Episode #100 New Myths for Humanity: With Alina Siegfried
If the stories of our culture are of separation, scarcity and powerlessness, how can we build new stories, new myths, new ideas of how we can be different? Alina Siegfried has explored the deep concepts of the stories of our world, and how we can reshape them.
We are the stories we tell ourselves – about who we are and where we’re going. In our small day to day decisions, we think how our stories of ourselves will be enhanced by the things we do. So when all our stories have been about scarcity, separation and powerlessness, and how we can fight to gain more than those with whom we are in competition – how can we build healing, whole, healthy stories that will bring us forward to a flourishing future?
Alina Siegfried is a performance poet, storyteller, and advocate for systems change. She has worked at Enspiral, in the New Zealand Government, and for the Edmund Hillary Foundation. Her book, A Future Untold brings our stories to the heart of our systemic change.
Manda: My guest this week is absolutely at the heart of this new set of narratives. Alana Siegfried is a performance poet, a storyteller and author of the book A Future Untold: The Power of Story to Transform the World and Ourselves. And it does exactly what it says on the tin. It looks at the stories we tell ourselves of ourselves about ourselves and crucially, how we can create the ten new myths that will move us through to our flourishing future. Alana joined me from New Zealand. And we did have some quite exciting technical issues, mostly at my end. So the sound on both ends is as good as Caro could make it. Not our usual standard, but I think still worth listening to. So people of the podcast with your ears duly warned. Please welcome Alana Siegfried.
Alina: They say a well-lived life is born out of equal measures of give and take. On the streets of the mission, I gave a dusty fur coat to a haggard old hippie named Storm, two brain surgeries and a life devoid of oral hygiene, Storm says that teeth are overrated, before trading sage advice for my jacket on the alternative uses for dental floss. She says to always apply cocaine to the wound before attempting DIY stitches and to never use mint flavoured floss. Shortly after, I bought a rose from a toothless East Indian man teetering on the verge of tears. I have a family, he says. $2, please! He says. Ten minutes later, somebody remarked with a smirk “Looks like he got you”. The scent from a rose brings a smile to our reply. “Not at all. I got him”.
Manda: So that is an amazing way to welcome Alina Siegfried to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for putting up with all the tech challenges and for phoning it at whatever time it is in the morning down there in New Zealand, what time is it actually with you?
Alina: It’s not too bad. It’s 8:50 now. I did have my book launch last night,
Manda: But you got up several hours ago because we should have been here a while ago. Yeah, yeah. So I am even more impressed that your first book launch and you’re up some ungodly hour the following morning. How did it go?
Alina: It was fantastic. It was such a fun, joyous atmosphere. Lots of people, lots of merriment and just wonderful to have my community around me celebrating the birth of this baby.
Manda: Yeah. And that is the amazing thing I think about self-publishing, is you don’t have to rely on somebody who really actually doesn’t care. And livess a very long way away and does this once every couple of weeks. And it’s no big deal. And this is yours and it is a big deal and you do care.
Alina: That’s right. That’s right. And I feel like I’ve been talking about this book to my community and my network for so long that people are just so excited to see it happening.
Manda: Yeah, and it is a remarkable book. In many ways. We will put a link in the show notes it is available in the UK. Definitely. I’m guessing it’s available around the world. I bought it off the demon Amazon. So sorry, but but hey, it’s good for you. It’s good for your ratings. I will put a link to it through something else. So A Future Untold: The Power Of Story To Transform The world And Ourselves. And it’s a story told in stories, and it’s a story about the power of stories, and it’s an incredibly powerful set of ideas. And so what I’d really like to do is start off with asking, how did Alina come to be the person who had this idea and was telling her friends all about it before you began to set it down on paper?
Alina: Well, that’s that’s a great question. There’s a very clear cut moment that I can tell you about, which was three and a half years ago at an impact summit. I got up on stage at the end of the conference and told an audience of about 400 people of my intentions to write a book on storytelling for change. So there’s nothing quite like the power of a public commitment. Yes, but what had moved me to do that was I had performed a poem a few days earlier as a means of introducing our keynote speaker, Johan Rockström, to the stage. And I had I’d written a poem after reading his book Big World Small Planet. In fact, the poem is called Big World Small Planet, The Remix, and it’s about climate change broadly. But it really is about the history of seventy five thousand years of humanity and all of the little incremental steps that we’ve taken to bring us to the dire situation that we’re in today. And I rather cheekily ended the poem by referring to the unborn life that was held within my belly at that point, I was about 20 weeks pregnant, and many people didn’t know yet. And so, yeah, the response was just remarkable. After I had performed that poem, with a lot of sort of old white businessmen coming up to me in suits, you know, not my usual crowd, with tears in their eyes. And I thought, Oh, there’s something going on here. And so just that response and getting cut through into a very different business and government community, than I was usually used to performing to, really open my eyes to the power of of this kind of creative storytelling to move people.
