When facts fail, tell a good story

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I recently fell into conversation with a nuclear physicist at a children’s birthday party.

The conversation started as many conversations do in Cape Town. We spoke about water tariffs, our observations about JoJo tank capacity and such. Naturally, this lead to the topic of the recent rainfall and the weather in general. I casually mentioned that drought could be a more established trend going forward. I had mistakenly believed that such views were mainstream because there has been a high level of scientific information circulating about this topic. Boy, was I wrong!

Entrenched drought in the Western Cape is a scenario that I have been familiar with for almost two decades now, being well versed with climate change projections. However, in my Saturday morning suburban chit-chat, I hadn’t even mentioned the word climate change and before I knew it, I was in the midst of a global warming battle.

My physicist however laid out the most beautiful story. I listened carefully. In the narrative that followed the climate change, lobbyists are a group with entrenched interests in renewable energy and they are in it for money. The facts stack up against anthropogenic warming. There have been many warmer periods in earth’s history and things withstood. Warmer temperatures are, in fact, a good thing, since colder global cycles correlate with extinctions and famines. And even with CO2 rising – didn’t I realise that plants require CO2 to thrive? With all the CO2 around, the planet is greener now than it’s ever been!  Sea levels rising is a hoax!  Coral reefs have died out before – plenty of times – only to bounce back.

On and on went this soothing narrative and I listened.  A large part of me thought, ‘Oh wow, this is wonderful! I want this story.’. Climate change is a hoax. Toss out the JoJo tanks and fret no more.  Perhaps I can find similar narratives that assure me that biodiversity loss is not happening at all.  There is no scourge of single-use plastic choking our seas, and massive deforestation is simply a matter of satellite imagery error.

The problem is that I know the facts.  Our global natural environment is in pretty bad shape.

I also know something of human wiring. The story that environmentalists tell is one that no one wants to listen to and here’s why:

1. We love good news and happy endings

Stories with happy endings are more likely to keep our attention than those obviously destined to end in tragedy. This is borne out by film and literature.  No matter how clumsy and predictable a happy ending picture may be, it gets a better box office draw than a more artistic, unhappy ending movie. Research done in the UK on the predilections of readers of fiction found that 42% of readers are in favour of books with a happy ending versus the. 2.2% who like it sad. Wuthering Heights may have had massive blockbuster potential had Cathy and Heathcliff headed off into the sunset hand in hand.

2. Humans have a built-in defence mechanism

We are equipped with subconscious strategies to help us to cope with reality and to maintain our self-image. This process was studied and brought to prominence by Sigmund Freud and is considered normal (within bounds). Our defence mechanisms include denial, projection, and rationalisation. This means that when we are presented with facts that conflict with or challenge our worldview, we have several automatic responses that help us “rationalise”  (or re-package) the information.  Pre-existing beliefs don’t easily shift.  We tend to deliberately misinterpret or forget those new facts which threaten pre-existing beliefs.  We simply don’t hear the information that contradicts our own worldview.

3. We love a good story

“… research consistently shows that fiction does mould us… In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than non-fiction… when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and sceptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

As humans, we like happy outcomes more than sad ones. We are likely to twist the facts to satisfy this bias if required.  And we like stories better than rhetoric. This might explain the staggering statistics about the speed and spread of fake news.

So how does this relate back to my conversation with the belligerent physicist of opposing views?  I realised why his story was so much more persuasive than any facts about the true nature of climate change or ecological collapse. We all seek hope. In critical fields of science and environment, communicating the facts is not enough. Especially if the facts are somewhat inconvenient, suggests changes to lifestyle, or asks sacrifices of us. Our defence mechanisms get in the way.

In the global village, there are some pressing environmental matters that cannot tolerate continued inertia. Without action, we are lost.

Those of us with a passion for sustainability have to change our story. Tell a good news story. If the message is about deforestation, find an angle of hope – talk re-forestation.  If the story is about plastics – bring the solutions to the fore.  And last but not least, for small businesses operating in the field of sustainability, the message requires a shift in human behaviour. Don’t assume that facts alone will shift that behaviour.  Tell a story to your customers. Paint a picture that has a happy ending and includes a role for a hero.  One that includes hope for ourselves and future generations.

About the author: 

Amanda DinanAmanda is Fetola’s sustainability expert, with experience ranging from water resource and infrastructure planning to environmental impact assessments, from the financial sector (socially responsible investment) and corporate consulting to project management of energy efficient stove programmes in rural parts of Mozambique and Malawi. She has worked all over Southern Africa and brings a fresh approach to the enterprise development specialist offering at Fetola. You can follow Amanda on Instagram and LinkedIn