Why we should embrace different stories in sustainability


How can critical views of ‘stories’ help in seeking pathways to sustainability?

I’ve recently got back from the Communicate conference where I talked about stories using examples from the STEPS Centre’s projects (see previous post). The conference strapline was “Stories for Change”, which taps into a growing awareness of the competing stories we tell ourselves – and each other – about people and nature.

Framing the theme around storytelling allowed us to explore three distinct but related questions:

  • first, what to learn from individual stories about people’s relationship with the environment (from a community project in Kent to an encounter of flooding in the West Country);
  • second, the lessons of campaigns or efforts to communicate about conservation;
  • and third, more critical questions about what stories are and how they are used, our responsibilities as storytellers or listeners, and which stories about sustainability become dominant, why and with what consequences.

I tend to think about the third one as the obvious entry point for me, as the STEPS Centre spends a lot of time looking critically at how stories (and framings and narratives) relate to social and environmental change. But you can use the third question to reflect on the answers to the first two.

To put it simply: since powerful stories can themselves prop up power, looking at and questioning different stories (ways of seeing the world, the words we use to describe things, the terms chosen to frame particular decisions) is an important part of seeking alternative pathways to sustainability. I talked about ‘big stories’ and ‘little stories’ as a way of introducing the idea of power, of asking how past and future visions from poor and marginalised communities can challenge the big narratives that hold sway. Sustainability should be for the people, by the people.

With this in mind, ‘environmental’ questions are interesting because they can be approached from so many angles and perspectives. Which wording, positioning and moral framework you commit to are all open to debate, or should be.

Diverse views of biodiversity

There were a couple of examples at Communicate that brought this home to me.

First, a project by Simon Christmas for Defra looked at how people understand variety in nature. People are able to hold conflicting views about the variety of nature at the same time – for example, that ‘Nature will find a way’ (return to balance after shocks), and that ‘Nature can’t catch up’ (that humanity is damaging Nature too rapidly for it to recover) – depending on the timescale in question. In the short term, nature can’t catch up – but in the long term, it will recover.

But what is Nature – how separate are we from it? Some interviewees in the Defra project started out defining nature as a pristine wilderness, but then admitted that, in the UK at least, such a wilderness is virtually non-existent. People’s understanding of their environment (including urban enviromment) is subjective and fuzzy, and affected through experiences and activity – from walking the dog to bird watching or bug hunting.

Branding vs. politics?

So if everyone has different views of nature, how can campaigners seek to mobilise concern and action among different public groups?

Ed Gillespie, the conference chair, described the process of creating a ‘brand’ for the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. What does it mean to ‘brand’ biodiversity, though? Branding is about emotion – it’s all about distilling the vision of a particular influential actor into an identity that aims to connect with people’s feelings.

But if biodiversity means different things to different people, and responses to it are inevitably plural and political, what happens when it gets branded? Don’t birdwatchers, say, have a different take on the issue from people who rely on forests for their livelihoods?

In other words, what does branding do to the ‘little stories’? Is it possible to incorporate branding into a process where little stories are given due attention and alternatives are possible? This is a difficult challenge,  but in a world where brands are increasingly valued as a way of mobilising people towards environmental and social responsibility, I think this question deserves attention.

Looking at contrasting and conflicting stories opens our eyes to the political nature of science. First of all, this means looking at the content of stories themselves, and noticing what makes them different. But also: who’s telling them, why and what power dynamics exist to make some stories bigger than others.

A world within a woodland in Kent

The other example was a great story from a community in Kent that had seen chronic damage to a local woodland by fly-tippers and off-road drivers.

A group of residents decided to join together to repair the paths, clear rubbish and limit access (though not completely ban it) by off-road vehicles.

There is so much in this story. The contested claims over the woodland involved more than just local residents and fly-tippers or off-roaders. Parcels of woodland had been sold into private ownership and the details of owners and rights were unclear and hard to access. And local politics – the interest of an influential politician – was influential in kickstarting the project, as well as the determination of the local people involved in fundraising and in enlisting the help of the local Royal Engineers, local landowners, and others. But even after some hard work had already been done, the campaigners were dismayed when the National Grid cut a large band of woodland down to clear the way for power lines. A campaign on Facebook drew attention from further afield. One of the fly-tippers was also a landowner. The story does not end there – this is now being used as a case study to inspire other communities to take action.

At the centre of this story are questions over who has access to woodland, what it is for, how it should be used, the dynamics of ownership and land rights, and the roles that can be played by external agencies (politicians, local government officials, the National Grid, and helpful partners). The X Factor in all this may be confidence: the ability to think “I have the right to do something with this land, it belongs to me” and assert a claim over it, which will not always go unchallenged. What gives people the confidence to take action may be influenced by class, access to funding, access to helpful politicians and so on.

What do these stories about stories tell us? Since ‘environment’ is what’s around us, describing problems as ‘environmental’ inevitably carries a (hidden or obvious) ‘us’. But who ‘we’ are depends on where you look.

So we need to find ways to address injustice and inequality when we try to move towards sustainable futures.

Stories for change?

The STEPS Centre’s book Dynamic Sustainabilities has a section (p. 132-136) suggesting strategies to effect policy change, under five headings (the bits in brackets are my notes/explanations).

  • Telling persuasive stories (highlighting alternative stories, ‘little stories’ if you like which suggest how institutions and governance might change)
  • Building networks and encouraging champions of change
  • Encouraging reflexivity (in other words, encouraging policy makers to look at the situation on the ground or reflect critically on the policy process itself)
  • Opportunity, flexibility and adaptive governance (including taking advantage of a crisis, or big events like a change of government, to promote change)
  • Building new skills and professionals (crossing boundaries between natural and social science, and between people who focus on local or macro scales, for example)

These ideas suggest where stories can fit into a process of promoting change. A good starting point can be to tell some of the ‘little stories’ which expose and challenge the more mainstream ways of framing the problem.

‘Little stories’ not only show big stories up, they can be a way to represent marginal or less powerful interests. But they are part of a bigger picture too, working within institutions, governance, power networks and social and technological change.

The idea of big stories and little stories seemed to get a good response at Communicate, but it clearly leaves a lot out – it’s one part of a bigger conversation. I’d be interested to hear other people’s views on other ways to illustrate these complex ideas.

Photo: Bee carving by nathanoxley on Flickr