Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 9, No. 3, March 2013
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Power of Story for Changing the Economy

Cary Neeper

This article was originally published in
The Daly News, 14 January 2013

The mission of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) is to advance the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support. We pursue this mission by:

  • educating citizens, organizations, and policy makers on the conflict between economic growth and (1) environmental protection, (2) ecological and economic sustainability, and (3) national security and international stability;
  • promoting the steady state economy as a desirable alternative to economic growth;
  • studying the means to establish a steady state economy.

“Why is a simple story or metaphor so powerful for learning? A well-chosen metaphor puts a spotlight on our assumptions, with a mental picture that is ‘worth a thousand words.’ When a memorable image explains an experience in a more satisfying manner, we will likely use it to replace old, more limited perceptions…”

–Tasha D. Chapman, Ph.D., Adult Educational Theorist, Dean of Academic Services, Covenant Theological Seminary, Saint Louis.

Could engaging stories which illustrate the good life in a steady-state economy help change our economic culture? I think so. A good story can attract new audiences, widening exposure to sustainable economic and ecological policies and providing a vision for a stable future. In my novel, The Webs of Varok, a family made up of humans and aliens returns to their planet, Varok, intending to demonstrate how its ancient steady state economy could be a model for Earth. Instead, they find their planet and their family threatened by an ambitious traitor who ignores the culture’s ethical and legal structure in order to accumulate wealth and power, generating an economic cancer. Set in an alternate 21st century solar system, the story portrays many of the strategies ecological economists have described in nonfiction accounts of the steady-state economy, while painting a picture of localization and the use of consensus to make decisions. The villain causes unwanted growth by ignoring these policies and doing things akin to the way they’re done here on present-day Earth. Although her species has a natural talent for mood reading, the villain is able to close her mind and block others from reading her — a metaphor for our recent problems with obfuscation in the practice of law and secrecy in both economic and financial affairs.

I have yet to find other novels that illustrate the steady state, though many science fiction novels have portrayed social issues and helped to change public perceptions, one of the most powerful being George Orwell’s 1984. But stories that change public perceptions can come in other forms besides novels. The soap operas of the Population Media Center offer a good example. The Center’s radio and television serials have positively influenced attitudes about family planning and reproductive health.

Near the end of the excellent nonfiction book, Enough Is Enough, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill offer “…ten encouraging fictional scenes from a steady-state economy.” We could all probably amplify these ten brief descriptions with personal experiences. In addition, they begin each chapter with an anecdote and a cartoon. These engaging story devices provide more than simple entertainment — they ease readers toward change.

While developing The Webs of Varok, I encountered a few “limited perceptions,” actually misperceptions, of the steady state. People assumed that it meant socialism, stagnation, or too much regulation. To move our culture toward change, our stories need to illustrate why these words do not apply to steady state economics.

A steady state does not require micromanagement. In my novel, Varok’s global democratic government is limited to overseeing resource accounting and to defining widespread needs and problems. Locales take responsibility for solving those problems and enforcing policies appropriate for their unique ecology. No-growth ethics are clearly contrasted with the growth policies that exist in both capitalist and socialist systems.

The past two centuries have imprinted us with rapidly developing and often beneficial technologies. Many assume, therefore, that technology can secure the future. For example, recent articles celebrate, “everyone can have an iPhone,” neglecting the limited quantity of rare earth metals needed to make them. Technology can go only so far in pushing back the limits to growth — we still need to make the transition to a steady-state economy, but many people wrongly equate such an economy with stagnation. Webs helps correct this perception by showing a less-frantic, more-equitable society, where people share large appliances, support local agriculture, and enjoy shorter work hours. Webs’ characters have more time for education, for the development of creative visions and selective technologies, and for mindful enhancements of life.

Can a story centered on such critical thinking gain popularity? Current movie producers and fiction publishers assume that fast-paced action and violence are necessary to sell stories. Countering this viewpoint are public concerns about addiction to violence among young audiences and the historical human compulsion to gain power over others. Does the deluge of vampire stories and dystopian novels provide fuel for these flames? I suspect the young public is ready for something more thoughtful and hopeful. Uplifting stories can be gripping. They can motivate us toward change.

I agree with Dietz and O’Neill: “…the transition to a steady-state economy requires art and imagination.” Engaging stories that depict solutions are one artful way of helping others imagine a different way to live. That’s why The Webs of Varok, its prequel A Place Beyond Man, and the three more forthcoming Varok novels portray a planet where life has been lived at its sustainable best, equitably, for a very long time. It’s no wonder the protagonists rigorously defend their steady state.


Cary Neeper is a writer and an avid student of complexity theory, sustainability, steady-state economics, and the impact of cosmology on issues of science and religion.  For more information, please visit the Archives of Varok.

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