The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Environmental Storytelling Can Help Spread Big Ideas for Saving the Planet
By Denise Baden
Tackling climate change will require huge changes in society. Decarbonizing energy, restoring habitat and making food supply sustainable are all critical, but methods for motivating these actions have typically taken the wrong approach—by highlighting the urgency of the issues and the disastrous consequences of failing to act.
Research increasingly suggests that trying to promote behavioral change through fear can be counterproductive, leading to anxiety or depression that results in an issue being avoided, denied or met with a sense of helplessness. However, in education, news and fiction, stories with positive role models and which focus on the positive outcomes of solutions are much more likely to inspire action to solve it.
The Power of Positive Stories
I set out to explore the impact of such stories. As part of my research, 91 volunteers were given two stories to read, each concerned with the negative impacts of climate change: one about a woman caught in a flood and the other set at the end of the world.
The same readers were also exposed to two positive stories: one about a terrorist planting a flower bomb, which populates a bare area with flowers, the other about a young boy who, having watched Blue Planet, takes to collecting plastic to stop it entering the oceans—starting with his fish tank. Afterwards the readers were asked how the stories made them feel and to reflect on what kinds of behaviors they inspired.
While the negative stories motivated action for a few, most said they were discouraged. "I'd rather not think about it," said one. "It made me angry and I switched off," said another. Many also reported a sense of passive despair. "I felt hopelessness. If indeed, the heavy rain was caused by climate change, what can we do about it?"
However, there were no signs of avoidance among readers of the positive stories.
"It made me want to flower bomb land and do something positive and I felt happier after reading it," said one reader.
"I felt inspired by the way the characters behaved … [the story] made me think about what I could do."
This is concerning because almost all stories set in the future, whether in books, films or TV shows, are dystopian. The popular TV show Black Mirror tells cautionary tales about modern life and technology with often terrifying consequences. These stories elicit anxiety, pessimism and a feeling of passive fatalism.
I realized from my research that we desperately need cultural offerings with positive visions of what a sustainable society might look like, to inspire hope and positive change.
The University of Southampton runs writing competitions that ask people to read about green solutions and integrate them into stories. These ideas include replacing how much people buy, represented as GDP—the current measure of how successful society is—with a measure of well-being. Another looks at the potential of a "sharing economy," in which more people borrow goods others have without needing to buy more themselves.
It can be hard for politicians to support green policies such as these when green issues evoke catastrophe in the minds of voters they'd rather not think about. Reframing issues in terms of their solutions and highlighting them through engaging characters and stories might be a more effective way to encourage change.
Love, Flowers and Insect Protein Bars
One winning short story was Come Help Me by Nancy Lord—a romance about an American fisherman and a Russian marine scientist.
The protagonist is inspirational and proactive: he spots a tension between the scientists concerned with the marine environment and the fisherman who needs to make a living. The writer finds a way to help them work together. We also loved the runner up, The Buildings are Singing, by Adrian Ellis, which made us laugh out loud.
This short story imagines a future world where buildings are alive—covered with photosynthesizing plants which create energy, light and shade for the occupants. The flora operates an artificial intelligence system which helps occupants live sustainably. Insects drawn to the foliage become nourishing protein bars and life for the humans is low carbon and almost utopian—unless you do something wrong.
Some stories are specifically about sustainable societies, whereas others showcase ideas that would seem radical in otherwise familiar tales, such as Just in Case, which imagines a society where we borrow rather than buy much of our stuff. The woman who runs the "library of things" in the story, plays matchmaker with two customers who she can tell are compatible by their borrowing patterns.
The transition to a sustainable society requires profound changes, but to imagine how all of these aspects can come together is currently the domain of creative fiction. If we want a better world then the first step is to imagine one.
Denise Baden is an associate professor in business ethics at the University of Southampton.Disclosure statement: Denise Baden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
‘Companies Should Not Be Allowed to Use Hazardous Ingredients in Products People Use’: Michelle Pfeiffer Speaks Up for Safer Cosmetics
The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.
Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.
The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.
"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.