Manda: And that poem is in the book for those who want to read it, and it is extraordinarily powerful.
Alina: It is. It’s in the book. And there’s also a QR code in the book. There’s QR codes for each of the four poems in the book, where you can link through and watch a brand new video performance of that poem.
Manda: So you’re at an impact summit, which sounds interesting in and of itself. Can we go back further back to who you are, where you came from, what your roots are? Because you do tell us a bit about that in the book, but it feels like a really interesting story of how you came to be the person who was at an impact summit introducing Johan Rockström. And at some point we’ll have to tell everybody who that is because the name might not be familiar to everyone, but let’s go back into Alina’s past. Tell us about you.
Alina: Well, I’m a half Kiwi half Swiss person from. I was born in Whakatane, New Zealand, and spent most years, all of my younger life in New Zealand. I travelled overseas for a while to Canada for a few years. You know, followed somebody over to Canada for love, it didn’t quite work out and yeah, I’m a squiggly liner. Very much so, which means that my my career has followed a less than linear path in life. I’ve always been very interested in a lot of different things with, you know, a common theme of protecting the environment and particularly water. And then more so in recent years have just really been captured by the power of storytelling. Certainly wasn’t what I had set out to do. I studied physical geography at university and earlier in my years, I thought that I would be a volcanologist. But life has interesting plans for us, and I’m quite glad I didn’t continue down the geology path because realistically, I probably would have been exploring for oil companies.
Manda: I was about to say that. What made you specifically want to protect water? Before you wrote the water poem, before you had your experiences in Canada, what was it about water in particular?
Alina: Well, water is everything. It’s so ubiquitous that we tend to just ignore it. I mean, we are made of water. Everything, all of life on this Earth contains water. And I remember being quite captured by the water cycle as a child and seeing the diagrams of, you know, the evaporation. And I think there was a magic school bus book around the water cycle, the water works, which I just was fascinated by. Is that this substance, this thing that we just don’t give a lot of thought to is continually cycling in and out of our lives and continually on the move. I mean, I guess that’s the same of any elements or atoms, is that we are exchanging them continually. But there is something very visceral and tangible about about water. I mean, you look at a river and you know that that particular drop of water as is moving through and you know, it might never, ever go past that point of the Land again. And I’ve always wondered, what’s been the journey of that particle of water?
Manda: You had quite a traditional standard Christian upbringing. And I think in reading the book, is that your path is not that. You diverged from that quite young I think?
Alina: Hmm. I diverged from that…I was a very troubled young woman in my final year of high school. Because I was still quite dedicated to the church and to my faith, but I also had these inconvenient attractions to other girls at my high school, which I had tried to suppress and and really just ignored that for a long, long time. And the great irony is that I didn’t come to terms with the fact that I was gay for a long, long time and I simultaneously left the church as well. So I didn’t get the best of either world, really. But yes, it was probably university when I started following a different path.
Manda: Did your spiritual focus shift to a different path?
Alina: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I mean, I think throughout a lot of my early 20s, I didn’t have much of a focus on spirituality. You might say that I was lost in the wilderness for a few years. It’s really over the last five to 10 years that I’ve gained my own sense of what spirituality means to me, and started to become more comfortable with paradox and ambiguity and the fact that we don’t actually know a lot of things. And that that’s OK. I think like a lot of people, my 20s were a time full of searching and, you know, full of some pretty questionable behaviour.
Alina: And then over the course of my 30s, you know, I started really finding out who I am. And, you know, just a month ago, I turned 40. So I’m very much looking forward to this next decade and seeing where that goes.
Manda: Yeah, I remember the time when I thought that by the time I was 40, I would know what was happening in the world. And that was
Alina: Like each year you realise that, you know, less than you thought you knew.
Manda: Yeah. And eventually you come to terms with that. So you were at an impact summit introducing Johan Rockström. So tell us what an impact summit is and how you came to be there.
Alina: Sure. So the the summit was actually an event that our own team ran at the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. So for five years, I was part of a a small organisation which started out as Kiwi Connect and started with the very vague goal of creating some sort of a bridge between the world and New Zealand, to bring impact driven entrepreneurs to New Zealand to iterate and experiment with solving big, grand problems from New Zealand. New Zealand has a lot of things going for it, in terms of rapid iteration. We’ve got a small population, a reasonably progressive government. We’ve got two degrees of separation. Everybody knows each other down here, so you can get on the phone with a big CEO. You can often get on the phone with a politician. And so we wanted to try and get, you know, systems change leaders and entrepreneurs working on big problems here to New Zealand. And we did that. We ended up co-creating a new visa category with the New Zealand government, which was quite incredible now that I look back and think about it.
