Mairi Kershaw, Chair of the South West Learning for Sustainability Coalition, contributes today’s blog post.

A person whose goal is self realisation is helping to change the world at its most fundamental level, such people are perhaps the ultimate revolutionaries” 

This quote dates back to 1996. In this century, however, social networking has facilitated an outpouring of enlightenment tales. So why is the Coalition taking the time to record the sustainability stories of people living and working in the South West?

The stimulus was a small piece of quantitative research aimed at distinguishing which learning sector: formal, informal or non-formal, was most formative in terms of developing sustainable lifestyles. Interviews took ages and the Coalition decided that it was time to get creative and to record people’s personal stories of transformation instead, and in more imaginative ways.

Why stories though? Recent research has shown that our values are ‘turned on’ through frequent exposure to sets of related attitudes, and the written word remains a key method of effecting such exposure. Fairy stories, fables and even parables force us to look at the world through different windows, and perhaps reach new conclusions about familiar situations. For those who question the validity of stories in sustainability learning, should consider the fact that sustainability knowledge and wisdom have always resided within folklore, and indeed the oral tradition of story telling has allowed this wisdom to transcend generations and cross cultural barriers.

Chief Seattle’s words ring true today:

‘Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth  is our mother?  Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth … the earth does not belong to the white man, the white man belongs to  the earth”.

In the build up to Rio+20 we strove both individually and collectively to come up with narratives powerful enough to engage populations with the complexity and urgency of the challenges under discussion. The task was difficult.

Personal narrative, however, is a powerful tool because it engages us with the attitudes and memories of another being. The narrative presents a longitudinal study of a life lived and can highlight the pivotal moments at which we change our values and behaviours.

At the South West Coalition, we are collecting and collating stories in the style of the narrator; recordings are on U Tube, as pictures, in data sheets, via memos, and through the 6-word memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s response to the challenge of writing a story in six words was ‘For sale; baby shoes; never worn’. He called it his best work. John Cree’s story of sustainability learning, given at the 2015 National Sustainable Schools Conference in Bristol read: ‘Sunship Earth, massive joy, whole world’. It’s a lot more uplifting.

Will you share your story with us or, as Joan Armatrading sang in six words, ‘And if not now, then when?’


Mairi Kershaw can be contacted at:

NB, The first quote comes from: Russel P in Pepper D (ed) (1996) ‘Modern Environmentalism’ Routledge, London and New York .

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