Need to know
Are you losing faith in humanity and tempted to disengage from the world? It would be understandable. From war in Ukraine to escalating tensions between China and the United States, from the climate emergency to the cost-of-living crisis, from obscene inequality to paralysing isolation and loneliness, there’s so much to deal with – and so much that can seem out of our control. I’ve heard people say that this feels like a time of collapse: we humans are breaking ourselves, each other and our planet.
But there’s another, more hopeful way of seeing this moment. After I took Masters degrees in Classics, responsibility and business practice, and philosophy; spent eight years running a consultancy business called the New Citizenship Project; and all the research for my book Citizens (2022), I realised that what is broken is not human nature, but the story that has exerted increasing influence on almost all of human society for the past 80 years. When you recognise this, you can begin to reclaim your faith in humanity; you can start to see this as a time of renewal, not just collapse; and you can find whole new ways to step into your agency.
This kind of story represents what Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) defined as a ‘paradigm’, and Donella Meadows described in an essay for the Sustainability Institute in 1997 as:
The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions – unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them – constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works … the sources of systems.
The problems with the Consumer Story
With this in mind, I believe we have been living within what I call the Consumer Story for the past 80 years. In this story, our role as individuals is to pursue our own self-interest, on the basis that will aggregate to the best outcomes for society. We define ourselves through competition. Along the way, our choices represent our power, our creativity, our identity – they make us who we are. Every organisation and institution, from businesses to charities to government, exists to offer these choices. All are reduced to providers of products and services.
What’s more, I see the crises of our time as consequences of this story. We have a crisis of inequality because we have been living within a story that tells us success is competition and accumulation. We have an ecological crisis because we are trapped in a story that tells us we are separate from nature and must dominate it. And we have a loneliness crisis because the story tells us we are independent individuals, who must make it (or not) alone. Most dangerously of all, our sense of powerlessness in the face of these crises is also a consequence of the story. Because our individual choices represent our agency, the story tells us that all we can do to address the problems of the world is to make different choices – use a reusable cup, take shorter showers, take the train instead of flying. Even voting, supposedly our most powerful act, is arguably just another expression of individual choice. Don’t get me wrong, these things matter and are good to do – but, deep inside, I think most people would recognise they are not commensurate with the challenges we face.
The hope and promise of the Citizen Story
I was inspired to use the language of story rather than paradigm by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s concept of the ‘deep story’, which she describes as the ‘subjective prism’ through which a group or community or whole society comes to interpret the world. I also choose this language because it helps to call out the Consumer Story as just that: a story. When you see that the limits of the story are not the limits of the world, you can step into a different story. The story I see rising everywhere today is the Citizen Story, and what I’m offering you in this Guide is support to see the possibility of this story, and step into it. When you do, everything changes.
Even as the Consumer Story collapses and threatens to take us down with it, the Citizen Story is rising, across the world and in every sector of society. It is rooted in the insight that our agency is collective, not just individual; that we are defined by our fundamental interdependence, not our independence. The wisdom here is recognisable in philosophers of republicanism active today, such as Michael Sandel and Philip Pettit, but its roots are in much older cultures, expressed by contemporary voices such as the Aboriginal Australian philosopher Tyson Yunkaporta, and the proud Afrofuturism of Baratunde Thurston, Bayo Akomolafe and adrienne maree brown. All these thinkers and more are pointing our societies towards a strategy that taps into the ideas, energy and resources of everyone, on the understanding that all of us are smarter than any of us, and that this collaboration, not the aggregation of self-interest, is the route to the best outcomes for society as a whole. And it is happening everywhere, across the world, and in every sector.
The most exciting truth of all, though, is that, when you understand the crises of our time as a crisis of story, you realise we all have power to change it. This kind of power goes way beyond your individual choices in the supermarket or even at the ballot box; it’s about claiming your agency to shape what the choices are, not just accepting what you are offered as the limits of possibility. From within the Consumer Story that still surrounds us all, it can be difficult to hold on to that and find your path through. That’s where I hope this Guide will help.
What to do
In that spirit, here’s my four-step guide to how to be a citizen or, as the name of the award-winning podcast hosted by Baratunde Thurston has it, How to Citizen – because, really, this kind of citizenship is much more a verb, something you do, than a noun, something you are…
Spot the story
You can start by just noticing. Look around you. Every single day, we’re bombarded with messages that condition us to think of ourselves as consumers: independent and self-contained individuals rather than interdependent social beings. This isn’t just about adverts for the latest smartphone. When a local council has a ‘customer service hotline’, or a political campaign is interested only in harvesting clicks, it’s pushing us deeper into the Consumer Story. It’s sadly all too rare for organisations to speak to us like we’re citizens: people with something to offer beyond our money, votes or eyeballs.
