Storytelling to create a sustainable world

Image of dehorned rhinoceros shedding tear with young girl holding out her hand
Advertising artwork depicting a dehorned rhinoceros by Alan Dobson from Pixabay

Keeping up with global news has never been easier with round-the-clock internet and more social media platforms than are good for us. But with so much information and misinformation, digital media can be a curse as well as a blessing for conservation communications. So, how much notice are people taking of the climate and nature crises and can storytelling reach people who have switched off?

Since the 1980s, scientists have been warning us about climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. We also know this is exacerbated by the destruction of natural habitats that are carbon sinks. A study included The Conversation’s climate action newsletter, Imagine, predicts we have six years to achieve net zero. Regarding nature loss, the State of Nature 2023 report shows the latest alarming statistics of species decline and extinctions.

But while scientific research and statistics draw attention to the environmental crises, this alone will not persuade people to change on the scale needed to slow global warming and restore biodiversity. We need a shift in our culture from human-centric to nature-conscious. Alongside scientific research communication, and irrespective of the need for systemic change from governments, climate change reporting must engage and empower people. Storytelling can be a catalyst for change. Deeply rooted in human culture, stories, or narratives, convey messages in a relatable and meaningful way.

Storytelling in nature documentaries

Nature documentaries used to be delivered in a rather detached way using facts to educate and amaze us. But this style doesn’t connect us emotionally to the natural world; it doesn’t tap into our innate desire to raise our families, socialise in communities and overcome challenges, traits we share with many species of wild animals. The BBC Studios Natural History Unit now combines filmmaking, scientific research and storytelling to transform nature education and raise public awareness of conservation challenges. In 2017, David Attenborough’s narration of the whale grieving her dead calf in Blue Planet 2 delivered a poignant message and people across the world woke up to the consequences of plastic pollution. When we tell wild animals’ stories, we show why nature matters and why we need to do more to protect it.    

Planet Earth 3 makes climate change clear

Recently, BBC’s Planet Earth 3 tells the story of flamingos that flock to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico where they nest in the highly saline shallows. But nests are vulnerable to storms and surges, more frequent now. We watch as desperate chicks washed from towering nests struggle to clamber back to safety; we hope they will make it. With every slow step, we urge the green turtle to reach the sea. Exhausted from hauling herself inland at night to dig a hole and lay her eggs, she now needs to overcome stifling daytime heat and perilous rocks at low tide to reach the safety of the sea.

Likewise, BBC’s Big Little Journeys is the edge-of-the-seat storytelling as the first challenge for a newly hatched painted turtle the size of a 50 pence piece is to cross a busy highway in Canada. Mission accomplished she must then trek across the forest floor to reach the lake before nightfall when temperatures plummet. 

Earth from Space shows global highs and lows

The climate crisis affects people too, their stories told in Earth from Space, a spectacular series combining satellite imagery with storytelling. An old man leads his donkey up a mountain in South America where he has been collecting ice for as long as he can remember. But with climate change melting the ice cap, he must trek further up the mountain. He digs deep with his pickaxe to uncover blocks of ice, which he wraps in hay and lifts onto his donkey. He sells the ice to loyal customers in the local town, carrying the heavy load on his back from one cafe to the next.

It would be a tough day’s work for someone half his age. In the comfort of our homes, we may not realise the impact of our lifestyles, but nature documentaries are joining the dots, not to burden us with blame but to inspire change.

BBC Academy’s Climate Creatives Conference

With the BBC’s expertise in filmmaking and storytelling, it’s fitting that the BBC Academy holds an annual “Climate Creatives Conference” where the creative sector discusses ways to authentically include climate in media, marketing and artistic content. Held online last month, the 2023 conference asked how sudden and significant change has occurred in the past and what can we learn. To communicate the climate crisis – and the biodiversity crisis – we can learn from marketing and advertising to appeal to people’s aspirations, tapping into their values, beliefs and emotions. A key question is how do we bridge the gap between climate knowledge and action through communication?

Can advertising be a force for good?

Since the Industrial Revolution, advertising has changed behaviour to drive sales and consumerism, but could we use its power to motivate people beyond owning stuff? Lisa Merrick-Lawless, Co-Founder of Purpose Disruptors, thinks advertising can be a force for good. Advertising drives demand, but what if the power of advertising could be used to drive demand for a different lifestyle? To shift the mindset of advertising away from a status-focused good life, the Good Life 2030 Project reframes it so that having less doesn’t feel like loss. Interestingly, when people were asked what they valued in life, the common responses were work/life balance, connection, community and nature.

Does climate change have a marketing problem?

