Keynote, Austrian Fundraisers’ Congress

The mea­sure of a great sto­ry is not the heights of imag­i­na­tion to which it soars, but the depth of the truth that it unearths. Gre­ta Thun­berg is telling the most impor­tant sto­ry of our time by obey­ing the three com­mand­ments of great sto­ry­telling: Tell the truth. Be inter­est­ing. Live the truth. 

I’m an intro­vert. And yet by some form of cos­mic irony, I seem to con­stant­ly find myself stand­ing up in front of a crowd of peo­ple. Speak­ing. Here’s what I said to a love­ly crowd of fundrais­ing pro­fes­sion­als gath­ered at the Aus­tri­an Fundrais­ers’ Con­gress last week in Vien­na. 

Brian Fitzgerald keynote Austrian Fundraisers Congress
Aus­tri­an Fundrais­ers’ Con­gress: the pur­ple hair is just a trick of the light. For now. 

So, a group of Cli­mate Activists walk into a bar. Which is to say, a plan­ning meet­ing. They’ve been try­ing for years to raise the alarm on glob­al warm­ing, to get peo­ple engaged, to make them pay atten­tion between the nat­ter­ing of Net­flix and the fan­fare of Face­book and the twit­ter­ing of Twit­ter that this is an emer­gen­cy. That our house is burn­ing.

So for the umpteen­th time they are brain­storm­ing new strate­gies when one of them says: WAIT, I’VE GOT IT: We’ll get a mild­ly autis­tic 15-year-old Swedish girl to skip class­es every Fri­day, and sit alone out­side the Par­lia­ment with a hand­made card­board sign that says “School Strike for Cli­mate.” Trust me, it’ll be MASSIVE.

That would have sound­ed like the worst. plan. ever.

And yet Gre­ta Thun­berg did exact­ly that and seized the imag­i­na­tion of the world with her sto­ry, and we have to ask why.

She didn’t provide us with any new stats.
There were no graphs.
She didn’t pro­duce a report.
She didn’t haul a celebri­ty in front of a press con­fer­ence to do a sound bite.
No stunts.
She didn’t craft a lis­ti­cle or a click­able sub­ject line
She didn’t care­ful­ly track her open rates and click rates

She sim­ply obeyed the three com­mand­ments of great sto­ry­telling:

Tell the truth
Be inter­est­ing
Live the truth

The sto­ry she told was one that want­ed to be told, a sto­ry whose time had come. Like Miri­am, the child prophet of Judaism who spoke out again­st her own Father’s capit­u­la­tion to the Pharaoh and so had to sum­mon the courage to chal­lenge both her Egyp­tian occu­piers and the Patri­archy of her own peo­ple. Gre­ta speaks a deeply lac­er­at­ing truth that nobody wants to hear: the house is on fire, that our gen­er­a­tion has failed her gen­er­a­tion, and that we need to wake up. It’s the most impor­tant sto­ry being told in the world today.

Four years ago, Tom­my Craw­ford and I found­ed Danc­ing Fox, an agen­cy ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing activists and peo­ple work­ing for social change bet­ter sto­ry­tellers. The first bar­ri­er we usu­al­ly need to get over is the idea that sto­ry has no place in a strug­gle over facts. That sto­ry lives in the realm of imag­i­na­tion and fairy tale. That sto­ry is fic­tion. That sto­ries are fake. That they’re a lay­er of sug­ary frost­ing that you put on a cake baked of hard facts.

I dis­agree. I believe that the mea­sure of a great sto­ry is not the heights of imag­i­na­tion to which it soars, but the depth of the truth that it unearths.

Sto­ry is the oper­at­ing sys­tem of our brains. It’s the oper­at­ing sys­tem of soci­ety. And what Gre­ta has achieved is an astound­ing hack of that oper­at­ing sys­tem. She’s intro­duced a sto­ry as pow­er­ful as a benev­o­lent Tro­jan horse that is fun­da­men­tal­ly shift­ing our sense of what’s right, what’s nor­mal, and what’s accept­able. And those, my friends, are the age-old domin­ion of sto­ry.

Sto­ry was an evo­lu­tion­ary tool cre­at­ed to set forth the rules of what it means to be a good per­son, a good friend, a good tribe mate, a good human.

Yuval Harari tells us that the cog­ni­tive rev­o­lu­tion kick-start­ed his­to­ry about 70,000 years ago, when we began to under­stand intent. Com­pared to the majes­tic life of the savan­nah, we were not very strong, nor swift. Our claws and teeth were weak. But we con­quered the world with lan­guage. We con­quered the world with sto­ry. And when we fig­ured out how to tell a sto­ry set in the future, one in which our future selves were char­ac­ters, we learned how to make sto­ries, and dreams, come true.

Some­where far back in time one of the ances­tors of every­one in this room cre­at­ed a sto­ry set in the future, in which we were going to band togeth­er as a tribe. We’re going to move in to this cave and togeth­er we’re going share the tasks of rais­ing chil­dren and for­ag­ing for our food, and of mak­ing sure we set aside enough stores for the win­ter. And you can have some of the water that I fetch if I can have some of the berries you pick.

Jonathan Haidt, in his won­der­ful book The Right­eous Mind, says that social con­tract was the first moral matrix. But the thing that threat­ens any moral matrix, or any social con­tract, is the dan­ger that some­one cheats. So sto­ry became a way of set­ting out the rules of liv­ing togeth­er.

I might gath­er you around the fire and say

Remem­ber that time when the snows came ear­ly and Astrid wan­dered out after dark, with no moon to light her way, wolves howl­ing in the night, to find that mag­ic wood that burns for days and brought it back to the cave. And that first snow was a bliz­zard, and had she not had the brav­ery and the fore­thought to gath­er all that wood we all would have frozen to death in the cold. And Hans was so thank­ful that his infant child sur­vived that he gave Astrid all the blue­ber­ries he had gath­ered in the sum­mer.

How do you feel about Astrid and Hans right now? They’re rock­stars. They’re awe­some. They’re won­der­ful human beings. Self­less. Gen­er­ous. And that wave of approval that they feel and that you imag­ine them feel­ing is exact­ly what that sto­ry is engi­neered to cre­ate. To make you want to be like them. To behave like them. To fur­ther the goals of the tribe.

Where­as if I told the sto­ry of the time that Bri­an fell asleep and for­got to stoke the fire, and we were all freez­ing in the morn­ing, you’re inner mono­logue will tell you “I wouldn’t be like Bri­an. I’d tend that fire well.”

This is sto­ry invis­i­bly shap­ing our behav­iour to serve the needs of the many, to serve the needs of the tribe.

What I’ve just done with that sto­ry of the fire is got­ten you all a lit­tle bit high with a tiny dose of dopamine — a sto­ry with a hap­py end­ing makes us feel good. But it’s not the only chem­i­cal change a good sto­ry makes in our blood­streams.

A neu­ro­sci­en­tist named Paul Zak ran a study in which he drew blood from test sub­jects who wit­nessed two dif­fer­ent sto­ries, a sto­ry of man who goes to the zoo with his son and wan­ders around. The oth­er sto­ry is in the same set­ting, but the father tells the sto­ry of his son’s ter­mi­nal can­cer, and how hard he’s strug­gling to cope with that and give his son some enjoy­ment in his final days with things like this trip to the zoo. When they com­pared the chem­i­cal make-up of the sub­jects’ blood they found ele­vat­ed lev­els of Cor­ti­sol — a chem­i­cal that piques our atten­tion to some­thing impor­tant — in the blood of the sub­jects who wit­nessed the can­cer sto­ry. But more impor­tant­ly, Zak found ele­vat­ed lev­els of Oxy­tocin — what he calls the ‘moral mol­e­cule’ — which makes us pay atten­tion to social cues and rais­es our empa­thy lev­els.

When they then asked the sub­jects whether they want­ed to donate to a char­i­ty after the study was over, there was a cor­re­la­tion between the will­ing­ness to give, the amount given, and the lev­els of Oxy­tocin in the subject’s blood­stream.

Zak claims to have found what alchemists have sought for cen­turies: a way of turn­ing the base met­al of sto­ry into fundrais­ing gold.

Now I’m not a neu­ro­sci­en­tist — and there are chal­lenges to the­se results, among them one study that says Oxy­tocin is respon­si­ble for envy as much as empa­thy and there­fore might be called the immoral mol­e­cule. But the study repli­cates some­thing that I and most of us in this room prob­a­bly know for a fact: a com­pelling sto­ry which touch­es someone’s heart is a mag­ic spell for sum­mon­ing char­i­ta­ble behav­iour, for unlock­ing human com­pas­sion.

What’s my source for that?

I spent three years as a can­vasser for Green­peace in my youth — knock­ing on doors, telling sto­ries, and ask­ing for dona­tions. Any of you who have had per­son­al expe­ri­ence work­ing with indi­vid­u­al giv­ing or major donors or street giv­ing know that moment when you con­nect to some­one heart to heart, when your sto­ry lands, and they make the deci­sion to give. I don’t know if it’s chem­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal or spir­i­tu­al, but those of us who have wit­nessed it know it by its true nature: mag­ic.

