Gunter Pauli shares the Power of Storytelling for a Sustainable Future

Written by
Heidi Hanso, Güney Gürbüz, Becca Melhuish
July 3, 2023

Gunter Pauli is a Belgian entrepreneur, author, and sustainability advocate. He is best known for his work in the field of "The Blue Economy," which proposes innovative business models and solutions that aim to create sustainable and regenerative systems. Pauli's ideas challenge the traditional linear economic model and promote the use of ecological principles to foster economic development. Here we speak with him about the power of storytelling to engage the next generations of this planet’s guardians: today’s children.

What can we do to fix our current situation, so that we can live in a more sustainable environment?

I've been working to try and fix the situation for 40 years, but I’ve come to realise we can’t just push a button and make everything better. Instead, we need to really change our mindset. But, after 40 years, I've seen two generations go by and the mindset just isn’t changing.

No? Not even a tiny bit?

Well, not enough. We need to work out how to change the mindset—and that's why I'm telling stories to children. I am really convinced that if a child listens to a great story every day, the world will change. And not only when the child grows up—children are the only ones who can convince Mum and Dad. When parents aren’t willing to listen to the media, or the politicians, or their friends, it’s the kids who are the ones insisting that they do listen.

How can we have an impact on children, in that regard?

Surprise them! You have to beat the TikTok content, and the video games—by using surprise attacks. Because with video games, as you know, it’s like: “Oh, there's an attack from there, and I’ve gotta be ready for this”. We have to get the mind of the child activated, using challenges and surprises. But, they must be surprises which are not always possible to beat—surprises that make you stronger, and give you the idea that you can do better than your parents. There is a wonderful spirit in a child when they see the chance to do better than their parents, and to surprise Mum or Dad in doing so.  

What are the tools we can use to help our children develop in this way? What do we need to do to make educational programmes that work?

I think we have to stop thinking we can educate kids. I mean, didn't we all sing Pink Floyd’s “We don't need no education, we don't need no mind control”? Let's apply that with our own children—as, by the way, if you’re only teaching your kids that everything you know and do is right, we’ll end up doing as badly in future as we're doing today. Because despite our best efforts, we’ve not been able to make the necessary transition. Something needs to change with the next generation. But, we cannot just ask them to do what we have done, and do it better. We have to give them the liberty to discover and create amazing ways to do things differently. Our goal needs to be to really widen their horizons; create that space to navigate in with a great degree of freedom. However, within the framework you always have to have some boundaries. That’s what I think parents and adults can do: set the boundaries.

What are the boundaries we should set right now?

For me, the boundary is nature. What has worked for billions of years in nature; that's my boundary. I need to cleanse myself of all the preconceived ideas of what is and isn’t possible and let our hearts speak.

When I see a family of whales, knowing that each one of these whales is able to talk to a fellow whale over 3000 kilometres away, I wonder why we need 5G! I mean, what the hell are we doing wasting our time debating 5G, when this whale can talk to its baby three thousand kilometres away—without making noise and without having electromagnetic radiation.

That’s the boundary I'm asking for, the boundary that is the reality of how nature lives, thrives and evolves.

To take some responsibility for the fact that our generations and the generations before us have rather screwed this planet up, how can we help our kids deal with the mess we’ve left behind us?

First of all we have to be transparent. Transparency is very important. That said, I think we've gone too far with transparency. Let me explain in two simple words: analysis and paralysis. In our search for transparency, we have analysed so much that we've paralysed ourselves. Because every time, the news gets worse. Every time, the solutions don't seem to work. And every time, we find more corrupt politicians. As a result, we start to feel our actions are insignificant. That's what has to change.

Too much analysis leads to paralysis, we make great declarations and we don't continue on to action. Why? Because we don't have the self-confidence. And because we are so scared. And if we’re scared we become paralysed and we don't take action. So what we need to do is build self-confidence—so emotional intelligence becomes a critical part in overcoming impacts of the analysis we’ve made.

How can we make change, in all this complexity?

The first thing we need to be clear about is that we're not just going to change the world, we're also going to change the rules of the game. If you're a little mouse, and you're up against an elephant—are you going to beat the elephant? Good luck if you think you can beat it, and if so you've already lost, because that is an irresponsible level of confidence! What you need to think is: “which are the fights we can actually win”? That's strategic. As a result, we have to be clear: what are the rules of the game that we can change?

Is there a role for becoming a more united community in all this?

You're spot-on, community is key. We have eliminated community from our environment because we have an economic model whereby the only thing that counts is being cheap. This is terrible: if you're cheap, yu have the right to win on the market—but as long as we celebrate being cheap as the tool to be competitive, we don't have community. We only have a trade. But life is not about trading on the basis of the lowest price. Life is about creating communities where you have resilience and joy.

My way is not to substitute a product with a new product that has no carbon emissions or a plastic product with a biodegradable one—instead, my intention is to replace a product with something that empowers community.  

In a sense, ‘Let's Do It World’ is like a huge community of people. What tips would you give to the LDIW organisation?

Well, first of all you have to think about the world, but do everything locally. That's been a slogan I live by for 30 years: “think global, act local”. Now, my biggest critique for my generation is that while we had a lot of wisdom and a lot of wise ideas, we didn't do anything! And if we did, we never succeeded in changing the statistics. Why? Because we were so happy with our case study, that we never took it to a broader base, involving more and more people.

We were too happy, too satisfied, too early—with a tiny little initiative that made an impact in our minds, but which we never shared. We never made sure it would reach out to many more communities. That’s where we’ve failed—not because there were no good ideas, not because there were not enough intentions, not because we're not enough people tackling this—we just didn't bother taking it mainstream. We were happy with our little success story.

