Once upon a time there was life on Earth
By Merlin Pratsch
2019 CoalitionWILD Ambassador
“Global biodiversity loss can be conceived as a crisis-prone development of societal relations to nature,”[i] writes a team of researchers from the Institute of Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt. How we experience, perceive, create our relationships with, and make meaning of biodiversity is strongly shaped by cultural patterns. It is by no means a purely rational process. Cultural diversity, just as biological diversity, is incredibly high. Communication is the beating heart of those patterns. There is not one way to be, feel, see, perceive, or experience. There is no coherent way to tell a story. In other words: There is never a single story.[x] For this reason, a colourful communication landscape is vital for change against the backdrop of diverse belief systems, backgrounds, and socio-cultural systems.
Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall characterises humans as “the storytelling animal”[ii]. Human minds are structured for stories. They make us human.[iii] Research shows that stories stimulate brain activities and shape human minds. They do that, for instance, by mediating emotions and meanings or by sharing perspectives and information.[iv] Through their narrative structure, especially personal elements, they have the power to stimulate emotions, beliefs, and cognition and can offer a low-threshold ground for meaning-making.[v]
Stories and storytelling can create new spaces in public spheres for people to express themselves, to access and interpret information, or to experience through the eyes of others. It is about the pluralisation of environmental communication, to hear and to be heard, and to connect living beings. By no means in the sense of the simple assumption that more and better information – in a top-down, uni-lineal sense – will solve the socio-ecological problems that we face. Rather, in the form of participative, engaging, and bottom-up approaches. To offer opposition to dominated communication structures and a lacking diversity of actors in the communication sphere – thinking, for instance, about mainstream media. Put another way, it is an approach to “concerns about power and inequality in the public sphere”[vi].
Central for the development of an environmental movement and of public awareness is agency in expressing oneself and to discover personal connections to environmental issues. Bottom-up and dialogic approaches can offer a good chance to live up to distinct needs of individuals and public spheres. In other words, according to media scholar Usha Sundar Harris, “people who are excluded from participating in top-down hierarchical communication systems, […] where they are only passive receivers of information, become active agents of change as they gain power over their own storytelling”[vii]. We should work on representing a higher diversity of voices, knowledge, and perspectives in our communication about biodiversity and, hence, on developing new means to express, reflect, and connect to it. Also, storytelling can make issues that lack perceptual immediacy more tangible – such as biodiversity that easily exceeds human scale of cognition. Stories can help to “to make sense of the indescribable”[viii].
However, storytelling is not a magic bullet. Indeed, the rapidly changing communication landscape comes with increasing possibilities to connect with audiences. But simultaneously more actors compete for attention. A range of questions arises: how do stories have to be grounded in scientific evidence; how can misinformation or manipulation be prevented; what interest and purpose does a story serve; what is the story’s source; or how to deal with conflicting narratives? Beyond that, storytelling is audience-, media- and context-dependent, though, many communicators face a lack of resources and a highly contested, complex, and fragmented communication landscape.
In the end, there are many different methodologies to the craft of storytelling. What matters is, that “[it’s] a collective endeavour across sectors”[ix] if we want to reframe socio-ecological issues. Let’s use the potentials of cultural diversity to protect biological diversity. So that we never have to start a story as the headline does. Every ambassador and member of CoalitionWILD who shares their stories or who provides a platform for others to do the same becomes part of that endeavour. And you can join as well!
*Photo courtesy of Prof Dr Claus König (Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)
[i] Mehring, M./Bernard, B./Hummel, D./Liehr, S./Lux, A. (2017): Halting biodiversity loss: how social ecological biodiversity research makes a difference. In: Journal International Journal of Biodiversity Science,
Ecosystem Services & Management, 13 (1), p. 175.
[ii] Gottschall, J. (2012): The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[iii] Storr, Will (2019): The Science of Storytelling. London: William Collins, p. 2.
[iv] Dahlstrom, M. F. (2014): Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. In: PNAS, 111 (4), p. 13614.
[v] Gross, L./Hettinger, A./ Moore J.W./Neeley, L. (2018): Conservation stories from the front lines. In: PLoS Biol, 16 (2).
[vi] Hansen, A. (2011): Communication, media and environment: Towards reconnecting research on the production, content and social implications of environmental communication. In: The International Communication Gazette, 73 (1-2), p. 7.
[vii] Harris, U. S. (2018): Participatory Media in Environmental Communication. Engaging Communities in the Periphery. London and New York: Routledge, p. 14.
[viii] Hurrell, S. (2019): The B word: communicating biodiversity to a world that doesn’t care enough. Retrieved from: https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/b-word-communicating-biodiversity-world-doesnt-care-enough
[ix] Saltmarshe, Ella (2018): Using Story to Change Systems. In: Standford Social Innovation Review, 20.02.2018. Retrieved from: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/using_story_to_change_systems.
[x] See: The danger of a single story by Chimamanda Adichie: https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg [16.03.2020]
Time and again, Merlin puzzles his head over how to tell tangible stories about the diversity of life on Earth; how to approach the fact that so many people perceive human migration as dangerous rather than the current climate crisis; or how to stop online trade of wildlife as if it was furniture. With his upcoming website he will provide an open space to experiment with diverse, context-sensitive forms of telling stories about socio-environmental issues. Merlin is a 2019 CoalitionWILD Ambassador.