Creating Better Stories To Inspire Real Change

Creating Better Stories To Inspire Real Change

Colin Beavan (aka "No Impact Man") shares his thoughts on how to best engage citizens in discussions about climate change.

Dan Gould
  • 7 december 2010

In 2006, I became increasingly concerned both about climate change and the military action taken by the United States to secure its access to oil supplies in the Middle East.

As a journalist and author, I wanted to find a way to make the case for a lower reliance on fossil fuels and other natural resources to the American and European publics.

However, I did not believe a typical political discourse would not do the trick. There had been many of such books already written that attempted such a discourse.

Instead, I wanted to find a way to engage Americans who were not typically interested in politics. For this reason, I wanted to draw people in through the power of story instead of polemic.

The story I chose was one about my family–family is something people care about in the United States. Indeed, “family values” are often discussed by conservative Americans, many of whom oppose action on climate change.

As the story goes, for one year, we lived, in the middle of New York City, causing as little environmental impact as possible. This meant, not making any trash, not using any fossil fuel transportation, buying local food, not purchasing anything new. Etc etc.

This experiment in environmental lifestyle was discussed in my blog, my book, and a documentary movie, all by the title No Impact Man. My hope was that the story of, if you like, That Crazy Family in New York City would attract attention to our climate crisis.

It was successful beyond my wildest dreams. In 2007, the New York Times wrote a front page story on the No Impact Man project. It has been covered in major newspapers and television channels across the world. There have been over 3 million unique visitors to the blog. The book has been translated into some 15 languages and has sold more than 50,000 copies in the United States alone.

The movie has been released in theaters in the United States and other countries around the world. In addition, there have been over 1,000 community screenings around the world to groups ranging in size from 20 to 500 people. I have been invited to discuss No Impact Man with college audiences totalling some 15,000 in number over the last three months.

Also, some 15,000 world citizens have participated in a program run by my non-profit, the No Impact Project. In this, participants try themselves to live with as low a carbon footprint as possible for a whole week. This is not 15,000 people turning out for a two hour protest. It is 15,000 people devote themselves to significant hardship for an entire week.

I like to think that this shows that, when they understand the connection of climate to their own lives, people are willing to dedicate substantial effort. This is very heartening.

But I have a caution. A Google search for the phrase No Impact Man yields some 470,000 unique results. Meanwhile, a Google search for the phrase Cop 16 yields 500,000 unique results. In other words, about the same.

Of course, I don’t cite these figures to suggest that No Impact Man compares in importance to Cop 16. I say this to show that something as important as Cop 16, which I believe is part of a process of literally saving our species, does not get discussed by the public just because it is important. In fact, it’s importance gets dwarfed by “better stories.”

Just because you and I consider something vastly important doesn’t mean everyone else will. Especially if they don’t really understand it.

So how do we create “better stories”?

One method, I believe, is to find ways of creating real, human narratives that connect the life of the average global citizen to the complex and seemingly abstract problem of climate change.

In other words, can we find a way to talk about climate that isn’t about climate? Instead, can we talk climate in a way that is about people?

It is my thinking that the reason why my small project has received so much attention is because, through discussing lifestyle, people are able to understand the connection between their own lives and climate. Suddenly, they understand why it is relevant to them.

On the subject of engaging citizens in this discussion about climate change, I’d like to offer some conclusions I’ve drawn through my experience as No Impact Man. I don’t mean to imply that this is the way everyone should approach communicating on climate.

Instead, it is a list of guidelines I have developed for myself as travel around and talk and write about climate to, I like to think, some success:

1. How to communicate about climate change is not a case of either/or but of and/also. Selling solutions to climates change is not like selling laundry soap. You can’t figure out one message for the center of the bell curve. The message must be segmented. We have to communicate with the tails of the bell curve. Don’t assume that everyone else will care for the same reasons you do.

2. No matter which community you are talking to, find a way to connect to their health, happiness and security. Mom’s in DC may well want the coal-fired power plant removed, but not because of climate change. Instead, they want to get rid of it because it gives their children asthma.

3. Break away from dry scientific stories and find sympathetic human stories that connect to people’s daily lives. In the United States, this is particularly important because Americans are ambivalent about politics. Our culture is one that concentrates more on individuals.

4. Don’t speak about the planet. Speak about the habitat that we depend upon for our health, happiness and security. The planet is something else. The habitat is the air we breathe and the food we eat. When speaking about species extinction, point out that if the habitat cannot support other species, that is a sign that it may soon not be able to support us, either.

5. For crying out loud, joke around. If we can’t laugh, is the planet even worth saving?

6. Break away from morality and guilt. Most people are moral, even if they don’t care about what we care about. Instead, figure out what your audience is concerned about and find a way to make climate change solutions appeal to their concerns.

7. Forget trying to frighten people. Frightening people about things they feel they can do nothing about just forces them to ignore you.

8. Avoid dissociating conservatives by cloying too closely to progressive language. We cannot “win” on climate change. A progressive government will soon lose to a conservative one. The culture must be transformed so that strengthening the habitat is a people concern, not just a progressive one.

9. Build coalitions around the solutions rather than the problems. There may be disagreement on climate change, but there is very little disagreement that reducing reliance on dwindling and unstable fossil fuel sources would be good. To many people, renewable energy is just plain “cool.” Use the Star Trek factor in your favor.

10. Talk about aspirations and ambitions rather than limitations. Climate may be a crisis but its solution provides many opportunities. Wouldn’t it be better not to have to live in a traffic jam of automobiles and instead have a healthy, enjoyable, and safe transportation system?

11. Listen and engage. Don’t lecture. Don’t talk down. People want to be engaged and have the opportunity to discuss. They don’t want to be trained or talked at. Find ways for people to take ownership of the issue by letting them be part of the solution.

12. At least in the developed economies, don’t talk about how a sustainable society would be just economically efficient but also talk about how it could bring a more meaningful life, one based more on community and social connection rather than consumption.

13. Tell people how to help. Don’t agitate people about something that they can’t act upon. That only turns them off. In the United States during World War II, scrap drives to help the war effort were hugely important to morale because people felt involved.

By Colin Beavan

This article has been republished with his kind permission.

Image by Veer.

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