About five years ago, a prominent author and activist writing extensively about environmental and climate issues had launched a creative multimedia climate storytelling project. His efforts emphasized citizen action on climate issues through creative writing, film, theatre, dance, radio, and the visual arts.
Yale Climate Connections profiled the efforts of author and long-time activist Jeff Biggers in launching the Climate Narrative in Iowa City, the nation’s first UNESCO City of Literature. At that time writer in residence at the University of Iowa office of sustainability, Biggers set out to train a new generation of “climate storytellers.”
Biggers since then has taken his Climate Narrative Project and “Ecopolis” theatre shows across the country, from Appalachia to Silicon Valley. He works with students, teachers, community groups, and urban planners to invest more in the media arts as a way of galvanizing action and advancing sustainable solutions.
YCC: More and more authoritative public opinion surveys are finding Americans increasingly expressing substantial concern about climate change and its impacts. Have you seen a shift in attitudes, especially among young people, over the last years of your work?
Biggers: I think there has been a watershed shift in interest. Now, we need to follow up with creative ways for action.
As you know, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication* released a survey in 2018 finding that most Americans recognize climate change, but few actually discuss it in the course of their regular routines.
On a visit to Appalachian State University, for example, I worked with an incredible group of faculty and students to explore two questions: “What accounts for the gap between science and action on climate change? And what can we do to more effectively mobilize participation?” As an interdisciplinary initiative to bring together science, humanities and the arts, the university launched the Climate Stories Collaborative to reach beyond the usual silos on campus and engage more students.
At the same time, I think there is also a more fervent recognition that we need to be in this movement for the long haul – not just for a single day of protest. Take the Youth Climate Strike, inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg. Over a million-and-a-half young people took to the streets in March to demand immediate action for carbon reductions. But more importantly to me, they made clear their intentions to keep striking until changes are carried out.
YCC: Global energy demands and greenhouse gases last year reached record levels, according to a new analysis by the International Energy Agency. How do we inform people about reversing such a dangerous trajectory without, in effect, “scaring them off” because the perils appear so formidable, and to some perhaps insurmountable?
Biggers: Storytelling empowers us to envision change in real ways, from regenerative solutions like renewable energy and carbon-neutral buildings to walkable urban designs and local food production. Storytelling, including often overlooked mediums of dance, visual arts and theatre, allows us to break from our often-complacent ways and see another view, hear another voice, move in different shoes, and witness acts of wonder and resistance among those on the frontlines of climate change.”‘If Click To Tweet
Dramatic, funny and original stories can astonish us, challenge us, and push us to think anew. In the coal-choked steel yards of Gary, Indiana, for example, I worked with a coalition of urban farmers, artists, rappers, and educators to reclaim their region and present a roadmap of stories on a theatre stage. We envisioned what a regenerative city would look like in 2030. After the multi-media “Ecopolis” performance, which included a great jazz band, a cross-section of activists and organizations sat down for a meal produced by local farmers, and they mapped out ways for a coal-free future and green enterprise zones.
YCC: You put an emphasis on storytelling as a way of prompting individual action. Give us an example of how your student climate storytellers have affected change in a local community?
Biggers: One of my Iowa students did a series of interviews with recent immigrants, many of whom had come from climate-impacted farms, and put out a radio podcast on what we could learn from them on climate action. Then, another of my climate narrative students, an immigrant from Sudan, used that radio podcast to convince the local county to provide 3.7 acres of land for organic farming led by immigrants and launched a Global Food Project.
Realizing that industrial agriculture, in fact, is the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa – which increased by 3 percent last year, despite record production of wind energy – another student followed up with a storytelling project that showcased the role of regenerative agriculture in soil carbon sequestration efforts. It was the first time for this student to get his shoes muddied on a farm; now a Rhodes Scholar, he has gone on to deal with global economics and development.
YCC: You have also worked with city planners and policy makers on reshaping their climate action plan narratives. What is the basic idea behind your “Ecopolis” show?
Biggers: Getting beyond mind-numbing PowerPoints and dense policy papers, the “Ecopolis” essentially shows how some initiative along the lines of that envisioned in the Green New Deal could emerge on a local level. It could do so by shifting local economies away from devastating petrol-based ways of energy, transport, housing designs, and food imports. There’s no blueprint, though.
From Chicago to rural Arizona to Silicon Valley, I’ve worked with local actors to root the “Ecopolis” shows in local history and geography, presenting climate action as a framework for urban planning, using multimedia images and stories to show how a town or city or campus could become a regenerative city, and ultimately transition toward not only minimizing its impact on the environment, but play a vital role in repairing and replenishing it.
YCC: So you’ve told us where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Now tell us where this effort is going, what lies ahead. Are there important milestones you can see meeting in 2019? In 2020? What about five or even 10 years down the road? Will this be one long and perhaps unending pursuit of more and more effective climate storytellers, while all the time the climate challenges get increasingly threatening?
Biggers: I’m convinced that the only way to meet the urgent timeline for climate action is to galvanize more community involvement for carbon-neutral initiatives. And we’re up against a formidable lobby of oil, gas, and coal interests and facing daily distractions.
We need brigades of climate storytellers to help us envision a different reality and reclaim our traditions of resistance. If schools or town and city councils are serious about community action on climate change, then they need to invest in artists and climate storytellers.
I tell every campus or town I visit to appoint a Climate Storyteller-in-Residence. Instead of hiring another bureaucrat to convene a task force, waste a year, and release a dense and unreadable report, they should hire artists and writers and playwrights and farmers to put more regenerative ways of living, planning and development on the center stage of our daily operations.
As author Gary Nabhan has written, if we want to re-store our Earth, we must re-story it. My hope is to set up Climate Narrative Projects on as many campuses and in as many communities as possible.
*Editor’s note: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication is the publisher of this site.