The First Annual Story Field Conference

The Story Field Evolutionary Salon Vision

Tom Atlee circulated this in February 2006...

based on a number of other papers and "Calls" he wrote in the preceding 8 years....

Story Field Salons - Open Space gatherings of perhaps 50 futurists, social thinkers, and experts in sustainability, collective intelligence, evolutionary dynamics, etc. -- everything that would be needed to create a sustainable, wise, joyful, consciously evolving civilization -- along with 50-250 of society's storytellers -- novelists, movie people, humorists, journalists, historians, futurists, scenario consultants, etc. (This can be viewed as a variety of evolutionary salon.)


People have actually lived certain novels into reality:

So stories may offer a powerful way to invoke change in an entire system, especially if they are "imagineering" stories that provide the necessary motivations and rationales, the role models, the compelling drama, and all the instructions we need to live into them in our everyday lives.

So why not convene a 4-7 day Open Space conference where some of our society's top storytellers -- from novelists to historians, from journalists to movie-makers -- talk with sustainability and evolutionary experts, activists, publishers and each other. They'd leave with inspiration, information and colleagues to support them writing fiction and non-fiction with compelling, realistic images of what a sustainable, self-evolving society could look like -- including, as well, past successes and eye-openers like Curitiba, Brazil. Perhaps some sustainablity and evolutionary activists would work with one or more novelists (and movie-makers!) to create popular stories that communities could start living into right away. There's nothing like a compelling role model to get things rolling.


"Story" can be viewed as a natural pattern and form of cognition. Some key ideas on this are summarized briefly on the Power of Story webpage. Vision is a form of story, as are news, fiction, advertising, myth, history, movies, TV programs, etc. (Even the "if, then" structure of logic and science is a micro-story, but that is beyond the purpose of this paper.) A story (as contrasted with data and ideas) is powerful partly because we can place ourselves vicariously in it and sense our own reactions and roles, real and potential. Vision is powerful because it pulls us into the creative tension between "what is" and "what could be" -- the creative tension that generates action. There is no substitute for this.

Daniel Quinn's first ISHMAEL book was written (and/or published) as part of a contest for the best environmental novel -- a contest created and financed by Ted Turner. The extent to which Quinn has dominated the world of popular eco-philosophy is a mark of how powerful story -- and the conscious evocation of stories (as through contests) -- can be.

But, in a sense, contests -- with their winners and losers -- are part of the "old paradigm," the dominator culture. In our new culture(s), we don't want one vision, one story. We want a whole thriving, self-organizing ecosystem of stories and visions. In fact, we want something vast and diffuse enough that it can have real impact on the dysfunctional narrative "field" in which we are all living, the dominant "story field" which shapes the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of everyone in our culture.

The power of the existing story field is that it comes from a million different sources -- novelists, academics, scriptwriters, advertising agencies, journalists -- all creating stories, quite independently, all of which are shaped by the shared assumptions and myths (the story field) of progress, growth, and human dominion. No one is needed shape these stories: the field, itself, shapes them and adds them to itself, entrenching its power in our minds and cultures day by day.

The story field of our culture is churned out around the clock by the institutions all around us through millions of complementary, resonating stories. What hope is there for us to compete with that?

The bad news is we can't compete directly. The good news is we don't have to. We have a secret ally: more and more people every day are finding that the dominant stories don't work for them anymore -- that they are, in fact, disturbing. These people are hungry for new stories, for new visions, for new ways of being they can step into and act from, or on behalf of. Their numbers will grow, inevitably, as the industrial story steadily -- and, increasingly, dramatically -- degrades Life. The real question is: Will we be ready for them? We need to generate thousands of stories that make sustainability and new directions vividly real, as real and compelling as all those old stories that just don't work any more. People need stories like an aerial acrobat needs trapezes. The Bible says, "Without vision, the people perish."


So let us imagine now a special conference, attended by three groups:

a) A good selection of the storytellers of our culture - the playwrights, poets, moviemakers, journalists, novelists, performers, talk show hosts, balladeers, artists, dancers, game-makers, dream-weavers, scriptwriters, historians, psychologists, sociologists, seers -- people like Ursula LeGuin, Garrison Keillor, Eric Utne, Daniel Quinn, Steven Spielberg, Marge Piercy, Jean Hegland, Studs Turkel, Jean Houston, Deena Metzger, Toni Morrison, Robert Redford, Norman Lear, Ernest Callenbach, Bill Moyers, Alice Walker, Michael Toms, John Trudell, Theodore Rozak, Susan Griffin, Gary Larson, Donella Meadows, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Hong Kingston, Bill McKibben, Oprah Winfrey, Tony Hillerman.... I'm sure you can think of dozens of others. These folks know how to weave a tale that compels our attention -- and how to get it out to the public. They have encyclopedic knowledge about the media of our culture. They've rubbed it the wrong way, and it's rubbed them....

