We’ve evolved to prefer Strong Men, Epic Heroes and Daring Mavericks to rules and enforcement – how can we make the boring stuff sexy?
We humans are suckers for storytelling. Our favourite stories involve great heroes defying overwhelming odds to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
None of them involve cohorts of faceless bureaucrats consistently applying evidence-based rules.
Homer’s epics about Greek war heroes Agamemnon and Odysseus, Monkey’s adventures in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, Prince Rama’s epic travels in the Sanskrit classic the Ramayana, Viking escapades in Icelandic sagas, the Sumerian trials of Gilgamesh – all tell of great deeds by great individuals.
Today, Hollywood recycles these tales in blockbuster superhero franchises. They remain source material for TV series, overtly in fantasies like Game of Thrones, or dressed up in modern clothing like Succession.
What all these stories share is a celebration of the hero, the maverick, the outsider, the disruptor. Rule makers, like King John or Pontius Pilate, are invariably cast as villains. Rule enforcers, from Imperial Stormtroopers to Nazi death camp commanders, invariably enforce bad things.
To realise how deeply embedded this is in our psyche, try to think of any heroes who painstakingly legislate or enforce regulations that benefit society in the long term. We make the odd biopics about Abraham Lincoln, or musicals about Alexander Hamilton, but even these tend to cast rule-makers in the role of Maverick Disruptor rather than Diligent Evidence-Collator Woman or Methodical Verifier Man.
From a storytelling perspective, the reason is so obvious it barely needs stating. Narrative is rooted in conflict, and the best conflicts pitch underdogs against incumbents.
Why storytelling matters to climate change
Storytelling lies at the heart of the solution to climate change, because it forms the heart of the problem.
Storytelling reflects how humans perceive the world, because it also reflects how we’ve evolved to see it. As a species, we remain:
- Hero-obsessed: celebrating Individual Action over Government Regulation
- Arrogant: placing ourselves at the centre of things
- Deluded: thinking we’re acting rationally, when we’re driven by emotion
Without recognising – and exploiting – the links between these human characteristics, and the environmental disaster we’ve created for ourselves, we’re unlikely to find a viable exit route.
So how do we spot these traits?
Glance at any headlines, and you’ll find evidence that for all our material riches, and technological advances, we still can’t resist the allure of a good hero narrative, and are impervious to fact-based reason.
Storytelling weaves the myth of the strong-man leader that buttresses past tyrants and dictators, and their current heirs. They denigrate the rule of law, or institutional checks and balances, as obstacles to their manifest destiny, which just happens to coincide with Making [insert country here] Great [Again].
There’s a reason why such demagogues scorn ‘experts’, denounce the work ‘faceless bureaucrats’, demonise bureaucrats as ‘the Blob’, insist that existing rules and regulations should not apply to them, and somehow cast themselves as plucky outsiders taking on The Establishment, even when they’re supported by beneficiaries and enablers of the status quo.
We allow them to get away with it because they’re good storytellers. A half-decent demagogue will always spin a more compelling yarn than a competent technocrat.
It’s not just politics. How did the pantheon of Me-Too Monsters get away with sexual abuse for so long? Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Saville and Crispin Odey were all lionised as heroes of finance, film, fundraising and…finance again. They manipulated, and encouraged, this hero-worship to defeat the laws, and law enforcers, that apply to mere mortals, and we allowed them to.
We’re hardwired to fall for good storytelling. Billionaires spending their money on space rockets, or Titanic tourism, can portray themselves as ‘bold explorers’, rather than profligate narcissists. Regulations, whether governing finance or marine submersibles, were not made for super-men.
Emperor’s New Clothes are even more dazzling when the emperors own the media.
For most of the past 300 years, from the Age of Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution, and now its digital successor, humans have clapped ourselves on the back for our Reason, while executing the most disastrous act of self-harm.
While we dug more coal, and sunk more oil wells, our hubris grew. The Europeans who drove the Industrial Revolution were particularly obsessed with identifying what separated ‘us’ from the animals.
So obsessed were these light-skinned ‘men of science’ (and they were nearly all men) they even sought to classify dark-skinned humans as ‘animals’ in order to justify their self-serving narratives. A much better story than confronting the gulf between what they preached from their pulpits and what they practised on their plantations.
Scientific advances changed the story, but not the storytelling.
Darwin pointed out we’re primates and Einstein rendered our place in the universe even more miniscule than we thought, but when they could no longer be denies, homo storyteller found a way to spin these inconvenient truths. Our storytelling instinct to put ourselves centre stage found ways to prevail.
Thus, while their discoveries chipped away at the religions that gave man dominion over nature, they also provided paths to eugenics and nuclear bombs – new tools for asserting man’s pre-eminence.
One day robot storytellers may tell us how it all happened. The rise of AI highlights how irrational, emotion-driven, narrative-based we are. The more real the prospect of being ruled by robots becomes, the most evident it is that we’re not robots.
