Saving the Planet with Storytelling

Is there something more effective than lecturing?

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with my friend Emily, a science illustrator and blogger over at Walkabout Em. Unlike me, Emily is an extrovert and has a very different perspective on how to educate and inspire people to behave more responsibly. 

Saving the Planet, Emily-Style


Emily: I got home the other day and had a choice between tuning out to the latest episode of Desperate Housewives or watching a new documentary on national parks. The documentary had great footage, a pretty illustrated cover.

Jennifer: You watch Desperate Housewives? Really? Really?

Emily: [ignoring my outburst] You know me, I’m science-y and care about climate change. But I was tired and really just wanted something that my brain could flat line to, and I’ve been watching Desperate Housewives and following the stories of these women for four years. It’s a social thing — it has a narrative, character development, good storytelling. People are drawn to stories about characters they care about, not straight science.

Jennifer: Uh…I must be a sucky human. I don’t need stories or people with my facts. I read mostly non-fiction. I’m OK reading straight science.

Emily: Right, but most people respond to stories. And that’s where we’ve missed a huge opportunity to educate people about climate change and sustainability: by integrating it into the narratives and characters they already care about. Instead of product placement, we could do science placement, and use narrative storytelling to promote positive, doable choices.

Jennifer: So, kind of like brainwashing?

Emily: Well, the media already has a major effect on how we behave as a society. I read this study during a media studies class about a town with a huge gun problem that was tied to the idea of masculinity. Instead of banning or finger wagging or anything, the town started a program that offered money for guns that were turned in. It also produced a soap opera in which guns were for weak men, men who couldn’t defend themselves in any other way. Positive reinforcement plus monetary reward…they collected a lot of guns. It’s also pretty exciting when a bestseller takes a stand. In The Hunger Games, one of the traits of the antagonist is overconsumption.

Jennifer: Wonder how that will affect the teens who read it?

Emily: Right. We need people to be emotionally invested in these ideas. It’s not enough just to tell them, or to guilt trip or attempt to scare into action — if I have to watch another documentary about cute polar bears that we’re in the process of destroying, I’m going to scream. The problem is that there’s no budget for science communication, and without the money, the quality of the work just isn’t there. We can’t fund major projects or attract top stars. That’s my beef — there’s just no funding.

Jennifer: Whoa. I think you should guest blog about this.


Emily is actively canvassing, heckling, and cold-calling in the name of funding science communication, and I think she’s totally on to something about the social aspect of effecting change and educating the masses. (Surprised this never occurred to me? Don’t be. I don’t even watch TV, that’s how far out of the loop I am.) I hate to admit it, but maybe peer pressure works better than rationality.

If you’re interested in supporting science communication, Emily offers you these links to check out:

And in the meantime, I’m busy thinking about how I can be a better science communicator (without being a scientist myself). Is science communication through media something you could get behind? What do you think of effecting change through storytelling?

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


13 responses to this post.

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  2. Emily is right…

    Building a Sustainable Future Requires More Than Science

    Contrary to popular belief, humans have failed to address the earth’s worsening emergencies of climate change, species’ extinction and resource overconsumption not because of a lack of information, but because of a lack of imagination, social scientists and artists say…


    • Hi Terry,

      I agree that lack of information certainly isn’t the problem! Lack of imagination is an interesting way to put it. I guess the real question is how — how to infiltrate big budget entertainment, how to get science placement into the narratives that have a powerful impact on the people who follow them.


  3. Posted by EcoCatLady on 05/10/2012 at 12:22

    Well, if anything has become clear to me in the past few years, it’s that humans are not rational creatures. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people supporting candidates and policies that work against their own interests – but they do it all the time. I think that Emily’s right (although I too recoil in horror at the idea of any thinking creature actually watching desperate housewives) but people respond to emotions, to stories, to characters – they don’t respond to facts.

    I actually saw a story on the news about some company that had started marketing baby carrots in the same way that other snack foods are marketed. The results were incredible… they literally couldn’t produce enough of them to keep up with demand. So I guess you’ve gotta go with what works!


    • Hi Cat!

      I have to agree, and see surprising amounts of irrational behavior in myself — and the worst thing is that I often continue to behave irrationally even when I know I’m doing it! I guess expecting humans to respond rationally is not a winning strategy. Too bad.

      My very intelligent sister (who has an MD and everything) used to watch Sex and the City to unwind. I was shocked. Another super smart friend reads romance books. But really, I don’t think intelligence has anything to do with the kind of media we choose when we want something to flat line to…just as long as it’s not the total sum of what we’re engaged by, a little rubbish is probably fine. I lean towards claymation and kids’ movies myself.


  4. Yes, Emily is right. Humans, despite many people’s objections, are not rational creatures and don’t respond to logic very well (if at all). In fact, at least in my experience, the people who obsess over science and logic the most are those who understand it and respond to it the least when it comes to certain arguments. People are very much attached to their emotions, and their own personal narratives about their lives. Many people perceive themselves as rational, objective and willing to be critical – but very few people actually follow through.

    So while i definitely don’t mind straight science – I like to have information and be informed, like you – Emily’s point about narratives and having environmental problems become more personal is really key. Especially when we talk about economics. It would be great if people cared about the planet simply because the planet is vital, but that’s not the case – not even for many scientists, I think. Humans are intensely self-motivated and if something doesn’t personally effect them, then they’re least likely to respond (except in the cases of natural diseases, but while climate changes is certainly severe, it’s just not readily perceived in the same vein as a hurricane or tornado).