Anoth­er thing I learned as a can­vasser was that a blank peti­tion was near­ly impos­si­ble to get signed. But if the neigh­bour up the road had signed your job was five times eas­ier. And if two neigh­bours had signed it was ten times eas­ier. And this brings us to anoth­er role of sto­ry that’s essen­tial to giv­ing and to social change.

It’s the idea that sto­ry doesn’t just define what’s right, it also defines what’s nor­mal. And that is incred­i­bly pow­er­ful in dri­ving char­i­ta­ble behav­iour.

We’re sur­round­ed every day by invis­i­ble sto­ries that tell us how to behave, that reas­sure us that we’re behav­ing just like every­one else. Because that’s the most impor­tant thing for a social ani­mal: to behave social­ly.

And if you don’t believe that, try walk­ing into a crowd­ed ele­va­tor and turn­ing around to face the rear of the car instead of the doors. Watch how uncom­fort­able it makes every­one around you. For more fun, get three con­fed­er­ates and do the same thing. You’ll prob­a­bly get every­one else to turn. Because we tell and read invis­i­ble sto­ries in each other’s actions that tell us how to behave every sec­ond of every day.

But when enough peo­ple sig­nal a new behav­iour, the def­i­n­i­tion of what’s nor­mal changes.

The his­to­ry of activism and social change is noth­ing more than tak­ing a fringe behav­iour or belief and mak­ing it nor­mal. Or tak­ing a nor­mal behav­iour and mak­ing it appear weird. A few decades ago, light­ing a cig­a­ret­te on a plane was per­fect­ly nor­mal. Today it would be shock­ing­ly weird.

Our great­est ally, and our great­est ene­my in dri­ving the change we need to sur­vive is the human ten­den­cy to fol­low the herd. We under­es­ti­mate how pow­er­ful that force is, how omnipresent in our lives. And how impor­tant it is to social change. Kumi Naido talks about the strug­gle again­st Apartheid in South Africa when he was a youth, and being told that while his cause was just, it was impos­si­ble. But that changed. As he puts it, “it was only when peo­ple in suf­fi­cient­ly large num­bers began to believe that change was pos­si­ble, that change became pos­si­ble.”

It reminds me of some­thing Bob Hunter, one of the founders of Green­peace said: That big change looks impos­si­ble when you start and inevitable when you fin­ish.

And that’s both true and trag­ic. Trag­ic because it does a dis­ser­vice to those who strug­gled to make a fringe behav­iour nor­mal when it seemed tru­ly weird. When the cause seemed impos­si­ble. We look back today and say of course wom­en would even­tu­al­ly have got­ten the right to vote — that was inevitable. Or of course apartheid would end. It was inevitable. Or of course slav­ery would be banned. It was inevitable. But that inevitabil­i­ty was not a given to the peo­ple who sac­ri­ficed their time their rep­u­ta­tions and in some cas­es their lives to make those things come about.

But here’s the good news about herd men­tal­i­ty when it comes to trans­form­ing the world: it means We don’t need bil­lions of peo­ple act­ing per­fect­ly, we just need mil­lions of peo­ple act­ing bet­ter. We only need to turn the 101st deer to turn the herd. That’s the pow­er of nor­mal­iz­ing behav­iour.

So how do we accel­er­ate the process of social change to serve our sur­vival? We con­vince the herd that the herd is turn­ing. We accel­er­ate the arrival of that mag­ic tip­ping point where enough peo­ple believe that change is pos­si­ble that change becomes pos­si­ble. We need to give peo­ple agen­cy, to make that agen­cy vis­i­ble, and tell the sto­ries of that agency’s suc­cess again and again and again. And Fundrais­ers, you’re in a mag­i­cal­ly impor­tant place to be able to do that. You traf­fic in char­i­ta­ble behav­iour. In behav­iour that’s geared toward dri­ving change. But you also hold the key to a dan­ger­ous valve — the one by which peo­ple out­source their agen­cy, And give sim­ply to alle­vi­ate their guilt.

I think we’re capa­ble of so much more. I think donors are capa­ble of so much more. But I think it’s con­tin­gent on us to ask — to make it clear that writ­ing a check on its own isn’t going to change the sto­ry. Gre­ta won’t like­ly be telling her grand­chil­dren, when they ask how did we save the world, with the answer that “mil­lions of peo­ple opened their wal­lets and agreed to month­ly dona­tions and went on liv­ing their lives as they nor­mal­ly do.” We need to invite our donors to agen­cy. To using all of their pow­er — the pow­er of their wal­let, the pow­er of their vote, the pow­er of their con­sump­tion choic­es, the pow­er of the sto­ries they tell to their friends about what they believe is right and nor­mal and accept­able. We need to bring a new sto­ry to life that says human beings do not sac­ri­fice their chil­dren at the altar of their own con­ve­nience, greed, or igno­rance.

We need to help peo­ple find agen­cy. We need to set off a bil­lion acts of courage.

I want to share with you a sto­ry of how I found my agen­cy.

It’s the sto­ry of two ques­tions.

And it begins in a cab­in in the woods in New Hamp­shire in the north­east­ern Unit­ed States, far far from the near­est town on an iso­lat­ed hill top look­ing out over noth­ing but trees.

When I was fin­ish­ing up col­lege I was hav­ing that con­ver­sa­tion one has with a friend about what we were plan­ning to do after we grad­u­at­ed. I con­fessed that my dream was to go to a cab­in in the woods and write the great Amer­i­can nov­el. This was not a very orig­i­nal dream. Every Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture stu­dent who had ever read Emer­son and Thore­au prob­a­bly had the same idea.

But to my sur­prise she said “My dad has a cab­in in the woods in New Hamp­shire, and it gets bro­ken into every win­ter. May­be he’ll let you live there in exchange for watch­ing it?”

And so come Autumn I found myself in a one room sum­mer cab­in with­out elec­tric­i­ty or plumb­ing and a tiny wood­stove that had to be stoked twice in the mid­dle of the night if I didn’t want ice in my beard in the morn­ing.

Autumn turns to win­ter, and it gets cold. New Eng­land cold. The beat-up four wheel dri­ve that I used to dri­ve to town freezes solid into the mud. And it starts to snow. For days. Then a week. Pret­ty soon, I’m snow­bound. And I’m fac­ing the real pos­si­bil­i­ty that I’m going to run out of food. But some­thing far worse hap­pened: I ran out of books. Now this is 1980 — there’s no inter­net, no wifi. My only way out of that cab­in was to read. So after I’d read every­thing that I’d brought with me, I start­ed to can­ni­bal­ize the slim shelf of books that had been left behind by the own­er of the cab­in.

And among those books was one which lit­er­al­ly changed my life. It was called “The War­riors of the Rain­bow” by Bob Hunter. It was the sto­ry of the found­ing of a group I had nev­er heard of, called “Green­peace,” by a group of draft dodgers, peaceniks, and hip­pies who met in a church base­ment in Van­cou­ver try­ing to fig­ure out how to stop a nuclear weapons test that was going to be det­o­nat­ed in the Aleu­tian Islands of Alaska. What they decid­ed to do was take a boat, sail it up there, park it in the blast zone, and say “we dare you — on our lives — not to det­o­nate that bomb.” To the biggest mil­i­tary force on the plan­et.

I was enchant­ed. And I realised that what they were doing was cre­at­ing tiny sto­ries of con­fronta­tion pack­aged up for the medi­um of the day, tele­vi­sion, and sent them rip­pling around the world in what they called “mind-bombs”: sim­ple stark, black and whites sto­ries: here’s Richard Nixon’s Cold War Nuclear machine, and here’s a bunch of peo­ple who say there’s a bet­ter way to run a plan­et. Here’s a whale, here’s a har­poon, and here’s a tiny boat with a cou­ple folks who are say­ing on my life, I dare you.

And the ques­tion every one of those sto­ries asked, implic­it­ly, is the first impor­tant ques­tion in this sto­ry: “Which side are you on?”

I knew which side I was on. I was with the whale. And the hip­pies in the boat.

In answer­ing that ques­tion I stepped over an invis­i­ble line — not yet to activism, but from igno­rant bystander to some­one with an opin­ion, some­one who had made a choice. I dis­agreed with that thing being done over there. I thought it should stop. This is what Quak­ers call “Bear­ing Wit­ness” – the belief that if you wit­ness a crime or an injus­tice, you bear a moral respon­si­bil­i­ty for that injus­tice con­tin­u­ing. You can act on it or not – and the beau­ty of this phi­los­o­phy is that it rec­og­nizes we can­not and do not act on every injus­tice we wit­ness – but the moral respon­si­bil­i­ty is there. In effect you plant a sec­ond ques­tion which you may or may not answer: “What are you going to do about it?”