Alina: And we created what was called a global impact visa. It was the world’s first entrepreneurship visa to focus predominantly on the positive impact that an entrepreneur could make, rather than just your standard business metrics. As part of that programme, we started bringing in international fellows into the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, which was what the organisation then became. And now it’s a global community of over 500 impact driven people from around the world, working on vastly diverse problems and taking very different approaches. And these these impact summits that were called New Frontiers were something that we ran initially every once a year and then every six months as we had a new cohort inducted into and welcomed to New Zealand. And so that was, yeah, I mean, we struggled with what to call New Frontiers because it was so much more than just a conference. But yeah, we landed on summit because there was also, of course, the nice synergy there with with Sir Edmund Hillary and Everest and in reaching new heights.
Manda: And until I read your book, I hadn’t realised that after he reached his particular new heights, he then put most of the rest of his life into improving the life of the Tibetans who had helped him to get to the top. So, yeah, good story. Very good story.
Alina: Yeah, yeah, he could have, you know, rode on the coattails of that fame for a long time. But instead, he he threw himself into humanitarian work, building schools and hospitals and flight training centres and so on. So, yeah, truly quite an inspirational person.
Manda: Yay. So on your journey towards being part of the Edmund Hillary Foundation, you were wanting to be a volcanologist, you went off and did other things, you became interested in planetary ecosystems in its broadest sense. And at some point you ended up working for Enspiral. And that’s something that particularly seems to me has the potential to be life transforming, because it’s a company that works on a different model. And the stories of this; I talk to my business friends and I say we need horizontalism and we need to do all this and they all go “no, it won’t work”. You have to have one person making all the rules or everything falls apart. And until I read your book, I didn’t have real evidence that this is not necessarily the case. So can you tell us about in Enspiral and how it works and how it arose?
Alina: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t work for in Enspiral, the network as such, but I was a part of that network. And in Enspiral is a distributive, non-hierarchical network of freelancers, entrepreneurs, change makers. We’ve got accountants and lawyers in there, we’ve got people working on all sorts of things, but all dedicated to working on quote unquote “stuff that matters”. So it started, I think, in around, oh, maybe 2010, I’m guessing. Just with a few people getting together and playing around with different ways of pooling resources so they would give a portion of their income back into this central foundation by which they were able to attract new members and pay for centralised costs and infrastructure, rent of an office building, that sort of thing. We had a co-working space. And I mean, Enspiral has morphed and changed so many times over the years, and it continues to do so. And if you ask anybody what Enspiral is, you’ll get a different answer, which is which is part and parcel of a decentralised network where nobody’s really the boss. The model that we have now is that there are, I think, two or three Catalysts they’re called which are network weavers that are first points of contact for people that are interested. And then there’s different various ways people can engage. There’s an online monthly gathering or the OMG call where sometimes there’s a key question. Other times people just get together to see what others are working on. There’s Pods which are working groups of around five or six people usually, that are working on a specific social or environmental problem or that are working on, you know, strengthening the network or figuring out the future of Enspiral.
Alina: And we use several online tools to decide the future of what’s happening. The company I actually worked for, which was an Enspiral company or it was born out of the network, was called Loomio, and that’s an online decision making tool. I worked with them for six months on a large crowdfunding campaign, and Loomio is basically a way for any sort of groups to come together in an online space and quickly and easily make decisions together. So it’s a pretty simple platform. There’s voting capabilities. You can see a little pie graph of which way the votes are trending. But it was born out of this desire to really democratise the decision making process in groups and make sure that those who perhaps have the loudest voices don’t dominate and that others have a chance to be heard. The whole thing was inspired by the hand signals that we used in the Occupy camps around the world. When you had hundreds of people trying to make decisions together and you looked around the group and just saw, you could see at a glance what people were thinking or how the trend was looking. And so that’s what Loomio was about. And Enspiral uses that to make decisions, as well as many other companies that have come and gone under Enspiral that were basically just set up. You know, if we needed something and it didn’t exist, someone in the network would just create it.
Manda: Yay. And you have a metaphor of eating your own dog food or something along those lines which we won’t go into in detail because people might be eating. It ended up being quite nauseating. But it was the idea that you’ve created something and then you’re actually having to use it for the purposes for which it was created. And that’s the best testing there is. So Loomio created this decision making tool and then you use it within Enspiral to make the decisions that matter. And in your experience, it works? That’s a question.
Alina: It does, and every group has different ways that they use Loomio. Just slightly different ways. It depends on the culture of the group, but by and large, it worked very well to get a sense of how the group was feeling about something. And it’s a fantastic way to just avoid so many emails coming through and back and forth and meetings, when you can just go onto this onto this discussion thread on Loomio and signal your thoughts on something within a couple of minutes and move on with your day
Manda: And you have worked also within the political system I have in New Zealand.
Alina: I have,Yes.
Manda: And with your experience of that and your experience of Enspiral, is the Loomio process something that could be transferred to the political arena do you think?
