The case for imagination
Why it's so crucial to systemic change
Over the last couple of years, our work at A Growing Culture has sort of zeroed in on the importance of telling stories. Specifically, telling new about agriculture—ones that centre the voices and perspectives of our partners on the ground.
Throughout the process of finding this new grounding for our work, we have developed a broader appreciation for the role of storytelling and narrative within the work of systems change. Stories are a powerful tool because good ones have the potential to build empathy and bring people together in shared understanding; more often than not, they serve as the building blocks of movements, especially new ones. But I think they have an even more important function, which is what I wanted to focus on today: the ability to imagine systems beyond the ones we live under now.
We talk about systems change a lot in our work, and admittedly, it can be kind of vague. What constitutes a system? What does it mean to change one? What does this work look like in reality? The ambiguity is not lost on us. I think sometimes we use the framing because it’s the contrast to the alternative, which is addressing the symptoms of the problem without taking into account the root causes. It’s like the housing metaphor we used in the last newsletter—we can point out that we cannot build houses on unstable foundations, but then what do we do if we have no idea how to begin a task as massive as rebuilding the foundation (especially when the ‘foundation,’ in reality, means systems like capitalism and patriarchy). It’s like a double-bind: we can’t really fix the problems that these systems are causing downstream—like industrial agriculture—unless we shift the root causes. But if changing a system like capitalism seems like an impossibly large task, the only way forward seems to be to make incremental change, even if it’s imperfect. There is truth to the predicament. And there is certainly a place for incremental change. But I think there’s a step we’re missing, a question we are often failing to really ask ourselves: can we even imagine systems beyond the ones we have now? Do we believe that it’s possible to have a world not characterised by capitalism and patriarchy? What might this new world look like?
Personally, I oscillate back and forth. Sometimes it’s hard not to lean towards feeling like it’s truly impossible to meaningfully shift—let alone dismantle—these systems. They’ve just become too large. They run too deep. The best we can do is chip away at them. This may be true to some extent—nobody really knows. But I believe this kind of thinking is also a product of the stories we tell about the world, rather than being rooted in some kind of absolute truth.
So many of the stories we get told about our collective history—books like Sapiens and Guns, Germs, and Steel come to mind as popular ones—tell a very linear (and rather pessimistic) narrative. In the former, agriculture is the worst mistake we ever made. The crops domesticated us, the story goes, forcing us to work long hours, and now we’re just stuck on this hamster wheel that we’ll never truly escape. In this narrative, we are prisoners—forced to contend with the decision of our ancestors thousands of years ago to abandon their idyllic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of this drudgery. Better luck next time.
It may seem insignificant, but this kind of framing that presents our modern-day world as the inevitable byproduct of our past decisions doesn’t present many pathways toward transformation. The best we can do is try to manage better within the structures we have. I think this kind of story is dangerous, and based on the evidence we have from both past and present, I don’t think it’s true, either.
Many of us on the team have been chipping away at David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new book The Dawn of Everything, which has a very aligned position with ours on this topic. It helped many of us on the team destabilise some of the understandings we had about the trajectory of agriculture and its role in our shared history. As the authors write:
“Choosing to describe history… as a series of abrupt technological revolutions [Stone Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, Information Age, etc], each followed by long periods when we were prisoners of our own creations, has consequences. Ultimately it is a way of representing our species as decidedly less thoughtful, less creative, less free than we actually turn out to have been.
It means not describing history as a continual series of new ideas and innovations, technical or otherwise, during which different communities made collective decisions about which technologies they saw fit to apply to everyday purposes, and which to keep confined to the domain of experimentation or ritual play. What is true of technological creativity is, of course, even more true of social creativity.
One of the most striking patterns we discovered while researching this book – indeed, one of the patterns that felt most like a genuine breakthrough to us – was how, time and again in human history, that zone of ritual play has also acted as a site of social experimentation – even, in some ways, as an encyclopaedia of social possibilities.” (p. 501)
What would it look like if we truly saw the world through a lens like this? If we saw ourselves as a playful, creative, and resourceful species that constantly reinvents its social structures, experimenting and failing and rebuilding over and over again?
Of course, one could argue about the evidence for a given narrative—that there is more evidence of the linearity argument or more evidence for the perspective of Graeber and Wengrow, but ultimately, I think there is a different insight here: just how important stories are to the process of moving forward. The process of building towards the future that we ultimately want to see.
To get more specific, I think it’s worth investigating the stories we tell about systems change, especially in agriculture. These questions come up a lot, both amongst the team and in the feedback we get. Can we really move beyond industrial agriculture? Could we actually break up the monopolies of transnational corporations? Could we truly have a non-commodified food system? The questions are underscored with both scepticism and fear—both understandable reactions.
But I think one reason systems change seems so daunting is because we tend to misunderstand the scale at which it needs to occur. When we think of systems change, it’s easy to think of a total dismantling or transformation of an economic system like capitalism, replaced with something completely different. And of course, if we’re thinking of a global scale, this is incredibly daunting. But what if systems change didn’t have to mean dismantling a system at a global scale?
