Sustainability and Storytelling: How narratives can secure our future

by | Jul 4, 2023

“The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.” – Donella Meadows

Storytelling is a fundamental part of the human experience. For centuries, people have been using stories to pass down knowledge, share experiences, create connections, and influence their future. Both the speed of evolving innovations—the internet, social media, artificial intelligence—with which we tell ourselves stories today, and the relevance of these innovations in everyday life demonstrate how much our lives depend on narratives. As we face the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, storytelling can play a crucial role in promoting sustainability by encouraging us to think about the future and our impact on it by highlighting the importance of responsible stewardship towards the planet, providing a roadmap for the actions we need to take today, and mobilizing the diversity of humanity towards those actions.

The stories we tell about the future can have a profound impact on how we approach sustainability. Focusing solely on the negative consequences of our actions can overwhelm and demotivate us. Conversely, if we downplay the importance of sustainability or believe that our actions do not really matter, we may be less likely to take action toward a more sustainable future. Therefore, it is important to strike a balance between acknowledging the challenges we face and inspiring hope for positive change. This is the concern of futurity, which is an essential concept in sustainability storytelling.

Futurity is a way of thinking about the future emphasizing the potential for change and progress. It is not simply about stories predicting the future. According to P. Raven,1 all narrative predictions of the future2 are fiction. However, he maintains that these fictions, which he aptly calls “narratives of futurity” or simply “futures”, “contribute to shaping the immanent future.” So when we think about futurity, we acknowledge that the future is not predetermined, but that the stories we tell about the future can influence the choices we make and the direction we take as a society. This can be a powerful motivator for sustainability, as it encourages us to take responsibility for our impact on the world and to strive for a better future.

First, it is important to know that storytelling goes beyond writing a novel or short story. Accordingly, futurity should span the wide range of our narrative practices, from social media content to emails to academic essays. Understood this way, we begin to see that even in sharing a post on Instagram, we are telling (or retelling) a certain story, projecting it into the future. It is therefore important to tell stories that emphasize the potential for change and progress.

One approach is by exploiting success stories. We might tell stories about communities that have successfully transitioned to sustainable practices, or about technological advancements that have made sustainable living more accessible. For example, this DW documentary explores the traditionally environmentally unfriendly copper mining industry—itself crucial in the transition to clean energy—but ends with a hopeful example that demonstrates that clean practice is nevertheless possible. Stories like this can inspire and motivate us to take action toward a more sustainable future, especially when juxtaposed against outcomes of unsustainable practices.

Relatedly, we can approach sustainability storytelling with the use of scenario planning. Scenario planning is a tool that involves creating stories about possible futures based on different assumptions and variables. These stories can help us anticipate and prepare for different outcomes, and inform the decisions we make today. By creating scenarios that envision a sustainable future, or by adapting our narratives to established ones—such as Earth4All‘s Too Little, Too Late Vs. Giant Step model—we can work towards that future and avoid potential negative outcomes.

In addition to promoting sustainability and shaping the future, storytelling can also help us connect with one another. It is through stories that we can understand and empathize with the experiences of others, acquire valuable approaches and practices toward sustainability, create a sense of shared purpose, and bring varied contributions to collective action. To achieve a globally sustainable future, we must engage ideas and practices from across different cultures and identities instead of restricting ourselves to a dominant Western heteropatriarchal approach.

In this respect, we talk about concepts such as indigenous futurity, queer futurity, and crip futurity (or the futurity of disabled people). These concepts emphasize the need to sustain the future of marginalized people as an imperative towards an environmentally, socially, and economically just world. The goal of sustainability becomes more attainable in a world of equal opportunities. Otherwise, repression (of a part of the population) and the struggle to come out of it not only discourage collective efforts towards environmental justice but also implicate the process by making people vulnerable to perpetuating unclean practices while disabling them from affecting clean ones.

For example, the obliteration of indigenous practices, poverty, and the colonizing effects of globalization in the Majority World has set it back on the path towards sustainability. Because of poverty, postcolonial nations often bear the brunt of Western fast fashion by consequently becoming a literal dumping ground for low-quality used clothing. Furthermore, dominant models of economic prosperity, hinged on industrialisation and consumption, pose challenges against tackling carbon emissions and pollution. Ultimately, to ignore sustainability on a global level is to create a mirage solution, as problems “solved” somewhere on the globe transmute and manifest elsewhere.

Therefore, in sustainability storytelling, it is important to less dominant project voices. This includes paying attention to the approaches of indigenous, queer, disabled, and other marginalized communities both in authoritative and personal positions. The philosophy of Nigerian scholar Bayo Akomolafe is an important example of alternative approaches to environmentalism. His theory of Postactivism engages his Yoruba epistemic and cultural heritage in seeking to review our modern scientific and human-agented search for climate change solutions.

Sometimes too, inclusivity in sustainability storytelling involves decolonization of how the story itself is told. This is perfectly expressed by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor who invented Africanfuturism—an innovative genre of speculative fiction that centers an African narrative—she calls “visions of the future.”

As we continue to grapple with the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, we must imagine for ourselves a hopeful future by turning to the pervasive power of storytelling. As writer Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Progress is the realization of utopias.” Still, the goal of narrative futurity is not a senseless kind of optimism, but an objective engagement with the present with a prospective vision, or as Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz would explain, a “utopian impulse” of possibility that may engender resistance against a present that is unjust and frightful. An inclusive narrative of hope for the future can motivate us to take action towards a more sustainable world. In this way, storytelling becomes a powerful tool for promoting environmental sustainability and stable global social justice. By telling stories of successes, imagining different futures, highlighting possibilities in different scenarios, and promoting our interconnected humanity, we inspire action towards a more sustainable future.

1 P. Raven (2016). The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction. Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, 45(123).

2 For instance, think about Chinua Achebe’s 1966’s novel A Man of the People and Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novella Futility, both of which “foretold” real life events at scaring degrees of accuracy.

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