The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

Monoculture

There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning...And we can be sure that if we know a story well enough to tell it, it carries meaning for us. — ROBERT FULFORD

THE HISTORY OF HOW we think and act, said twentieth- century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives. If you look at any civilization, Berlin said, you will find a particular pattern of life that shows up again and again, that rules the age. Because of that pattern, certain ideas become popular and others fall out of favor. If you can isolate the governing pattern that a culture obeys, he believed, you can explain and understand the world that shapes how people think, feel and act at a distinct time in history.1

The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story — one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.

Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside. It teaches us to fear and distrust other stories; other stories challenge the monoculture simply by existing, by representing alternate possibilities.

As a result, learning to see the monoculture can leave us feeling threatened and anxious because the process exposes our foundations, outlines the “why” of why we live the way we do. Still, if we fail to understand how the monoculture shapes our lives and our world, we’re at risk of making decisions day after day without ever really understanding how our choices are being predetermined, without understanding how the monoculture even shapes what we think our options are. Without a clear understanding of the monoculture, it’s hard to understand the trajectory of your own life. But once you know what shared beliefs and assumptions make up the governing pattern at this point in history, you can discover the consequences of the monoculture and decide if that’s how you really want to live.

Monocultures and their master stories rise and fall with

the times. By the seventeenth century, for example, the master story revolved around science, machines and mathematics. Developments in fields like biology, anatomy, physics, chemistry and astronomy were early harbingers of modern science. People began to believe that the nature of the world could be discovered through mathematics, that physical laws directed the behavior of all bodies, and that living creatures could be systematically catalogued in relation to one another. Life was understood as a series of questions with knowable answers, and the world became methodical and precise. A scientific monoculture was created.

That scientific monoculture was radically different from the religious monoculture that preceded it. If you had lived in sixteenth century Europe, a hundred years earlier, you would almost certainly have understood your life through the master story of religion and superstition. People lived surrounded by angels and demons. When Galileo contradicted the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church by claiming that the sun and not the Earth was at the center of the solar system, he was accused of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Excommunication from the church and the damning of your eternal soul was a real threat, and you could literally pay for your sins to guarantee yourself a short stay in purgatory. Religion was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the master story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, and in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.

Monocultures, though overwhelmingly persuasive and pervasive, aren’t inescapable. In the end, the human experience always diverges from the monoculture and its master story, because our humanity is never as one- dimensional as the master story says it is. The human experience is always wider and deeper than a single narrative, and over time, we become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us — can’t give us. Once you know what the monoculture looks like, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead — to know it so you can leave it behind.

In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic. Because of the rise of the economic story, six areas of your world are changing — or have already changed — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. How you think about your work, your relationships with others and the natural world, your community, your physical and spiritual health, your education, and your creativity are being shaped by economic values and assumptions.

And because how you think shapes how you act, the monoculture that arises as a result isn’t just changing your mind — it’s changing your life.