advance praise for
What We ink About When We Try Not
To ink About Global Warming
“ e human brain is poorly equipped to cope with mind-numbing problems like
climate change. Per Espen Stoknes tell us why—and then explains what we can do
to change the way we think, act, and live. Highly recommended.”
—John Elkington, cofounder of Volans, SustainAbility, and Environmental
Data Services (ENDS) and coauthor of e Breakthrough Challenge
“ How, most eectively, to communicate the reality and ramications of a slow-
motion planetary meltdown? Whether you are a scientist or a CEO, an activist or
a slacker, this book provides a simple toolkit for breaking down frozen attitudes.
As a work that surveys a great deal of psychological research, it’s at once accessible,
practical, and—in its last third—richly reective and evocative. In these conclud-
ing chapters, Stoknes wrestles eloquently with the ways in which earthly calamity
reverberates and sometimes wreaks havoc in any person’s innermost sense of self
—David Abram, author of e Spell of the Sensuous
“ In a fresh and intimate voice, Per Espen Stoknes navigates the obstacles and collec-
tive denial of climate change. Drawing on his own deep love of nature, he suggests
ways to overcome our ‘Deep Grief’ by creating a spiritual connection with the air
around us. In every way, this is a book full of new perspectives and insights.”
—George Marshall, author of Don’t Even ink About It:
Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
“ If information enlightened, then eective climate policies would have been put in
place two decades ago, aer the second IPCC assessment. e recent, massive h
assessment enlightens only a teeny bit more. Stoknes’s small, powerful, readable
book enables us to build the social networks that will lead to action and change our
old stories, the blinders that comfort so many along our path to destruction. Read
it, get to work, and nd joy in being eective.”
—Richard B. Norgaard, coauthor of e Climate Challenge Society
and professor emeritus, University of California at Berkeley
“ Mahatma Gandhi said ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they ght
you, then you win.’ We’re in this last phase, but to win we need to change tactics,
from using guilt to draw attention, to instead using persuasion to change behavior
and policy at a mass scale. Per Espen Stoknes shows the way with this brilliant
description of how to go with rather than against the ow of human nature and
thus shi society to action. ere is no more important challenge facing society
today and Stoknes’s contribution is crucial.”
—Paul Gilding, author of e Great Disruption
“ Science is no longer the bottleneck to action on climate change. Why do we so
oen ignore, deny, and resist the science? Why aren’t we outraged, demanding
change? In a style both rigorous and personal, Per Espen Stoknes explains why,
and, more importantly, oers strategies for success. A pleasure to read, this book
can help us all become more understanding, more committed, more eective—
and, along the way, more joyful.”
—John Sterman, MIT Sloan School of Management and author of
Business Dynamics: Systems inking and Modeling for a Complex World
“ Stoknes oers expert insights, drawn from the discipline of psychology and the
art of storytelling, to the high-stakes quandary of our time: why the response to
climate change has not, yet, come close to matching the overwhelming magnitude
and sophistication of the scientic evidence. He peels away the multiple layers
of passivity-inducing narratives and demonstrates how avoiding climate carica-
tures—apocalypse on one hand, ecotopia on the other—is the most eective way
to prompt action. His alternative narratives, highlighting the many co-benets
of a switch away from fossil fuels, suggest a broad common ground across the
—Mark Schapiro, author of Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and
Calculus on the Front Lines of a Disrupted Global Economy
“ Combining an entrepreneur’s innovation with an economist’s analytics and a
psychologist’s knowledge of human behavior, Per Espen Stoknes gives us a much-
needed guide to moving beyond the politics and paralysis that generally cripple
action on climate change and provides us with concrete ways to inspire grounded
hope for real climate solutions.”
—Heidi Cullen, chief scientist, Climate Central
When We Try Not To
Chelsea Green Publishing
White River Junction, Vermont
of Climate Action
When We Try Not To
Per Espen Stoknes
Copyright © 2015 by Per Espen Stoknes.
All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations copyright © 2015 by Per Espen Stoknes.
No part of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form by any means without permission
in writing from the publisher.
Editor: Joni Praded
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Copy Editor: Laura Jorstad
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Printed in the United States of America.
First printing March, 2015.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stoknes, Per Espen.
What we think about when we try not to think about global warming :
toward a new psychology of climate action / Per Espen Stoknes.
ISBN 978-1-60358-583-5 (paperback) -- ISBN 978-1-60358-584-2 (ebook)
1. Climatic changes--Psychological aspects. 2. Global warming. 3.
Environmental policy. 4. Environmental psychology. I. Title.