So, my first suggestion is: be ambitious. Think big. Don't be satisfied with 30% less carbon emissions. Make it zero. Don’t say 2050. Say in a year's time. Share your story.

Did you believe it’s possible?

When I read, in 1989, that there was going to be a climate crisis, I said to myself, “If this is true, then the factory I need to build must be a zero emissions factory”. So that year, I committed to being a zero emissions factory builder. In 1992, I inaugurated the first zero emissions factory in Europe. Which means it took me three years. I don't understand how we possibly tolerate people saying they’ll be net zero by 2050. Excuse me, but 27 years from now I'm probably not here anymore! It doesn't make any sense to make commitments like this. Because if you make up your mind to do it, then you can do it. If I was able to do it as a 30 year-old, 30 years ago, then why can't those with all the money and all the resources do it too? They don't do it because they're stuck in the trap that I’ve found many of us are in: we're thinking too small, too local, and we're not sharing what we do.  

Let's Do It World started from 50,000 Estonians who gathered on one day in 2008, and now there are 191 countries and millions of volunteers all over the world. So we have done well on that step at least—thinking big.

Yes, when you want to mobilise people, you don't need to convince them—it’s about connecting hearts. What you as Estonians succeeded in doing with this initiative, World Cleanup Day, is speaking right to people’s hearts. And when you speak to the people’s hearts, then people engage, and people commit, and people act.  

Going back to the topic of younger generations—how can we engage children in this way of thinking?

I have my way of working, and it's not the only way of working—as there are many ways you can reach out to children—but I think there is a time-proven way of working, and that’s called storytelling. Telling the kids a good story.

Would you tell us a story, as you would tell to a kid who in the future will change the world?

I would always start with looking at a tree as it is very symbolic to life. I would look at a tree, and rather than explain how the tree is operating, I would ask questions—such as how this can be the strongest and the longest-living tree ever. And of course, the tree needs sun, and when the sun shines it will have more leaves, and when it has more leaves then more leaves will fall. The fallen leaves, which are no longer of use to the tree, are given away to the mushrooms, to the ants, to the earthworms—and everyone is busy turning them into a rich humus soil. And when the tree is surrounded by a lot of good, rich humus, it will have many more nutrients. When it has more nutrients, then it will have more flowers—and when there are more flowers, then there are more bees, and when there are more bees, there's more pollination. When there's more pollination, there are more fruits—and when there are more fruits, there are more birds. And when the birds come by, they drop their little excrements at the bottom of the tree, which will give such rich nutrition to the tree— thanks to the rain that falls and washes it into the soil.

The message of the story is clear: that I can only be the strongest if I give everything I do not need to someone else. That’s what the tree is doing. Everyone else will give the tree what it needs, but it never even had to ask. The tree never said: “Make me a rich humus soil, I will pay you”. No, it's all taken care of. And the birds never thought about the fact that dropping their excrement on the soil was so enriching for every microorganism around them. But the tree knows one thing: that it must work with everyone. So if the tree didn't like the earthworm, and it used all its force to chase all of them away, then the tree would never ever be the longest-living tree in the forest.

This is my way of approaching a child, and I can adjust the story for any age of child, or even for adults. The key is that we have to carry wisdom. Like the Elders of the Native Americans, through their traditional cultures. They carry wisdom. It’s not science, it is wisdom—and through wisdom I can talk about the enzymes that are used by the earthworm, and I can talk about the turpentines that are used by the mushroom. But the point is that we can figure out what we very often don't figure out anymore—that everyone has to work together to celebrate life. And to actually discover, little by little, why it's so great when things are different. I have six children and I know that if I tell a story, and I change something in the story, the kids complain because they like the story to be predictable. Now, it's the responsibility of the parent to add unpredictability, but within boundaries. To me the key is the story, and telling stories that are linked to concrete things you can see around you, but you still need to have an element of surprise in them. Because surprise is the rule of the game! I mean if there's no surprise, then everything is predictable, so it's boring.

And that’s some great advice, which Let's Do It World and all the environmental organisations out there can take into account. Thank you so much for this interview.

!!! EXTRA! Download the complimentary copy of the recent book by Gunter Pauli “ DIAPER SOLUTIONS to Let’s  Do It World global movement – “How 100 babies change the course of humanity


Gunter Pauli

Gunter Pauli is a Belgian entrepreneur, author, and sustainability advocate. He is best known for his work in the field of "The Blue Economy," which proposes innovative business models and solutions that aim to create sustainable and regenerative systems. Pauli's ideas challenge the traditional linear economic model and promote the use of ecological principles to foster economic development.

"The Blue Economy" concept, introduced by Pauli in 1994, emphasizes the importance of utilising natural resources efficiently and finding innovative solutions that can benefit both the environment and the economy. His approach focuses on creating business models that mimic natural ecosystems, where waste is minimised, resources are maximised, and products and services are generated sustainably.

Gunter Pauli has written several books, including "The Blue Economy: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs" and "The Blue Economy 2.0: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs." These books outline his ideas and showcase practical examples of businesses that have successfully implemented sustainable practices.

Also. "The Plastic Solutions: The business model that works for the oceans", where Gunter is sharing the ideas on how the plastic is not just a global problem, but can be a solution, too. This book presents a groundbreaking and strong business model that is supported by the power of nature.

Throughout his career, Gunter Pauli has received numerous awards and recognition for his work in sustainability and entrepreneurship. He continues to advocate for innovative and sustainable solutions, promoting a holistic approach that integrates economic, social, and environmental aspects.

How can we have an impact on children? Surprise them! Beat the TikTok content, and the video games- by using surprise attacks. Everyone loves stories if we turn the most difficult scientific subjects into stories by using childhood games that we all played outdoor. BONUS! Download the free copy of his recent book!
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