And the Quak­er belief is found­ed in a fun­da­men­tal­ly opti­mistic view of human integri­ty and will­ing­ness to act: that the more peo­ple whose heart you plant that ques­tion in, the more like­ly it becomes that peo­ple in suf­fi­cient num­bers will answer that ques­tion with a deci­sion to stand up and oppose that injus­tice.

So that ques­tion, what are you going to do about it, slept in my heart as I closed the book and was sad because I didn’t think this organ­i­sa­tion called Green­peace exist­ed any­more. It slept in my heart as the snow melt­ed and I didn’t run out of food, and the win­ter turned to spring. It slept in my heart as I ran out of mon­ey, and hitch­hiked down to Boston and start­ed work­ing in a book­store. Which was the PERFECT job after the cab­in — there was heat and elec­tric­i­ty, I didn’t have to chop wood or fetch water and I was nev­er, ever going to run out of books. Then one day an old friend from my home town walks in. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was vol­un­teer­ing for an organ­i­sa­tion I had prob­a­bly nev­er heard of before called Green­peace. I said real­ly, I just read the most amaz­ing book and I total­ly sup­port your cause. And then this tough as nails wom­an leans over the coun­ter and says “Yeah? And what are you doing about it?”

What Cathy want­ed me to do about it was way out­side my com­fort zone. She sug­gest­ed I join her knock­ing on doors, rais­ing aware­ness, ask­ing for dona­tions, gath­er­ing peti­tion sig­na­tures. Like a door to door sales­man.

I declined. But Cathy was per­sis­tent, and one day I final­ly walked into that Green­peace office, and it was like com­ing home. I liked the vibe, I liked the tribe, I want­ed to make it part of my dai­ly life. So I start­ed can­vass­ing one day a week, then two, then three… and when I wasn’t can­vass­ing I was vol­un­teer­ing, and pret­ty soon my vol­un­teer­ing habit was get­ting in the way of my full time job. So I did the ratio­nal thing, and quit my job.

And that launched me on a jour­ney which a year lat­er would find me secret­ly march­ing with three col­leagues across a bomb­ing range, past Area 51, and into Yuc­ca Flats in Nevada where the US mil­i­tary was prepar­ing to det­o­nate a fif­teen kilo­ton under­ground nuclear weapon and say­ing “we dare you, on our lives, not to det­o­nate that bomb.” And for four days, we hid in that desert and for four days the biggest mil­i­tary force on the plan­et blinked and didn’t det­o­nate the bomb. For what­ev­er it was worth, we delayed the nuclear arms race by four days. That became the most impor­tant lesson in the pow­er of indi­vid­u­al action that I would ever learn. It was also a lesson in how amaz­ing­ly great a cup of jail­house cof­fee can taste after six days in the desert.

My point is this. Every one of us in this room has a sto­ry to tell about how we decid­ed to do some­thing about the way the world works. We all have a sto­ry of how we found our agen­cy and the deci­sions and path that led you to be here in this room today. Those sto­ries are con­ta­gious. They are sto­ries that want to be told.

And all of us have to admit that no mat­ter how hard we’ve tried, no mat­ter how lofty our ambi­tions or how many late nights and failed mar­riages and burned out careers activists have thrown at chang­ing the world over the last six decades, Greta’s right: it hasn’t achieved what we hoped it would achieved. It hasn’t slain the mon­ster that haunts Greta’s dreams.

But that doesn’t mean the sto­ry is over. It sim­ply means a new sto­ry has to begin. It’s like we’re all in the con­trol room when Apol­lo 13 is crip­pled in space and leak­ing oxy­gen and Gene Kranz over­hears some­one say­ing that “This could be the worst dis­as­ter NASA has ever expe­ri­enced.” and that hero­ic flight direc­tor responds

With all due respect Sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Cri­sis is oppor­tu­ni­ty. It’s when our true colours come out. It’s what gives rise to true heroes like Gre­ta Thun­berg.

So here are my part­ing thoughts to all of you. Find new ways to apply your awe­some skills to invit­ing peo­ple to agen­cy – whether it’s again­st cli­mate change, or chang­ing the sto­ry of con­sump­tion or increas­ing human empa­thy or any cause that will make more peo­ple believe that change is pos­si­ble. Share the sto­ry of how you found your agen­cy. Share the sto­ry of how you’re mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Share the sto­ries of how oth­ers are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Because every time a sto­ry gets retold, it gets stronger. And every sto­ry of a con­quest over apa­thy or pes­simism or despair is poten­tial­ly a wak-up call to a ques­tion that’s sleep­ing in some­one else’s heart.

A famous con­tent mar­ket­ing thought lead­er by the name of Tyr­i­an Lan­nis­ter said some­thing at the end of Game of Thrones which is pro­found­ly impor­tant both to your work as fundrais­ers and to the com­mon chal­lenge of human sur­vival.

What unites peo­ple? Armies? Gold? Flags? Sto­ries. There’s noth­ing in the world more pow­er­ful than a good sto­ry. Noth­ing can stop it. No ene­my can defeat it.”

The sto­ry we write of how we sur­vived an extinc­tion of our own mak­ing is going to be a sto­ry unlike any that has ever been told. It’s not going to be easy. No epic quest ever is. But the stage has been set by decades of activism and one 15-year-old Swedish girl who decid­ed to

Tell the truth
Be inter­est­ing and
Live the truth

Every one of us has a role to play in con­vinc­ing peo­ple that change is pos­si­ble. And some­where out there is the one per­son some­one is going to con­vince and cre­ate a tip­ping point where sud­den­ly we hit crit­i­cal mass, and change does become pos­si­ble. The choice is between a sto­ry that ends in sur­vival and one that ends in extinc­tion.

We all know which side we’re on.

All we need to decide is what we’re going to do about it.

Steve Sawyer, 1956–2019

Steve Sawyer want­ed to write his own obit­u­ary, and he would have done a bet­ter job of it, but time got away from him. I say he would have done a bet­ter job at it because he did a bet­ter job than most of us at just about every­thing he put his hand to.

After hours, when he wasn’t a dri­ving force in the glob­al strug­gle to address the cli­mate emer­gen­cy, or tak­ing a fledg­ling organ­i­sa­tion called Green­peace out of its tumul­tuous ado­les­cence into pow­er­house adult­hood, he was an out­stand­ing blues gui­tarist, an envi­ably pre­cise writer, a proud par­ent of mag­i­cal­ly gift­ed chil­dren, a sailor, a sci­ence fic­tion fan, and a con­nois­seur of wry irony.

In his part­ing instruc­tions, he point­ed his wife of more than 30 years, Kel­ly Rigg, to Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech as a mod­el for his obit­u­ary. It’s a short speech in which Lou says almost noth­ing about the bad break that will short­ly take his life, but speaks about the hon­our he had to live the life he did, and his appre­ci­a­tion of hav­ing shared it with the extra­or­di­nary peo­ple he shared it with.

Steve Sawyer in New Zealand. © Greenpeace / Nigel Marple

Steve Sawyer, a crew mem­ber of the orig­i­nal Rain­bow War­rior which was bombed by French secret ser­vice agents in 1985 in Auck­land, aboard the new Rain­bow War­rior dur­ing the ship’s first vis­it to New Zealand. © Green­peace / Nigel Marple

Steve Sawyer passed on 31 July, 2019 short­ly after he was diag­nosed with lung can­cer. He was the Senior Pol­i­cy Advi­sor at the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil. For over 10 years as the organisation’s Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary, Steve tire­less­ly rep­re­sent­ed the wind indus­try and worked to con­vince gov­ern­ments to adopt wind as the solu­tion to grow­ing ener­gy demand and car­bon emis­sions. Dur­ing Steve’s tenure at the head of the Coun­cil, glob­al wind instal­la­tions grew from 74GW to 539GW and became one of the world’s most impor­tant ener­gy sources. He con­tribut­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the devel­op­ment of the wind indus­try in places such as India, Chi­na, Brazil and South Africa. He was a promi­nent speak­er in pub­lic and pri­vate forums, and wrote innu­mer­able arti­cles, blogs and posi­tion papers.

He pre­vi­ous­ly served in lead­er­ship posi­tions at Green­peace for near­ly three decades. At both the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil and at Green­peace, Sawyer was dri­ven by a fierce love of nature and the sea forged in his child­hood in New Eng­land, which he often described as most hap­pi­ly spent “mess­ing about with boats.”

He stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at Haver­ford Col­lege (fel­low alum Dave Bar­ry wagged that its mot­to was “We’ve nev­er heard of you either”) where he was steeped in the clas­sics. But his read­ing of Aldo Leopold, Rachel Car­son, Edward Abbey, and Saul Alin­sky pulled him toward the ris­ing envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. From Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings he drew life­long inspi­ra­tion for seem­ing­ly hope­less caus­es, and the faith that a small group of prin­ci­pled and coura­geous under-dogs could, again­st all odds, change the world.

