Personal stories, not stats, will help us tackle the climate crisis

Facts and figures are hard to absorb. It’s stories that grab our attention, create emotion and help with our understanding of the world, writes Andrew Leach

Saturday 16 October 2021 09:14
<p>‘Given the number of existential crises that appear to be hurtling our way, we need stories more than ever to help with our understanding of the world’ </p>

‘Given the number of existential crises that appear to be hurtling our way, we need stories more than ever to help with our understanding of the world’

The author, Richard Powers, has a line in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, that feels like an epigraph for our age.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind,” he says. “The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

And it feels like we’re politically unable to tell a good story anymore. Public discourse has been reduced to soundbites, to nonsense statements that talk of patriotism and “levelling up”, to building a “network of liberty,” something that Liz Truss stated as an objective recently, whatever that might mean. The stories get lost as the shouting begins. And yet stories are just what we need.

Why? Because our brains are wired for them. Stories, more than data or straightforward facts, grab our attention and help us to absorb what’s being said. We can identify with the horror of a swimmer being attacked by a shark and can remember how we felt watching the story unfold in the film, Jaws. But each year there are around ten deaths worldwide attributable to sharks. Meanwhile, in the UK there were 1,472 road deaths in 2020; about 700 people worldwide each year are killed by an electric toaster, and around 150 poor souls die after being struck by falling coconuts. But sure, sharks are the danger. See? Stories.

The Harvard Business School says that “stories create a sense of connection. They build familiarity and trust, and allow the reader to enter the story where they are, making them more open to learning”. Likewise, charity The Health Foundation says that stories are transformative and have the power to bring about real change.

Of course, every story needs a good storyteller. The effectiveness of stories over statistics was recognised by the previous leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn; he would stand at the despatch box or address the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions with tales of Ellen from Esher, or Mike from Macclesfield. The stories sometimes achieved a degree of cut-through. However, to be really effective, they required a storyteller perhaps more proficient in wholesale engagement. And maybe the House of Commons wasn’t the ideal backdrop for lyrical transformation.

Given the number of existential crises that appear to be hurtling our way, we need stories more than ever to help with our understanding of the world. The immigration debate can often be witness to vociferous arguments that end with “but I didn’t mean you”. No, because person A knew person B’s story. Once you know the story, the emphasis changes.

Shortages on shelves are “a myth” until your own supply of Wheaty Flakes suddenly dries up. The facts you’ve heard about supply chain chaos suddenly becomes the story of your breakfast not arriving. Likewise, problems at the petrol pumps. The narrative of a logistical supply chain issue became transformed by the stories of a shortage. Homelessness is a statistical issue until you know someone who loses their home.

And so it is with the climate emergency. The statistics have been around for years, but they are generally hard to absorb. Now, as the crisis reaches a tipping point, more and more stories – of heatwaves and floods – affecting people like us, might just be resonating, and with that comes the desire to do something about it.

We can only hope it isn’t too late. It’s why, having founded a new independent publishing imprint, Seventy2One (along with writer Hannah Persaud), we decided our first book should be a collection of stories based around the climate emergency.

As writers and publishers, what else can we do? Yes, we can protest and sign petitions. But in a practical sense, how do our skills allow us to make a difference? The answer lies in telling stories and continuing to engage people through the power of storytelling. And if we manage to change some minds, reach one person who perhaps hadn’t thought the problem was as grave as it is but who now reconsiders and, as a result, changes their own behaviour, our efforts will have been worth it.

Andrew Leach is a writer, publisher, and co-founder of Seventy2One. ‘Sunburnt Saints’, a book of climate fiction, will be published on 30 November

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