Chelsea Green Publishing
85 North Main Street, Suite 120
White River Junction, VT 05001
To Sølve and Samuel,
to all who feel the unsettling winds of change,
and to those who are yet to be born into the air
Introduction: Battering One Another xiii
Part I. Thinking
Understanding the Climate Paradox
1. e Psychological Climate Paradox 3
2. “Climate Is the New Marx”: e Many Faces of Skepticism and Denial 9
3. e Human Animal, as Seen by Evolutionary Psychology 27
4. How Climate Facts and Risks Are Perceived: Cognitive Psychology 35
5. What Others Are Saying: Social Psychology 54
6. e Roots of Denial: e Psychology of Identity 70
7. e Five Psychological Barriers to Climate Action 81
Part II. Doing
If It Doesn’t Work, Do Something Else
8. From Barriers to Solutions 87
9. e Power of Social Networks 95
10. Reframing the Climate Messages 110
11. Make It Simple to Choose Right 124
12. Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 132
13. New Signals of Progress 151
Part III. Being
Inside the Living Air
14. e Air’s Way of Being 165
15. Stand Up for Your Depression! 171
16. Climate Disruption as Symptom: What Is It Trying to Tell Us? 190
17. Re-Imagining Climate as the Living Air 202
18. It’s Hopeless and I’ll Give It My All 217
Use the Power of Stories
to Re-Story Climate
As humans we create meaning in our lives through stories. So it’s not
surprising that grand narratives have evolved about global warming.
Scientists sometimes lose sight of the fact that they are telling a story
when fully immersed in data or equations. But any data presentation,
no matter how dry, factual, or objective, weaves a narrative. e implicit
narrative that underlies a typical climate science presentation goes like
this: “Once upon a time there was climate stability. en came coal and oil
combustion, and the temperature started rising. If the burning continues,
climate ips into a hot state.” is quickly becomes a story in our minds,
complete with beginning, middle turning point, and end. e question,
though, is whether this is a constructive narrative when communicating
I don’t think there is just one right type of climate story to tell to get
people to understand the urgency of the issue and move them to action.
Rather, a plurality of stories is needed, each creating meaning and engage-
ment for dierent groups of people. I do think, however, that one story in
particular has been contributing to the stalemate of the climate paradox.
Since it is so easy to interpret literally, it has become universal and funda-
mentalist, and has stalled progress toward societal transformation.
e story is the apocalypse of climate hell, and it has been used oen,
implicitly, and without reection in climate communication.1 at is not
surprising, because it is a predominant story in Christian, Western culture:
Its roots go back to the last book in the New Testament about the end times,
with environmental and climate disasters described in exquisite detail as a
form of punishment for sin and decay. “If we continue on these evil ways,
we will all burn in hell.” And “e end is nigh.”
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 133
Too oen climate messages fall into this well-worn story track, even
with no conscious intention at all from the messengers. You might say that
the apocalyptic story comes uninvited and spreads like a thick woolly fog
around graphs, gures, calculations, and news media articles. Described
again and again are heat waves, drought, wildres, oods, sea level rises,
extinction of species, and self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms that may
escalate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In other words: e end of
our world as we know it is coming soon, and it is all due to our sins. It is a
powerful archetypal story.
It is not impossible that the future will in fact be something similar to a
climate hell, but that is just one story, just one type of scenario—and it’s one
that generates fear, guilt, anger, despair, and helplessness as its shadow side
in the here and now.2 We’re so tired of this story by now that it is a relief
when comedian Stephen Colbert makes us laugh at it:
Now Nation, I have spent the last week in a rage over the Obama
administration’s new 800-page national climate assessment that
claims we’re ruining the environment. It made me so angry, I
printed it ve times... But then I read the report, and I have to
admit, it is so terrifying, that it le a carbon footprint in my pants.3
ere are abundant defeatist accounts about our shortcomings and
inevitable failures. “What we do wrong” is an addictive, repetitive narrative.
We need to tell other stories with other imagery and emotions associated
with them. “To be truly radical today is to make hope possible, not despair
convincing,” as Raymond Williams once said.
ere are many stories of what is going well, of conviction and endur-
ance, as well as stories that describe and help us imagine a renewal of
society, wildlife, and ecosystems. We could tell tales about the people who
stand up against destruction and accomplish spectacular feats. ere are
well-known eco-entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, who changed the
world of electric cars; Paul Polman of Unilever, who ushered in plans to
halve the company’s environmental impact by 2020; and Janine Benyus,
who spearheaded the biomimicry initiative that looks to nature as a model
for sustainable design.
ere are also untold stories about people who care and act on the
basis of vision, determination, and joy, or who demonstrate resilience
aer mayhem. We need new stories to make sense of the ongoing boister-
ous transition toward the greening of technology, business, and culture.
Creativity and capacity for innovation appear in stories about small-scale
solutions such as solar cookers, electric bicycles and buses, and soda bottle
lightbulbs—plastic liter bottles that are lled with water and installed in
roofs to light up rooms. ere are stories about bioenergy systems, about
upcycling of waste to high-value products, and about passive houses,
net-zero houses, and even plus houses, which make more energy than they
use, all from renewable sources. Large cities all over the world are joining
the competition to transform into green hot spots.