He was by his own admis­sion a card-car­ry­ing hip­py when a Green­peace can­vasser knocked on his door look­ing for a dona­tion. Steve vol­un­teered instead. He went door to door in the Boston area as a Green­peace can­vasser him­self, before join­ing the Green­peace ship Rain­bow War­rior in Jan­u­ary 1980 to cam­paign again­st the trans­port and dis­charge into the ocean of radioac­tive wastes.

Sawyer’s sto­ry and that of the Rain­bow War­rior would be entwined through­out Greenpeace’s ear­ly days. He lent his mar­itime knowl­edge to a refit in Ston­ing­ton, Maine, blast­ing rust and paint­ing, and lat­er to con­vert­ing her to sail to pre­pare for a cross­ing of the Paci­fic Ocean. It was there that the ship took on a mer­cy mis­sion from which Steve would draw a life­long sense of pride, relo­cat­ing the inhab­i­tants of the Ron­ge­lap atoll, poi­soned by fall­out from US atmos­pher­ic nuclear weapons tests. Steve and the crew relo­cat­ed the entire com­mu­ni­ty and all their world­ly belong­ings, whose requests for relo­ca­tion had been denied by the US Gov­ern­ment, despite ris­ing inci­dences of can­cer and birth defects. The event was seared into Sawyer’s heart and imag­i­na­tion.

Campaigner Steve Sawyer on Rongelap. © Greenpeace / Fernando Pereira

Cam­paign­er Steve Sawyer, is wel­comed by inhab­i­tants from Ron­ge­lap. The Rain­bow War­rior crew is evac­u­at­ing Ron­ge­lap Islanders to Meja­to. Ron­ge­lap suf­fered nuclear fall­out from US nuclear tests done from 1946 – 1958, mak­ing it a haz­ardous place to live. The health of many adults and chil­dren has suf­fered as a result. The Green­peace crew took adults, chil­dren and 100 ton­nes of belong­ings onboard. © Green­peace / Fer­nan­do Pereira

It was aboard that same ship that he and the crew were cel­e­brat­ing his 29th birth­day in New Zealand when two limpet mines, lat­er revealed to have been plant­ed by the French Secret Ser­vice, sent the ship to the bot­tom of the har­bour, tak­ing the life of pho­tog­ra­pher Fer­nan­do Pereira. It was an act of state ter­ror­ism in reac­tion to Green­peace protests again­st nuclear weapons test­ing in the Paci­fic, a cause that Sawyer had spear­head­ed. The attack back­fired bad­ly, pro­pelling the cause of the Paci­fic Islanders vic­timised by test­ing into the lime­light, and dri­ving mas­sive growth at Green­peace as dona­tions and expres­sions of sup­port poured in.

Sawyer’s han­dling of the after­math, and the suc­cess­ful suit of the French Gov­ern­ment for dam­ages, fur­ther pro­pelled his own rep­u­ta­tion as a lead­er and in 1988 he was named Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al.

Green­peace had some of its great­est tri­umphs in the years Sawyer was at the helm – from the dec­la­ra­tion of Antarc­ti­ca as off-lim­its to gas and oil explo­ration, to the Mon­tre­al Pro­to­col lim­it­ing ozone-deplet­ing gasses to an end to radioac­tive waste dump­ing at sea world­wide. He also led Green­peace to begin cam­paign­ing in earnest again­st cli­mate change long before most of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment under­stood the threat. Accord­ing to insid­ers, his tenure marked the com­ing of age of an organ­i­sa­tion that had once prid­ed itself on its rag-tag mys­tic hip­piedom.

Arthur Harbour, near Palmer Station (US). © Greenpeace / Robin Culley

Side view of MV Gond­wana, ice­berg behind the ship. Arthur Har­bour, near Palmer Sta­tion (US). © Green­peace / Robin Cul­ley

In 2001 Sawyer shift­ed his focus exclu­sive­ly to the exis­ten­tial threat of cli­mate change. Through his work at Green­peace and the Glob­al Wind Ener­gy Coun­cil he became a famil­iar fig­ure at the annu­al UN cli­mate talks and fought fierce­ly to awak­en gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions to the dan­gers of ris­ing tem­per­a­tures. He had a schol­ar­ly under­stand­ing of the sci­ence, an activist’s anger at inac­tion, and a strategist’s eye for where to apply pres­sure or intro­duce solu­tions.

To his col­leagues, Sawyer will be remem­bered for the qual­i­ties of his lead­er­ship: his stub­born courage, his abil­i­ty to inspire again­st over­whelm­ing odds, his absence of ego, and his faith in the pow­er of loy­al­ty, integri­ty, ratio­nal­i­ty, and com­mit­ment. He was Gan­dalf to a rag-tag fel­low­ship of under­dogs, remind­ing those around him, by his own exam­ple, in the face of one exis­ten­tial threat after anoth­er, that we can­not choose the time that we are born to, and that our most impor­tant task is to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

He is sur­vived by his wife Kel­ly, his daugh­ter, Lay­la, and his son, Sam.

Friends and col­leagues are invit­ed to post remem­brances at Steve’s memo­ri­al web­site.

By Bri­an Fitzger­ald

This piece orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al web­site

Made an Alexa skill to illustrate a cognitive magic trick

So here’s a nice lit­tle illus­tra­tion of one the rea­sons why we’re the planet’s most suc­cess­ful preda­tor  and yet are also capa­ble of believ­ing cli­mate change doesn’t exist or that the world is flat.

I’m a big fan of the  You Are Not So Smart pod­cast,  which deep dives into cog­ni­tive quirks and things like the Back­fire Effect, active infor­ma­tion avoid­anceCon­fir­ma­tion Bias and all kinds of essen­tial knowl­edge about human behav­iour for any­one look­ing to cre­ate social change.

David McRany, the pod­cast author (full dis­clo­sure, I’m a patre­on) did an epsiode on Desir­abil­i­ty Bias, a com­pan­ion bias to Con­fir­ma­tion bias — the phe­nom­e­na that accounts for how we select to hear pat­terns that con­firm our beliefs and dis­card those that don’t. Desir­abil­i­ty bias twists that bias even fur­ther, by mak­ing us fil­ter infor­ma­tion to provide evi­dence for futures we want to come true rather than ratio­nal­ly process the evi­dence of what future is actu­al­ly like­ly to come true.

Part of the way he illus­trat­ed our abil­i­ty to pick out pat­terns from chaos was a mag­ic trick. You lis­ten to what sounds like ran­dom noise, and try as you may, you can’t make any sense of it.

And then you hear the key, and sud­den­ly there’s no going back — it’s so obvi­ous, you feel some­what flab­ber­gast­ed you didn’t always hear it. What the trick demon­strates is a pret­ty star­tling exam­ple of how our brains present mean­ing and real­i­ty to us, and how eas­i­ly our per­cep­tion of real­i­ty can be changed when we have been exposed to a pat­tern.  Think about all the times you’ve heard a word for the first time, then heard it seem­ing­ly 4 times in the next week. Or think about how a repeat­ed phrase like “Fake News” starts to lift out of the back­ground of dai­ly noise to occu­py the cen­ter of our col­lec­tive atten­tion. This sim­ply lit­tle trick is a pret­ty potent demon­stra­tion of how selec­tive our lis­ten­ing can be. David McRany makes the case that it must have been a great sur­vival tool: the jun­gle is a noisy place, and those of us who could pick out the sound of a stalk­ing tiger would have been more like­ly to pass that skill down genet­i­cal­ly.

So why Alexa? I’ve been play­ing around with a great piece of labor-sav­ing soft­ware called Sto­ry­line, so I turned the audio mag­ic trick into an Alexa skill to try it out.  If you have an Alexa you can just enable the skill in the US, UK, India, Canada, or Aus­tralia or there’s a sim­u­la­tor ver­sion here for those who don’t.

Give it a lis­ten, either via the Alexa Skill or just lis­ten to the pod­cast: it’s total­ly freaky.

And for any­one look­ing for an easy way to build inter­ac­tive sto­ries for Alexa, Sto­ry­line rocks: I lit­er­al­ly built the Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Mag­ic Trick in twen­ty min­utes.

The Power of Story

The forest is bathed in moon­light, thick with the scent of pine, and alive with the crack­le and ketchup smell of oak ablaze in a cir­cle of stones, the sparks fly­ing up into the night sky to cre­ate tem­po­rary con­stel­la­tions. 