b) And then there's people who know what it would take to create a sustainable, meaningful, joyful, co-intelligent, self-evolving culture. They know what needs to be included in any stories that are going to point us in the right direction. These are the experts struggling to awaken the public.

c) Finally there's the folks who have been working to create sustainability and co-intelligence -- in their own lives, in their communities, through the halls of power -- and also those few who already live sustainably and wisely (often with great difficulty) in intentional and indigenous communities. They know what it is like to LIVE sustainability and sacredly, to dream it, to eat it, to walk it and talk it and yearn and burn it, to lose and gain other parts of themselves and their lives on its behalf; they know the joy and pain... These people are authorities on the drama and humanity of sustainability and the search for deeply meaningful and joyful lives. It is their shadows that will haunt the voices and lives of the characters in the stories yet to be born. It is their passion that will burn there.

The conference would be for a week. It would have hundreds of people. There would be only a few pre-arranged sessions -- mostly having to do with scenario spinning, facilitated by professional scenario spinners, so that broad visions could be brainstormed and sketched down into multiple narratives that cover a broad range of possibilities. But mostly it would be what's called "Open Space Conferencing" -- sessions totally self-organized by the participants, with new offerings emerging from the discussions and activities already done -- whatever calls to participants, the conference co-creators. The whole process would be a gigantic evolution, a vast mutual learning and sparking and visioning. People would be profoundly changed. The storytellers would "get the picture" and, when the conference was done, they'd depart with stories bubbling in their minds and hearts -- perhaps even interconnected stories they would coordinate together. No one would have to track them, or create a contest, or DO anything with what they came up with. The subsequent tidal wave overflowing the dominant story field would self-generate, self-organize, self-disseminate (with perhaps a booster shot every 6-12 months with another such conference, and a bit of assisted networking in between).... 

There are many additional things that could be done to juice up such a gathering, to make it even more powerful and compelling (like throw in a few visionary people of means). But you get the idea: To heat up professional storytellers with the facts, passions and dramas of sustainability and visions of a wisdom culture until they catch fire and explode out into the culture with their words and images.

The challenge, of course, is making it happen. That depends on sustainability and evolutionary advocates catching fire from this description, and making it their own. This nascent conference will be born if there are "parents" and "midwives" to bring it into being.


Here is a "call" several of us were thinking of sending to storytellers in an earlier version of this project:

"The new story is heard in the voices of people calling to each other to reflect, to look deeper, to change our lives and our culture towards resilience and sustainability, towards meaning and passion, towards greater harmony with nature and with each other. Could we now be together with less arrogance, less alienation, less craziness, less destructiveness and less fear? For these new voices, the crises of our era present an opportunity to migrate to a new land, a place where we might be together differently with each other and the world around us.

"But we need many more voices, because our maps are old and the old tales forgotten. We need our storytellers to paint us images of communities coming together, of us taking care of one another and thinking and creating together, of rediscovering who our neighbors are, of reconnecting with what's best in humanity, of rediscovering the heart we share with the natural world and the meaning we can find by resonating with that heart in all that we do. We need storytellers to wake us up, and set us on the path to Life again.

"We need many different voices. We need morality tales. We need images that we can grow into. We need stories that delve into the grit of this challenge, the humanness that flares up as we are tempered in the hot uncertainties of these times. We need stories that burn with reality and enlighten us with new visions.

"The challenges of our era call us to recognize that we are engaged in mythic and historic roles. We need you -- our playwrights, poets, moviemakers, journalists, novelists, talk show hosts... our performers, balladeers, artists, dancers... our game-makers, dream-weavers, scriptwriters... our historians, psychologists, sociologists... our seers and listeners -- to hold your candles up, and to set the culture alight with your warnings, your visions, your interpretations, your maps, your vivid dreams of human possibility, that we may find our way.

"Our need for your voice will only grow. We urge you to learn about sustainability, our evolutionary potential, and the collective crises we face -- to immerse yourself in their dynamics, their scenarios, their emotional and spiritual dimensions, their voices, their potential role in the world and in our lives. We urge you to let them enter you, to let them expand the edges of your own story, your own life. And we ask you then to find your own way through, leaving markers as you go. We urge you to walk with us on this path that we are making. Everything in the world depends on it."

So there you have an "imagineering" story about a conference that could generate the stories we need, in a natural, self-organizing way. All it would take is someone dedicated to make this figment of imagination real. Are there people in our networks that might catch fire with this?


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This conference is being organized with support from the Kellogg Foundation and the Co-Intelligence Institute.
Illustration credit: Dana Lynne Andersen, in
From Lava to Life: the Universe Tells our Earth Story by Jennifer Morgan -- Courtesy of Dawn Publications