We once awarded Nobel Prizes in Economics to experts who assumed we all always act rationally in our best interests. For decades now, top gongs have gone to economists who point out how we’re manipulated to act irrationally against our own interests, to benefit those who manipulate us. See Through News allegorises this power dynamic as the Three-Headed Beasts of Government, Business and Media.
Our attitudes are changing, but too slowly for the speed with which we’re unbalancing the planet that sustains us.
To mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we need urgent, massive, change, which must involve changing government regulations. Experts tell us this with increasing urgency, like this appeal from a leading British climate scientist, presented by the UN University.
We can bemoan our hubris, emotion-driven nature, and evolved preference for beguiling lies over inconvenient truths. Or we can exploit our storytelling DNA to reduce carbon.
Me Too lessons for Us Too
What can those seeking rapid carbon drawdown learn from this sad tale of our storytelling addiction? Here are three possible lessons.
- ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’
The most obvious approach is to emulate what works. Pick an individual, elevate them to superhero status, frame their struggle as a plucky green disruptor taking on the carbon-guzzling establishment.
Look at Greta Thunberg, and the risks of this approach become obvious. She may become a rallying call for the converted, but she also presents a convenient ad hominem target for the forces of climate Inaction.
Greta unfailingly follows the science, and tries to lead conversations away from personality and towards evidence. She has a terrific acerbic line in Twitter put-downs, as would-be troll Andrew Tait discovered.
But how many minds has Greta changed? How many heels have been dug in, in response to her blunt appeals?
The more you rely on individuals to lead the charge, rather than sheer weight of numbers, in the form of mass movements or action, the easier a target you create for the Three-Headed Beasts.
Storytelling only works when you control the stories that are being told.
- ‘Work for change from the inside’
Form a political party, campaign, convince voters and effect change from inside the tent. This is the approach of various Green Party movements.
Green political parties have been most successful in Europe, where they can claim to be a major influence on the fact that the EU, despite its institutional inertia, is at the forefront of carbon-reducing government regulation, modest and diluted though it is.
Storytelling from inside the tent, however, is a long game, which works best under proportional representation voting systems. First past the post or bipartisan systems keep the door effectively shut. Britain’s only Green MP has just announced she’s stepping down, as she wants to spend her time more effectively on climate action.
Even where Green Parties are relatively successful, progress in influencing actual legislation and enforcement is slow, and compromised.
This isn’t a reason to give up on this approach, but it is a reason not to depend on it.
- Don’t mention the war
This is the approach favoured by See Through News.
Make a virtue of mentioning trigger words like ‘carbon’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’ etc. as little and late as possible.
Re-frame sustainability solutions in uncontroversial, nonpartisan, non-polarising terms; few people consider themselves to be pro-traffic, litter-fans, or pollution advocates, enthusiastic endangerers of their children’s health, or money-saving objectors. If you’re focused on carbon drawdown, or the climate crisis, why risk using ‘c’-words if you can avoid them?
This approach is complicated and hard to explain, but these are the very characteristics that make it hard to spot, and hence hard to resist.
Try to explain this succinctly to people impatient for ‘the executive summary’, and its complexity is a weakness. Address anyone wary of approaches 1 and 2, and this complexity becomes a strength.
The basic rules:
- Carbon Drawdown Focus: Maintain a relentless focus on outcomes that measurably reduce carbon, without getting diverted by tribal tit-for-tat, or culture wars.
- Measureble Outcomes: Don’t waste time ‘raising awareness’ or ‘educating’ for their own sake – these are only means to an end, not a goal in themselves, and in any case hard to measure.
- Storytelling: Use any and all storytelling tricks to measurably reducing carbon: millennia-old campfire Rules of Three, bleeding-edge AI, latest advances in behavioural psychology et al
Welcome accusations of being ‘manipulative’ as a sign of success. Point out that it can’t really be all that manipulative if articles like this explain exactly what we’re doing, why and how.
Eyes on the prize
So which storytelling approach to choose?
A more practical response might be ‘Why choose?’.
Proponents of sustainable solutions should try everything, and hope something sticks with some people, and that those that resist one approach may be amenable to another. Routes 1 and 2 are probably essential pre-requisites for 3 to work.
But for better or worse, See Through News is trying route 3, if only because so few others have tried it systematically. It’s a long game, and complicated, but these features have their advantages, especially when deployed in tandem with other approaches.
The key is to keep our eyes on the prize of rapid, measurable carbon drawdown, and to remember more than 90% of the reductions we need to make depend not on changes in individual behaviour, but on changes in government regulation and enforcement. The boring stuff, that we need to dress in the finest storytelling raiments.
All roads to sustainability are paved with comprehensive government regulations, emphatically enforced.
Forget that, and you’re heading down a dead end.