Do we need new environmental stories?

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Humanity has myths, fables, stories, and metaphors that give insights on almost every human problem under the sun — right?

This great NY Times article (“Are We Missing the Big Picture on Climate Change?“) suggests that there is a dire need for new stories about today’s biggest problems, like climate change. The stories should be big, broad, and about life and the human condition, not just “oiled birds.”

This is something I have been pondering for  awhile – especially because my love for birds and nature was sparked more by art and books than it did from real-life experiences.

Something to contemplate today:

How do we tell stories about issues, patterns and phenomena that are altering the natural systems of our planet –
but are unfolding over immense spans of time and space, beyond what a single, normal human can perceive?

The more I think about how to best communicate big-picture issues, the more value (and power) I see in simple stories like myths, fables, and fairytales. While they may not be strictly true, they are elegant and powerful tools for delivering knowledge, experiences, and wisdom that have been collected, processed, and distilled over several human lifetimes that would simply be lost to most of us otherwise.

(Of course, stories can be dangerous, too – they create expectations and social norms that drive people to act and perform rituals without knowing what they mean. Just like any other tool, they can be misused – maliciously or ignorantly – in a way that causes harm.)

While humanity has an incredibly rich collection of stories to draw from for inspiration and insight on almost any human problem at any given point in human history, this NY Times article suggests that there is a need for new simple stories that are more all-encompassing than what we are used to seeing – e.g., stories not about individual oiled birds or birds struck by wind turbines, but stories about life on earth and the human condition itself.

Are scientists the ones trained to craft and tell these stories? Not usually – it is usually the writers, musicians, poets, dancers, artists, teachers, religious leaders and creative visionaries who are known for separating the “chaff from grain” and delivering “inaccessible” knowledge to the public with easy-to-understand songs, poems, art, stories and metaphors. These stories, when told to us from childhood onwards, usually come to form the basis of our thoughts, behaviors, and even all of society. (Which can be good or bad, depending on the situation.)

So:

Do we need new stories — about climate change (and other big issues that are by and large “inaccessible” to the general public)? What stories underpin our lives (and our society) currently? What stories should we retire? What are your thoughts?

Further Reading:

Metaphors We Live By by Lackoff & Johnson

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