Alina: That’s a good question? I’m not sure the political arena is ready for genuine democratic input, because it means listening to those people that, you know, are inconvenient or you don’t want to hear their point of view. It was very interesting for me. I jumped from three years working in parliament with a progressive political party over into Loomio, which just seemed like such a breath of fresh air after this big parliamentary behemoth that I had been within for the last few years. Wellington City Council actually did use Loomio to consult the public on a new alcohol management strategy for the central city at one point. And I’m not sure exactly how successful they would have called that. I’m not sure that they’ve used it since, but as I suspect, you know, when you do truly go out there and ask for everybody’s opinion, you get everybody’s opinion.
Manda: Yeah. And so it scales at that scale. I don’t know what the population of Wellington is, but that sounds pretty big scale. And do you break people down into subgroups and then get Loomio groups and then feedback to primary?
Alina: Yeah, you can do that. You can set it up with subgroups in specific issues. So I think the way that they did it was they they created a new thread for each, each different policy point where people could make their views known. I think they had about two or 300 people engaged with that process.
Manda: Out of a population of?
Alina: Central Wellington city is about 200000, I think greater wellington areas about 400000.
Manda: Interesting because I gather that there is something similar happening in Taiwan where they’ve got a very switched on Digital Minister Audrey Tang, and they are using some kind of crowdsourcing of opinions to help shape policy.
Alina: Yes. And Taiwan, certainly groups in Taiwan have been early adopters of Loomio. When we had student protests in Hong Kong a number of years ago, they were using that to organise. There was Protesters Against Austerity Measures in Greece who were organising using it. So really, it was such a diverse amount of people around the world. And because it’s open source, you know, people really got behind it. It was translated into 30 or 40 different languages by different volunteers and who were just advocates of the open source movement. So it really was a grassroots participatory initiative, and it’s still available now.
Manda: Yeah, I think I’ve seen it used in the alternative over here. Am I right in thinking that it’s mostly let’s say the under 40s, who are using this?
Alina: Yeah, I think you’d probably be pretty right on that. I mean, it’s an online tool and you know, for for people who are digital natives, it’s super easy to use. For those that perhaps have, you know, remember the days before email in their working lives, it might be a bit more of a step up. But really, I mean, it’s not that much more complicated than you know, a Facebook group that happens to have beautiful polls that you can vote on.
Manda: Alrighty. I find it fascinating, partly because I used to work in software and partly because I’m trying to design a way of organising in the future, that would work. And it has struck me since I first came across Loomio that it is.. It has the potential for that. But let’s not drag our listeners too far down that one. Let’s head back to the book The Power of Story to transform the world and ourselves. You are a storyteller. You’re a performance poet. Amongst a lot of other things, quite clearly, a mother, a partner. And you have I think quite a coherent concept of the stories that we have now, and the stories that we need and how to move between one and the other. If it’s not too broad a question, can we begin to unpick that? Let’s have a look at the stories that we have just now to begin with. For you, what are the dominant stories of our time?
Alina: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I mean, the dominan narratives I think that underpin a lot of our society are things/stories that have been collectively added to over the years. They haven’t been orchestrated. You know, like a group of people got together and said, ‘this is the way things are going to be’. But as we’ve seen, new liberal shifts and economic policy in the 80s and in just the different ways that society has grown as our population is getting so much bigger; we’re left with these these quite harmful narratives around the way things are. Some examples of those are, you know, our our narratives around what kind of work is valued and compensated well and what kind of work isn’t. And if we look at the example of, you know, nurses or teachers who are continually, you know, in New Zealand, at least trying so hard to get paid better for the important work that they do. Whereas we’ve got, you know, top executives and lawyers and so on who get get paid so much more. And that raises questions around what is it that we value in our society? Is it that we pay these people more, purely because often they are the ones that create more economic wealth?
Manda: Or they’re the ones who get to set their own salaries. That’s the bankers get to decide what they’re paid. The lawyers. There’s often lawyers and definitely the politicians get to set their own salaries and suddenly they become incredibly valuable. And teachers and nurses don’t.
Alina: Yeah. And that’s and that’s based on a story of, you know, what it is that we collectively value. And so much of what we we value and what we think we value is misaligned. So, I mean, most people; there’s some great research from Common Cause Foundation in the UK indicating that most people think that they themselves are driven by intrinsic values such as love and community and care and responsibility. But those people at the same time think that other people are more driven by extrinsic values of success and wealth and popularity and image. Which is really interesting because it means that everybody is thinking that they are the good ones, the virtuous ones, and that everybody else has got it all wrong.
Alina: Early in my political career,I read, Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff, which is a fantastic book.
Manda: We will put it in the show notes.
Alina: Yeah, yeah, it was a game changer for me in terms of realising that if you want to change people’s views or bring them on board with a particular policy or an idea, you need to speak to their values. We, as humans, are very emotive creatures. We might think that we are these clever intellectual beings who are right at the top of the intellectual chain. But you know, in our primal minds, we are driven by our emotions and by our feelings so much more than we are by rational thought. And so, I mean, George Lakoff talks about the fact that in America at least, the conservative right have in many ways really nailed the storytelling and grounded it in, you know, quote unquote “family values of tradition and hierarchy and conformity”. And it is because they speak to those values instead of trying to intellectualise with people. Which is, of course, the great downfall of the left so much of the time is that we try to provide the facts and figures. You see this with climate change as we keep on telling people the figures and the facts and and it’s not a great motivator for action.
