Disruption has handed us an opportunity to promote some deeply important stories that can change the world. Here’s how you can do your part to hack the zeitgeist.
We swim in a sea of invisible stories that shape what’s normal, what’s right, and what’s possible. But the calm waters of “the normal” are gone?—?as if an entire ocean of normality had been swallowed by three brother giants named Covid-19, George Floyd’s Murder, and Economic Freefall. Old stories, once strong?—?that nothing can shut down the economy, that you can’t fight city hall (and their love of confederate statues), that growth is more important than human lives?—?are suddenly as weak as Donald Trump’s vocabulary.
The foundations of culture lie in the stories we collectively hold true. When seismic events shake our faith in some of those stories, they collapse. But as one story dies, another springs up to replace it. And with the changes in the stories that define what’s right, what’s normal, and what’s possible come changes to our individual and collective behaviour.
So what if we, as seekers of a better future, were to hack those stories? To intentionally flood the zeitgeist with the best of them, the ones that propel us forward? The ones that make stronger our efforts to harness belief, behaviour, and policy toward building a future in which we are kinder to nature and to each other, where the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few, and community and collective action help us overcome inequality, injustice, and the bad old ways of the past?
Covid-19 made some very important stories blaze with new truth: the story that everything is connected, that every choice matters, that health is more important than wealth, that human beings are capable of incredible creativity and kindness, that when we work together we can do incredible things. All of these tiny lessons have been bolstered immensely by proofs large and small. A report in Nature reveals that lockdown efforts in Europe alone prevented more than 3 million deaths: probably the greatest collective human life-saving effort in history. Our social media channels are filled with examples of heroism and generosity and extraordinary creativity.
And the collective conversation which we conduct on social media is buzzing like a hive under attack from a Murder Hornet. In the month of June, 79 million people were part of a conversation on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram about the “#NewNormal.”
We can innoculate that conversation from the deadly virus of “Business as Usual” and call for the world to #BuildBackBetter. We can strengthen the stories that will make the causes of equality and respect for nature stronger in the post-covid world.
A movement of more than 2000 social change and activist groups, the Break Free From Plastic movement, is driving a new initiative, We Were Made for These Times, collecting together eight lessons of the pandemic as stories that can form the bedrock of a future free not of plastic pollution, climate change, inequality, racism, and all the injustices and ills of the old normal.
This is an open source campaign. You can contribute and participate in many ways:
Share the stories & images at WeWereMadeForTheseTimes.net on social media with the hashtags #NewNormal and #BuildBackBetter. You’re welcome to modify and brand them any way you like.
Share other examples and images that illustrate each of the stories, and circulate them with the same hashtags
Encourage your friends followers to share them, engage with the beautiful questions, mash them up and reinterpret them
If you’re an artist, create your own interpretations of the stories
If you’re a social change or activist group, commission artists to create new interpretations. (And pay them! Many artists are struggling at the moment!)
Right now, hundreds of millions of people are oversharing on social media like never before. Shaping the chaos into culture, and infecting the zeitgeist with every tweet, tik-tok, insta, and Facebook post they share.
Through our social media channels, we can encourage our friends and followers to join us in creating a global, community-driven wave of kindness, generosity, creativity and hope in the name of the better future we want to build: a #ReturnToBetter rather than a #ReturntoNormal.
We do not get to choose the moments we are born into, but we are able to choose how we respond. And as story-makers and culture-hackers, our words and our actions hold incredible power. They are the muscles of hope. The pandemic is only one of humanity’s many challenges?—?but it has the potential to be the wake up call to a great opportunity.
Help these stories spread. Make them stronger. Look at your news feed through their lens?—?what events are they rhyming with? Share them. It will make you feel better. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés famously said
…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times… Do not despair. We were made for these times.
If every crisis is an opportunity and every failure is a lesson, then the world is brimming today with opportunity and lessons.
I was hours away from getting on a plane a month ago to meet an Italian friend, Salvatore, in Tel Aviv, when he called to tell me to cancel. He’d been put under house arrest as a containment measure.
Israel’s first Coronavirus case had just arrived from Rome, and the Airbnb where we’d planned to meet was now his quarantined home for 14 days. We joked about binging Netflix.
This morning I spoke with Salvatore from his home in Rome, where again he is under effective house arrest. There were no jokes.
“It’s like end times here. I’m honestly worried the economy is going to collapse. Nobody can be out in the street, everything has been ordered shut except pharmacies and food stores. It’s bad, bad, bad.”
Salvatore had shuttered his web agency and told his staff to stay home long before the government made that mandatory, and yet he was berating himself for not having done more, not having dropped everything and used his networks and influence to help slow the spread of the virus. How, I want to know, was that his responsibility? But his answer suggested I’d just told a man in a burning house there’s nothing he can do because he’s not a fireman.
