From Beyond Social

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According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind’ storytelling is one of the main characteristics why we humans differentiate ourselves from other social animals like chimpanzees, ants, bees, etc. This all started by a form of storytelling which we now describe as gossip. While chimpanzees needed to form exclusively direct bonds, we could talk amongst ourselves about who would be fitting to become the next leader of our group. In the times when we were hunters and gatherers, we could inform our people after a day’s hunting the location of a lion or a piece of land rich on fruits. Later this developed into creating narratives that enabled us to cooperate in large numbers. Humans are capable of cooperating in numbers up to a 150 people, if this limit is reached there is only chaos. By creating narratives, shared myths like religions, we were able to cooperate in larger numbers because the group then shares the same values and believes.

Ursula K. LeGuin, prominent science fiction author of the 20th century, wrote an essay on her view of the importance of storytelling called ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’. In this essay she proposes a new insight in our current way of viewing the history of humans. The dominant narrative amongst historians in our Western Society is that of the Human as the Hero, a storyline of victory and slaughter in which the Hero is a male. We humans came to be where we are now, as many believe at the top of our food chain, by slaughtering animals, our first tools being weapons like spears and knives. Ursula K. LeGuin states that this is false and that actually, since we started as gatherers, the bag is our first tools. When we were gathering food, a bag or a sling freed our hands and enabled us to carry even more. Gathering food took about fifteen hours a week and this led us to bringing back to our huts not only food but stories.

“Fifteen hours a week for subsistence leaves a lot of time for other things. So much time that maybe restless ones who didn’t have a baby around to enliven their life, or skill in making or cooking or singing, or very interesting thoughts to think, decided to slope off and hunt mammoths. The skilful hunters then would come staggering back with a load of meat, a lot of ivory, and a story. It wasn’t the meat that made the difference. It was the story.”

Donna Haraway describes herself as a ‘scholar practicing her profession as a fabulator’ and explains in the intro of her book ‘Staying with the trouble, making kin in the chthulucene’ that she is not interested in mending a broken past. She wants to acknowledge and deal with problems we face today and speculate about a future in which there’s “still possible finite flourishing, still possible recuperation.” One way she’s doing this is through her Camille stories, her Children of Compost, the concluding chapter of her book. These narratives speculate about an earth that is not (yet) destroyed on which people in the form of syms and non-syms, are living freely.

"If the Communities of Compost had not proved from their earliest years so successful and so infectious among other human people and peoples, the earth’s population would have reached more than 11 billion by 2100. The breathing room provided by that difference of a billion human people opened up possibilities for ongoingness for many threatened ways of living and dying for both human and nonhuman beings."

Although Donna Haraway took great inspiration from Ursula K. LeGuin, the latter wrote speculative fictions in a different, more doomed way. LeGuin’s book ‘The Dispossessed’ written in 1974, is a story about different planets colonized by humans. Every planet has it’s own society, developed in different ways. On the planet Urras the society is a propertarien one, everything is based on possessing thing, humans and the natural world. Much like our world the top most rich group of people has all the power. Wealth is distributed unequally and women are suppressed. From this planet some 170 years before a revolution started led by a women named Odo. This group emigrated to a new planet named Anarres, on where they live by a anarchist manifesto written by Odo. On Anarres there is no government and power is equally distributed. Everyone works, not because they have to to earn money (and survive) but because it’s a shared value to contribute to society.

"Decentralisation had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded. She had no intention of trying to de-urbanise civilisation. Though she suggested that the natural limit to the size of a community lay in its dependence on its own immediate region for essential food and power, she intended that all communities be connected by communication and transportation networks, …"

Later on in the book a planet called Terra, is introduced and with this LeGuin speculates about a possible future for our earth.

"A planet spoiled by human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth… There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do--they never adapt either."

Donna Haraway writes an opposing speculative fiction centralized around human's love for life and the earth:

"These eruptions of healing energy and activism were ignited by love of earth and its human and nonhuman beings and by rage at the rate and scope of extinctions, exterminations, genocides, and immiserations in enforced patterns of multispecies living and dying that threatened ongoingness for everybody. Love and rage contained the germs of partial healing even in the face of onrushing destruction."

What Ursula K. LeGuin and Donna Haraway have in common is the belief in the importance of storytelling. Although in different forms, together with Noah Yuval Harari’s findings I agree with both. However David Wallace-Wells, in his book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ is sceptic to the ability of storytelling to help maintaining a habitable earth.

"Today, the movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly."

Reading David Wallace-Wells’ critique I think he falls in the trap of only looking at storytelling in pop culture. Huge Hollywood movies are inherently commercial and not designed to actually induce change, rather they evoke consumerism. Therefore to state that storytelling is of no use in changing our behaviour seems short-sighted.


Donna Haraway / Speculative Fabulation. (2016, 24 mei). [Video]. YouTube.

Guin, U. K. L. (2002). The Dispossessed. Gollancz.

Guin, U. L. (2019). The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Adfo Books.

Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens. Harper.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Experimental Futures) (Illustrated editie). Duke University Press Books.

Ursula K Le Guin debate con Donna Haraway. (2018, 24 januari). [Video]. YouTube.

Wallace-Wells, D. (2019). The Uninhabitable Earth. Adfo Books.


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