Human beings depend on stories. We create meaning by narrativising information and sharing it with others in the form of written texts, visual art, or oral communication. Research may be fundamental to identifying trends, but it is narrative that places facts and figures in context and, ultimately, makes them useful to people.
The way that storytelling helps us engage with the world, both logically and emotionally, makes it a powerful tool. Stories invite us to imagine possible futures and remind us that we can play a role in their realisation. We might be inspired by a fictional utopia in which energy and food is freely accessible, or be revulsed by a dystopia that relies on surveillance and disinformation to control people.
Although every story is different, they are governed by similar principles. Research from the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont used sentiment analysis and data mining to identify six basic story arcs in works of fiction.
All of these story arcs have something in common – change. Change is a driver of every story: chains of cause and effect see characters develop, for better or worse, and they in turn alter the world around them.
Change could be the basis of a cautionary tale – “don’t fly too close to the sun” – or an optimistic rallying cry -“things will get better”. For tens of thousands of years, we have channelled lived experience into these kinds of stories, which have been passed down through generations.
We often think of change as linear. Over time, we age, species evolve, and tectonic plates shift. But change is often more radical: microorganisms, populations, and pandemics can grow exponentially.
The same can be said of our rapidly warming climate, which is predicted to lead to a domino effect of melting ice sheets and biodiversity loss. The latest World Meteorological Organization (WMO) data shows there is a 48% chance of the planet exceeding 1.5° of warming by 2026, and the IPCC predicts this will cause “unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans”.
The solutions to this challenge must be equally radical. Transformative economic and social change is needed to prevent climate breakdown and create the conditions for us to prosper. This might seem unachievable. However, stories can demonstrate that rapid transition is not only possible, but is realistic. It happens all over the world and we can learn from one another’s successes.
Fact is often harder to digest than fiction. I found it easier to engage with the implications of mountaintop removal mining reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom than I would have scanning a report on the subject. That’s because of Lalitha, a fictional conservationist who cares deeply about the cerulean warbler.
More fantastical engagements with ecology can be just as affecting. Princes Mononoke, the Studio Ghibli epic, reminds us of our essential connection to the environment, and how unchecked extraction of its resources comes at a cost. This story of an imagined feudal Japan was one of my earliest encounters with ecological storytelling.
Stories of all shapes and sizes can be mobilise to help us tackle climate change. Accounts of real-world rapid transition provide us with evidence-based hope, while works of fiction are alive with potent reminders and new possibilities.
Gabriel is a freelance writer, editor and media strategist.