Mis­ter Fox takes an apple, runs a stick through its core, and holds it out over the flames. “Once upon a time” he cre­ative­ly begins, “Zeus, Jeho­vah, and Odin walked into a bar. “Why the long faces?” asks the bar­tender, a tall skin­ny fel­low with white hair and an Irish brogue. Zeus orders a bot­tle of Ouzo and says “Human freak­ing beings. They stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic — the abil­i­ty to make fire.”  “Oy, says Jeho­vah, you think you’ve got prob­lems,” as he ordered a bot­tle of wine. “To steal fire, they need­ed to know what fire was. And they know THAT because they stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic: knowl­edge.” Odin orders a beer and stays qui­et. The bar­tender leans in and says “Uh, Odin, this is the part of the sto­ry where you one-up them and deliv­er the punch­line. Odin? Odin?” Mis­ter Fox gives us a nod, bites the apple, and pro­duces a very cold beer he has some­how con­jured out of noth­ing, and offers us a sip….

Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowl­edge. But in Norse mythol­o­gy, it was the Mead of Poet­ry — the abil­i­ty to tell sto­ries — which human­i­ty dis­tilled from a God’s stolen gift.

The Norse chose wise­ly.

Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Let me repeat that: Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Until you take the red pill and realise this sim­ple fact, Neo, you will nev­er be tru­ly free.

Most of the sto­ries that gov­ern our lives are so ancient, so burned-in to our psy­che, that we for­get they are sto­ries.

The days of the week are sto­ries — mon­keys are not hap­py on Fri­day, Giraffes don’t get the Mon­day blues. All of us accept, unques­tion­ing, the sto­ry that there are 7 days in a week and their cycle resets on Sun­day. And that sto­ry frames the way we think about an entire day, and even our sense of the pos­si­ble. What seems pos­si­ble on a Tues­day may be very dif­fer­ent from what seems pos­si­ble on a Sun­day.

But there are big­ger sto­ries that also shape our lives — the sto­ry of jus­tice, of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of mon­ey, of cor­po­ra­tions, the sto­ry of Democ­ra­cy or the 6 major reli­gions. All of the­se sto­ries are what Yuval Har­rari calls “inter-sub­jec­tive imag­ined orders.” They have no phys­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal truth — they were all cre­at­ed and agreed by human beings and only exist as long as human beings keep believ­ing in them.

They are mytholo­gies: sto­ries kept alive by retelling, made stronger by rit­u­als, ampli­fied through social proof.

I’ve recent­ly read “Sapi­ens” — Harrari’s sweep­ing his­to­ry of the species, which might have been sub­ti­tled “A his­to­ry of sto­ry.” He cov­ers some of the same ground that Jonathan Haidt went over in The Right­eous Mind, but brings it to life in new ways. What made humans the most suc­cess­ful species on the plan­et was our abil­i­ty to uni­fy and organ­ise small groups around sto­ries that we made up to define a com­mon pur­pose — the sto­ry of the hunters of the tribe, the sto­ry of the gods of the sea­sons that helped us grow food, the sto­ry of a pyra­mid to pro­tect the pharaoh’s soul, the sto­ry of a nation, in which each of us is a char­ac­ter, in which each of us plays a role.

His retelling of the inven­tion of the lim­it­ed com­pa­ny in 19th cen­tu­ry is bril­liant. It was sor­cery — a pow­er­ful magi­cian, in this case, a lawyer, utters a mag­ic spell with pow­er­ful words he writes on paper and cre­ates an enti­ty from thin air and says this enti­ty is going to bor­row mon­ey. It’s not ME bor­row­ing mon­ey, it’s this thing I just cre­at­ed. And if it fails, I’m not liable for its debts, because it wasn’t me that bor­rowed the mon­ey — it’s this thing I call a com­pa­ny. How good a trick was that? Enough peo­ple believed that sor­cer­er to breathe life into that being. And to this day, cor­po­ra­tions exist because we accept the mag­i­cal pow­er of law that says they do, and that sto­ry has been rein­forced over and over by retellings that make it stronger, that give it a per­ma­nence. Yet a cor­po­ra­tion doesn’t exist. You can’t touch it. It exists nowhere but in our sto­ry­telling brains, just as every spire in the Man­hat­tan sky­line was once just a sto­ry on paper, just as the death of a mastodon was noth­ing but a sto­ry told around a fire in a cave that turned into a plan.

When I retell the sto­ry of Rosa Parks sit­ting in the front of a bus and so set­ting off a chain of events that cre­at­ed the civil rights act, I rein­force the sto­ry of pro­gress, the sto­ry of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of jus­tice, the sto­ry of the long arc of his­to­ry. Every time a wom­an goes to the polls and tells some­one they’re vot­ing because they remem­ber the scorn heaped upon Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton and her fel­low suf­fer­agettes, they par­tic­i­pate in a rit­u­al which rein­forces the sto­ry of democ­ra­cy.

Sto­ries are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the human mind. They are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of civil­i­sa­tion. And here’s some good news: they can be hacked.

When Kumi Naidoo was a young stu­dent activist fight­ing again­st Apartheid, he was part of a 100-year-long sto­ry of resis­tance to South Africa’s sys­tem­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion.  He was told his cause was just, but it was hope­less. South Africa in those days had no demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem by which dis­sent could be open­ly expressed, no means of open­ly organ­is­ing. The gov­ern­ment com­mand­ed the largest mil­i­tary force on the African con­ti­nent. South Africa was a wealthy and sta­ble eco­nom­ic part­ner — no for­eign gov­ern­ment was going to inter­fere in their domes­tic poli­cies at the expense of bil­lions in trade.

But in the space of Kumi’s life­time, that sto­ry changed. It was hacked not just by Steven Biko and Nel­son Man­del­la and Desmond Tutu, but by Kumi’s white high school teacher, peer­ing from out her door to make sure no police or neigh­bors were watch­ing as she allowed a dis­si­dent stu­dent group to meet in her home. It was hacked by peo­ple in the west who start­ed show­ing up at South African embassies to protest. It was hacked by indi­vid­u­als who joined the boy­cott on South African goods. And at some point, some mag­i­cal point that every activist longs for, some­thing changed: enough peo­ple came to believe that change was pos­si­ble, that change BECAME pos­si­ble. That’s the sto­ry of activism. As Bob Hunter once said, “big change looks impos­si­ble when you start, and inevitable when you fin­ish.”

It’s because big change looks inevitable in hind­sight that we for­get the courage it once took to believe in it. To act for it. As we look back we think how prim­i­tive that any­one would for­bid wom­en from work­ing or vot­ing or seg­re­gate drink­ing foun­tains by the colour of someone’s skin or say with a straight face “all men are cre­at­ed equal” while exclud­ing half the human race. Sure­ly those cus­toms would have erod­ed even­tu­al­ly and we would arrive in this enlight­ened time as sure­ly as the sun ris­es and sets? No— change hap­pens in soci­ety when a soci­ety wrestles with a con­tra­dic­tion, a clash of sto­ries. How can we both believe that God cre­at­ed all men equal and yet also believe that African slaves are infe­ri­or? It’s then we enter the cul­tur­al thun­der­dome. Two sto­ries enter, one sto­ry leaves. FIGHT!

Kumi’s sto­ry has always given Mis­ter Fox hope. As we look out across the vast expanse of threats to human exis­tence today — from cli­mate change to nuclear war to an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that’s hun­gry enough to con­sume four times the Earth’s capac­i­ty … change seems impos­si­ble. And yet the moral of the sto­ry of activism is that noth­ing is impos­si­ble, and that indi­vid­u­al acts of courage, no mat­ter how fool­hardy and naive they may seem in the face of cer­tain defeat, can hack the sto­ry of the impos­si­ble into the sto­ry of the inevitable.

Want to learn more about the pow­er of sto­ry? This one day work­shop is an adven­ture in the­o­ry and prac­tice for change mak­ers who want to tell a bet­ter sto­ry, and sto­ry­tellers who want to change the world.

Activist communication traps: Reinforcing the “Descriptive Norm”

No way you humans ought to be the dom­i­nant species on this plan­et,” says Mis­ter Fox, siz­ing us up. “By forest stan­dards, you’re weak, you can’t see much or hear very well, your teeth are bet­ter suit­ed to cook­ies than com­bat, and your claws are a joke — oth­er than that Wolver­ine fel­low. But you’ve got one nice ace up your sleeve” he declar­es, pulling an ace from his sleeve, “You sure know how to tell sto­ries. And it’s through telling sto­ries that you learned the secret that made you the most dan­ger­ous ani­mal on earth: how to coop­er­ate. You learned a form of sto­ry­telling set in the future. The very first plan­ning meet­ing prob­a­bly went some­thing like ‘we’re going to hunt this mam­moth.’ You set the plot. Then you assigned roles and char­ac­ters and then played them out. ‘I’ll run at the mam­moth from behind scream­ing. He’ll run into that val­ley where you jump out from behind a rock with a spear and you and you will roll boul­ders down on him from above.’ Sud­den­ly, you were col­lec­tive­ly more pow­er­ful than a lion.”

