The Stories We (Don’t) Tell Ourselves About Change

MAY 1, 2024

From the recent Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston to PBS’ “A Brief History of the Future” series, there is growing consensus that the types of stories we tell are intrinsically linked to our outlook on what’s possible. From climate to AI, fear and hope are key drivers that fill the void of the unknown. Hollywood has long been the main narrator of what the future holds; more often than not, the stories they greenlight are dystopian. But storytellers like This American Life’s Ira Glass and futurists like Ari Wallach work to create hope that inspires action. Neither claims that we should simply tell utopian stories and all will be well. But we need to envision positive ways to move forward.

And humans have always told stories to propel ourselves into futures not yet realized.

Today a cascade of emerging technologies swamp culture as a whole – from climate remediations to AI – and we are confronted with a metabolism issue. Drinking from a firehose of claims and counterclaims with no context, few precedents, little definition and little time, as a population we careen from one issue to the next in an accelerating cycle, with no ability to digest or address them in any meaningful way. This makes it exceedingly difficult to evaluate solutions or change behaviors.

Research published in Science examines the problem of trust in new technologies: “In the absence of a clear sense about a technology’s true purposes or how it works, the public are being asked for a sort of open-ended trust in the company and its governance.”

That is, if the public knows the technology exists at all.

For example, specific energy initiatives such as biomass, are largely undefined within culture – whether in media or in the consumer’s mind. Biomass initiatives from government entities and airline partners are mostly unseen, unknown, unclear, or misunderstood save for the occasional and random airlines commercial or the unintelligible carbon dashboard on your ticket. These government institutions and public companies would be well advised to start actively defining the solutions they propose and the problems those solutions address if they want to change consumer behavior and realize value. 

While everyone is more familiar with climate change writ large – it too suffers from a story problem. Most public climate discussions center squarely around dystopia – a burning planet, figuratively and literally. The climate change story is notoriously difficult because unlike a specific solution, nobody really “owns” the problem.

The 2023 Congressional Budget Office Climate Change report notes: “The Earth’s atmosphere is a global, open access resource that no one owns, that everyone depends on, and that absorbs emissions from an enormous variety of natural and human activities. As such, it is vulnerable to overuse, and the climate is vulnerable to degradation—a problem known as the tragedy of the commons. The atmosphere’s global nature makes it very difficult for communities and nations to agree on and enforce individual rights to and responsibilities for its use.”

It also makes it difficult to create storytelling about possible, more positive futures.

Media tends to focus on disaster and catastrophe. In the vacuum of ownership, they also cover the issue from a “he said, she said bothsideism,”an approach that lends itself to confusion rather than fostering scientific understanding. 

Most communities feel they have no agency beyond what mostly amounts to token choices that have no real impact. And even the genuinely involved see efforts like COP28 as ineffectual and perhaps even hypocritical with the fossil fuel industry leading the discussions. 

“Science fiction is about exploring the dangers and opportunities of science and technology. It is as much about preventing futures as it is about inventing them.” – Etienne Augé, historian, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

AI is the counterpoint to climate change. Even while AI’s rapid advancements stoke fear among many, the new technology initial rollout has been rather successfully positioned by the companies behind it.  It is being communicated as a companion – a story about a solution that makes life easier and individuals more productive. 

When talking about the story, the question of technology ownership looms large. When problems aren’t owned, who communicates and how? When technologies are privately owned, how do you engender trust? When governments attempt to effect change, how do they inspire communities? 

The environment we swim in today is full of technological progress and devoid of effective storytelling. Communications and science experts, storytellers, and civic leaders need to forge new cross-disciplinary alliances to help advance the possibilities of our time – founded in evidence but driven by story. 

“What’s a plausible enough story to invest in?” – Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry of the Future

It is up to us to define the future. The stories we tell about change, and how we tell them, are critical.