His message to me, here in the Netherlands, complacent as he had been weeks ago, was this: Snap out of it. “I want to warn everyone that what’s happening here will happen to you unless you act, and faster than you think. It’s a challenge to every one of us, as if we’re all passengers on a sinking boat. You need to treat slowing the spread of the virus as your personal mission, a civic duty. You’re making choices every day that are going to hinder or speed the spread of the virus, choices that will have an impact on other human beings. Social distancing works, it slows the outbreak, and that’s what makes the difference between a health system that can cope and one that collapses. Here in Italy I’m watching doctors, too few because so many are sick, having to decide who gets the care that determines who dies and who lives. Imagine that psychological pressure…”
What I also heard was the psychological pressure of Salvatore’s guilt: that hollow voice that whispers in our ear every day that there’s an existential crisis requiring our collective and individual response, and no matter how much we’ve done, it isn’t enough.
Sound familiar? Coronavirus is climate change on fast-forward.
So first, a plea: wash your hands of virus, not responsibility. Take the precautions that will slow the spread. Keep social distance, cancel meetings and travel that are not essential. Share information that’s informative and sound. Don’t panic but don’t short shrift the magnitude of this threat. Being careful is being kind to anyone in a high risk category. As a 60+ asthma sufferer living in a country whose health care system is about to be overwhelmed, that’s a personal plea.
That said, I have some thoughts on how this pandemic could leave some helpful antibodies in its wake.
I believe stories are the operating system of society. That they shape our sense of what’s right, what’s normal, and what’s possible. That they represent a vast collective trove of humanity’s notes to self on how to survive. Events like this pandemic shake the existing stories that explain the world to their foundations, and open up space for new stories that teach new lessons to help us overcome new obstacles.
Coronavirus just might turn out to be humanity’s most important lesson in how to survive the existential threats of our own making.
Lesson one: Truth wins. You can’t spin away an epidemic. One of the reasons the 1918 influenza outbreak was so fast and deadly was the wartime censorship in the US and Europe. Governments not only pretended it didn’t exist, they hid the threat from their own people. Trump can’t out-tweet an epidemic, and despite the horrifying attempt to turn it into yet another deep state / foreign attack, the daily reveal of incompetence in the face of crisis will strain the limits of his strategy of battling every foe with a toxic cocktail of misinformation. The habit of labelling truths you don’t like as “fake news” is about to get its comeuppance.
Lesson two: One of the heroes of this story is science. In 1918, the idea that diseases were spread by germs and viral agents was in its infancy, and dismissed by many as the day’s equivalent of fake news. One town in Spain that shunned the advice of health officials was Zamora, which instead brought people together for nine days of prayer and a ceremony in which everyone lined up to kiss the relics of the patron saint of pestilence. The result was the highest death rate in Spain. Today, the patron saint of irony is coming down hard on every politician who ignores the advice of the scientific community — whether it’s to brazenly shake hands in a crowd to prove they’re not cowed or to cravenly attempt to protect economic interests. Science, people: when it guides policy, we win. When you ignore it, it bites humanity in the ass.
And isn’t that it in a nutshell? We’ve all been madly playing Monopoly for centuries now, but if we’re going to survive, the game has to change.
And that brings us to perhaps the most important lesson Coronavirus is teaching us: That the status quo and business as usual are not the unstoppable juggernauts that we imagine.
Covid-19 teaches us both that they are fragile, and that humanity can survive their disruption. As bad as the pandemic is, we’re getting off lightly compared to the horrors that will be visited on our children and grandchildren by the wages of today’s dig, consume, and burn model of consumption. Compared to entire countries on fire or underwater, mass starvation and forced migrations, the pandemic will look like a bad cold. If we can change our behaviour to stop a thousands of deaths, surely we can do so to stop millions?
Every one of the choices — not to drive, not to fly, not to stop the relentless pace of manufacturing and economic growth! growth! growth! — that seemed hard when the consequence was climate change, are suddenly easy in the face of a threat that kills in weeks rather than decades. The skies over Beijing are blue and the air there is cleaner than ever. Let’s breathe that in and think in a bigger timeframe about how the price of economic disruption compares to the price of inaction.
Jonah Sach’s book Winning the Story Wars talks about the importance of “Myth Gaps”: times when an old story, whether it’s the greek gods or the American Dream, stop making sense as explanations of the world. Because the human brain cannot function without meaning, a new story will always rush into the vacuum, whether it’s monotheism or the 99%, as the new explanation of the world.
There’s an old story here that’s dying. One that says we can carry on doing as we’ve always done. That the science is scary yes, but the important thing is the economy. That “the game is still Monopoly.”
The game is Pandemic, and the game skills we need to survive are empathy, communalism, personal action combined with civic responsibility, and the willingness to tell and act on the truth.
“Look for the helpers” was Mister Rogers’ sound advice to frightened children facing catastrophes beyond their comprehension. “There are always helpers.” There are stories of helpers and heroism in abundance right now, if you look. From medical workers pulling 12 hour shifts in Italy to the 9 doctors who flew from Shanghai to Italy, having survived their epidemic, to bring tens of thousands of ventilators, face masks, and test kits to another, to acts of generosity and compassion great and small that reveal humanity at its best. They remind us of Homo Sapiens’ resilience and ability to rise to a crisis. The coronavirus unites us against a common foe in ways that reveal a single, shimmering, hopeful truth: Our humanity can save humanity, and that’s never more evident than when both are under threat.
Brian Fitzgerald is director of Dancing Fox, a creative agency dedicated to helping activists and social change artists tell more powerful stories. This story first appeared on Medium.
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.
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’VEGOTIT: 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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.