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Imagining the Future

Publié le 1 août, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Stories have a role to play in environmental debates and problem-solving because they help to engage a wide range of voices and perspectives. Literary writing in particular provides a means of exploring the nuances and complexities of environmental issues. In this context, how might stories enable us to re-imagine our ways of living in response to large-scale environmental imperatives such as climate change?

Bio: Erin is a doctoral student in communication studies.

story in a small town
Nasir Nasrallah, story in a small town, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

In an article published recently in The Guardian (UK), the Australian agriculture minister allegedly responded to a new scientific report about projected increases in droughts in his country, by saying, « parts of these high-level projections read more like a disaster novel than a scientific report (1). » Rather than a criticism of the report’s objectivity, this was a means of indicating the severity of the scenario described therein. As a reference to the drama of climate change, it is consistent with the context in which most people have learned and developed opinions about it: through stories. After all, as Jon Palfreman put it: “journalists are storytellers (2),” and it is through the media that most people gain their understanding of environmental issues.

Given what is at stake in stories about climate change, it seems worthwhile to question the implications of their construction, and to investigate the power of stories in relation to environmental issues more generally. This article will consider the role of narrative not only in media coverage, but also literary works that contribute to public engagement with environmental issues indirectly. I will explore the possibility that literary works encourage us to re-imagine different aspects of the ways we live together, and that this may be an important component of future social and cultural changes we make in response to problems such as climate change.

Narratives in the News.

To what extent does the need to tell a good story influence media coverage of a given issue? Katherine McComas and James Shanahan have argued that coverage of climate change has varied in the past not only for event-based and sociopolitical reasons, but also because the content of news stories is influenced by narrative criteria (3). Meaning that, over time, individual news stories contribute to the construction of a ‘metanarrative’ that follows a predictable plot line: the introduction of a central conflict, followed by complications and then a resolution of some form (4). While the initial drama and ensuing complications generate interest however, there is a certain narrative momentum which may result in a premature resolution and cut short public discussion of a given issue. Further, as other authors have argued, the choice of a particular narrative form (e.g. tragedy or comedy) may effect whether media coverage contributes to social change or the maintenance of the status quo (5).

The media is often criticized for its tendency to focus on the dramatic elements of a given issue rather than in-depth analysis. While this is an important criticism that a consideration of narrative criteria helps to explain, there is also an observation about the power of stories underlying this tendency: that is, people engage with issues not only out of a sense of civic responsibility or political self-interest, but also because the stories related to a particular issue engage the imagination in some way.

The quote presented above from the Australian minister of agriculture, was drawn from an article in which a current version of the climate change story can be identified: there is a description of the dire effects climate change will bring about in the future (droughts, heat waves) and discussion of how politicians are weighing the need to take significant action against the economic and political costs of doing so. It is a dramatic story accompanied by a compelling central conflict: will politicians uphold the collective good by ‘taking action’, or will they choose to protect short-term economic interests and maintain the status quo?

True Stories

While an environmental metanarrative, constructed or amplified in media coverage, may capture our attention temporarily, storytelling in a literary context serves to engage readers with environmental issues in a more lasting way. Deborah Slicer argues that this is partially due to the way a narrative format requires certain interpretative activities on the part of the reader, resulting in a more meaningful engagement with the subject matter. She writes:

narrative requires the attentive reader to grapple, imaginatively, with emotionally and intellectually bewildering choices between incommensurable goods, with complex characters that we learn to trust and perhaps emulate or as importantly not to trust and never to emulate, with risk, and unpredictability (6).

She argues that stories accomplish what more analytic writing cannot: they elicit emotional responses and encourage deeper, more creative thought in relation to environmental questions.

A good contemporary example of storytelling that is not explicitly environmental in its orientation (and is therefore more accessible to a broad audience) is John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. Winner of the 2005 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction, this book tells the story of a golden spruce tree which grew on Haida Gwaii, in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia. Bearer of cultural and spiritual significance for the native people of Haida Gwaii, the tree was also botanically unique, and protected from the otherwise extensive logging taking place in the area. In 1997 however, a former forestry worker named Grant Hadwin cut the tree down – in a somewhat misguided but apparently genuine attempt to bring attention to the destructive practices of the logging industry.

Not only does The Golden Spruce draw on a wide variety of materials, integrating histories of the coastal rainforest, logging in the North Pacific, with Hadwin’s life story, its language is also richly evocative. In the opening paragraphs of the book, Vaillant describes the majestic, yet foreboding coastal rainforest:

You can be twenty paces from the road or a beach and become totally disoriented; once inside, there is no future and no past, only the sodden, twilit now. Underfoot is a leg-breaking tangle of roots and branches and, every fifteen metres or so, your way is blocked by moss-covered walls of fallen trees that may be taller than you and dozens of metres long. These so-called nurse logs will, in turn, have colonnades of younger trees growing out of them, fifty years old and as orderly as pickets. In here, boundaries between life and death, between one species and the next, blur and blend…You have the feeling that if you stop for too long, you will simply be grown over and absorbed by the slow and ancient riot of growth going on all around you (7).