Typically, says climate psychologist Adam Corner, the communication
challenge is thought to require documentation of public attitudes, tested
models of behavior change, and the rigorous roll-out of social scientic
research. But this approach tends to lose the creative art of storytelling. “All
of this is true,” he writes, “but it is human stories, not carbon targets, that
capture people’s attention.”4
ere are stories to be told of scientists who are achieving wonderful
things, discovering magnicent ecological relationships and amazing but
vulnerable behavior of animals such as tortoises, leopard seals, or monarch
butteries. We can tell stories of the surprising opportunities arising from
smarter relationships between economic production and connected
ecologies. Damaged or unproductive land can return to being forests and
wetlands, and nature can demonstrate its oen marvelous ability to restore
vital ecosystems. Many wild species can settle surprisingly close to urban
areas, as long as humans do not destroy them. Stories like this would stretch
the horizon farther than just working to stop emissions, stop the destruction,
stop everything. “Go-stories” would rather describe an ecologically richer,
re-wilded, better world that you and I would look forward to living in.5
ere is no shortage of ingenious solutions for green growth that can
be translated into inspiring stories.6 However, there does seem to be a
shortage of captivating storytellers who spread inspiration as well as vivid
and attractive images of a future in which we live with more decent jobs,
greater well-being, and lower emissions alongside recovering forests. If it
cannot be imagined and well told, then people will surely not work for it
Among the profusion of emerging new narratives we nd green growth,
technological optimism, health, happiness, women’s rights, solidarity,
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 135
resilience, self-identity, ecological restoration, wonder, and a sense of the
sacred.7 e more we tell these stories, the more we will begin to live them.
The Green Growth Narrative
e story of brown growth—that only more fossil fuels can secure prog-
ress—has long bullied us in public discourse. But the story of green growth
can replace it. e core of that green growth story is that we can continue
economic value creation measured in money as we simultaneously reduce
the physical ow of materials in the economy measured in tons and kilo-
watt-hours. In a nutshell: More value with less resources wasted. Or put
in a more precise way: We can and should grow those types of economic
activity that at the same time lead to a smaller ecological footprint.
Why will this happen? Mainly because it is more protable to be smarter
and less wasteful than today. Our current economic system is extremely
wasteful seen through a material ow lens. Vast amounts of stone, ore,
soil, water, steel, coal, cornstalks, rice husks, timber, and more are moved
around at a frantic pace, but less than 1 percent of it all ends up in durable
products. And very, very few of those durable products are then recycled or
upcycled back for further value creation. is outdated production system
was built in previous centuries to maximize prots from labor and capital
while ignoring the resource ows.
e new story goes along these lines: At the time of the rst industrial
revolution, people were few or scarce, while nature was huge and abundant.
e way to larger wealth was to specialize the tasks of people along with
new machinery, so they could do more per hour. It made perfect sense at
the time: Better labor productivity meant more machines.
Imagine you’re a visionary in 1750, and you travel (by horse) to the
British Parliament. ere, you start to give an eloquent description of the
future y years later, in 1800. In 1750, weavers and spinners had made
approximately the same amount of yarn for centuries. To hand-weave a
twelve-pound piece of eighteen-penny we took fourteen days.8 Now
imagine proclaiming that in just y years, one person would be able to do
the job of two hundred in a day! You’d be ridiculed and thrown out. Or the
weavers would smash you for threatening their jobs (which they tried with
James Hargreaves, the inventor of the spinning jenny).
e same happened all over again in the second industrial wave, when
railroads started to be built in the 1830s. Imagine someone coming to
Washington with an exuberant voice claiming that—aer thousands of
years of using horse carriages to move stu around—in just y years, one
person would be able to transport more cargo than two hundred horse
carriages in one day, without a single horse. What an amusing, scatter-
Since those days, all kinds of amazing innovations have improved
labor productivity in agriculture and industry, way beyond anything once
imagined. But now the world has more than seven billion people, and labor
is no longer scarce. ere are hands aplenty—fourteen billion of them,
actually. All want work. Nature, however, is no longer innitely huge.
Resources are getting scarcer, and the prices of long-term commodities
such as energy, minerals, and foods are rising.9 Even more important, the
natural sinks, particularly for carbon dioxide and the nitrogen cycle, have
been overloaded.10 e sky, oceans, and soils cannot take more pollution.
But the good news is that green growth can solve sink overload and create
jobs by eliminating the wastefulness through radical resource eciency
while employing more people. e next wave of innovation is the shi
from brown to green growth, which builds on a shi from maximizing
labor productivity to maximizing resource productivity.
Today, if someone claims that y years from now, we may get ten or
one hundred times as much value created out of the same timber, oil barrel,
or kilowatt-hour, they’d be ridiculed. “Not possible!”
Yet that’s what leading businesses and investors are currently doing.
Take lighting. Having a coal-red power plant—or a diesel generator—
make power, then transport it through the grid to a home where it lights
an incandescent bulb, is an insanely wasteful way of meeting the need for
indoor lighting. It’s about 99.2 percent waste from fuel to light. Shiing
to daylighting systems with light channels and better windows eliminates
most of the daytime need. en, at night, the home could be lighted with
an LED bulb running on battery-stored power from a solar panel, improv-
ing the resource eciency of the whole system by a factor of more than one
hundred. And it’s protable for the end user, if not the incumbent utility.
