To Affect Positive Change, Tell a Story


September 9, 2010
By Stephen Linaweaver

While some companies and countries make incremental moves towards sustainability, retooling supply chains and adjusting their energy mix, there is a vast groundswell of humanity that remains inert. We have not taken the steps necessary to change direction to the degree we are told is necessary by scientists. That is an old story. We either take no action or do things that make matters worse. Why?

Some say it is because humans evolved to sense an imminent attack by an animal, not an invisible threat years off. Others say we can only process so much information, and have already prioritized based on what we value. Both may be true. But we have overlooked a more basic reason. Emotion moves people to action, not reason.

For over forty years the bulk of the environmental movement fought for change with the reason and logic that dominates our existing paradigm. The law and economics, through forces such as the Clean Water Act and congestion pricing, are twin tools of reason that have moved bureaucracies and corporations, typically blameless, emotionless entities, to do the right thing. Or, as is more likely, not to do the wrong thing. In 2010, we are using the same tools to drive widespread change. But they are not working. Some of our tools are simply worn out and easy to circumvent, as we have seen in the eastern United States with fracking, a process that injects toxins directly into the water table yet is exempt from Clean Water Act regulations. More importantly, citizens are not reacting to calls to curb emissions or conserve energy because, for the most part, we have been trying to convince through reason. We forget that story telling in the 60s provided the emotional space for the law and the dismal science to get a foothold. Where are the poets, songwriters, and fiery orators of today?

Full article: The Economist