This is the setting of a story in which good and bad are not always easy to pinpoint, and not everything makes sense, even in the end. Oppositions between nature and culture, sanity and insanity – which so often form the basis of more superficial and stereotyped accounts of human conflict – are vulnerable to contamination and confusion right from the start. Though Vaillant’s account is detailed and thorough, he leaves the enigma at the heart of the story intact. Why did Hadwin do it? Was he insane, or is it the logging industry and the society supporting it, that beg a diagnosis? As with any good story, we are left with questions and something to think about after it has ended.

Although it arises in a personal context, such thinking cannot help but connect with a broader discussion of environmental issues. “Wonder and wondering are closely related,” writes J. Edward Chamberlin, “and stories teach us that we cannot choose between them (8).”

Imagining Different Ways of Living Together

In If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Chamberlin writes about the importance of stories and storytelling to improving understanding between different cultural groups. He argues that imagination enables us to construct an understanding of a huge variety of things we will never see, as such – not only faraway places, but also things like micro-organisms and ecosystems. It is how we come to invest not only our interest, but also our beliefs, in particular social and cultural realities. Thus, he writes, “the reality of our lives is inseparable from the ways in which we imagine it (9).” He sees stories and storytelling as a means of re-imagining the ways in which we live together.

To take a mundane example of how this might apply to environmental questions: if one of the things that people can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions is car-pool, then they must be able, as a start, to imagine regularly sharing the drive to work with another person – perhaps someone they don’t know, or who is very different from them. In general, sharing space, time and resources with people we don’t know very well can be surprisingly intimidating. Even minor, everyday changes to the way we live require a certain amount of imaginative reconciliation.

Environmental Fiction

Reading fiction is one way of coming to understand something about people living in different circumstances than our own. This is not so much a matter of acquiring knowledge of different people and places, but rather, of becoming aware of other possibilities: it is not like it is here, everywhere; things have not always been this way, and they could be different.

In the short story, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” by Ursula K. LeGuin, we are introduced to a human protagonist (a young girl), and a cast of non-human characters who help the little girl to survive after a plane crash. These animals have what seem to be human characteristics, though they are different in certain important ways. By giving them opinions, habits and ways of speaking, LeGuin manages to blur the boundaries between human and non-human, nature and culture. In the following excerpt, she introduces Coyote:

The child turned. She saw a coyote gnawing at the half-dried up carcass of a crow, black feathers sticking to the black lips and narrow jaw.

She saw a tawny-skinned woman kneeling by a campfire, sprinkling something into a conical pot…The woman’s hair was yellow and gray, bound back with a string. Her feet were bare. The upturned soles looked as dark and hard as shoe soles, but the arch of the foot was high, and the toes made two neat curving rows. She wore blue jeans and an old white shirt. “Come on, eat crow!” she said (10).

To the girl, Coyote is a strange, yet protective mother figure: a doggish woman who pisses on the fire to put it out, and dances around singing for no reason. But as Coyote explains to her, what you see in other people depends on your perspective.

By helping us to see difference not in rigid categories but in ways of living, LeGuin provides a whimsical take on what it is like to live in a community of individuals vastly different from, but nonetheless interested and invested in one another. The effects are surprisingly powerful, given the somewhat childish premise. A story like “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” – already inexplicable and intriguing in its title – sticks with you. It makes you wonder.


It is not only that stories are engaging, but that they encourage a way of thinking about things and living in the world which is more open. As Chamberlin puts it, to live in a world animated by storytelling is – not to escape reality – but “to live in both grief-stricken reality and the grace of imagination, to both wait for spring and wonder if it will arrive” (11). Engaging with stories helps people to see the world as full of possibility; to believe in more than the obvious and, eventually, to bridge old ways of thinking with new. The combination of hope with creative thought is a crucial component of, not just finding workable environmental solutions to problems such as climate change, but of learning how to live with those solutions, and with one another.


(1) McMahon, B. “Climate change report like a disaster novel, says Australian minister” The Guardian. July 7, 2008. [online] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/07/climatechange.drought (accessed 07/07/08).
(2) Palfreman, J. “A Tale of Two Fears: Exploring Media Depictions of
Nuclear Power and Global Warming.” Review of Policy Research, 23 (1), 2006: 23-43.
(3) McComas, K; and Shanahan, J. “Telling Stories about Global Climate Change,” Communication Research 26 (1), 1999: 30-57.
(4) The metaphors associated with a particular metanarrative also contribute to its elaboration over time, as well as its potential to create connections with other narratives and issues in circulation. For further discussion of the role of metaphors in media coverage, see: Valiverronen, E. and Hellsten, I. “From ‘Burning Library’ to ‘Green Medicine’: The Role of Metaphors in Communicating Biodiversity,” Science Communication 24 (2), 2002: 229-245.
(5) Ott, B. and Aoki, E. “The Politics of Negotiating Public Tragedy: Media Framing of the Matthew Shepard Murder,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 5 (3), 2002: 483-505.
(6) Slicer, D. “Introduction: Special Issue on Environmental Narrative” Ethics and the Environment 8 (2), 2003: 2.
(7) Vaillant, J. The Golden Spruce. Toronto: Albert A. Knopf Canada (2005): p. 8.
(8) Chamberlin, J.E. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003: 9.
(9) Chamberlin, J.E. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003: 8.
(10) Le Guin, U.K. “Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight?” in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. Santa Barbara: Capra Press (1987).
(11) Chamberlin, J.E. If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003: 124.

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