Manda: True. Yeah. We’re not telling the stories of how the world could be if we embraced the amazing wonder of the moment. We’re just telling them that there’s too much carbon it’s all going to be hot. And we saw that, I think you say this in the book, with Trump. Trump’s got Make America Great Again and Hillary Clinton’s got ‘Well, the reason why he’s not quite going to make America great again is because he doesn’t understand the way the taxes work’. And she lost them at ‘the reason why..’. And actually, the other thing, Lakoff says is never repeat your opponent’s frames and he’s frame was Make America Great Again, and she says, Well, Donald Trump isn’t going to make America great again. And what everybody hears is Donald Trump, make America great again. And they don’t hear the negative unless they were already primed to and if they were already primed to, they were already going to vote for Clinton. So they’re not the audience you’re aiming at.
Alina: And that’s the fascinating thing about framing is that it doesn’t land in a neutral territory. We each have our own biases and experiences and things that we already believe to be true. And there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of research that points to the fact that when you hear something that corroborates your point of view or something that you already believe, you accept that much, much more readily than something that doesn’t. And you might hear something from a very reputable source that doesn’t fit your worldview. And we just push that aside. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen with Trump’s America. I mean, that frame ‘Make America Great Again’, is brilliant. You know who wouldn’t? Which American wouldn’t want their country to be great? The devil’s in the details.
Manda: That’s the story harking back to the the nostalgia of a point when we all believed America was great and everybody has this kind of golden past, and he doesn’t even have to define what it was or what it looked like. You could do that. You do that for yourself and that capacity to create a frame where people fill in the gaps in the way that they want, I gather. QAnon does the same; creates a small frame and lets the people who are its adherents fill in the gaps. And because they’ve successfully filled in the gaps in their own eyes, they feel more invested. It was the same in Britain with Take Back Control, which you know, was was moulded on the same concept. And now we’re pouring raw sewage into the seas and doing deals with New Zealand farmers that are going to see our farmers bankrupt and and claiming that this is taking back control. Yeah, it’s horrible. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole because it’s too unpleasant. There’s a cat lying on my notes! So. We’re we’re at a point where…there’s a very wonderful woman called Micki Kashtan, who says that our culture is based on the very visceral concepts of scarcity, separation and powerlessness. And I don’t want to go too far down that particular avenue, but I do want to question where that comes from, because I hear you, that nobody sat down and said, “we’re going to make sure that everybody believes this”, but I have read and I’m struggling to remember where (it’ll come back to me in a moment) the definitions of capitalism as it was really growing out of feudalism and people who very definitely very deliberately made sure that the workers were on the verge of starving because that way they could be persuaded to work. And it seems to me that actually it’s not that much of a stretch from there to where we are now to this constant sense that there isn’t enough stuff and the neoliberal modelling of the economy as if it were a household. Thatcher’s whole thing of ‘there is no alternative’. In this country we’ve just had yet another budget, from yet another supposedly intelligent politician, who still seems to think that you need to bring in taxes and then you can spend them. Where anyone who stops to think about it at all, knows that the government makes the money out of nothing and spends it, and then it takes back the tax to level things out. And the narrative we have been sold is a diametrical opposite to what’s actually happening. And that can’t be an accident, I feel.
Alina: Yeah, yeah, you’re right. I mean, there are certainly powerful, powerful people who have have ways of imposing, their ideologies on others. In this particular case, you’re talking about, on a whole economy and country. Yeah. So I think I mean, largely it’s a case of distraction as well. You know, if we keep the masses distracted with, you know, new sports stadiums and new iPhones and all of these consumer goods, then people are happy enough or think that they are happy enough that they. You know, that they will just accept the status quo. And we see that in so much of our consumerism. Is that I mean, everything is rooted in this notion of scarcity and there not being enough and that the key to a happy life is to accumulate material wealth and more and more things. And we, you know, we’re left with this rather bizarre situation where the planned obsolescence of products, if, you know, if a piece of technology breaks or a new pair of shoes wears out after a year or you need to buy a replacement of something, that is inherently a good thing.
Manda: Hmm, yeah, and it keeps the economy moving. And otherwise it’s a disaster. As we saw in Covid, you have to keep having the stuff moving around. The the guys who deliver to you are essential workers because otherwise the stuff doesn’t. That’s right. I am very struck by the part of that narrative also, with your water poem, You actually lived for a while with a very constrained amount of water.I think, and it seems to me, I’m not sure exactly why you did it, but it felt to me reading it as if that was a self-imposed lesson in managing without having the constant input. Can you say a little bit about that?