On the topic of ‘Selling the Story’, John Marshall, Founder of Potential Energy Coalition, thinks climate change has a marketing problem. Climate solutions need to be discussed in ways people can relate to in their daily lives, he says, such as taking children to school along a tree-lined walk or cycling on safe roads. He thinks we need less jargon and more simplicity to help people understand the basic facts, and stories that motivate people based on what they care about. He suggests when people ask, “What can I do as an individual?” to reply with “Stop being an individual”. This point is key in my mind too because the climate and nature crises affect us all, the people we know close to home and people far away we will never meet. Climate and conservation storytelling needs to include everyone’s stories.

Collaboration as citizens in climate action

Jon Alexander, Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project says we need to focus on people’s agency as citizens rather than consumers. The word consumer carries less trust and respect, and citizen tells people they are valued and have a role in society. He wants the media to give more time to positive stories about community projects making a difference.

This idea of collaboration is echoed by Simon Sharpe, Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute, who thinks we need to stop telling stories of taking on the world single-handedly Bruce Willis style; there are many heroes helping each other. He points to the remarkable sewage network that came about in Victorian London after one doctor’s discovery led to many people working together to solve the human health crisis of contaminated drinking water. Sharpe says climate change is not a story about guilt, it’s a story about agency; people know about carbon footprints but are not clear on what they can do to bring about system change.

Misinformation and short-term politics affect climate progress

With media outlets publishing misinformation on climate change and people sharing fake news and strong bias on social media, the task of getting the truth out in a way that resonates is increasingly challenging. Slowing progress on climate and environmental action even more, political parties use the environment to score points and create division. Climate change and biodiversity loss are scientific and cultural challenges that should be above politics. Broadcasting has a responsibility to raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity crises, which means telling stories of devastation but also success stories and solutions. This is even more important as people become overwhelmed and experience ecoanxiety.

Storytelling is in our blood. We tell stories to our children and grandchildren from books and our own stories of family and life experiences. For indigenous peoples, storytelling is closely bound with nature, reflecting their respect and understanding of human dependence and our responsibility as guardians. Storytelling reaches the heart of humanity. Using creative techniques of place, character, narrative arc and imagery, storytelling holds our interest and stirs our empathy. Most importantly, stories can move us to think differently, inspiring us to live in harmony with nature in a give-and take relationship.

Storytelling in nature writing

Although Climate Creatives focused on storytelling in broadcasting, the written word has been around much longer. The popular nature writing genre often combines scientific research and creative writing to produce a persuasive and emotive blend of species and conservation facts, culture, and the author’s experiences, insights and views. My favourites include Mary Colwell’s Curlew Moon, Nick Acheson’s The Meaning of Geese, Mark Cocker’s One Midsummer’s Day, and Lee Schofield’s Wild Fell. Driven by a desire to raise awareness and protect the wildlife they cherish, these passionate nature memoirs are food for the soul.  

Quicker to process in our time-short lifestyles, photography is also an effective media for telling stories. Whether it’s an image of polar bears feeding on a human rubbish tip or a black rhinoceros killed and dehorned by poachers, the juxtapositions and the unexpected grab our attention and evoke an emotional response and questioning. Photographs also tell positive stories of nature’s adaptation and resourcefulness in human environments such as peregrines nesting on churches and cathedrals. And let’s not stop with photography; stories are told in theatrical performances, stand-up comedy and art in all forms.

Gannet nesting on discarded fishing wire
Gannet nesting on ghost fishing gear by Silke from Pixabay

Storytelling is in our blood

We don’t have to be filmmakers, authors or photographers to tell climate and nature stories. We are all storytellers, whether we write for local magazines, community or conservation group newsletters, or our own blog. Alternatively, we may chat to friends and family, or contact MPs, about the conservation issues we care about. Alongside practical actions for species conservation and habitat management, our stories can inspire action and change minds. Sustainability communications and change agency Futerra knows creativity is a force for the climate movement, citing research that shows humans are twenty-two times more likely to remember a story than any other communication: “Every single human is a storyteller, with around 65% of our conversations being anecdotes”.

Via our screens, we watch rainforests burn, releasing carbon into the air and leaving wildlife homeless. We watch ice caps melt earlier each year and penguin chicks perish, not yet protected by waterproof feathers. We watch birds on migratory journeys no longer able to rest and refuel at coastal sites now buried under the concrete of city expansion. Now, the impact of climate change has reached our shores with severe flooding, drought and species decline. But a tragic ending is not inevitable. Rather than wait for technology (or Superman) to save us, we can join the cultural shift, recognising our dependence on nature and finding ways to live a good life sustainably. We need more stories that show we can make a difference.

This article was first published in the North East Norfolk Bird Club digital newsletter (November 2023).