When it comes to heating or cooling, green designers are creating
passive houses rather than conventional houses, reducing energy use by
nine-tenths. en, by putting solar panels on the roof, the building could
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 137
become net energy positive, generating more power than it consumes,
since it now uses so little.
Personal transport is changing, too. Fossil-fuel cars are remarkably
wasteful. Eighty-six percent of the energy in the fuel is wasted as heat in
the engine and exhaust and never reaches the wheels. Less than 1 percent
is actually used to move the driver and possibly a passenger. And then the
typical American car spends 96 percent of its time parked, with only 2.5
percent of that time spent in the productive use of driving. e rest is used up
in trac or nding parking.11 You’ve no doubt heard people say this system
can’t be improved much. But overall green growth approaches demonstrate
that it’s relatively straightforward to improve personal transportation by
orders of magnitude over the coming decades. Tesla’s Elon Musk has done
more than any other to shake up the complacent car industry. Cities and
towns are getting smarter about providing public transport options to
replace cars. And electric bikes can be a hundred times more ecient than
an SUV while also improving health and keeping the air cleaner.
On the food front, at least a third of the food produced around the
globe is wasted one way or another. Reports show that nearly half the food
produced in the United States and Europe never gets consumed. Food waste
also leads to loss of natural resources since food production is accountable
for 80 percent of deforestation, 70 percent of all the freshwater consump-
tion, and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emission.12 e amount of food
lost and wasted every year is equal to more than half of the world’s annual
cereal crops (2.3 billion tons in 2009–10).13 Upstream, rather than ruining
soils when producing food, newer farming practices such as low-tillage can
increase the amount of carbon in soils, making agriculture a net sink, not
a source of carbon pollution.
ere are positive stories in industry, too. e world’s concrete indus-
try is responsible for 5 to 8 percent of total world emissions. But with new
processes and materials, like geopolymers, the process of manufacturing
concrete may become near carbon-neutral with existing technologies.14
In the energy arena, solar and wind have seen costs fall over the last
decades, while oil, gas, and coal have seen them grow. Renewables are
outcompeting fossil fuels at more and more locations around the world.
is makes for a fundamental shi in the energy markets, something the
traditionally conservative Citibank calls a clear “energy Darwinism,” where
the unt are heading for extinction. is is not through idealism or state
intervention. It is through pure competitive force that huge, older coal
plants are being decimated, and replaced by millions of nimble, low-cost
solar panels and wind turbines.15
And don’t forget about the Internet. If the Internet were a country,
it would today be the sixth largest emitter of carbon pollution, mainly
through its operation of computer centers and infrastructure. It is respon-
sible for around 2 to 3 percent of world emissions.16 But leading providers,
such as Google and Apple, two of the world’s three largest companies, have
already committed to supplying all facilities with renewable energy and are
providing the early signs of a fully renewably powered Internet.17
Taken together, there are incredible opportunities to improve over
yesterday’s wasteful practices. Green growth is the story about the prof-
itable realization of these opportunities in the coming decades. It takes
leadership, investment, and dedication to break the old mental patterns of
fossil or brown growth. ey seem “natural” and “reasonable,” reinforced
by recent tradition, cut-and-paste approaches, established culture and
institutions. Costly subsidies for these outdated, wasteful practices must be
curbed, and government regulations should support green growth.
Some are strongly against climate science and increased carbon taxes.
But nobody’s in favor of waste. Bringing about such a resource revolution
is beyond doubt the greatest business opportunity of the twenty-rst
century. e main challenge is measuring, targeting, and implementing
the resource eciencies at all steps through the economic system, since
the wastefulness of materials is invisible to those decision makers who rely
only on monetary information. Gross prots can grow while ecological
e one-liner is that Green growth is smart, while brown growth is soooo
twentieth century. is is a narrative that will be attractive to businesspeo-
ple, entrepreneurs, technology optimists, politicians, and an economically
minded audience. If climate resisters can be swayed, it will be through
better solutions, not by more climate science reports. Many of the steps we
could take to mitigate the problem, we need to take anyway. Is food waste
noble? Is using energy smarter bogus? Can you nd someone arguing that
cutting energy costs is a bad thing? Someone who argues that wasting
water is good, or that doubling resource eciency is counterproductive, or
that investing in ways to protect ourselves is foolish?19 is is a much more
attractive story to sell than the apocalyptic climate story.
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 139
The Well-Being Narrative
Martin Luther King had a choice when standing in front of the crowd gath-
ered before him at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. As Futerra, a sustainabil-
ity consultancy, pointed out in its Sell the Sizzle report, he easily could have
leveled accusations and stirred the anger of his followers. e civil rights
struggle had been long and hard, injustice was severe, and King and others
had encountered death threats and danger. Striking back would feel just.
Focusing on the bigotry, partiality, and discrimination would have been
easy. e microphone was on. Silence was spreading through the crowd.
Now what to say? Under immense pressure, he began with the words we
all know today: “I have a dream...”—setting an inspiring ideal that lives
on to this day.
