How do we respond with our full selves to the enormity of the climate crisis? Educator. Ecologist. Mom. All three of these roles – essential threads woven into who I am in the world – drive me to constantly monitor the latest research and news on climate change.
As an educator, I feel an ethical obligation to help prepare students to understand and navigate the climate disruptions that will be an ever-present influence on their futures. As an ecologist, I feel intense urgency about what is at stake among coupled human-natural communities of life around the world. And as a parent, I fear the volatile world that my kids, and all of today’s children, will grow into and how climate disruption constrains their possibilities.
Another role that I have woven throughout my career in the nonprofit sector and higher education – outreach professional – compels me to transform these concerns into creative action and community-building, two reliable antidotes for climate grief and anxiety.
A chance meeting at a conference in October 2016 with author and climate activist Jeff Biggers, who for years has been sounding the call for more climate storytellers, inspired me to establish and co-lead the Climate Stories Collaborative. It’s a transdisciplinary learning community at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina, that is centered around creative climate communication.
Chance meeting ‘energized an initially small group’
A few short months after meeting Biggers, colleagues and I hosted him on campus for a two-day visit in which he spoke to 16 classes in Appalachian studies, art, biology, English, communication, and sustainable development; led a half-day workshop for faculty and staff; and performed a version of his multimedia theatrical piece, “Evening at the Ecopolis,” which he tailored to our southern Appalachian community.
Biggers’ visit energized an initially small group of faculty members to action, and in just two years the collaborative has become a university-wide initiative. Our mission is to grow the capacity of faculty and students to use a variety of creative media to tell the stories of those already affected by and/or taking action to address climate change. Ultimately, we intend to help close the wide gap the Yale-George Mason “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey* documents between those who acknowledge the realities of global warming versus the much smaller percentage “who discuss global warming at least occasionally.” Our goal is to engage more people in meaningful climate conversation and action to address climate change.
The effort centers on story and creative expression in its many forms to help advance the climate conversation and overcome key challenges in climate change communication. Story and creative expression can:
- make this incredibly complex global-scale problem feel more immediate, tangible, and personal to us;
- erase the psychological distance that we often feel between our own (in)action and the communities where climate disruption is most severe;
- transport us to another’s reality and activate our emotions and empathy in ways that scientific and rhetorical communication does not; and
- help us to imagine new and better futures.
Those wanting to dig deeper can read more in our new paper, “Storying Climate Change at Appalachian State University.”
Engaging 70 faculty members from 23 university departments and units
As of early July, more than 70 faculty members from 23 departments and units across the App State campus have participated in these activities. Collaborators’ deep concerns about climate change outweigh obstacles that commonly get in the way of working across disciplines. And we’re learning from one another as a result.
We host an ongoing series of faculty workshops led by those from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. These knowledge and skills-sharing sessions help build connections across disciplines that can strengthen our capacities to communicate climate stories in creative and compelling ways and to guide students to do the same. Together, we have reached a large, diverse student audience. In the first two years, total engagement – via exhibitions, guest speakers and special events – has involved more than 3,500 participants.
Importantly, the collaborative’s activities have amplified student voices and created opportunities for student leadership. Most recently, an April 2019 Climate Stories Showcase, an exhibition and week-long event series, featured creative climate-focused works of more than 200 students in 35 classes from 16 academic departments across the university. Students used various creative media – painting, sculpture, theatrical performance, videography, photography, design, narrative non-fiction and more – to express climate stories. Student leadership was a pervasive feature in exhibition-associated events, which included a climate arts workshop for elementary school students, an interactive climate forum theater event, a climate zine-making workshop, and a film night with climate-themed short documentaries. Spanning six public events and 13 class visits to the showcase exhibit, more than 1,100 people participated in the showcase.
Raising profile of climate change, creating sense of agency
In addition to amplifying the climate conversation, the Climate Stories Collaborative has become a pathway to build community around shared climate concerns and to grow a sense of agency and strength in the face of the disempowering nature of the global climate crisis. The collaborative’s work has raised the profile of climate change in ways that support a lively local climate action movement.
We have also learned along the way that these collaborative activities are providing a helpful and healthful way to express the intense emotions that many people feel about the climate crisis and in doing so, combat the paralysis that can come with despair. Honors student Clare Milburn expressed this clearly in a reflection on her participation in our April 2019 Climate Stories Showcase:
A lot of my peers and I experience anxiety and depression, partly due to the overwhelming and hopeless nature of climate change issues. My climate stories project was a therapeutic creative outlet for me to work through those negative emotions. It helped me even more to know that people would see my project and in a small way it could make a difference.
A worthy sentiment for sure. Creative expression and action with a community of those who share a deep climate concern is good for our personal well-being. It is a release for climate angst and renews our energy for climate action.
Reminders of the urgency of climate action are ubiquitous. Earlier this summer, western North Carolina experienced a deluge; parts of our community received more than 13 inches of rain – a quarter of the average annual rainfall – in just one weekend. It had hardly been more than a year since the last downpour exceeded the 100-year storm in our area. Homes, community centers, farms, businesses, and more were damaged.
Climate anxieties, injustices, not just scientific … ‘It’s personal’
We all experience the disruptions of climate change in a very local and personal way. And our anxieties about growing instabilities and injustices around the world that stem from climate disruption are also very personal. Let’s acknowledge that climate change is not just a scientific and political issue – it’s personal. As humans, we all are part of the climate story, and we can help write its future.”Let’s Click To Tweet
Educator. Ecologist. Mom. Human. Let’s bring our full selves to the climate conversation so that we can learn from one another and work more creatively and collaboratively to realize a just climate future.
Editor’s note: The Yale program cited in this article is the publisher of Yale Climate Connections.
Laura England is a senior lecturer at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.