politics sustainability

The stories that countries tell themselves

In The Economics of Arrival, Katherine Trebeck and I write about the importance of stories in politics. Humans understand their place in the world through stories, and major national turning points tend to have a story behind them.

To take a couple of more negative examples, ‘Make America Great’ again and ‘Take Back Control’ are not just political slogans. They are narratives in a nutshell, stories that seem to be mostly about entitlement. They aren’t true (in what ways is America not great? How was pre-Brexit Britain not in control?) but they are compelling and they offer simple explanations.

Stories can lead us astray, or they can guide us towards something better. In the book, we propose an alternative to the dead-end story of GDP growth as a way of understanding progress. Instead, we propose the idea of ‘Arrival’: “it is fundamentally a success story – it’s about the end of striving and the possibility of the fulfilment of our ancestors’ hopes. The agenda of fighting for survival could be over if the economy were to engage with a new challenge: that of building ourselves a lasting home in this place of plenty.”

Different nations and cultures have their own stories, and the book includes some that lead towards fairer and more sustainable outcomes – the idea of sufficiency in Thailand, or Ecuador’s plan for good living. Xi Jinping’s rhetoric on ecological civilization is another – a largely aspirational story so far, but that’s okay. The point of the story is not to describe what is, but to call China forwards towards something, towards its own distinctive brand of sustainability. The next decade will determine whether that vision of Ecological Civilization is successful or not, but there’s no doubt that it’s a useful idea.

I came across another one recently. Tonga has a national motto: ‘God and Tonga are My Inheritance’. It was chosen by King Tupou I over 170 years ago, and so he would not have had climate change in mind. It refers to Christian heritage and land stewardship. In developing Tonga’s first parliament and constitution, the king had the foresight to outlaw the sale of land to outsiders, ensuring that future generations would not be disenfranchised by colonial forces.

Today, Tonga can draw on that motto to inspire its response to the environmental crisis. “The ethos of sustainability has historically been at the heart of Tonga’s development progress” says a recent review of the UN sustainability goals. Their national motto “enshrines sustainable development as a way of life. Our motto embodies our inheritance and wealth in the form of our people, our land, and our strong Christian and traditional values underpinning our culture.”

Again, time will tell whether Tonga is able to deliver on its climate change plans and live up to those aspirations, but I like the way that a national motto has been reinterpreted to encourage stewardship and long term thinking. Like Wales has done recently, Tonga is framing its success with reference to future generations, and the world needs more of that deeper perspective.

Whether we recognise them as such or not, the national and political stories we tell matter. As the Nigerian poet Ben Okri says, “a people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell about themselves.”

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