F.S. Michael's Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover Press, 2011) was awarded the 2011 George Orwell Prize for outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse. The announcement was made at a ceremony in Chicago on November 20, 2011.

The annual prize, established in 1975, is awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which has over 35,000 members and subscribers worldwide. The award is given in memory of British author George Orwell, author of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) and the political satire Animal Farm.

Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything is based on wide-ranging research that shows how one of the stories we tell about who we are, where we come from, and where we're going is taking over the others, narrowing our diversity and creating a monoculture. Michaels shows that because of the rise of the economic story, six fundamental areas of life -- work, relationships with others and the environment, communities, physical and spiritual health, education, and creativity -- are changing, or have already changed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

"The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story," Michaels writes, "-- 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."

Back in the Middle Ages, back when the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition, Galileo famously challenged the Catholic Church's "geocentricity" with a heliocentric model of the universe. Accused of heresy and punished accordingly, he nonetheless sparked the dawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the 17th century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines, and mathematics.

Ours, Michaels demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).

"A monoculture doesn't mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way," writes Michaels, "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 mater 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, 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."

Flora Stormer Michaels is a first-time author who lives in British Columbia. Her research and writing have been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Killam Trusts, and regional and municipal arts councils. Michael Pollan won the prize in 2010 for In Defense of Food. Other recipients include Pulitzer Prize-winner Charlie Savage, television host Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, economist Juliet B. Schor, linguist Noam Chomsky, and cultural critic Neil Postman.

BOOKS:

Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover Press, 2011)