The story of this type of systems change that I always come back to is the one of Thamturakit, a project started in Thailand by one of our partners. We’ve written about it before more in-depth here. But the short version is this: contract farming was (and is) the dominant style of agriculture in Thailand. Contract farming was proposed as a way to give more market access to smaller farmers by providing them contracts with larger companies to deliver a certain amount of crops each year. But it wasn’t working for farmers, because the contracts were often predatory; they were controlled by a couple of massive agricultural corporations who had significantly more resources, leaving farmers with little bargaining power. The farmer would also be responsible for all of the input costs, not to mention all of the risk if there was a bad year climate-wise. Often by the time the farmer would pay off all of the overhead costs, there wouldn’t be much profit left at all to buy necessities like food for their own families, even if they delivered all of the crops to the corporation and received the stipulated price. If they weren’t paid properly or something more egregious went wrong with the contract, they had little means for legal recourse against such large and powerful companies.
On the consumer side, there had been concerns over pesticide levels in food for some time. Because of this, there was also heightened demand for organic produce, but very little availability. Thamturakit sought to address both of these problems by supporting farmers to transition to a self-sufficient, low-input agricultural model where they would grow a variety of crops and focus on meeting their own food needs first, selling the surplus they had left over. But the next challenge was the market—it’s difficult for farmers to grow a wider variety of crops because they’ll have a smaller amount of a lot of different things, rather than a large amount of one crop which is much easier to sell. To remedy this, Thamturakit began collecting all of the surpluses from the different farmers and selling all of the crops at the same per-kilo price at their own market. Consumers would buy however many kilos of produce they wanted, and higher-value and lower-value crops were all priced the same. This way, farmers could better predict their income and were incentivised to grow many different kinds of crops.
But before jumping into this new model, they realised that this new project had to be rooted in mutual understanding; consumers needed to understand the challenges facing farmers, and vice versa. They designed a four-day educational program that both parties would have to undergo before they became part of the project, so they would have a chance to meet and forge connections with one another. From this, not only have they created a thriving alternative to the contract farming system; they have also created a new community of care around agriculture. On the consumer side, after learning more about the challenges facing farmers, many living in cities have become more involved in the farms, helping to volunteer during busy periods, or offering whatever skills they have to help the farmers in their operations. Today, over 100,000 people have undergone Thamturakit’s training (a mix of farmers and consumers), and they’re working directly with over 1,000 farmers.
What they have done is profound, but in some ways, it doesn’t look like the “systems change” we often imagine. They did not dismantle contract farming (nor are they really trying to). They did not completely reshape how agriculture functions in Thailand. What they did was create an alternative. They created a new choice where once there was none. They opened up a new path.
So when we talk about systems change, I don’t believe that it has to occur at some grand, revolutionary scale. It doesn’t have to look like millions of people in the streets toppling institutions and demanding change (although it certainly can, and in some cases, it should—the farmer’s protests in India are a great example of this). But my point is that systems change doesn’t have to look like this. It can also look like building alternatives at more localised scales, playing with new structures and experimenting and finding new ways to organise how we grow and eat food. This is the kind of systems change we can all participate in, simply by looking around us and asking more questions about what we see. By figuring out what isn’t working in our communities and trying to create new choices where they didn’t exist before.
This is also why the concept of food sovereignty is so powerful. Because rather than operating within the rules of our current societal structures, it moves beyond them, reimagining what an entirely different way of growing food might look like. It then allows the space for individual communities to identify the unique barriers to realising this vision in their own contexts, and to come up with innovative, creative solutions. It may not be the grand type of systems change, with massive rupture and reorganisation, but I believe it is just as powerful, in part because it allows us that space for reimagination—for rewriting the narrative about what is possible for our food system.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be putting out content centred around the idea of language, storytelling, and narrative as forms of power. We’ll be exploring what that means, why we choose to use the words we do, and why imagining these new alternatives is some of the most crucial work we must all take part in if we want to realise a food system that is rooted in justice.
As always, if you have any questions or feedback, we would love to hear from you. If you have observed examples of this kind of systems change happening, we’d love to hear about that, too. Our comments are open, and you can always reply to our newsletters and we’ll do our best to get back to you.
This blog post by Ella Saltmarshe titled “Using Story to Change Systems.” I read it a few years ago, and dug it up again while writing this essay. I liked her framing further down in the post about the different functions of stories in systems change—story as light, story as glue, and story as web. I think having framing around these questions—as well as ways of thinking about this meta-approach of crafting “stories about stories,” is really helpful in this work.
This essay by Dani Dillon for Mold Magazine titled “Why Have There Been No Great Worker-Owned Restaurants?” It’s a great read, opening with a quote from Ben Miller which asks “Why is it that in conversations about ‘sustainability’ we talk about vegetables but not about people?” It’s an important question, and we ask ourselves often.
This op-ed from George Monbiot for The Guardian titled “The banks collapsed in 2008 – and our food system is about to do the same.” We don’t always agree with everything Monbiot has to say (particularly about the role of technology in agriculture) but this article was a really nice application of a systemic approach to looking at the food system. It’s worth a read.