“at’s how it works. When you’re faced with hell—you sell heaven,”
concludes Futerra.20 You esh out the story of where we need to go, in a
manner that makes people really want and long for it.
Narratives like this focus on happiness rather than apocalypse, and
depict the kind of society we want to live, laugh, and love in, and leave
when the time comes. ey are stories that emphasize well-being, social
justice, and generosity as the new wealth.
Modern, industrial societies have been fabulous at generating wealth
for people, and in particular for those lucky few who control most of it.
Billions of humans have also been lied out of destitution and hardship.
Robert E. Lucas, Nobel Prize–winning economist, argues that the real
impact of the industrial revolution was that “for the rst time in history, the
living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo
sustained growth... Nothing remotely like this economic behavior is
mentioned by the classical economists, even as a theoretical possibility.”21
But maybe the worst criticism you could direct against modern society is
that aer achieving this basic level of material wealth for some, it does not
further distribute or improve the well-being of its members.22
Since the 1970s in Western societies, most measurements of happiness
and quality of life show no or very little improvement. Since then we’ve
doubled average income per head, and doubled it again. Still no improve-
ment in happiness or well-being.23 All this coal-digging, forest-trashing,
soil-wrecking, atmosphere-altering, ocean-acidifying frantic development,
wealth accumulation, and competition... to what end?
Already in 1931, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes spelled
out this conundrum in the form of a hundred-year scenario to 2030, which
is so well written it is worth quoting at some length:
Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that a hundred years
hence we are all of us, on the average, eight times better o in the
economic sense than we are to-day... Assuming no important
wars... the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within
sight of solution... us for the rst time since his creation man
will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his
freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure,
which science and compound interest will have won for him, to
live wisely and agreeably and well.
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social
importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We
shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral prin-
ciples which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which
we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities
into the position of the highest virtues... e love of money as a
possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means
to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognized for what
it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-crim-
inal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with
a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social
customs and economic practices... we shall then be free, at last,
Now, eighty years later, developed countries are—as Keynes forecast—
around eight times better o, but still struggling with his challenge: How
to live wisely and well with our wealth? Our politics, particularly economic
policy, is still stuck in the industrial age scarcity mind-set, where GDP
growth is the holy grail of national development, as proved aer the Great
Recession of 2008.
e new story is one of improved life satisfaction and well-being, which
now can be measured with psychological tools as scientically as the GDP.
is is a story that calls for the rearrangement of political priorities: human
quality of life rst, which is inevitably linked with our surroundings, the
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 141
more-than-human world in which our lives play themselves out. e soul
can’t be happy while the biosphere is crumbling.
In short, the story envisions a future society in which people live with
greater well-being, together with others, learning, giving, and caring. And as
consumption measured in money is slowly growing, the ecological footprint
will simultaneously be diminished, until it’s inside the planetary boundaries.
I have a dream of an astonishing diverse plurality of cultures for the
year 2050—all in which friendships, networks, organizations, learning,
storytelling, and the arts ourish, in ways specic to their place and geog-
raphy. City centers are highly walkable and bikable with millions of meet-
ing places for chats and fun. e buildings are designed with care for the
location, have passive ventilation with better air and upliing day lighting.
ere is irting, gossip, philosophical cafes, street theatre, peaceful protest
marches, farmers markets, marathons, and rock concerts a plenty. e cars
hum quietly around and do not spread toxic compounds from combustion
engines, except for the occasional retro shows where noisy Formula 1–type
events draw the petro-nostalgic with great beer and barbecue. Markets
and trade are vibrant, and treated more as conversations of value than as
ecient mechanisms of price equilibrium. Corruption, surveillance, and
discrimination are being exposed by transparency initiatives and kept to a
minimum. e food is short-traveled, healthy, highly varied, and incredibly
tasty, and we will happily pay its full cost. e jobs are green and stimulate
well-being through personal mastery and acknowledgment for work well
done. A livable minimum wage that makes the freedom of social mobility
more than a cliché. ere is greenery everywhere in sight, on streets and
buildings, so sparrows and hawks have recolonized inner-city rooops.
When someone manages to describe a society that a strong majority of
us long to live in, then things can start to happen, and happen fast. But if we
have no idea of where we’re heading, we certainly will end up somewhere
else. Or as Lao Tzu said: “If you do not change direction, you may end up
where you are heading.”
is happiness narrative gives a sense of direction where the doom
narrative only says no. It removes the need to believe in climate change or
not. is is the direction we want to go in anyway. One famous cartoon by
Joel Pett in USA Today captured the gist of this sentiment by depicting a
climate skeptic exclaiming: “What if the whole climate issue was a hoax,
and we ended up creating a better world for nothing?”
What is your story of where we ought to go? What is a society worth
living—and dying—for? If we don’t know, we surely won’t get there.
The Stewardship Story:
The Greening of Religion and Ethics
A historian of medieval history, Lynn White at Princeton, wrote a now
classic article on the relation between religion and environment back in
1967. He came out with some stark comments on the eects of Christianity
on humankind’s relation to nature:
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropo-
centric religion the world has seen... Man shares, in great measure,
God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to
ancient paganism and Asia’s religions... not only established a
dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will
that man exploit nature for his proper ends.