Mis­ter Fox is right. But that coop­er­a­tion is hard to main­tain. It takes resources and ener­gy. So evo­lu­tion has made it resilient: we have all kinds of in-built men­tal mech­a­nisms that ensure we behave col­lec­tive­ly. And one of the strongest is the way we adjust our behav­iour to mod­el the behav­iour of those around us. The “descrip­tive norm” is what we per­ceive as “the thing every­one else does” and we’re hard-wired to con­form with it. Doing what every­one else does is easy, nat­u­ral, requires no cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing what­so­ev­er. Watch any­one walk into a room where every­one is look­ing up at the ceil­ing, you’ll see them look up at the ceil­ing. Walk into a room full of tuxe­dos in your jeans? No mat­ter how com­fort­able those jeans felt on the street five min­utes ago, they feel uncom­fort­able now. You’re out of synch with the rest of the tribe. At a fes­ti­val where every­one is drop­ping their plas­tic cups on the ground? You’re extreme­ly like­ly to take that as per­mis­sion to drop yours.

Mis­ter Fox: “Most of your audi­ence just dis­agreed with you. They’re a bunch of gree­nies. They told them­selves they wouldn’t drop that cup. They don’t lit­ter.”

Ah, and Mis­ter Fox is right. When instead of doing what the crowd does, you seek out a recy­cle bin, you’re fol­low­ing the “Injunc­tive Norm” — the thing you per­ceive as what every­one OUGHT to do. And most of us who are social change mak­ers, pro­gres­sives, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, activists, what have you, do just that. But here’s the thing: it’s HARD. It requires buck­ing the descrip­tive norm, which comes nat­u­ral and requires no thought.

The injunc­tive norm is a rule that your brain eval­u­ates: you shouldn’t eat those cook­ies if you’re try­ing to lose weight; you shouldn’t fly when you can take the train to save car­bon; you should bring your water bot­tle with you when you go out so you don’t buy a sin­gle use plas­tic bot­tle.  And we run those rules through a cog­ni­tive maze that weighs the cost of com­pli­ance again­st the pre­ceived val­ue or ben­e­fit and, whether we know it or not, the essen­tial ques­tion: how dif­fer­ent will this make me from my group? How will this make me a bet­ter or worse match for the group I am in or aspire to be a part of? How will oth­ers per­ceive my suit­abil­i­ty for inclu­sion? What is every­one else in my group doing?

So, for exam­ple, if you’re eval­u­at­ing whether to put on a tie or not, you’re going to eval­u­ate the set­ting you’re head­ing into. Pic­nic? No tie — nobody else will be wear­ing one. Meet­ing at a For­tune 500 com­pa­ny? Tie. Now this may be hard to accept, but we run eth­i­cal injunc­tions through the same test — some­times con­scious­ly, some­times uncon­scious­ly. Some­one who would nev­er, ever drop a piece of lit­ter in a beau­ti­ful park might very hap­pi­ly toss their plas­tic beer cup on the ground at that fes­ti­val lit­tered with beer cups because the organiser’s haven’t pro­vid­ed con­ve­nient recy­cling loca­tions. It might be just as incon­ve­nient to not lit­ter the park, but that key excuse: “every­one else is doing it,” isn’t there in the park, it is in the sta­di­um. You won’t feel like a bad per­son, or look like a bad per­son, by doing what every­one else is doing and toss­ing your beer cup to the floor. You won’t even think of it as lit­ter­ing, you won’t put it through a cog­ni­tive maze. Doing as every­one else does requires no reflec­tion or effort: it’s the eas­i­est rule of social behav­iour and gets rein­forced every min­ute of our lives that we wear clothes like every­one else or imi­tate each oth­ers speech pat­terns or fol­low the rit­u­als of human or cul­tur­al behav­iour from what’s accept­able eye con­tact to how we express our emo­tions.

Now, let’s look at what hap­pens when we hear a piece of activist com­mu­ni­ca­tions like this:

Plas­tics dumped into the world’s oceans may out­weigh fish by the year 2050.

There’s a sim­ple state­ment of fact. For any of us con­cerned about this issue, it’s alarm­ing. It makes us want to do some­thing, to align with those who believe we’re using too much plas­tic as a soci­ety and not recy­cling respon­si­bly and wast­ing the earth’s resources. But it also rein­forces the Descrip­tive Norm: Every­one is throw­ing plas­tic away. Every­one is using lots of plas­tic. And while we may embrace the injunc­tive, there’s a total­ly unfair fight going on in our brains between sev­er­al mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion as a social ani­mal that eas­i­ly, with­out think­ing, wants to con­form to the norm, and that young, inex­pe­ri­enced moral brain, a few thou­sand years old, which sens­es that the group behav­iour needs to change.

At a macro lev­el, activism as usu­al says we need to to present the cur­rent norm as wrong, show how it con­flicts with our val­ues or threat­ens our long term inter­ests, and acti­vate the ratio­nal brain in decid­ing to change behav­iour away from that norm. But the moment we’ve pre­sent­ed the norm, we’ve dis­ad­van­taged our evo­lu­tion­ary pre­dis­po­si­tion to con­form. We’ve cho­sen between two ways of chang­ing behav­iour, and we’ve picked up the slow one.

Let’s say we organ­ise a beach clean up and col­lect all the plas­tic straws from miles of garbage. We build a giant mosaic made of the straws to show just how many straws peo­ple are using, how exces­sive it is, and to punch home the point that we should use less straws. But your work of art sends two sig­nals.  One is weak: “we should use less plas­tic.” It’s weak because it needs to go through the cog­ni­tive maze of group impact eval­u­a­tion, ben­e­fit and loss cal­cu­la­tions, and the weigh­ing of just how much we care about this pro­posed depar­ture from the norm before we embrace a behav­iour change.  But it also sends a strong sig­nal: “every­one uses plas­tic.” And for most of our audi­ences, that’s it, game over. Because when our brains are faced with a con­tra­dic­tion that requires us to make a choice, the eas­i­est option is to ignore the choice. To set aside the injunc­tive norm in favor of the “do like every­one else” norm.

What if, instead of ampli­fy­ing the sto­ry of how bad the oceans plas­tic prob­lem is, we build com­mu­ni­ca­tions around chang­ing people’s per­cep­tion of the norm? What if we change the nar­ra­tive to ampli­fy the rejec­tion of sin­gle use plas­tic? Instead of con­cen­trat­ing on how scary bad the prob­lem is, we ele­vate the coun­ter sto­ry of com­mu­ni­ties that have dras­ti­cal­ly reduced plas­tic use, restau­rants that have stopped pro­vid­ing straws, the world­wide awak­en­ing to the dan­ger of microbeads, the coun­ter­force of peo­ple declin­ing offered plas­tic straws, plas­tic ear­buds, and the thou­sand oth­er exam­ples of peo­ple actu­al­ly tak­ing action to reduce plas­tic pol­lu­tion?

Hack­ing the per­cep­tion of the norm is key to change. It’s only when peo­ple in suf­fi­cient num­bers come to believe change is pos­si­ble that change becomes pos­si­ble. And peo­ple only believe change is pos­si­ble when they per­ceive a crit­i­cal mass of their fel­low cit­i­zens act­ing in ways con­sis­tent with that change. So here we are back at the sto­ries we tell, and how they shape behav­iour.

Con­sid­er this exam­ple of using the descrip­tive norm to shape behav­iour instead of the injunc­tive norm. A com­pa­ny wants to encour­age employ­ees to ride bikes to work. They try telling employ­ees how much health­ier it is, how much it will help reduce the company’s car­bon foot­print, how it will low­er their insur­ance rates. They get a few tak­ers, and put a bike rack in the base­ment. But the num­ber of bik­ers stays steady at those few hard-core edge cas­es. Mis­ter Fox whis­pers in someone’s ear that they should put the bike rack out front, by the main door, so every­one sees the bikes on their way in to work. But the com­pa­ny had big ambi­tions for this pro­gram­me, and the bike rack is huge. Most days, it’s not even half full. Mis­ter Fox points out that doesn’t con­vey the right mes­sage — it says not many peo­ple are bik­ing. So one night he sneaks out and removes half the bike racks. Now when peo­ple walk in they see more bikes than the bike racks can accom­mo­date. Whoa. This bik­ing thing is get­ting big. If every­one else is bik­ing, I should too. The num­ber of bike rid­ers dou­bles.

There’s an impor­tant role for point­ing out prob­lems. But when it comes to try­ing to change people’s behav­iour all of us need to be aware of the need to mod­el solu­tions.

Mis­ter Fox says the Moral of the sto­ry is this: “The real trick of activism isn’t con­vinc­ing peo­ple there’s a prob­lem: it’s chang­ing their behav­iour toward a solu­tion. The eas­i­est way to make a behav­iour main­stream is not to tell peo­ple it should be, it’s to show them that it’s already on its way.”

Outfoxing Trump: A Story

Mister Fox
Cre­ative Com­mons image BY-SA by Karthikeyan K.

Mis­ter Fox popped a blue­ber­ry into the air and point­ed his whiskers sky­ward. I was try­ing to explain the US elec­tion to him.

