Creating a circular bioeconomy narrative

/files/images/thinkforest/fotolia4245572_xl.jpg : 81Kb “Facts just twist the truth around, facts are living turned inside out” – so sang David Byrne of Talking Heads in 1980’s hit "Crosseyed and Painless". These words seem to be fitting for what has been experienced in recent times in global and European policy setting – the time that has been labeled as the post-truth politics.

Whether one thinks that we are actually living a post-truth world or not – an issue that is many ways very ambiguous – the role of narratives clearly is becoming increasingly important for engaging society behind different movements and changes (Davidson 2016).[1] Owen Flanagan from Duke University, a leading consciousness researcher, argues that "Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form. We are inveterate storytellers."[2]  

According to Davidson (2016), ”A narrative consists of a collection or body of stories of characters, joined in some common problem as fixers (heroes), causes (villains) or the harmed (victims) in a temporal trajectory (plot) leading towards resolution within a particular setting or context. These stories together or collectively convey a common worldview or meaning – an interpretation of the world and how it works.” There is a growing body of research in fields such as psychology, cognitive science, political science and sociology showing that people do not make decisions through a purely rational process, and that emotion and a range of cognitive biases play an important role. Narratives are central to the mental models and social beliefs and practices that that guide individuals’ decision-making and behaviour, and thus narrative is an important tool for bringing about change.

How do narratives relate to forest-based sector and circular bioeconomy?

According to the World Bank, in 2015 75% of the population in the EU were living in urban areas, and this share is predicted to be increasing in the future. In order for the forest-based circular bioeconomy to succeed and be societally inclusive in the EU, it is difficult to see how this could be done without engaging support from the majority of the population (voters), i.e. the urban citizens. Yet, forestry and bioeconomy is often advanced in bioeconomy strategies and political rhetoric in manner that appeals to the rural population: more rural jobs and income for forest owners living in rural areas. The EU has a rural development policy which is funded through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development worth €100 billion from 2014-2020. Similarly, many European national governments have rural programmes to enhance livelihood in rural areas.

If the urban population is aware of the circular bioeconomy at all, they may easily relate it to rural areas and programmes. Rural programmes, like the EU CAP policy, on the other hand may be seen very critically from the urban population perspective. To simplify, perhaps they are seen as taking tax income away from their pockets to support rural people. In order for the circular bioeconomy to succeed in the long-run, it would need to change this view. There is a need for a circular bioeconomy narrative that engages the urban population and gets their support.

This narrative is important also for another reason. Especially in those European countries in which most of the population have had no direct experience of forestry or understanding of how wood and forests enters their daily life in many ways, people may not necessarily see the point of the circular bioeconomy. A fact-based narrative about forest circular bioeconomy is needed, told in a way that appeals to the urban population.

That narrative could be different things in different regions and cities, elaborating on the specific features that are important to these regions. The narrative should be able to tell about the renewable cyclical nature of forests, how wood and forests enters into the daily life of the urban population, from morning to evening in many different and important functions and forms. Moreover, if wood was not used, it would mean using some other material instead, which very often is non-renewable or is fossil-based, difficult to recycle (circulate), and therefore possibly not sustainable in the long-term. Or it could be, for example, a narrative of how a managed forest helps to support the water supply of the city. Whatever the narrative, it is very important that it is fact (science) supported, otherwise it will most likely lose its credibility, and therefore power. 

In summary, the message that the above discussion has for the decision maker and those wanting to advance the forest-based circular bioeconomy, is that it is essential to engage the urban population, and pay more attention not to give an image that it is mainly of interest to the rural population. Also, the connection between urban and rural lives, and how one needs the other is important. In doing this, it is important to tell a fact-based narrative that appeals to urban citizens. We are living in times in which narratives – or good stories - have perhaps become even more important than in the past for engaging citizens for change.

Lauri Hetemäki, EFI Assistant Director

[1] Davidson (2016). The role of narrative change in influencing policy.
[2] Owen Flanagan (1992). Consciousness Reconsidered. The MIT Press.


Image: Fotolia/Maslov Dmitry