In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had
its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. ese spirits were accessible
to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids
show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain,
or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge
of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying
pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a
mood of indierence to the feelings of natural objects.25
is was immediately contested by a series of Christian thinkers, which
in turn ignited a rethinking of Christianity’s relation to the natural world.
New elds of study like environmental history, environmental ethics, and
eco-theology were created and stimulated. Out of this movement has
grown a new and powerful story, the ethical stewardship story, which goes
along these lines:
Humans are created by God and placed on the earth, which also is
equally created by God. is makes the earth holy, and humanity’s
proper role is to be caretaking stewards of it.
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 143
More and more Christians are nding quotes and principles in the
Bible replacing the traditional human domination over creation from
Genesis with the equally biblically based language of human stewardship of
creation. God the Creator has entrusted His creation to the stewardship of
humanity. It’s His will that we treat it gently and respectfully.
Several of the world’s religions are turning the same way: According to
Islamic scholar Seyyed H. Nasr of George Washington University, “Islam
makes no distinction between the natural and the supernatural” and holds
that the Qur’an was revealed to the entire living world, not just to humans.
And Asian religions oer additional subtle notions of balance and harmony
through Taoist, Confucian, Jain, and Buddhist philosophies. Scholars of
the world’s major religions are reexamining their scriptures, rituals, and
doctrines to bring forward those elements that support an ecological
awareness and a changed sense of humanity’s place within creation.26 Most
Native American peoples have always held such a view of the natural world.
e words respect and thanksgiving sum up the Native American attitude,
according to Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations
Jewish investor Yosef Abramowitz sees the failure to transition to a
more sustainable economy as an act against faith in shared human respon-
sibility. As he more eloquently states, “Because of our corruption and our
greed we are jeopardizing the miracle of creation every day.”28 erefore,
installing solar panels and LED bulbs to replace diesel generators and
incandescents becomes something akin to religious duty.
Aer a summit on sustainability at the Vatican, Pope Francis made the
religious case for acting to limit climate change, stating that “Creation is
not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property
of only a few: Creation is a gi, it is a wonderful gi that God has given
us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benet of all, always with
great respect and gratitude.” Francis also said that humanity’s destruction
of the planet is a sinful act, likening it to self-idolatry. “But when we exploit
Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation we
are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! is is not good!’”29
ere is evidence that such views are spreading among American
Catholics and evangelicals. A University of Maryland poll of religious
Americans found that 76 percent support a treaty to counter global warm-
ing. If such an agreement is ever reached, religious Americans say they
would stand by it with conviction. Of the een hundred people surveyed,
57 percent say that violating such a treaty would be morally wrong. About
17 percent see it as a sin, requiring atonement to avoid everlasting conse-
quences. e same 76 percent of respondents believe preventing climate
change is an important goal. Among them, 32 percent say it falls within
their obligation to protect God’s creation. A bigger group, at 44 percent,
don’t think of it as an obligation but feel that it’s important to defend against
rising temperatures nonetheless.30
For those who do not associate with any particular religion, there is a
parallel narrative of moral and ethical obligations. You could call climate
change the perfect moral storm, since it brings together three major ethical
challenges. First, it is a truly global phenomenon. Once emitted, greenhouse
gas emissions can have climate eects anywhere on the planet, regardless of
their source. is yields skewed results—the poorest and most vulnerable
countries and people are those that have emitted the least historically. e
second challenge is that current emissions have profoundly intergenera-
tional eects. ose who are still not yet born have no voice in our conver-
sations. e third challenge is that our ethical tools are underdeveloped in
many of the relevant areas, such as the moral value of nonhuman nature
and the extent to which we have obligations to protect penguins and polar
bears, salamanders and salmon, and similarly with unique places, or even
nature as a whole.31
e conservative worldview also ts well with this story: It is vital to
conserve nature. Being a responsible steward of nature is key to keeping
traditions alive and tending the landscape so that the next generation
inherits the land in as good or better condition than it was in when
we inherited it. ere is a proud tradition of conservation and respect
for the natural environment within conservatism. Trusteeship and the
acknowledgment of a shared responsibility to conserve and protect the
natural environment are therefore all embedded deeply at the heart of
One way to move ahead with the environmental ethics is putting it
into international law. Polly Higgins, a London solicitor-turned-activist,
has been arguing that ecocide—the equivalent to homicide but applied
to critical ecosystems—should be seen as an international crime. She’s
inspiring a global movement that is strongly proposing an amendment
to the international Rome Statute: “Ecocide is the extensive damage to,
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 145
destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human
agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by
the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”33
is ecocide narrative says that people, governments, or corporations
that irresponsibly kill o species or forests, or endanger climate stability,
are committing crimes against humanity. ere are countless examples
of ecocide happening around the world from the Athabasca Tar Sands
to extensive logging of the Amazon. Such cases could then be tried in
front of an international jury. If the jury decided so, these acts would be
illegal. Individuals, not just corporations, can be held personally liable.
ey should be tried as soon as possible, and not be le for judgment in
The Re-Wilding Story: Bring Back the Wildness
Re-wilding is a story of nature’s amazing capacity to rebound. It tells of
the resilience of birch and pine, the dogged persistence of badger and fox,
of dandelion and vine, the dark and voiceless worlds of algae and fungi.
