Event summary by Bianca Pasca
When it comes to issues of climate justice, the need for educating people about the problem means we often hear activists calling us to ‘listen to the science’. But facts and numbers may be hard to swallow if they don’t manage to speak to us on an emotional level—to make us understand the context and the urgency of the matter. We need to feel that we are characters in this story, who have a voice, and can shape the ending.
The Storytelling and Climate Activism event brings together two people experienced in crafting compelling narratives that speak truthfully and emotionally about the issues of climate change.
Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist, with a history of public activism dating back to the publication of his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989. He is a co-founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate-change movement. As the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, he has written nearly 20 books and won numerous prizes for his environmental work, including the 2014 Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes referred to as the ‘alternative Nobel’.
Megan Mayhew Bergman is an author, journalist, essayist and critic. She has written two short-story collections and has a novel forthcoming in the near future. She has worked for the ‘Climate Changed’ column about the American South for the Guardian in 2018/19. She teaches literature and environmental writing, also at Middlebury College, and serves there as the director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, as well. Her work has been recognised with awards like the Phil Reed Environmental Writing Award in 2020.
Opening the discussion, Megan quoted a Latin phrase she feels to be very important in the current context of the double crises of the climate crisis and systemic racism: Esse quam videri (“To be, rather than to seem”). She believes storytelling must be done from an incredibly sincere place, working on a very human level. Complexity and multiple perspectives have to be honoured in any story covering climate change. But narratives also have to be accessible, making the conversation easy to join.
Bill said he believes deep stories can be told from the numbers and science— that is the idea behind the 350.org project. The number refers to a number of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere (although we have now reached 415 parts per million) and speaks to the urgency of the matter, conveying feelings and telling the story of climate damage.
In his opening comments, he emphasised the importance of providing a platform for the voices not yet listened to by the mainstream, through projects like the 'Passing the Mic' section of the New Yorker, which Bill has been involved in writing. Bill spoke about how the climate movement has grown since he first published his first book, The End of Nature in 1989, a time when a lot of the articles about climate change were written by him and a small group of others.
Some people say that climate change is too complex a concept to be portrayed in a story. What do you think about this?
Conceptions of good and bad are based on very different world-views and values. Many people would say that ‘the villain’ is a lack of global governance, whereas others see the problem as capitalism and its focus on growth, leading to injustices. Yet another view might see radical environmentalism as the problem. So, what role do you think storytelling can play in bringing people with such different perspectives together to fight for climate justice?
How can we tell stories that are inclusive without also pandering to the climate denial movement? In other words, how can we navigate the duality of the fact that the voices of people who are excluded from our stories can also be the voices that deny the existence of a climate crisis?
For the full seminar, head to our YouTube channel where this and every other talk from Trinity term's seminar series can be viewed: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOoksFYBCHqZWwVBU9qewZg
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