous Second City School of Comedy. “But by being a storyteller, I didn’t have to give up also being a teacher. Storytelling allows me to reflect my own values in the work I do.”

Since humans first used artwork on the walls of caves, we’ve been telling stories. But today’s story — whether spun by President Obama and Congress (we need more growth in GNP) or NPR’s Marketplace (keeping tabs on the consumer spending while being underwritten by Monsanto) — is offering a troubling vision for us to connect with our being, our community, and our planet. True, we’re nodding our heads in affirmation to a commonly accepted story, but with money, consumption and growth the markers of progress? With the consolidation of the media and corporate forays into political and community affairs, our common story has been on auto-pilot like never before. All this is abetted by the technology that seems to be stripping away the very essence of person-to-person communication — and storytelling. When’s the last time you heard a great story around a campfire? But then, again, this is another aspect of the status quo story many of us have accepted: So much to do, so little time.

Weaving a Community Story of Diversity

Paige brought us together on a beautiful summer afternoon, after a delicious potluck dinner. Engaging us through a story sharing rope activity with each of us adding our voice and imagination to the tale collaboratively created, Paige explains: “We created a web of storytelling to help guide each of us to appreciate the interconnections of life and celebrate the diversity of our community.”

Diversity, indeed, works it’s magic amongst our group which includes a college student president, several local entrepreneurs, home schooling parents and their children, an U.S. Oikos founding chapter member, artists, retirees and farmers. Our vision and stories contrast with the increasingly mono-cultural story of American Idols and geography of sameness everywhere with McDonalds, Wal-Marts, and cookie-cutter subdivisions. When describing where he feels most at home during a different storytelling activity, one six-year-old exclaims, “My garden!” “Grandma’s house,” adds another child in the circle. “In the poetry section of a bookstore,” chimes a herb farmer in the crowd.

“Storytelling is an art form that allows us to build up kinship,” explains Paige, before settling into an almost trance-like telling of the Story of Why Leaves Change Colors in the Fall, based on the storytelling tradition of the Crees (Nehiawak). The children sat motionless, captivated; the adults relaxed, reflectively. As a community of listeners, we connected with the story as it played out by Paige in sound, movement and narrative. It was a shared experience I’ll not soon forget.

What would be in your Story of Sustainability? Would it involve nature? Or balance? Perhaps mindfulness or community? Where would you share your story? Perhaps at a farmers’ market or your local coffee house? What kind of livelihood would you have?  Perhaps your story might contain a moral that fosters both actions and a life that avoids harm to any thing or any one, and a devotion to restoration, renewal and all the happiness that money can’t buy.

Photography: John Ivanko/www.innserendipity.com

  1. Jason

    What a great site that you have here! I have a blog myself which inspires people. I would like to exchange links with you. You can contact me through email or by a comment on my site. Let me know if this possible. Keep up the good work! Jason

  2. Sylvia

    Stories are sustainable – like dna (from non-terminator seeds), like ‘from the hempfield to hemp mill’ type communal living.

    Thanks for such a nice site.

  3. Kristina

    I am studying strategic sustainable development, which is a mouthful, but behind all the technical jargon, is all about creating that story. Some classmates and I were musing about creating the analogous you-tube video to explain sustainability as succinctly as consumerism is explained in the story of stuff.

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