The Power of Storytelling: How Climate Activists Drive Meaningful Change

The Power of Storytelling: How Climate Activists Drive Meaningful Change

Keegan Sentner

 / 

Dec 17, 2023

#ClimateStorytelling #ActivistImpact #EnvironmentalNarratives #ChangeMakers

Keegan Sentner

An Ode to the Power of Stories 

On a rainy Sunday evening in 2006, my entire family gathered in our living room to tune into what was being claimed as the television event of the year. For months, millions of people around the globe were lauding the beauty of this series. Critics and viewers hailed the show as a revolutionary new perspective of the world and a chance to see the beauty of nature up close and personal. 

At the time, I was in elementary school, spending my weekdays studying concepts like fractions and playing kickball at recess. Although I was a young kid enamoured with nature and spent most of my time outdoors, I was relatively unaware of concepts like climate change, biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as I sat on the floor in front of the television on this rainy Sunday evening, my understanding of the world was about to change. 

When the screen flashed to life, the title marker read “Planet Earth”. Many were celebrating the new BBC & Discovery Channel show as the peak of environmental filmmaking. The episodic mini-series was narrated by Sir David Attenborough, a staple of nature documentaries and one of the world's foremost environmental storytellers. At the time, I knew none of this. I was just happy to sit around and talk about animals with my friends and family.

For the next hour, I became entranced by the images that populated the screen in front of me. The episode filled the television with breathtaking landscapes, strange creatures, and expansive views of our natural world. I was hooked. It was all I could think about. I wanted to know more about our planet, learn more about its creatures, and see more images of its beauty. For the next ten weeks, every Sunday evening after dinner, I would rush upstairs and eagerly await my chance to get to know another part of our planet through the lens of this groundbreaking documentary. 

Little did I know then, but Planet Earth would become the spark for a much bigger idea that would one day encompass my entire existence. The series changed the trajectory of my life. It was my first introduction to the importance of environmental storytelling, activism, and using creativity to drive change. It planted the seed for my ideas about the world and drove my need to know more. 

Planet Earth truly changed my life, as it did for so many others who are now working to protect our planet, and all the life that inhabits it.

A Reason to Share Stories

Fast forward a few decades, and the changing climate is now one of the most urgent threats to our international community. Over the past few years, climate activists all over the world have amplified this sense of urgency. From the streets of London to the deep jungles of the Amazon, individuals and organisations have admirably used their voices to stand up for the planet and urge governments and institutions to take action. 

Throughout this era, a few notable figures have risen as symbols of climate activism, including Greta Thunberg and our old friend, Sir David Attenborough. These individuals have garnered global recognition because they have employed storytelling, a long-recognized tactic of persuasion, as a powerful driver for climate action. They have used storytelling to create a lasting connection with audiences, communicate vital information, and help humanise the climate crisis. 

This power that lies within storytelling does not come without practice. These individuals have curated their narratives, perfected their delivery, and used their skills to develop lasting messages that have a major impact on their audiences. Although they’ve done this in different ways using different approaches, it all comes down to their ability to tell a really good story. 

David Attenborough: Bringing Nature's Stories to Life

Sir David Attenborough began as a producer and controller for BBC in the 1960s and 70s, working on a variety of different series and documentaries. In 1979, he presented Life on Earth, a natural history series that quickly made him a household name. The series inspired a generation of nature documentaries, and over the course of a few decades, Attenborough cemented himself as one of the world’s leading voices on conservation and climate.  

Attenborough’s documentaries have educated millions of people about the beauty of the natural world, inspiring a deep appreciation and sense of responsibility to the environment. His work is notable for many reasons, but it’s his ability to weave together simple and enticing stories that makes him such a powerful voice. His style of storytelling focuses on simplifying complex ideas through understandable vocabulary that is inclusive to broader audiences. He also uses humour and a personal tone to disarm viewers before conveying the more serious message behind his work. These tools have helped Attenborough become an expert at communicating scientific concepts such as climate change or biodiversity loss, making these issues less daunting and more approachable for audiences worldwide. 

Attenborough’s style has allowed his work to reach mass audiences who are driving meaningful change, investing millions in climate action, and sparking movements to protect the environment. During Blue Planet II, the series sheds light on the devastating impact of plastic pollution on our oceans, which was so powerful, many argued that it prompted viewers to change their behaviour and reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, labelled the “Blue Planet Effect.” Although there is debate over the series' effects on plastic consumption, a few years after its release, the UK government banned plastic straws, drink stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in May 2019. Many of Attenborough’s works have inspired similar changes, and his influence has laid the groundwork for the next generation of activists to take the reins and become the new voices for our planet.  

Greta Thunberg: A New Voice for the Planet

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, is one of those who now carry the torch. Over the past five years, she has become one of the most influential voices in the fight against climate change. Despite her young age, Thunberg's impassioned speeches and carefully chosen words have inspired a global movement known as the "Greta Effect," helping her gain global recognition and emerge as one of the leading voices of her generation.

Thunberg has utilised a different approach to storytelling than Attenborough, which has proved to be especially powerful amongst younger audiences. Her approach focuses directly on the urgency for change and the necessity of action. She has used this urgency to develop a style that resembles a call to arms, enticing young people to stand up for the planet. To double down on this form of storytelling, she has openly criticised government institutions, world leaders, and fossil fuel giants that stand in the way of change. 

Although Thunberg clearly shares in the frustration and angst of her peers, her storytelling approach is highly calculated and expertly executed. Her style purposefully speaks to the anxieties and needs of her audience, a younger generation that fears the future because they are the ones who will feel the repercussions of the climate crisis. In many ways, Thunberg has utilised her vulnerability to turn this shared fear into a call for action, employing revolution-based wording to promote activism and challenge world leaders and institutions. 

Thunberg's storytelling prowess and reputation have motivated countless young people to take action against climate change. Her efforts have been linked to increases in British children using social media for activism, and several of her stances, including her stance against flying, have contributed to trends in environmentally conscious behaviour. Through this influence, Thunberg has established herself as the voice of the climate generation and now leads a global movement that is fighting for the future of our people and planet. 

The Power of Stories to Inspire Change

These two giants of environmental communication, Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, demonstrate the power of storytelling to drive meaningful change in climate activism. They have used their work to humanise complex scientific data and create emotional connections with audiences. Their work has laid the foundation for climate activists to inspire others to take action and contribute to the collective effort to combat this crisis.

We need more storytellers who can help create change and incite action. Our chance of mitigating the climate crisis depends on our ability to communicate the message effectively. We have all the facts, the solutions, and a thorough understanding of the issue; the key now is to inspire change. And just as Thunberg and Attenborough have done through their work, the most effective way to get audiences to take action is by showing them how they can play a role in the collective effort to build a brighter future.

In the words of Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” It’s our job to give them a reason to care, and we can do that by telling a really compelling story.  

And you can too. You have the power to share stories that resonate, to inspire action, and to be a part of this essential narrative for change. Whether it's through your conversations, your actions, or your own creative expressions, your voice matters. So make it count.

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