The story of my TEDx talk

My flash

August 2009. I’m interviewing Klaas van Egmond, professor of Geosciences at Utrecht University, about how crises of sustainability come down to clashes between value orientations. Klaas sketches a crossed circle. “Look,” he says, first pointing at the vertical, then the horizontal line. “Imagine the upper half of the circle represents the spiritual, the bottom the material. The left half of the circle represents the collective, the right the individualist. What happens if a spiritually and collectivistically oriented group of people (top left) is confronted with the convictions of someone with a material and individualistic orientation (bottom right)? They will clash, and each of them will reinforce his or her own – one-sided – argument, so they will hole up in the far edge of their part of the circle. If the clash is strong, they will even pierce through the periphery to end up in chaos. The 21st century is the stage for a material sustainability crisis at the bottom of the circle: Our one-sided market economy orientation now affects both our climate and our society. I think we can change that by stimulating the centripetal forces, towards the circle’s centre, where balance is found.”

Like a bolt from the blue, Shakespeare’s The Tempest crosses my mind. I studied that play years ago, and suddenly see a connection with Klaas’s crossed circle. As he continues his passionate argument, I silently posit all Tempest characters in the circle. Ariel at the top, opposed to Caliban at the bottom. Sycorax and Miranda centre. Antonio bottom left opposed to Prospero top right. My intuitive flash resonates long after we finish the production. When I finally tell Klaas about it, he is intrigued. “Find out if your intuition has scientific ground. Make it your PhD research.”

My defence

February 2015. Mark Beekhuis of Business News Radio is interviewing me, three days after my PhD defence at Utrecht University. “According to the university’s press release, your research has proven that Shakespeare anticipates our sustainability debates. I find that hard to believe. Tell me: How can this seventeenth century playwright have a positive impact on sustainable development four centuries later?” In the last five minutes of his radio show, I tell him that at the heart of my PhD research, my supervisor had advised me to read a book. This book was about allegory: A long, sustained metaphor, built on recognizable patterns, which symbolically correspond to parallel plots. Almost merging into an enormous yellow microphone cover, I tell Mark that reading this book had been revelatory. Because I had finally understood that William Shakespeare, the allegorist, invites his reader to search for values-worthy-of-pursuit, along the lines of this dynamic, well-ordered, cyclical pattern. That any sustainability problem, then and now, is a value problem. That we can recycle Shakespeare’s allegory as a mirror to reflect the possible impact of that problem: “So we can anticipate.”

My invitation

August 2018. I secretly take off my shoes under the table. During the past 45 minutes, my TEDx speaker coach Jonathan Talbott has hardly interrupted me. Now his table is full of pink, blue, orange and yellow cards. Before we started, he had asked me to answer three questions: “What is your idea worth spreading? Why do we need your idea? How can I implement it to bring about change? And please give me a few examples.” So I told him the whole story.

That Shakespeare’s allegory helps to broaden our perspective so that we can make long-term decisions. That we need to do this because we are facing huge challenges that we can’t tackle if we keep thinking the way we think. That in my PhD research I had worked out twelve examples. How Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice mirror the linear models behind the recent financial crisis in the western world. That according to UN’s Our Common Future, sustainable development may be ‘the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, but that King Lear demonstrates what misfortune we call down upon us if we actually ‘reason the need’. How Henry V’s assiduousness may still encourage companies to motivate their employees and play their cards well. How Antony and Cleopatra had inspired me to lance the wound of impossible love before it would start to fester and affect my loved ones. How I had always hated Hamlet because of his unbearably annoying indecisiveness, until I finally saw myself reflected: it was I who had lacked the courage to stick to my values and make them lead my choices. That the centre of Shakespeare’s allegorical circle is never full, because any human(ist) first needs to experience a value’s extremes – both its deficiency and its excess – to recognize the golden mean. That Shakespeare’s sustainability is not a moral choice, but a choice for morale.

Then I had fallen silent. And only just now did I notice Jonathan’s colourful cards. His rearrangement of them takes less than a minute. ‘Here’s your idea worth spreading, Iris. Balance. You mentioned that word 15 times, that’s once every three minutes. If life brings us out of balance, Shakespeare helps us retrieve our balance. By reflecting our challenges and the potential consequences of our choices to tackle them. All the world’s a stage…’

The road that even brought me to TEDx winds on. I’m enjoying the detours and dead-end-streets as much as the pit stops and panoramas, and I am grateful to each travelling companion I met and meet on the way. Some of them sharing the spirit of enterprise now partner up for Shakespeare applied. Would you like to experience Shakespeare’s take on sustainability? Let’s meet soon!