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In the time of coronavirus, we’ve seen how powerful the actions of ordinary people can be; we’ve seen how collaboration counts in delivering immediate solutions and we’ve seen how stories – true or false – can spread faster than the disease itself. Today, and in working towards a future we want, the stories we tell matter more than ever, writes Tatjana von Bormann
Not only viruses spread from person to person. Other things spread too. Financial panic, for instance, driven by stories that are repeated by word of mouth, in the press and exponentially through social media. The contagion spread by these hopeless narratives can be just as destabilising for society and the economy as a viral pandemic.
Yale economist and Nobel laureate, Robert Shiller, in his book Narrative Economics which came out late last year, argues that the stories we tell could have as much influence on a country’s long-term economic prospects as a government’s fiscal relief measures or tax regimes. He likens them to a form a narrative contagion, spreading from person to person, infiltrating all of society, and driving major economic events.
This makes sense to journalists or sociologists, but less so to economists who prefer algorithms and abstract theoretical models to build theorems for the response of the ‘rational’ individual to events.
Shiller, who was one of the primary originators of behavioural economics, explained in an article in the Financial Times (1 November 2019) that we need to be “looking at how the stories we tell ourselves about the world drive our behaviour — and thus the world itself if enough people buy into them. Economists need to study this if they are to have any hope of doing a better job than they have in the past of predicting major events — such as recessions or asset bubbles — and how people react to them.”
We are all becoming pretty expert on how viruses spread but, as we struggle to make sense of an economy suddenly immobilised, we should take heed of Shiller’s timeous – even prescient – thesis. It’s time to think about our role in the spread of this other insidious form of contagion. And, somewhat more optimistically, think about how we might master this phenomenon as a force for the good.
In dealing with the immediate fallout of the lockdown there is little time to stand back and reflect on the magnitude of this reset in our lives and the global economy. Even those who are attempting long-term forecasts preface their projections by acknowledging that they don’t have a crystal ball. Our world has been upended and we are at a loss to understand what it’ll take to right it again.
It is important to recognise right now, says Professor Andries du Toit, of the University of Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), that it is impossible to know what a post-Covid-19 world will look like. He argues that trying to understand the system as a whole is not a useful activity “when that system is in the middle of imploding, rupturing or undergoing rapid radical and unpredictable transformation”.
This idea of whole system thinking has been front and centre of much of WWF’s work to date so it’s not a small thing to have to recalibrate our approach. According to Du Toit, “All we can do at this stage is observe, accept and act in response to what is happening in front of us right now, and to act as quickly as possible to invest in the sustainability and resilience of the institutions and networks that are essential to sustain life and community right now.”
One of our observation tasks, then, should be noticing the larger themes within the “narrative economics”, namely the primary narrative arcs within society. If we can do this we will be better equipped not only to predict but also to prepare for the damage and recovery in major economic events.
So what if part of our social movement now was to influence that narrative arc?
This twinning of observation and action is already evident across the country, right from the highest office in the land to the groundswell of grassroots and community mobilisation to support for those in need, with everything from food and masks to free schoolbooks and emotional support delivered via Zoom.
Observing and sharing these stories of remarkable spontaneous efforts at a community level has another effect on us. They are nuggets of hope. This spontaneous solidarity, evidence of basic decency in our society – brought on by a few well-placed activists and a greater dawning awareness of just how tenuous life is for the majority of South Africans – is remarkable and, if it can be sustained, gives us all hope for the future.
If observing the actions of social solidarity from others is a source of hope, then this is even more true of our own actions. This is the view of Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger, who says that, “Hope is more the consequence of action than its cause”. Hope is a consequence of action, not the other way around.
This crisis is exposing the things which were already failing in our society. One of the unsettling aspects of the lockdown says Du Toit, is the hitherto, “lack of awareness of the conditions of life and the nature of political community for the 40% or so of our population that are marginalised within South Africa's distributive systems”.
If nothing else, the lockdown has exposed these stark disparities to the broad glare of daylight. In South Africa the privileged few will never be able to go back to claiming ignorance or insulation from the lived reality of half our population, who cannot be sure where their next meal will come from and have little ability to protect themselves from exposure to the virus.
We’ve seen how unequal our society is, how the poor generally have jobs that can’t be done at home if they have a job at all, must travel in to their work in public transport, depend heavily on the informal economy, tend to have the highest incidence of chronic diseases and often chronic stress allied to both their health and living conditions, and limited access to healthcare.
We also cannot go back to the blithe assumption that it’s a challenge best left to government. Not after we have heard the stories or participated in this individual and grassroots response which has been one of the most notable features of this crisis.
Du Toit says ‘all we can do’ is observe, accept and act. Part of this process of paying attention, reaching out and acting can be making an effort to understand popular stories that are taking shape — how they start and how they spread. We have tracer teams mapping the person-to-person viral spread. How about tracing the start of a good story and spreading it far and wide?
Shiller’s book includes a focus on the effort people make to develop new contagious stories or make stories more contagious. We need to become expert in this, in tracing these stories that should be part of the future social and ecological systems, and by contributing to their infective curve we will better understand how to act.
Renowned behavioural economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says the main cues we get for the right actions or behaviours are from observing other people. In a recent interview on America’s National Public Radio he said one of the reasons the US was slow to respond to the spread of the virus is because of a lack of appropriate behaviour, particularly from those in the highest public positions in the land. It is the behaviour of public figures that sends the strongest signals for appropriate actions, he says. Moreover, cumulative behaviour matters – it’s not the one donation to the Solidarity Fund but the many actions of many – because it sets the patterns for all to follow.
What people do and how often they do it matters, how many do it in collaboration with others matters and the stories we tell about these things clearly matter too.
The hope that comes from paying attention and acting is important here. Not optimism which under current circumstances would be patently delusional. This is a muscular form of hope, not a soft and ephemeral thing. This is a hope that can look beyond the uncertainty in the foreground and be anchored into something beyond the horizon. Righting this system that had so much wrong with it in the first place is going to take a long time and it may take years for the pattern of current efforts to fall into place.
For now there is no certainty but we can all just do our bit – even if that just means staying home and telling a good story to at least one other person. It’s time to imagine a future we want and talk about it. This is every bit as an important area of collective action as our immediate acts of charity and fellowship are.
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