I would like to ask you to take a moment, perhaps at home, to stop and rethink some of your narratives. Let us reflect on some of the social narratives we live by. These stories are usually partly true, and thus very resistant to change, but they can be misleading if they are out of date or encourage us to ignore essential other parts of the bigger picture.
Probably nothing is more American than the idea of the self-made man. Indeed it has been an incredible form of motivation that one can be successful by their own initiative. Senator Henry Clay coined the phrase in 1832 to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. The limit of the story is clear: we do live outside, in a society. A self-made man requires home care, education, job opportunities, friends, a government, institutions, civil networks, and perhaps a little luck. Undoubtedly hard work and individual initiative are necessary (and should not be downplayed), but it is simplistic thinking to ignore the social. As a result, this narrative acts as a bias in favor of individualism and against collaborative social solutions. Following this narrative, Trump presents himself as a self-made man, also tending favor private and personal initiatives over social ones.
An essential story is about gender stereotypes: for the male, this refers back to the primitive roles of the hunter/warrior role, as opposed to the protector/peacekeeper for the females. As males in America, most of us have been taught to be aggressive, physically tough, and emotionally stoic; and females the opposite. These differences are reflected in the values of our citizens, with women scoring higher in self-transcendence values that emphasize concern for the welfare of others. Females are also more open to change and less conservation oriented than their male colleagues. In some Western countries, where it has been possible to measure the values of politicians, this pattern is confirmed (Francescato 2019). Unfortunately, even when males adopt the other role, often they are seen as sissies or weak. This is what motivates Trump: in refusing the mask, he appears to be a tough, strong male. The others, the sissies, can wear them. Of course, medical evidence has shown that wearing masks does reduce contagion.
Given that males still hold a majority of leadership positions, we should not be too surprised, for example, by the size of the US ‘defense’ budget, $ 738 billion, more than the next seven countries combined, nor by our history of wars without strategic importance as that of Vietnam. Eisenhower warned us of the industrial-military complex and yet we still are reluctant to ask if such large expenditures are needed. Could some of this be used for our welfare or the well being of the planet?
An essential narrative is that man should dominate nature. One Christian version dating back to Bacon is that "as a consequence of his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, man was condemned to a life of hard work. Work became the only means he could count on to make nature subordinate to his needs, and therefore the only means for his own survival. According to Bacon, human work could be seen not only from the point of view of punishment. Work, says Bacon, can also become a means for mastering the world in the spirit of God's original plans. With the help of science, and with God's benevolent approval, man could indeed transform the universe into a new Garden of Eden” (E. Montuschi 2010). Humanity's use and dominance of nature are evident from the Industrial Revolution onward. The right to transform nature implied that it could always be changed in ways that were desired. No mention was made of limits or undesired consequences. To discover that our use of nature is wreaking havoc on our long term climate is startling, contradictory to the narrative of dominance. Some technologists dream of hypothetical solutions, such as weather modification or massive carbon removal, rather than tackling the root cause. Our scientists and climatologists understand the dynamics of climate change and have proposed feasible solutions. They have gone beyond the "dominate nature" narrative to one of equilibrium between man and nature, reminding us more of the Garden of Eden before the expulsion. In this particular period of the Coronavirus, we are being lead by the health care scientists and physicians who do understand the relationship between man and nature.
One of the very related narratives is the need to be number one. We must compete to be number one, with a new wrinkle for information technology where the winner takes all. With this story, we are constantly reminded of rankings in personal wealth, in business performance, in our careers (how fast we make it up the ladder), in our popularity, in the changes in the status of Hollywood and TV stars. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with individualism. We spend our individual lives striving to be number one. This is a powerful motivator in a capitalistic economy. The problem with the narrative is not that we no longer need competition (we do) but that with the overemphasis of competition, we fail to see where cooperation and collaboration are more effective. Some of the most severe problems facing us today cannot be solved without the widespread participation of the major countries. The problem of the Ozone Hole in the sky finally was solved when 24 of the most industrialized nations collaborated and agreed to quit utilizing CFC (1987 Protocol of Montreal). In 2019 the Ozone Hole was the smallest on record since its discovery. Knowing when to collaborate and when to compete is a better idea, as we are trying to learn in the case of the coronavirus.
Also, from a rational point of view, only one can be number one, leaving all the persons below in the frustrating position of inferiority. Striving to be number one can be a lonely task, and we are reminded of the ongoing Harvard study that finds that the persons who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships with family, friends, and community. It’s good relationships that count the most.
