Saving the Planet Through Storytelling
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Saving the Planet Through Storytelling
The evidence is mounting and the news is saturated with dire warnings about how climate change could alter our world making it unrecognizable. Extinction numbers are out of control, ice sheets disappearing at alarming rates, and the ocean is dying. So why is that after being bombarded with information over the last several decades, people are caring even less about the risk and emissions continue to climb?
There are a lot of reasons, really. Climate Change Communication is a particularly difficult issue. For most of us, we can distance ourselves from it because it isn’t something immediately obvious outside our window. Not only are the worst impacts going to be in the future, but what is obvious presently isn’t happening where most of us live. The issue requires us to make sacrifices, for which we will not see an immediate result such as if we cleaned up a park (and then posted it on Instagram of course). We probably won’t even see any return on our sacrifice in our own lifetime. This makes it much easier for the companies profiting off of it to convince us that the science is messy and a “wait and see” approach is best.
When talking about climate change, it’s easy for scientists to assume that the general public will care if they can just know enough about the issue. Surely if everyone just understood the facts they would do everything in their power to change this destructive path we are on. This just isn’t the case. The one-way transfer of knowledge, one source giving information to the less informed individual, has been shown to be ineffective for the last 20 years. That may be surprising as education and news media rely so heavily on it. It certainly has its place, but that place is not changing a person’s beliefs about a topic.
Well if scientific fact isn’t convincing us to take action then how do we get people to care about future generations that don’t even exist yet? Perhaps that is where these information transfer messages are lacking. What if we could get people to see that possible future, through the eyes of people living with those impacts?
This is why I became interested in science fiction, but more specifically climate fiction. It seems to fill in a lot of the gaps that non-fiction misses. Fiction is a powerful persuasive tool for changing a person's beliefs about the real world. It is engaging, emotional, and creates empathy for the characters.
Climate fiction is a big thing right now and is only growing. It comes in many forms, which is great because it can speak to people through their preferred entertainment source. Literature for the readers, film for the movie buffs, and interactive experiences for the gamers.
Themes of climate change have become so popular within stories that the term “cli-fi” was formed. These stories tend to focus on a dystopian future where characters deal with the struggles of the new environment. While not usually happy stories, they can be very entertaining. Books have a way of transporting the reader into the world the author created. Being so immersed in the story, even though the reader knows it is fiction, can have long-lasting impacts on the core beliefs of the reader. This is exactly what we need to make real changes.
Science fiction films also have their place. They have been shown to get non-science majoring students more interested in scientific issues. However, it has not been shown that watching science fiction films make long-term behavioural changes. However, this may be the limitations of the films currently studied. For one, they rely heavily on fear, something that is only motivating in the short term.
Digital games are not only extremely popular but also a powerful tool for learning. We retain much more knowledge when we are actively involved rather than passively taking in information. The player can see themselves in the future dealing with these consequences. They are engaged in the story in a way that can create empathy. They are engaged emotionally in a way that isn’t limited to fear, as from the game-play they can experience wonder and pleasure.
However, just like the more traditional forms of media, climate fiction has also grown in the last two decades. So if fiction is so persuasive then why are we so disengaged? I have two theories. One is that these fictional works are being made solely as entertainment and the artists do not adequately focus on science communication as a discipline to further enhance their message. The writer, filmmaker, or game developer may have good intentions but without studying science communication may not know how to make the most persuasive material. So it is either a matter of getting the information to them or teaming them up with science communication experts. Second, maybe this media is not mainstream enough. Sure there are some popular books, such as those of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Crichton that deal with these issues. There are a few blockbuster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and The Day the Earth Stood Still. As for games they tend to be smaller titles, not AAA games. However, I believe there needs to be a much stronger presence in our mainstream media. If so many of us are disengaged with the science are we really going to pick up something called a “cli-fi”? These topics should pop up in unexpected places. The impacts of climate change are starting to be visible now and it would easy enough to bring them up in shows about the present. It does not need to dominate, it just needs to be a message we should be getting across in any way we can.
Fiction may not be the one solution to this huge problem, but with something so large and complex we need an arsenal of methods to get through to as many people as possible. No stone be left unturned when dealing with the fate of our planet.