By Invitation

Good news, the end is not nigh

Doomsday scenarios are aplenty these days - but no, the world is not going to hell in a handcart just yet. What - or who - will save the day? My bet is on storytellers.

Remember those people you used to see walking up and down city streets wearing a sandwich board saying "The End is Nigh"? I think they got it wrong. This may come as a disappointing revelation for some people. Being a doomsayer is popular these days.

You just have to turn on the television news to see that. The world is going to hell in a handcart, lots of handcarts, and it's just a question of which one gets there first - global warming, war, industrial collapse, mass extinction of species, strange presidents and post-truth politics. And as for the dizzying pace of change in the world of business - it used to be the case that we got major transformations every 10 years, now they happen over lunch.

All the same, I remain optimistic. We've still got a while to go before the fat lady sings.

I think there is a group of people among us who might be able to help fix the mess. They are not the usual suspects, not the economists, politicians, or technologists. They are not normally thought of as problem-solvers at all; you are more likely to find them at children's parties than international summits. Who are they? Storytellers.

I came to this conclusion after reading a book by anthropologist Yuval Harari called Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. He begins his book by asking a rather interesting question about the human race: How did we get to be Lords of the Planet in the first place? When you think about it, our ascent seems rather unlikely. Genetically, we were very closely related to the common chimpanzee and the bonobo. There was nothing special about us.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

On the plains of ancient Africa, we didn't excel at anything: We weren't the fastest, the strongest, or the fiercest. We were last in the queue behind the hyenas and vultures for the remains of the lion's kill. In a boxing match, the Neanderthals would have won every time.

And yet, we out-competed them all. People have suggested all sorts of theories to explain this, such as opposable thumbs or the fact that we stood up on our hind legs so we could see farther across the savannah. But if that is the explanation, why did we conquer the world, and not giraffes?

Harari claims the answer is storytelling. Homo sapiens, he maintains, were able to cooperate in a way not available to other species, using a shared belief in stories.

STIRRING TALES

Other animals cooperate, but only inside their own groups. Wolves do not make alliances with other wolf packs. When a tribe of Neanderthals went into battle, the maximum army they could field was limited by the size of the tribe, say, 80 or 90 people, whereas humans could get numerous tribes to unite around something called a flag, or a religion or similar ideology. A shared story.

I'm pretty sure Harari is right about the wolves - I don't think they tell stories - but I'm not quite sure what grounds he has for claiming Neanderthals didn't tell stories. How would anyone know? But he is surely on to something.

A lot of the really powerful things in this world just exist in our minds as shared beliefs, fiction, stirring tales. At first sight, that sounds perverse, but the closer you look, the more compelling the thesis gets. International boundaries are stories. Just something we all believe, but which you will never find engraved on the landscape. Birds don't believe in national boundaries, so they don't need passports.

Corporations are fiction. So is money, arguably the most powerful story of all. Some people will murder a stranger for a piece of paper with this story written on it.

Throughout history, people have shown themselves willing, time and time again, to die for a story. Most wars are fought on the back of them, the notion that the people on the other side of the river are evil, or plotting an attack.

In order to get people to do something as irrational as giving up their lives, we invent stories about freedom and oppression and glory. Glory is the story they tell about you once you are dead. The paradox is that things that are not real turn out to be more powerful than things which are. Stories such as money, profit and corporations now have the power to destroy things such as forests and oceans, and even the planet itself.

To understand the amazing power of stories to shape behaviour, consider a tale told about the Wild West (which, of course, was also a potent myth). In 1873, surveyors mapped out the 49th Parallel, which was to form the border between the United States and Canada. They crossed an entire continent, leaving cairns of stones behind to mark the position of the line of latitude.

As they worked, they were watched by curious Native American tribes, who asked what they were doing. The surveyors said they were making medicine for the Great Mother Across the Water in London. This, of course, was Queen Victoria.

The Native Americans were baffled, but the following spring, when they went horse stealing south of the border, they discovered a remarkable thing. When law enforcement officers chased them, they would stop at the line marked by the line of cairns, like wasps hitting glass, unable to proceed, whereas the native Americans passed right through. From this, they concluded that the Great Mother Across the Water had more powerful medicine than the Great Father in Washington. They called it the Medicine Line.

We may smile at their naivety, but actually, they were the smart ones. We are the ones who are imprisoned in and enchained by the medicine. We can't seem to let go of our stories, even when they are driving us to destruction.

A NEW STORY THAT UNITES

What is to be done? It seems to me, we need new stories, and better storytellers. We need to find a narrative that we can all unite around before it is too late. I'm well aware how naive that sounds, but what is the alternative?

It's apparent to anyone watching the news that the wheels are coming off the current narratives. The Brexit vote in Britain to leave the European Union and the election of Mr Donald Trump as United States president both seem symptomatic of a wider malaise, a rebellion against the 1 per cent by the dispossessed left behind by the tides of globalisation. Allied to this is the fetish of consumption, consumption and more consumption that cannot be sustained if the planet is to survive.

For all that, I do not think we need to be despondent. There have been plenty of times in the past when the human race has managed to unite around a positive story.

The people of Singapore are descended from people who travelled from all over the world, from China, India, Persia, Armenia, all the European lands - they all took great risks and faced great hardship in pursuit of the story known as "A better future for our children". My own father came to Singapore in response to that story.

Where will we find these storytellers?

The storytellers of the future are in our schools, I believe, because I believe in the next generation. But schools, as we know them, will have to be differently constituted. I've always been a great believer that we are all born creative, but most people have it educated out of them in a system where we are taught to conform, and where so much emphasis is placed on the specific skill of passing exams. I don't think being good at exams will be much help in storytelling.

Right now, the story of the human race is encoded into a golden gramophone record aboard the Voyager 1 space probe. The probe left the solar system around the beginning of this century and is now in inter-stellar space. It is expected to reach the star system Gliese 445 around 40,000 years from now. The record is a kind of time capsule, "a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth", according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website. It tells our story to any extraterrestrials out there. I wonder what they will make of it on Gliese 445.

Will it be the last time our story is told? I'm confident it won't be, if we can just rouse ourselves and find the right story now.

Storytelling is humankind's second-most popular recreational activity. You all know what the first is.

If we are to survive, maybe we need to get busy with them both.

• The writer is worldwide co-chairman and chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Good news, the end is not nigh'. Print Edition | Subscribe