    It’s cool you/she blogged about this!! 😀


    • Hi Tatiana,

      Kevin’s the better person to talk about this, but he suggests that there are essentially two types of worldviews: a dominion view of the world, in which the Earth is here for humans to use, and a more holistic one, in which humans are interconnected with other organisms. I’ve been thumbing through a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist, which very much looks at things from a dominion point of view, and it makes me a bit upset that all the author seems to think about is the purely quantifiable and economic. (‘What is the economic value of losing endangered species?’ is a question that, to me, seems to trivialize the idea that we should behave responsibly just because.)

      I think that climate change will begin to affect us more immediately and personally. I hope we’ll use that in our stories to prevent further damage…it would sure be nice if we could start now.


  5. I agree with @parisianfeline, that most people respond most to our own story. Isn’t self-interest the best motivator? I’ve never seen _Desperate Housewives_ but I do get plenty desperate myself when, after the mild winter, the mosquito population soars and we can’t sit outside and enjoy our yard. Or when I notice that the quality of fruit I buy is only so-so, and I suspect a link with erratic weather patterns (and/or sick bees). There is a litany of items listed, over at this month’s Green Moms’ Carnival, by moms who see quite clearly the possible ramifications of climate change.

    E.g. one mom is worried about the effect of climate change on her chocolate supply. WHOA wake up call! — what I mean is, we all have a few buttons (=issues that hit us real close to home, like in our chocolate drawer). People who write for the Heartland Institute push the “money” button all the time; but we each have many other buttons. Climate change has a broad enough spectrum of consequences that one or more of those buttons can be pushed to shake us awake.

    I say Go Jennifer! You don’t have to be a scientist to write persuasively about this. You’re smart and well-informed, and your pen (OK keyboard) is sharp. I totally believe you can be an effective science communicator; indeed, it can be argued you will be more effective than the average scientist, whose writing skills are, to put it kindly, honed to communicating to peers.


    • Hi CelloMom!

      Yup, self-interest is a big motivator. But I think telling stories about people we want to be or admire is useful, too — maybe because it’s based on positives instead of fear of loss. I read this interesting article a while ago about an experiment to see what really made people use energy more efficiently, and it wasn’t the personal financial savings that came out on top — it was the idea that the people around you were already doing it. When people saw that their neighborhood average electrical use was lower than theirs, they felt motivated to live up to that. Taking advantage of that social aspect could work well in combination with finding the right buttons to push. 🙂


  6. I agree with Emily. Stories are the fabric of our personal realities. I tell a story about what I did today, what I ate, what I stand for, and what I believe in. It’s just a story. Conversations rest on stories. Even scientific papers are really just stories about the experiments they conducted.

    Information is cold, and people can’t relate to that in their personal lives. I read an NYT article on how the author listened to these 2 intelligent women talking about all the food books they read, the studies they knew talking about the hormones and antibiotics in meat, and the environmental destruction that goes along with meat production. And then they go on to say they still get their meat at the local grocery store deli, which is factory farmed. I think this is true for a lot of people who are well informed, and yet we still can’t make the switch to a low impact lifestyle. They can do it for a day, a week, a month, even a year, but it’s hard to do it continually all the time.

    People are okay with information, but they’ll be more likely to listen and trust you if they see you as a human being they could be friends with or connect with on some level.

    Everything is basically brainwashing. Your blog is brainwashing me to think green 😛

    Personally I’m sick of fear and shock-based documentaries and anything that tries to make me do something out of guilt or shame. I’m also tired of petitions and protests and making a ruckus without offering an alternative.

    I just watched the TED talk by Susan Cain on The Quiet Power of Introverts, and she mentions that the charismatic person who talks a lot is going to be more popular, even though he/she usually doesn’t have any good ideas.

    Charisma wins! I say this is a license for rational-minded folks like you and me and Emily to embrace our right brains and be more charismatic. 😛


    • Hi Lynn,

      There definitely is a disconnect between what we know, what we know we should be doing, and what we actually do. For example, I’m aware of the ethical problems with dairy. I know it would be in keeping with my ethics to drop it altogether. But I really don’t want to, because I just had a really delicious goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, and artichoke wrap and my tongue is outshouting my brain. So I minimize what I don’t enjoy (the crappy processed stuff), buy from happy cows (sometimes), and feel a little guilty for my brie habit. Would a story or some sort of human connection make me likely to quit dairy? I don’t know. I may not be social enough for that. The question of how to go about changing human behavior is tricky because we all respond to different things.

      I liked the Susan Cain talk, too, but I’m not sure I can pull off the charisma / talking a lot bit!


  7. Posted by Andrea on 05/14/2012 at 04:52

    We absolutely need more funding for science communication. The low level of science literacy in the general public is pretty depressing. And I think that there is room for a more fact-based approach as well as a narrative approach, and everything in between, because we all take in information a little differently. But right now there are too few options.


    • Hi Andrea,

      Yeah, we definitely have room for a multi-prong approach! Since the straight, factual approach doesn’t seem to produce enough behavioral change, I think it would be worth an experiment to see if a complementary narrative, interesting, ever so slightly subversive approach would go down better. My first thought was that this form of education could be tremendously successful with kids (a little science placement and ecological awareness in their favorite shows), but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for everyone else.


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