So what was the hap­py end­ing that Occu­py, Clin­ton, and Bernie were promis­ing?” he asked, munch­ing on the caught blue­ber­ry.

What do you mean,” I respond­ed, grab­bing in midair the next blue­ber­ry he popped up, “Haven’t you been lis­ten­ing to a word I’ve said? Reduced eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, bet­ter access to health care and edu­ca­tion for more peo­ple, less dis­crim­i­na­tion, a con­cen­trat­ed effort again­st cli­mate change.”

Mis­ter Fox sniffed. “See, all I remem­ber was that one guy… what was his name? The one with the fab­u­lous orange colour­ing?” he asked, look­ing down momen­tary at his own flam­ing coat of auburn and gold, “the one who promised to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again.”

I bet he won. He stole what should have been their line, and was the only one talk­ing about the most impor­tant part of the sto­ry.”

Blue­ber­ry?”

==================

Are you telling the most impor­tant part of your sto­ry or are you being out­foxed and out-sto­ried by some­one else? I have three reduced-fee last-min­ute tick­ets to a day-long intro­duc­tion to Sto­ry as The­o­ry of Change, with prac­ti­cal exer­cis­es straight from Mis­ter Fox’s bag of sto­ry­telling tricks.  We will gath­er this com­ing Tues­day 21st of March, at the Four Paws office in Lon­don. PM me on Twit­ter, @Brianfit in the next 72 hours for a hap­py end­ing to this and future sto­ries!

Avoiding Filter Bubbles, Tribes, and the Backfire Effect

One Sat­ur­day in 1983 I was out can­vass­ing for Green­peace. I knocked on the door of a man­sion in Mar­ble­head, Mass­a­chu­setts and braced for the worst. I didn’t like the look of this place. Can­vass long enough, and you’re able to do an instant visu­al demo­graph­ic pre­dic­tion of who is going to open the door, and how like­ly you are to get a dona­tion. The indi­ca­tors that I was going to walk away emp­ty hand­ed? The car in the dri­ve­way was a Mer­cedes rather than a Volvo. No bumper­stick­ers. The dog was dober­man rather than retriev­er. The news­pa­per tube at the end of the very long dri­ve­way, com­plete with mar­ble lions, was for the Wall Street Jour­nal. And sure enough, with­in sec­onds of the door open­ing my sus­pi­cions were con­firmed: the own­er was a Rea­gan Repub­li­can. Nev­er­the­less, ten min­utes lat­er I was walk­ing back up that dri­ve with a check for $100 to help fight acid rain. Not to save forests or out of love of the plan­et, but because it was ruin­ing the fin­ish on those import­ed Car­rara mar­ble lions at the end of the dri­ve — a point he raised, not me!

A few things strike me about this sto­ry. One, the 80s were a sim­pler time, when an envi­ron­men­tal activist organ­i­sa­tion could pull sup­port in the US from a wider range of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. I also had dona­tions from right-wing con­ser­v­a­tives who viewed the stance Green­peace took again­st Rus­sian whal­ing on the high seas as excel­lent work — because it aligned with their anti-sovi­et views. From Repub­li­can duck hunters who didn’t like chem­i­cals pour­ing into the local rivers — because it poi­soned the food source of their prey. From Daugh­ters of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion who thought high­ly of work to save harp seals — because their lit­tle faces remind­ed them of their pet poodles. In every case, the sto­ry of why they should sup­port Green­peace was one which didn’t involve chang­ing their minds, but rein­forc­ing their own val­ues.

The­se days, the idea of a US Repub­li­can of any stripe sup­port­ing envi­ron­men­tal activism with a Green­peace brand for any rea­son seems prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to imag­ine — the lines have hard­ened, the tribes have con­gealed.

The sec­ond thing to remark is that that’s a shame.  Envi­ron­men­tal­ism and the sur­vival of the planet’s life sup­port sys­tems real­ly ought to be a cross-cut­ting issue, regard­less of your view on eco­nom­ics or social issues. As envi­ron­men­tal­ists, we should be active­ly chal­leng­ing any con­fines that lim­it people’s sense of agen­cy or involve­ment or wel­come or eli­gi­bil­i­ty to our cause. If a right-wing con­ser­v­a­tive wants to buy an elec­tric car for nation­al­ist rea­sons of oil inde­pen­dence, that car’s con­tri­bu­tion to the reduc­tion in car­bon foot­print is no less valid than one bought explic­it­ly for the sake of the plan­et. Action again­st cli­mate change can­not con­tin­ue to be a sin­gle-par­ty issue, or a dif­fer­en­tia­tor between left and right.

In part one of this series we talked about the back­fire effect and how facts that con­tra­dict a core belief can actu­al­ly rein­force that belief. We’ve seen decades now of evi­dence for this in the fail­ure of cli­mate data to con­vince the right in the US of the urgent need for cli­mate action. So how do we, as envi­ron­men­tal­ists, con­vert all those con­ser­v­a­tive minds to pro­gres­sive val­ues?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Avoid­ing Fil­ter Bub­bles, Tribes, and the Back­fire Effect”

Tribes, Filter Bubbles, and the Backfire Effect

Why do oth­er­wise ratio­nal peo­ple, con­front­ed with facts that con­tra­dict their deep­est pre­sump­tions and world view, gen­er­al­ly reject those facts rather than revise their world view? Hint: the answer has some­thing to do with sto­ry­telling.

The lat­est US polit­i­cal clown-car adven­ture into the look­ing-glass world of “Alter­na­tive Facts” may have thrown a spot­light on how stub­born­ly Trumpa­philes can ignore data, but here’s a dis­turbing fact: we all think we’re the ratio­nal ones, adjust­ing the sto­ry we tell our­selves to the facts and moral­ly rea­son­ing our way to sound con­clu­sions — but behav­ioural sci­en­tists know bet­ter.  And for those of us in the busi­ness of con­vinc­ing peo­ple to change their minds, it’s sur­pris­ing we don’t pay more atten­tion to the sci­ence of this.

The envi­ron­men­tal move­ment has spent decades spew­ing facts. Reports. Charts. Info­graph­ics. We gen­er­ate Bel­gium-sized sets of facts every week, foot­ball fields of them a day.  Sci­ence facts. Polit­i­cal facts. All of them point­ing to the big fact: that we’re exhaust­ing the life sup­port sys­tems of plan­et Earth. We’ve pub­lished sage step-by-step man­u­als telling indus­try and gov­ern­ment how they can evade dis­as­ter. We’ve issued stark­ly clear indi­vid­u­al behav­iour change man­dates. And still we’re hurtling toward the mythic infer­no in the prover­bial hand-bas­ket.

It’s because peo­ple are dis­tract­ed by triv­ial things and you need to make them pay atten­tion!” says Mis­ter Fox, a bipedal fig­ment of my trick­ster imag­i­na­tion, with a slight­ly sar­cas­tic smirk and an index fin­ger mak­ing an expla­na­tion point in the air. “You need to shout more. Put out anoth­er report! A longer one! With more graphs! If you can get them to lis­ten, they’ll change their minds. And real­ly, seri­ous­ly, we both know it’s not the fault of the facts — they are per­fect­ly clear. It’s the fault of those use­less hip­ster “com­mu­ni­ca­tions experts” drink­ing 5 Euro lat­tes and whin­ing on Snapchat.”

Now I know Mis­ter Fox pret­ty well, and I know when he’s set­ting me up.

And I also know it’s deep­er than that. Con­tin­ue read­ing “Tribes, Fil­ter Bub­bles, and the Back­fire Effect”

Change the Story, Change the World: A day of training

I ran this day-long course last year twice, in Oxford and Berlin, and absolute­ly had a blast. It attract­ed a fine group of trou­ble­mak­ers from a  wide spec­trum of world-chang­ing organ­i­sa­tions: the Bible Soci­ety (“Every­one backs away when I say who I work for…”), Action­Aid, Four Paws, Cam­pact, the Transna­tion­al Insti­tute, Green­peace, the World Future Coun­cil, Com­pas­sion in World Farm­ing, Gyro Lon­don, HERA… world chang­ers of every stripe.

There was a mag­ic trick with a bit of rope.  There was some amaz­ing, pur­pose-filled sto­ry telling. There was joy. There were tears. And I had the most reward­ing expe­ri­ence when one of my stu­dents, a fundrais­ing copy­writer, wrote to thank me, say­ing she’d applied her learn­ing at work the next day with unprece­dent­ed results.

All of us could use some bet­ter sto­ries today. If we look around at the tales being told around our elec­tron­ic camp­fires today, it’s obvi­ous that the big over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tives that once explained the way the world works are break­ing down.  Facts are not win­ning. To reach hearts and minds and change behav­iours, all of us work­ing for a more beau­ti­ful world need to up our game. The sto­ries we tell need to be epic. Inspir­ing. Engag­ing. Com­pelling. They need to make peo­ple crave to be a part of them and act to pro­pel them for­ward.