A related narrative, which us middle and lower class members tend to ignore, is that "might makes right." It seems so undemocratic, so plutocratic that it is off our radar. However, the very rich and powerful feel and act this way. For example, we can see from how the oil and gas industry has insisted with the Trump Administration for rollbacks on more than 80 environmental regulations so that they can sell more fuels, to the detriment of Americans’ health in the form of greater air pollution. They push for these changes because they can, and we have a President who thinks the same way. No moral problem! The fact is that we have let our economic elites build up enormous lobbying and political power. Bullies follow their interests, not the collective good. The delayed perception of the danger of the Coronavirus is related to powerful persons feeling that they have the right to divulge any story in their interests. Larry Kudlow, White House National Economic Council Director, comments on TV, February 25 that, “America has contained this (the Coronavirus), pretty close to airtight." The problem is that he probably believed it!
Another example of “might makes right” is provided by the history of controlling the US tobacco industry. From the clear evidence of the link between smoking and cancer, it took thirty years before cigarette sales started to decline. Might-makes-right adversaries are very stubborn; in our climate situation, thirty years delay would be an utter failure.
And we have the story, “If other people do it, that means it’s right.” This is a heuristic most of us use to determine what to do, think, say, and buy: the principle of social proof. To learn what is correct, we look at what other people are doing (Henderson 2017). A related form is “Don't rock the boat,"; and perhaps the most insidious is the idea of “Business as Usual.” However, social proof is a shortcut to decide how to act. It protects us from asking the essential question if there exists some phenomenon that could change the situation. And if so, should we be taking action on it, and not follow the crowd? Climate warming certainly fits the case. Delaying on Coronavirus crisis also has had its costs.
Have you heard the saying that "Now is the only time there is.”? It represents a strong bias towards the short-term. Our body is wired for the quick response to "fight or flight," possibly more useful in the stone ages. However, fortunately, our brains can contemplate the longer-term, keeping at bay the short-term story. Unfortunately, our communication increasing emphasizes brief, present related messages that usually should result in instant emotion. Business is all about quarterly profits, and politicians are continuously besieged by short-term requests and problems. Politicians do not often think about the longer-term, and presently a majority of voters do not either. We are slaves of now. The alternative does not imply that we should be unaware of the present, but we need to free ourselves for contemplation of the more distant future, and past.
Finally, perhaps the most radical of narratives regards the nature of our consumption of goods and services. An early version could be related to “keeping up with the Joneses,” referring to the need we have to keep up with our peers and get closer to those we perceive as our superiors. It puts pressure on us to consume even more, as our superiors also move up in their consumption.
However, the modern version is how narratives are turned around and used on us. Consumer products and buying decisions are not always based on a rational approach, and objects often have underlying meanings based on how we define the narrative of the product and our interaction within it. Advertising is concerned with spinning narratives about their products that will appeal to us, or significant groups of us. These, often irrational, stories leave out an essential part of the bigger picture, how our choices of consumption impact the greater world, environmentally and socially. They leave out the extra carbon dioxide and pollution that they may cause, the related health costs, the under-reported social costs of our supply chains – because these matters are simply not in our accounting system. They are externalities.
The new idea is to consider the economy and earth as one system. This is not the end of capitalism: it is the birth of a sustainable economy1.
At this moment, our priority is to provide the life support for those in need as a result of the Coronavirus crisis, making the CARES act and other legislation work well. Then will come stimulus measures, and finally perhaps investment in new infrastructure. Let us go beyond these narratives and consider a more rational, holistic approach that includes the climate. Some prominent leaders agree. We should act soon, the cost of waiting is exponential.
1 For simplicity in this article, the full description of the goals of sustainable development has been understated, emphasizing those most related to climate change, considered to be a higher priority. For a complete description, see: Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN 2015.
Francescato, D., Mebane, M., Vecchione, M. (2015). “Gender differences in personal values of national and local Italian politicians, activists, and voters”. International Journal of Psychology. Article first published online: November 27, 2015, doi: 10.1002/ijop.
Henderson, R., “The Science Behind Why People Follow the Crowd," Psychology Today, May 24, 2017.
Montuschi, E. 2010, This version of the paper was presented at the workshop 'The Governance of Nature,' LSE 27/28 October 2010, available online.