Many of the interdependent mammals, birds, and corals may be vulnera-
ble, living precariously close to the extinction cli, but nature is also wild
and robust, and swings back if given the smallest crack in the concrete.
Witness the dandelions. And of course, nature is not something out there.
We’re fully inside it, from breath to bones. We live inside the chain from
crops to compost.
Activists have been clear about what people should not do. We have
been urged to consume less, travel less, live not mindlessly but mindfully,
eat broccoli but don’t tread on the grass. Without oering new freedoms
for which to exchange the old ones, activists are oen seen as puritans,
spoilsports, and complainers. Climate messengers have been very clear
what we’re against; now we must tell the story about what we are for: a love
for the wonders of the wild. Rejoicing for the wind and all things winged.
Sharing stories about the beauty of places where we live, the art and culture
there, and the amazing four-legged and rooted beings we share this land
with. In the book Feral, George Monbiot proposes an environmentalism
that “without damaging the lives of others or the fabric of the biosphere,
oers to expand rather than constrain the scope of people’s lives.” He writes,
“It oers new freedoms in exchange for those we have sought to restrict. It
foresees large areas of self-willed land and sea, repopulated by the beasts
now missing from these places, in which we may freely roam.”34
Just outside Oslo, a wolf mating pair was recently, in 2013, observed
moving into the city forest. eir choice for a new home was quite deliber-
ate; the delicious roe deer that occasionally feed on gardens and elds here,
in addition to the buds, scrub, and herbs of the forest, had become among
the most abundant in the country. But the heavily populated Oslo area
hasn’t had any breeding wolves for more than 140 years. I’d never heard or
seen a wolf in the wild before, so when I was invited out by one of Norway’s
leading nature photographers, Ulf Myrvold, who’s making a lm about the
wolf’s return, my heart started drumming.
Aer following some fresh tracks in the wet snow, we were amazed
at how close to human settlement these animals lived—without anyone
inside their living rooms knowing that there are wild hunts going on just
beyond the eld. e forest that we walked into was heavily managed,
mainly spruce and pines. But the multitude of tracks in the wet snow
turned the forest oor into a living storybook. We saw where the roe deer
had strolled, where the wolf had run across them, and where the pack had
come in from the eld.
We decided to sleep under an abandoned shed, which would hopefully
retain our all-too-human smells, but still had a good view to the border
between elds and forest. We settled in, listening for wolves but hearing
nothing. Hours of shiing clouds. Finally something moved under the
clouded dark night. No; too small, “just” a fox. More long nothings. We
startled at a howling sound but it was a tawny owl making its “ho-ho-hoo”
in the distance. e moon fought its way through the cloud cover and
started brightening up the snow, spreading the uniquely silvery light of
Arctic winter nights.
en, half an hour before midnight, a howl shattered the silence. Every
cell startled. Hairs stood out stiy inside my so down sleeping bag. e
howl was deep-throated, gutsy, uninching. And very, very close. We looked
at each other incredulously. e previously very domesticated farmer’s
eld, the regimented forest, the worn-down, tired shed—all this was now
electried. e howl came again. And yet again, ending on an even deeper
tone, cracking up from tones into low-frequency rumbling. It was easy to
determine the direction of the sound. Just over there. But why couldn’t we
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 147
see him or her? e wolf kept itself covered behind the trees at the edge of
the eld. Probably checking out the tracks in the area, circling around our
old shed, maybe moving inaudibly on the night-frozen snow just behind us.
Utter silence settled back in. But between the pines and the stream
in the center of the eld, between the snow and hillside behind us, every-
where the wildness was now thick in the air. Palpable. e planted spruce
and the cultivated eld, at daytime so domesticated and calm, had been
transformed into a breathing, alien ultra-presence, each snow crystal
bristling with excitement under the fresh moon rays. Our ordinary rural
landscape had been transformed, while only half a mile to the north people
were brushing their teeth aer switching o their favorite reality show.
Sleep came, but just before dawn I was watching again. Something was
moving on the other side of the eld. Wolf? Fox? Badger? Impossible to say
as long as it was half hidden behind some leaess trees along the stream.
Aer breakfast, we inspected the eld. No doubt; there were wolf tracks in
the snow. My perception of the “timid” Oslo city forest changed forever.
Wildness abounds, just under the surface of the commonplace.