This first step is all about tuning in to where the Citizen Story is emerging and where the Consumer Story is getting in the way of more lasting and substantial change. If you read Psyche, there’s a good chance that you are already actively involved in making the world a better place. Perhaps you work at (or own!) an ethical business, or are involved in supporting a community project or campaign. Whatever your ‘good thing’ is, take a fresh look at it and ask:
- Is this ‘good thing’ making positive change with people, or for people?
- What kind of language does it use? Does that language speak to people as active citizens, inviting their contributions and participation, or as passive consumers?
- How could this ‘good thing’ become even better by involving more people, from more diverse backgrounds, in more ways – speaking to them differently, and tapping into their skills, passion, empathy and ideas?
As you start to see these stories in your world, you can start to look out to the world beyond and find them there too. The cities of Paris and Brussels have recently set up permanent Citizens’ Assemblies, creating structures that mean a randomly selected, representative group of the population has serious power in governing those cities. Taiwan crowdsourced arguably the world’s most successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, setting up challenge prizes and opening phonelines for ideas on how to make the country’s response better; the result was one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, without ever going into lockdown.
In business, a whole plethora of startups, but also established companies such as General Electric and the Body Shop, have created structures that put meaningful power in the hands of their customers, and provide a rich seam of ideas in the process. In the charity sector, too, a major shift is underway, with major organisations reorienting their strategies away from simply asking for money, and instead coming in behind the energy of citizens leading for change on the ground. For example, take the People’s Plan for Nature, a campaign that sees the UK’s biggest nature conservation organisations coming together to create the space for a genuine national conversation about nature’s future.
Playing ‘spot the story’ is a great way to retune your radar and reboot your faith in humanity. Now you can see the possibility of a new story, you’re ready to step into it.
In the Consumer Story, your agency is individual; in the Citizen Story, it is collective. Being a citizen is something you do with other people, not alone. Signing up or becoming a member is a crucial psychological step towards embracing the fact that you’re not alone – there are other people out there who care about the same things, and you can support and work with them to get stuff done. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment: many membership organisations are free to join, or low cost, and you don’t have to start by going to the AGM.
Depending on what you’re into, here are a few ideas:
- Sign up to a newsletter: the easiest option. If you’re keen on environmental issues, most local Transition Groups around the world, established as part of a grassroots movement that began in the UK, send regular lists of actions and events that signpost simple ways to get involved locally in the climate fight. The organisation Today Do This, based in the UK but with a global outlook, sends a ‘do-something-about-the-news letter’ each Friday, which highlights one news story from around the world, and gives you one simple and immediate thing you can do about it (recent examples include helping the homeless and ending wrongful convictions). If you find the idea of the Citizens’ Assemblies in Paris and Brussels exciting, you could sign up to the mailing list from DemocracyNext: this is a new organisation set up to champion these new approaches across the world, and is currently exploring how best to build and involve its community of supporters.
- Join a hyperlocal social media group. If you’re locally minded, join your neighbourhood WhatsApp or local Facebook group (a Google search will usually return some relevant results). You’ll learn a lot about the place where you live, although it can be wise to bring popcorn, as some of these groups can get feisty at times. There are almost always a few ‘usual suspects’ who dominate the conversation on the surface, but keep in the loop and you’ll start to get a sense of who’s really making things tick – and who you might be able to work with to make your local place even better.
- Join a professional network. With so many of us spending so much time at work, it might be that this is the community to which you feel best able to contribute. If you work for a big organisation, have a look for staff groups or associations that match your interests, and sign up. Otherwise, have a look for relevant professional networks on LinkedIn and join the conversations there – of, if there is a trade union for your profession, try that.
The next step is to move from being there to actively taking part (whether it’s the thing you just joined, or something else). There are lots of ways to do this, and it’s really important to find a way that works for you. That doesn’t necessarily mean standing for election or joining a committee, especially at the beginning – participation comes in many shapes and sizes – but it does mean going beyond simply making a choice or casting a vote.