Alina: Yeah, it was. It was a self-imposed lesson in some ways, and in some ways it was a bit of a publicity stunt. I mean, I was working as a water issues coordinator in the Canadian prairies for an environmental NGO. And I had heard of this man out in Toronto or somewhere out east who had done this water conservation challenge. And it appealed to me as an idea, as a way of really limiting my water use. And so I for a month, I used no more than twenty five litres of water per day to meet all my daily needs, which was very little. As you know, less than 10 per cent of what the average Canadian was using each day at that time. And that was for cooking, bathing, laundry, drinking, flushing the toilet, everything. So I carried around this little notebook. I was like, how much water I was using for each thing; I was using my cooking or laundry grey water to flush the toilet behind me and having sponge baths. And it really was a very tangible, practical way for me to experience what water scarcity would feel like.
Manda: And did you come out of it with a different, heartfelt relationship to water, a different spiritual relationship to water? Or did you have that already going in?
Alina: It’s a good question. I think certainly I had a different appreciation for water and appreciation for the ease and immediacy of which we are able to access water by just turning on the tap. While, you know, during this month, I had to heat up my water for bathing on the stove because it took too long for the tap to run hot for me to be able to waste all of that water. And so each time I wanted to have, you know, a sponge bath, I had to wait for it. I had to heat up the water. And it really made me think about, well, this is what you know, billions of people around the world do if they get hot water at all, if they have water at all, that is clean and safe to drink. But really, yeah, solidified my appreciation of this thing that we take for granted so much.
Manda: Thank you. And it became a story in and of itself, the story of water and the story of you managing with water. And in your progression from the stories that we have to the stories that we need if we’re going to survive, one of your linkages is our collective hero’s journey or the heroic journey. I was taught at Schumacher to call it the heroic journey because that’s less gendered. And you know, the original guys who proposed this, Heroes were their thing. And nowadays we want things that are more cyclical, more spiral and more embedded in who we are. Rather than Frodo goes out with the ring and goes to Mordor; everything is hell, comes back with the ring, finished, heroic journey cycle.
Manda: And I was wondering, reading that. I have been told by storytellers that every single human story is a heroic journey, that each of us are the heroes of our own journey and that for each of us, life is a sine wave of peaks and troughs and that if you turn the trough around to the peak, it becomes a circle and that it is impossible to break out of the heroic journey. There is no other narrative that will ever appeal to us at the limbic level that George Lakoff was talking about. And I wonder if you have a view on that.
Alina: Yeah, it’s a tricky one, because I mean, it is such a powerful tool in the storytelling toolkit. And I talk about in the book how, for the work of systems change, which is really, you know, the only way that we’re going to be able to solve big problems around climate change, inequality, poverty, deforestation and all the other host of other worries that our planet is facing. It does strike people. They, you know, they resonate with that idea that somebody can rise above whatever barriers they have in their way and overcome the foe or the villain and be a hero in their own journey. And I have several problems with that narrative in the work of systems change, including the fact that it’s very singular. It focuses on a on a singular hero often. And while we might each be living our own hero’s journey, some heroes voices have been elevated above others and there are many heroes whose voices, for various reasons surrounding race, privilege, gender status and society, and many other, I guess, ways of discrimination; mean that we’ve ended up with hero stories that look a lot of the time the same.
Alina: And I mean, even if you look I, I refer to to the Marvel and DC franchises in my book as an unlikely model for showcasing, you know what society could and should look like in terms of this hero’s journey. Is that, you know, somebody who is a hero in one movie might be a villain or a sidekick in the other movie, and that everything is interconnected. And that also speaks to the other big problem that I have with the Hero’s Journey arc is that often there’s an ending. You know, Frodo comes back to the Shire. What happens afterwards? You know, life doesn’t just stop. And so for me, this idea of a collective hero’s journey is, I guess, a concept or a, yeah, a proxy for for where humanity is going as a whole as a collective. And that we are all interconnected and that’s somebody’s heroes narrative arc might be, you know, a side story or a tangent in somebody else’s and that all of these stories are equally valid.
Manda: Thank you. Yes. So. In the understanding that everybody is connected to everybody else. ‘I am the river-the river is me’ is that the phrase in Maori?
Alina: It is. ‘Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au’
Manda: Beautiful. And we hadn’t meant to go directly there, but since we’re here, you have 10 new myths for humanity, one of which is, the second one is From Tree to Me, which embodies what you’ve just said. And I wonder, how do we get there? And this is really the the point of your book is that we need the stories. But I’m really interested in, it seems to me, that this particular story the ‘I am separate from the rest of reality. Not only am I separate from other people, that enables me then to abuse them, but I am completely separate from the whole of the web of life’. And for me, even the word ‘nature’ is like a way of putting it outside and not allowing the integration of that. We’ve had probably ten thousand years of practise of seeing ourselves as separate. So obviously, indigenous peoples, much less, but those of us who are currently destroying the planet are the ones with the heritage of a very, very long time of being separate. How can we build back an actual felt sense of connectedness, in a way that will change our internal narratives. In a time frame that will be good enough. Do you have a sense of that?