On 20 March I’ll be pre­sent­ing a slight­ly abbre­vi­at­ed ver­sion of the train­ing at West­min­ster University’s Mas­ters in Media, Cam­paign­ing, and Social Change pro­gram­me  — a rare aca­d­e­mic pro­gram­me for young activists. That ses­sion is for stu­dents only, but the ses­sion on 21st of March is open to all. Reg­is­ter today — space is lim­it­ed, so quick as a fox, jump over that lazy dog.

The Moon Candy Rebellion

I was invit­ed by sto­ry­teller Simon Hodges to share a sto­ry tonight at his extra­or­di­nary every-4-weeks gath­er­ing in Ams­ter­dam. There were some won­der­ful tales, mag­i­cal myths, and fab­u­lous yarns. I read The Moon Can­dy Rebel­lion for the first time to an audi­ence that wasn’t a room­ful of activists, and I couldn’t have asked for a warmer crowd and set­ting. Simon’s cre­at­ed a glo­ri­ous sto­ry­telling space, sur­round­ed by art and full of odd, beau­ti­ful­ly diverse seat­ing from antiques to the sur­re­al sto­ry teller’s chair to bean bags and blan­kets on the floor. It’s an event worth catch­ing if your in Ams­ter­dam for the next one on the 15th of Decem­ber. Actu­al­ly, it’s an event worth trav­el­ling to Ams­ter­dam for. Have a lis­ten to a tiny por­tion of Simon’s epic ren­der­ing of the Welsh tale of Lleu and Blodeuwedd.

As for me, this is the tale I told.

Every night, for many many years, I made up a bed­time sto­ry for my boys, Doon and Dylan. 

I pop­u­lat­ed those sto­ries with some very odd heroes — kind of enlight­ened trou­ble­mak­ers who would act up and be very very naughty, though often for a very good rea­son. And one day it occurred to me: I won­der if this has any­thing to do with my pro­fes­sion?

I worked as an activist with Green­peace for 35 years. I went to sea to save whales, I went to jail for stop­ping a nuclear weapons test. I was sur­round­ed by enlight­ened trou­ble­mak­ers. And it occurred to me that I might be mak­ing up for a lack of sto­ries about those kind of peo­ple and the val­ues they cham­pi­oned.

I was always jeal­ous of par­ents who could pull a book down from the shelf about a teacher, or a fire­fight­er, or a police offi­cer, and point to it and say “That’s what I do. That’s what my friends do.” Because it can be real­ly hard to tell a five year old that “when Dad­dy and his friends do a good job, some­times they go to jail.”

Where were the bed­time sto­ries that cel­e­brat­ed what Steve Jobs called “The Crazy Ones” — the ones crazy enough to think they could change the world? Not just the artists and inven­tors and entre­pre­neurs, but the activists? How many children’s books have you read that cel­e­brate civil dis­obe­di­ence, or ques­tion­ing author­i­ty, or chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo when it’s unkind, or unjust, or dan­ger­ous? When it tells lit­tle girls that they’re weak and can’t do all the things boys do?

There’s the Lorax, and the But­ter Bat­tle Book, and my great love, Pip­pi Long­stock­ings. A few oth­ers, but not many choic­es for par­ents who want pos­i­tive role mod­els of boat-rock­ers. Of kids who meet con­for­mi­ty with cre­ativ­i­ty. Who con­jure up beau­ti­ful dis­rup­tions to cre­ate a bet­ter world. 

So I took the thrilling advice of Toni Mor­rison, and thought about the bed­time sto­ry I most want­ed to read to my kids, and wrote it. 

Now I promise this is a sto­ry not a lec­ture. So imag­ine you’re five. You’ve got your paja­mas on. The pil­lows are plumped up behind you and you pull the duvet up to your chin. Are we sit­ting com­fort­ably? Then we’ll begin…

Here’s a record­ing of the read­ing. But if you were there, skip down to the one below to see Iris Maerten’s awe­some illus­tra­tions.

We want to release this sto­ry in a big way — cre­ative com­mons, open source, skip­ping over the pub­lish­ing indus­try, going peo­ple-pow­er direct and using that mag­i­cal art of ask­ing for help.

We’ll be releas­ing an ear­ly reader/beta ver­sion of The Moon Can­dy Rebel­lion as an ePub short­ly, and we’d love to have you in on the hijinks we’re hop­ing to get up to. We’ve just set up a Face­book page, a twit­ter feed, and a web­page where you can sign up as a Moon Can­dy Rebel to get a copy in exchange for your feed­back, sug­ges­tions, and input into ideas for how we get our lit­tle book into as many lit­tle hands as pos­si­ble through some beau­ti­ful dis­rup­tion, and how we can use crowd-sourced, #new­pow­er tools to turn it into a real book you can hold in your hands and read to your child. Or your­self. It’s all about how we make courage more con­ta­gious, and raise up a gen­er­a­tion equipped to resist despo­tism and cre­ate the more beau­ti­ful world of joy­ful abun­dance we all know is pos­si­ble.

 

 

Thanks, TEDx Amsterdam

I want to live in a world that’s more like the TEDx event in Ams­ter­dam. A place bub­bling with opti­mism and enthu­si­asm and good ideas and beau­ti­ful peo­ple and the buzz of human con­nec­tion. I loved every­thing about this year’s event, from the the­me of #New­Pow­er (Hat Tip: Jere­my Heimans & Hen­ry Timms) to the back­stage assem­bly of the audi­ence (we have all now offi­cial­ly been on a TEDx stage!) to the speak­ers to the gad­gets to the veg­an food served with edi­ble spoons to the vol­un­teers.

It’s hard to choose a top 3 among the bril­liant ideas pow­er­ful­ly pre­sent­ed. Irene Rompa’s incred­i­ble reaf­fir­ma­tion of human kind­ness was the kind of spir­it the world des­per­ate­ly needs more of: Con­tin­ue read­ing “Thanks, TEDx Ams­ter­dam”

The American election was a referendum on systems change.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-09-00-37

 

 

My heart breaks for my home­land. My heart goes out to friends who have felt the hate of big­otry and misog­y­ny and now feel the sting of fur­ther mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion. My heart fears for a future in which Amer­i­ca rolls back decades of pro­gress on the envi­ron­ment and social jus­tice. And my heart freezes at the prospect of the arse­nal of armaged­don and the appa­ra­tus of a sur­veil­lance state being in the hands of a petu­lant bul­ly.

But here’s what pains my heart the most: Trump just out-played every one of us who stands for change at our own game. 

We were the ones plead­ing for sys­tems change. We were the ones cham­pi­oning dis­rup­tion. We called for the depar­ture from the sta­tus quo.

Did any of us talk in the pop­ulist terms of a utopi­an vision like “Mak­ing Amer­i­ca Great Again”? Did any of us real­ly lis­ten to the anger of rust belt white Amer­i­cans and chan­nel that anger toward upend­ing a sys­tem that was crush­ing their futures? A sys­tem in which Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans were equal­ly com­plic­it?

We talk at them about cli­mate change. We talk at them about dwin­dling resources. We talk at them about species loss. We talk at them with cau­tion­ary tales of the cost of fail­ure.

We tried to sell peo­ple on a night­mare. We spoke in sto­ries of denial, fear, loss, and guilt and won­der why peo­ple turn away.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “The Amer­i­can elec­tion was a ref­er­en­dum on sys­tems change.”

Add a cup of story, salt to taste.

Some­time back in the wan­ing days of the last cen­tu­ry, the Green­peace infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy depart­ment was stan­dard­iz­ing all staff’s email sig­na­tures to a hor­ri­ble piece of text from a mis­sion state­ment the organ­i­sa­tion had writ­ten by com­mit­tee, agreed by con­sen­sus, and prompt­ly buried in that dark­est recess of any NGO web­site, the gov­er­nance sec­tion of the About Us page.

I was par­tic­u­lar­ly aggriev­ed to see it dredged up into the light of day, as I’d writ­ten it.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “Add a cup of sto­ry, salt to taste.”

Activism & Storytelling: Level 3

Mis­ter Fox is a pas­sion­ate believ­er in the pow­er of sto­ry. And he will yam­mer on about it at any oppor­tu­ni­ty. This is the third and final part of his dis­course on Activism & Sto­ry­telling, which he deliv­ered from atop a small hill, sil­hou­et­ted by a full moon, to a wily band of rad­i­cal ani­mals who believed a bet­ter forest was pos­si­ble, and that brave indi­vid­u­al and col­lec­tive action could make it a real­i­ty.

Lev­el 3: Change the sto­ry, change the world. Beyond strong moti­va­tion­al nar­ra­tive, beyond con­sis­tent organ­i­sa­tion­al sto­ries, the real gold, and the real chal­lenge, lies at the invis­i­ble lay­er of sto­ry as the oper­at­ing sys­tem of soci­ety. Con­tin­ue read­ing “Activism & Sto­ry­telling: Lev­el 3″