Here are a few ideas for how you can take that next step:
- Share your skills (and learn new ones). Think about what you’re good at and what you enjoy, and find a way to offer your skills to something that matters. If you’re green-fingered, see if there’s a community garden or even a community-supported agriculture scheme near you. If you’re good with tools, have a look for a Repair Café. Or if you’re better with code than you are with your hands, look for a coding club – in the US, Code for America has chapters all over the country and is always on the lookout for more volunteers.
- Become a citizen scientist. Gathering data can be a really simple and convenient way to make a difference, especially if you are time-poor. Wherever you are in the world, you could become a walrus detective with the WWF’s Walrus From Space initiative, for example – but you’ll almost certainly find something local to you. In the UK, you can help track reptiles or hedgehogs with the Wildlife Trusts, or measure local air or river quality. In a growing number of cities across Africa, you can help monitor and report urban air quality with the Urban Better collaborative, while also getting out for a run and making friends. There’s even a nationwide Australian Citizen Science Association with a handy project finder.
- Crowdfund a project or movement. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of spare cash, you can pitch in to a project you care about and join its community of investors and well-wishers. You can do this on any crowdfunding platform, from Kickstarter to Indiegogo, but there is an increasing number of options that really take this approach into the Citizen Story. The civic crowdfunding platform Ioby in the US enables you to chip in to support projects in your local area that have been started by your fellow citizens. Across Europe, more than 2 million people are now investors in 7,000-plus community energy schemes, owning renewable projects in their own local areas. In the UK, there is even a specific financial instrument called ‘community shares’ that allows you to invest in community assets and projects, receive both a financial and social return, and become a member of the project.
This fourth step is not for everyone – you might have found the community to which you want to contribute, as well as your place within it. But, if not, you could consider setting something in motion yourself. If you do, remember that the aim is not to make yourself the hero, or take on all the work. It’s important to make room and space for other people to get involved, which takes the pressure off you as well.
Once you’ve got some idea of where you want to try to make a change, here are some ways to make starting something easier and more manageable:
- Build connections first. Before you go any further, gather people together over a cup of tea, talk about what’s on your mind, suss out what’s already going on around the issue or topic you’re interested in. Starting something is about acting together, not mobilising others behind your cause.
- Look for opportunities within existing structures. You don’t necessarily have to create something completely brand-new and standalone in order to make positive change. Look for the community-led movements that inspire you – if you haven’t found a Transition Group, a Repair Café or a community energy organisation near you, you’ll find most of the movements cited in this Guide provide resources to help you start your own local group under their umbrella. Or at work, a simple way of sparking important conversations that doesn’t require you to set up a whole new organisation is to invite colleagues to start an antiracism or climate reading group with you. It could lead to big things. One of my favourite examples of citizen action is the group of 11 McKinsey consultants who came together to write an open letter challenging McKinsey partners over the company’s stance on fossil fuels, which has now been signed by more than 1,100 members of staff and continues to cause major ructions.
- Take small actions quickly – don’t overthink. Once your group has a notion of what it wants to do, remember that it’s often better to find one small action to take together, rather than to spend ages developing a grand plan (you’ll tire yourself out). At the New Citizenship Project, we talk a lot about ‘make, measure, learn’ in contrast with the old ‘plan, do, review’: the emphasis is on getting started, ‘making’ first rather than talking too much – this is what keeps up the energy and momentum, and gives everyone a tangible sense of progress being made, however small it might be at first. Some of the most impressive and far-reaching organisations in the world have started in this way, like Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Kenya, which now runs a whole range of girls’ schools, health clinics and more, reaching millions of people; it began with litter picks on the streets of Kibera, a slum of Nairobi.
- Celebrate the wins. This last point is so crucial, and so easily overlooked. When things go well, tell people! Carve out time to celebrate with your team and acknowledge everybody’s contributions. The joy of these moments is the best response to those feelings of powerlessness that creep up on all of us sometimes, and the best defence against them. What’s more, taking the time to recognise what we’ve done together is powerful fuel for the desire to do more.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that the work has to start with the active choice to believe in people – without this, citizen work is impossible. This means believing that others care too, and just need the permission, the conditions and the opportunity to show it.
Key points – How to be a hands-on citizen
- The problems with the Consumer Story. If you’ve been losing your faith in humanity, it’s understandable, but the problem isn’t human nature, it’s the story we’ve been fed for 80 years that paints us as individual consumers.
- The hope and promise of the Citizen Story. There is an alternative empowering story that is on the rise; it recognises that our agency lies is us acting together as interdependent citizens.
