Just down the road from the fraught negotiations at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, something extraordinary happened yesterday. Thousands of artists, indigenous storytellers, musicians, and educators gathered for ‘Culture COP’ at the Sharm-El Sheik Museum. Overflowing with energy, new ideas and commitment to tell new stories, arguably the success of Culture COP tells us something about what’s missing from the desperately important, but somehow not compelling enough, political work to save our climate.
I’ll put it bluntly: stories might matter more than settling goals. Or at very least, for the goals to have a chance of succeeding, they’ve got to have better stories around them.
According to research by Stanford University, “Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.” Of course, that’s why every politician leads with anecdotes rather than analysis. Why charities tell the story of one victim of disaster rather than the cold statistics of loss. Why we teach our toddlers through fairy tales rather than facts. Stories are everywhere – they make up 65% of conversations.
Most importantly, yet difficult to accept for some empiricist climate communicators here at COP27, is that people believe stories more than facts. We’ve got the research to prove it.
For climate scientists, this human tendency to believe in stories over facts has long been infuriating. For decades they have released carefully compiled and compressively evidenced factual reports of the growing emergency. A popular meme shows a scientist, after two decades of sharing increasingly alarming climate data, tapping the microphone and asking, ‘is this thing on?’ The answer is – the mic might be on, but everyone is watching movies or reality TV instead.
Thankfully, human obsession with narrative might not be a barrier to climate action, it could be the ultimate spur for it. If the current climate story doesn’t doom us first.
I’m worried, because the meta-narrative or ‘understory’ of climate change is an old one. A story laid down before climate change was even known, before the industrial revolution, before TV or radio. It’s a morality tale of: man makes monster, then monster destroys man. From the ancient golem of Judaic story rampaging against its master, to the monster killing Dr Frankenstein and even nuclear testing unleashing Godzilla. This ‘morality tale’ is one of the stories programmed into us, an unstoppable narrative necessity that the consequences of hubris must be destruction.
The compelling outline of this story runs through modern storytelling on climate – from The Day After Tomorrow to Don’t Look Up – most of us die at the end. It’s the fatalistic theme of an ever expanding number of Instagram memes showing an inevitable liquid planet, or any of these memes about a bleak planetary future.
This dominance of the fatalistic climate story has troubling real-world consequences, Futerra’s own global research with Ipsos Mori revealed that one in five young people have given up hope that we can fix the climate – because 62% say they see much more about the problem than its solutions.
Fatalism about our future won’t help us change it.
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?” Samwise Hamfast. The Lord of The Rings
We need more parables of what’s possible. Because tragedy isn’t the only plot available to us.
Every professional storyteller has read Christopher Booker’s definitive book of Seven Basic Plots. He argues that almost every tale follows one of the narrative templates he identified: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy or rebirth.
In the seven basic plots – the most obvious climate narrative should be overcoming the monster. This is one in which everything seems to be going wrong, and just when the hero (us) is about to give up in despair, suddenly, there’s a chance for the tide to change. COP27, and then COP28 in Dubai could position climate as a world-eating monster that we must find the courage to fight with everything we’ve got.
I see this story running deep in the youth climate movement, both consciously and in the character-led story that sparked the Fridays for Future movement. Technically, that character was Greta Thunberg with her sign outside parliament, subconsciously however, it was also Katniss Everdeen standing up against the brutal overlords of the Hunger Games. For me, it’s no surprise that bold, brave and uncompromising young women lead the climate movement. Because, so many read or watched Hunger Games at an impressionable age – a blueprint (arguably, one that was previously missing) of young female leadership against the monsters of exploitation and oppression. I’m grateful for our army of Katnisses!
At Culture COP many storytellers wove the rebirth plot (think of: The Frog Prince, Pride and Prejudice, Christmas Carol) – where the threat and impact of climate change forces a big moment of self-awareness and cultural reset. So far, this is a deeply personal story many are living out, and not yet a societal wide meta-myth. But we have that cultural credo built in, so it might be as persuasive as the other plots.
Personally, my favourite stories are always quest plots (the Iliad, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones), in which bands of unlikely allies are thrown together to find a treasure and save the world. In climate terms , this is the story of solutionists, of the scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs, communities and families seeking answers and solutions to our climate emergency. Imagine the movie Interstellar, in which a few brave souls set out to find a new home for humanity – but instead of a new planet, instead we find batteries made of sand, glass solar panels and entirely new systems of food, travel and living. The quest story codes us to seek answers and the narrative pressure is towards solutions. And getting there, the adventure, is the best part of the story.
What can we do about it?
Let’s change the ending of our story.
‘I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something’
I believe that a good narrative has the power to change the world. We can give people the narrative framework imagine a better future, and then, we can work together to make that story into reality. I invite all the dreamers, thinkers and of course the doers, to share their story of solutions, and dare to step into a different ending.
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