Alina: Wow, that’s the million dollar question Manda. And I feel if I had a nice, tidy answer for that, then certainly we would have a lovely roadmap forward. But but for me, it just comes down to day to day actions and in nurturing the sense of belonging. And that the myth that precedes ‘from tree to me’ is ‘from me to we’. And so we need to start with a move from individualism towards collectivism, which many indigenous cultures know very well. And from there? Yeah, just recognising the ecosystem services which we take for granted. And I don’t know if that looks like making sure that, you know, young people are getting more opportunities to be out in nature. And that we’re looking at our education system to say, what are we teaching in classrooms in this abstract way that we could be teaching by actually getting hands in the soil or, you know, classrooms out into the trees? And you know, that might sound a bit hippy and woo woo. But we have gone down this path where we are so disconnected from from the natural world that we don’t even, you know, realise how much we depend on it for our very survival. So I don’t have a neat answer about about how we get there. For me, I mean, I just keep coming back to the story. We just have to keep on changing the story and telling the stories that speak to people at the heart level rather than the head level. And I think that there is a collective move in consciousness towards that kind of thinking. Certainly, you know, in a lot of the circles that I move in, there’s a lot of that, but I do also realise that I’m in a bit of a bubble.
Alina: I had my first… I put my book into a few paid promotional email lists of people who get a daily digest of free or discounted books on Amazon. At the moment, my book is 99 cents on Kindle, so I’m just I’m trying to promote it at the moment. And I just I looked through the email and near the bottom is my quite serious book. I mean, it’s not a serious book. It’s full of fun anecdotes and entertaining stories about the power of story to form the world and ourselves. But it’s sitting there amongst romance novels with, you know, chiselled men’s chests on the front. And there’s and there’s ten of those before you even get to my book and I’m thinking, I am in a bubble aren’t I?
Manda: Yes. Yes. Which is the reality of the world that we live in.
Alina: And that’s a form of escapism. You know, people, people just want to be entertained and escape because the reality of life for a lot of people is just to the point where they don’t see any way of practically being able to help solve any of these problems. And that’s again where I come back to the stories that we tell about ourselves and about other people, are hugely powerful in terms of providing us with the agency to feel like we actually can be part of the solution to some of these big systemic problems. It does start with ourselves and it starts with the language that we use. It starts with the stories that we tell each other, you know, at the café or around the dining table. And especially when we’re talking about the people and there’s a big theme in my book around ‘othering’ and us versus them thinking. So many of the things that we believe to be true about other people who are different from us are just based on narratives and stories that we have, and they’re incomplete stories and often, you know, absolutely untrue stories.
Manda: And we’re heading down to the end. But you live in a world of story, and it sounds to me as if you live in a very exciting world of think tanks and impact summits and Johan Rockström, we still haven’t told everybody who he is, so we must do that. And you are right in there in one of the most progressive countries in the world. We all watched Jacinda Ardern from a distance with awe and wonder and great regret that our own countries were not being run by somebody who got it to that extent. And so if anybody is going to be seeing the stories of how we can flourish beginning to be told in ways that ordinary people can hear, then it’s here. Do you have experience in the circles within which you move, of stories being told, so narratives being told of the narratives that are actually working. Of ways people are getting story out to ordinary people, to the people who would otherwise be buying My Beautiful Viking and other romance stories and who are beginning to engage with hope and a sense of agency,as they then become ambassadors out in the world? It seems to me that’s the model that we need. And I’m wondering if anybody is in a position to have seen this, it’s you. Have you seen it?
Alina: I have seen some of that. And there’s some wonderful initiatives going on in a number of countries. So I’ve mentioned already the Common Cause Foundation in the UK. There’s the Framework’s Institute in the US. There’s a there’s an organisation in New Zealand here called The Workshop, and they’re all focussed on framing the narrative in a way that is helpful and that speaks to people. And I mean, I think, you know, a great example that we saw in the early days of COVID here in New Zealand was the frame that Jacinda Ardern used around being a Team of Five Million and that we were all in this together. And even those words, you know, it was a team of five million. It wasn’t an army of five million or a, you know, a group of five million. And you contrast that with what we heard from Boris Johnson, who spoke of a war, a war on the virus. And I think he even said so it’s a war in which every citizen is directly enlisted. So that kind of war framing and attack and ‘we must overcome the enemy’ framing, is something that just evokes fear in people. Whereas, you know, certainly there are things that this government has got wrong around fighting the pandemic. But in the early days, that frame of a team of five million was just brilliant, and it helped New Zealand to eliminate the first wave of the virus within a couple of months, which was quite incredible. We’re in the depths of another outbreak now, which I don’t think we will eliminate because the delta strain is so much more infectious. But for you know, it gave us a lot of respite for about a year, life was absolutely like normal in New Zealand.
