Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.
The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.
To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling. It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line. It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.
It’s a pretty tall order!
The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind. Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.
Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart. I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”
That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.
It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world. You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.
I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.
The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.
We already know what we have to do. Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.
We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.
If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.
What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.
It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.
It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.
If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?
Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.
I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.
C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.
We can’t wait around for others to do it for us. Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.
What story will you tell? What life will you lead? What are you waiting for?