Stories of climate change

I went to an interesting event last night, hosted by the Free Word Centre, chaired by Joe Smith of the Open University, asking ‘What sort of story is climate change?’

The panellists shared their thoughts on what kinds of stories framed climate change. I particularly liked Caspar Henderson’s four story types:

Pragmatist dream: If we can recognise externalities using current models, it will all be OK)

Nothing changes: The planet is on a path of destruction and climate science will just get better at showing us this

Angel Hearts: The enemy us, we’re all to blame

Xianxi (?): The possibility of awakening, radical change and surprise, (inspired by story by a Chinese philosopher of waking up transformed into a butterfly)

My thoughts were:

Climate change isn’t a story but a complex set of systems, a geophysical process. If it is only conveyed as a story, will people think it’s made up in some way, confected by experts and activists who have a vested interest?

As it’s such a complex system, maybe we need to generate a more complex system of cultural discourse around the issues of humans and our interactions with nature (not just about climate change). This involves more careful and structured curating of creative activism, media communications, arts productions etc, and more collaboration between organisations/experts, so that:

Stories are opened up with Dialogue, can lead to deeper Enquiries, can follow on to create Designs and solutions (which can be communicated through Stories, critiqued through Dialogue and so on).

I don’t deny the importance of stories. There need to be many stories. Stories of grief and joy, touching both intrinsic and extrinsic values. These stories should not be limited in form or scenario of telling.

Rose Fenton who runs the Free Word Centre asked ‘Who is the new Dickens?’ Who is the Dickens who will open our eyes to environmental injustice? It’s a good question but I’m not sure a brilliant story teller is enough in this day and age. We need stories to connect us to play, to concrete experience and to direct action.

I was happy to meet Lisa Woynarski, who said identifying a sick tree could be a story. We don’t only have to have cathartic plays on stages about human agents such as activists. We need cultural discourses to acknowledge the vibrancy of non-human agents rather than work which reflects a shallow environmentalism.

Nick Drake, the poet who wrote for the National Maritime Museum’s High Arctic installation gave voice to non-human things, such as an ice core sample. His poems were powerful last night, reading to a wrapt audience, but I don’t recall being very moved by the non-human voices when I visited this installation. I remembered the playing with light and digital trickery. There was a disconnect between the performativity of the digital space and the voices in the poems.

Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace suggested that the biggest opportunities for storytelling now are not so much transformation through catharsis but disruption and satire. That’s an interesting point – but let’s push that disruption into Social Sculpture and performing change as far as we can go.

So, finally, to apply this thinking to our big storytelling institutions, the broadcast media. Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s Environment Analyst, said that people are bored with climate change stories so the challenge for the BBC is to find new stories that really engage.

My challenges to the BBC would be:

– Don’t just think about finding stories, but also open up dialogue, forge public enquiries and seek new designs for living

– Don’t pigeonhole climate change (it’s somewhere subordinate to or blanketed by weather, energy policy and nature programmes) but invest in more expertise and thinking about how it (and the wider issues of planetary boundaries) connect with everything they broadcast

– Broadcast more content which has uncertain narratives and multiple meanings. (Apparently BBC didn’t know where to broadcast Penny Woolcock’s film From the Sea to the Land Beyond because “it didn’t tell people what to think”)

– Question its language and frames of reference: Analyse its lack of ecological epistemology.


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