On the other side of the world, smack in the middle of Los Angeles,
feasting on deer and roaming the chaparral-covered slopes, a mountain
lion has started prowling Grith Park for the rst time in more than a
century.35 Bringing back the lions, foxes, and bobcats is necessary for
reenchanting the city, says James Gibson, a sociology professor at UCLA.36
What does this have to do with climate? Biologists clearly tell us that
ecosystems with higher biodiversity and old-growth forests have better
resilience and carbon-capture capacity than monocultures.37 Re-wilding
our cities and agricultural landscapes—and interconnecting these biodi-
versity areas with wildlife corridors—increases the likelihood that the
ecosystems in which we live can both adapt and mitigate the coming
climate changes. Top species in the more-than-human food chain, such as
wolves and whales, elephants and tigers, seem to create trophic cascades
that ripple “down” through the ecosystem, increasing and maintaining the
dynamic dance among species around some kind of uctuating optimum.
We need that wildness in order to remain fully human in the coming centu-
ries. As the essence of that self-willed wildness, the presence of wolves is
exactly what we need more of.
Stories of re-wilding counter the laming apocalypse tale by reinforcing
that we’re not going to reverse our damage, but nature can, if we’ll only
reduce our interference with it and let it do its work. It’s a team really: the
wilderness and us. And I’m all for teaming up with nature, as humbly and
intelligently as we humans are capable of.
The Inevitability of Stories
What story creates meaning for you? Which will you tell? Of course there
are more options than the four main narratives I’ve outlined above.
How we tell the story is just as important as the archetypical story pattern
we use when talking about the facts. Storytelling is a discipline, as much as
science is. e hope lies in integrating the two. Rather than hoping that just
numbers and facts will speak for themselves, we must each integrate science
with storytelling, and not leave the job to stressed-out, catastrophe-prone
journalists. In this work there must be room for humor, emotion, visu-
alization, point of view, climax, surprise, plot, drama. Above all, make it
personal and personied.38 ere is plenty of psychological evidence that
information that is vivid, salient, and personied can have a larger impact
on people’s behavior than information that is statistical and abstract.39
ere is no reason to expect that experts in physical and climate
sciences should be experts in storytelling. Actually they are trained to
take all crumbs and remains of the personal out of the equation. ey
are peer-reviewed into killing any subjective statements or touchy-feely
elements from their articles. For them to communicate eectively the
important ndings of their objective research to the broad public, however,
the personal and a broader imagination have to come back into the process.
I fully respect scientists who say that they don’t want to meddle in the
story-telling business. eir calling is exploring and explaining earthly
processes. But their thorough research lends them unique credibility as
messengers within their area of expertise, much more so than any clever,
professional storyteller. erefore it is my hope that more than a few will
want to step forward as communicators to the public. is will be in addi-
tion to their all-in work as scientists within marine biology, atmospheric
chemistry, meteorology, statistical methods, satellite measurement, glaci-
ology, oceanography, soil sciences, geology, watershed science, forestry,
and a whole host of similar sciences. ey don’t need to become master
storytellers. at’s hard. A more modest starting point is mainly to become
Use the Power of Stories to Re-Story Climate 149
aware of the underlying storyline in whatever is being said. Did we just trip
into that apocalypse narrative again?
Better storytelling can overcome our deepest barriers, particularly the
barriers of denial and identity. Climate messages have been unpalatable
because they—in their apocalypse form—evoke fear, guilt, and helpless-
ness. e dominance of the disaster narrative in more than 80 percent of
news40 bears witness to a disastrous failure of imagination among commu-
nicators, including journalists and editors.
Any story that tells me that my identity and lifestyle are wrong and
destructive will be subconsciously resisted. We all reinterpret the facts
in light of a favorite story that sustains our understanding of ourselves
as valuable citizens, whether liberal or conservative, religious or atheist.
For those of us who nd ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the
climate doom story, passive denial oers an easy way out.
Only through new, attractive stories that we want to identify with will
we start to reconsider the scientic facts. Dierent audiences need to hear
dierent stories. e apocalypse story only reinforces the old barriers,
while stories of economic revitalization (green growth), happiness, social
justice and the good life (vision), stewardship (aligning ourselves with
Stories: Tell Better Climate Stories
Avoid apocalypse narratives, and instead tell stories about:
• Green growth.
• Happiness and the good life.
• Stewardship and ethics.
• Re-wilding and ecological restoration.
When telling stories, make them:
• Personal and concrete.
• Vivid and extraordinary.
• Visual; “show, don’t tell.”
• Humorous and witty, with strong plot and drama.
higher values), and re-wilding (teaming up with the self-healing forces
in nature) all oer us a way around the most deeply seated barriers in
the minds and hearts of modern citizens. Luckily, the four are in no way
mutually exclusive: We need green growth for better well-being, becoming
stewards of the land we help re-wild.
One question that has been driving me in this book is whether people are—
as some claim—locked into short-termism. What would it take to move
beyond that trait in terms of climate—if this is even possible? e new
emerging strategies seem to converge toward an answer: We will willingly
shoulder the extra burden of acting long-term if we have a community
with such social norms, supportive frames in which to make decisions,
simple nudges for everyday actions, and/or some kind of grand stories
about where we want to go that give us a sense of common purpose. It’s not
that we are incapable of acting for the long term; it’s just that the conducive
conditions haven’t been there.
is leads, nally, to the need for better metrics—the new signals to