- Spot the story. To avoid the trap of the Consumer Story, the first step is to spot when you are being treated like a passive consumer, and be alert to the alternative – when organisations speak to you like an engaged citizen with something to offer beyond your money, votes or eyeballs.
- Join up. Being a citizen is something you do with other people, so look for ways you can join in, from signing up to the newsletter of a grassroots movement to participating in a professional network or trade union.
- Join in. The next step is to actively participate. Some examples include looking for ways to share your skills, becoming a citizen scientist or investing in a crowdfunding movement.
- Start something. If you haven’t found an existing movement or community that you’d like to contribute to, you could consider starting your own – either under the umbrella of a larger movement or entirely afresh. Just remember to bring others along with you, start with small actions, and celebrate your wins.
Beware the ‘Subject Story’
The full framework in my book Citizens completes the set with a third story: the Subject Story, as in ‘subjects of the king’. In this story, there are a God-given few who know best, and will lead the rest of us to the best outcomes for society as a whole. It is the story of paternalism and authoritarianism; it is the story that held sway for much of recorded human history, up until the two world wars; and, as the Consumer Story collapses, the Subject Story is resurgent. In times of crisis, its bargain of simple answers and protection in return for obedience is an attractive one.
Seeing this third story completes the picture, and helps answer two outstanding challenges. First, some see the idea of stepping into the Citizen Story as a somewhat naive and idealistic pursuit. But the resurgence of the Subject Story shows us that it is not so much idealistic as essential. The Consumer Story cannot hold, and if we do not make the step into a new story, the only alternative is a descent into subject-style authoritarianism. The second challenge that is sometimes raised is what I call the QAnon question: can citizen engagement and empowerment really be such a good thing when it can result in storming the Capitol? My response to this is that those who would reimpose subject logic on the world can see the rising citizen urge to participate, and are ready to co-opt it. The QAnon conspiracy, for example, invites you in by telling you that you are needed, that your participation is essential; this is a powerful appeal to people who have arguably been treated with little respect, and offered little meaningful agency, for many years. The threat from the Subject Story makes it all the more vital that people are offered meaningful agency in constructive, authentic ways; otherwise, they will continue to be vulnerable to those who pretend to offer it, but in reality seek power only for themselves.
What about ethical consumerism and effective altruism?
Finally, you might be wondering how the citizen approach compares with two other popular ideas of how to be good. What about being an ethical consumer, ‘voting with your wallet’, accepting the idea that your agency is individual, and seeking to make the best possible choices? The problem is this will never add up to change that is commensurate. It is important to behave in line with your values, but a lot of small, individual actions simply don’t add up to bigger societal change. It’s only when we reshape our communities, our organisations and our institutions that things really shift.
The effective altruism movement offers another alternative take on how to be good. At its most basic, this is a movement of people who aim to donate at least 10 per cent of their income, giving considered thought to what they donate towards. Like ethical consumerism, at this basic level, it’s not a bad thing; but, like ethical consumerism, it too accepts that your power is limited to your transactional choices as an individual, and so it offers none of us real agency in reshaping the systems and structures of our society. At its worst, effective altruism actually encourages people to maximise their individual earnings in order to give more, to the exclusion of considerations as to how that money is earned. Such an approach validates and strengthens the existing systems and perverse incentives of our society, perpetuating the problems rather than unpicking them.
In her book Hope in the Dark (2004), Rebecca Solnit writes that:
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act … Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.
Ultimately, the call to see, think and be a citizen is a call to act.
Links & books
My article ‘Citizen Future: Why We Need a New Story of Self and Society’ (2022) for BBC Future, co-written with Ariane Conrad, further explores the theory, ideas and examples of the Citizen Story from around the world.
The awardwinning podcast How to Citizen, hosted by the US comedian and TV presenter Baratunde Thurston, explores every aspect of citizenship across four seasons – including an episode with me as a guest.
The podcast From What If to What Next, hosted by Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition movement, is dedicated to inspiring radical imagination to usher in a better future.
In his book Sand Talk (2019), Tyson Yunkaporta delves deep into Indigenous modes of thinking and being, to discover new paths to a sustainable future.
The book Emergent Strategy (2017) by adrienne maree brown is an Afrofuturist handbook from one of the movement’s most important pioneers.
The book The Connected Community (2022) by Cormac Russell and John McKnight serves as a powerful practical guide for leading neighbourhood change.
The book Together (2021) by Ece Temelkuran provides inspiration and challenge to help you be a better citizen, starting with committing to a love of humanity.