Manda: Brilliant. Ok, that sounds really helpful. So as we were heading down towards the end. It seems to me that the core message of your book is that we are a storied species, we live by narrative, we live by the power of myths and what we need is a new set of myths that will engage us all and give us a path through. Is that fair and is there anything else that we should be taking away from this?
Alina: Yeah, I want to explain what I mean by myth.
Alina: In the final 10 chapters of the book are 10 new myths for humanity and in our popular culture. This word myth is somewhat misunderstood. It has become synonymous with lies or falsehood or, you know, a theory that we believed before we knew better. So we hear phrases like climate change is a myth or Trickle Down Economics is a myth, meaning that these things are simply not true. Whereas the original meaning of the word myth was a seed of truth, a fundamental human truth wrapped up in a story. And that was the way that we understood the world is, is that we had these stories that told us about, you know, the ways that we should be in the world. But in a sense, they are, you know, I’ve heard myths referred to as translating the values of our ancestors, which I really loved. But in this in this book, I reclaim the word myth as a force for good, because with so many different people around the world, with different world views and, you know, an inability to communicate with everybody; it’s myth that is the central guiding story that we could can all believe in. We’ll always disagree a little bit on the details, but if we have a general guiding story. So many of the harmful narratives that underpin our economy, our society, our education system, are all rooted in myths.
Alina: For better or worse, whether they, you know, hold a lot of truth or not. It is these, I guess I also call them mythic narratives that we don’t give a lot of thought to at all. So I mean, some of the myths that I tackle in my book or the reframes of narrative are, you know, as we talked about: ‘from from me to we’, ‘from tree to we’, ‘from scarcity to abundance’, you know, ‘from mankind to humankind’, which speaks to gender inequality. And ‘from now to forever more’ is my final chapter. And that’s about thinking in the very long term. And Alex Evans has got a book, The Myth Gap and it started the Longer Now Foundation in the UK as well, which is focussed on getting people to really think in much longer time frames than the, you know, the hyperactive, attention grabbing online world in which we live at the moment.
Manda: I will go and find that. I did hear a story the other day that somebody in Scotland has set up a library which has books in it donated by authors, so I think Margaret Atwood donated the first and they’re sealed and they won’t be opened for 100 years. And when they’re opened, they will be printed on trees that have just been planted in Norway to make the paper to print these books. So nobody who’s involved in making this happen at the moment will be around when that library comes into existence. And I thought the idea of that as a concept of giving us that sense of ‘from now to forever more’ that you’re talking about in the book. That sense of timescale, and again, I love the bit that you said right at the end of the Greek proverb that says ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees who’s shade they know they shall never sit in’ and other than the inherent sexism in that we could say ‘old people’, but they were Greeks.
Manda: Then it’s..that is what we’re lacking now. We’ve become so narrow, so focussed on consuming everything now, that we daren’t look ahead. And what your book gave me was a sense of creating the stories that will leap into the future, that will become the myths of the future, exactly as you said. That we will be able to leave values, perhaps that we actually care about to our descendants and to the generations yet to come.
Alina: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, there’s a similar story in my in the final chapter about a clock that’s being built inside a mountain in Texas. Powered by thermal changes and I don’t quite understand it, but thermal dynamic temperature changes in the air above. And it’s designed to be working for 10000 years and with a set of chimes inside that will never play the same combination of tones in 300 generations or so. You know, imagine standing in a big underground chamber 10000 Years from now and knowing that some distant Ancestor stood in there and heard an entirely different song. It just blows my mind.
Manda: Yay! Our very own pyramid! We just have to hope that there are humans around still three hundred generations from now who can and will want to. Yeah, so that’s brilliant. I think that feels like a very, very good story to end on. So, Alina Siegfried, thank you so much for phoning in from New Zealand, putting up with the tech crisis and for having written A Future Untold: the power of story to transform the world and ourselves, because it’s brilliant. Thank you.
Alina: Thanks, Manda. It was a pleasure to chat with you.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Alina Siegfried for getting up early in the morning in New Zealand, and wrestling with the tech and particularly for writing the book that helps us to see the ways forward into a different future. Increasingly, it seems to me that the stories we tell are the ways that we change the world. So if you just take one of Alina’s myths and help to shape that in your society, in your culture, in your networks, in the webs that you weave. Then that would be a good act for this week that would, of course, mean that you have to buy her book. But it is a very good book and well worth reading. So that’s your mission for this week, people. Go buy the book and then work through the myths from beginning to end. We will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro as ever for Herculean efforts with the sound files. For the music at the head and foot and for the general sound production. To faith for the website and the tech and to you for listening. You can find us at accidentalgods.life, where you’ll find the other podcasts, the show notes from this and everything else. And the events and gatherings that we are creating for this year and next year. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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