The Environment, Social Media and Winning the Story Wars


“Throughout history, social movements have been, and continue to be, the levers of social change. They usually stem from a crisis of living conditions that makes everyday life unbearable for most people.” – Networks of Outrage and Hope

According to Manuel Castells, the capacity of mass self-communication afforded by digital technologies today, such as Facebook and Twitter, has empowered the social actor to overcome fear and embrace the hope of change in community with others.

According to Castells, fear is overcome “by sharing and identifying with others in a process of communicative action.” Overcoming fear with anger, enthusiasm and eventually hope can lead to significant social change, while fear itself breeds anxiety and tends to demotivate behavior. But key to overcoming this fear and engaging in social action are horizontal communication networks that facilitate cooperation and togetherness.

Although Castells writes Networks of Outrage and Hope from the context of social political movements, such as movements in the Arab Spring, another area where we desperately need social change comes to my mind as I read his book: environmental change.

“[The] condition for individual experiences to link up and form a movement is the existence of a communication process that propagates the events and the emotions attached to it. The faster and more interactive the process of communication is, the more likely the formation of a process of collective action becomes, rooted in outrage, propelled by enthusiasm and motivated by hope.” – Networks of Outrage and Hope

But from the perspective of positive environmental change by citizens – such as mitigation and adaptation to climate change – we immediately face a problem as we consider that successful social movements require the activation of positive emotions and interactive communication networks. At a fundamental level, a successful social movement requires individual empowerment – to express oneself, to communicate with others, to form a community around shared grievances. As climate scientists and environmental communicators, we have too often thrown fact-sheets and one-way information campaigns at people, hoping to increase environmental awareness and action. Environmental messaging has traditionally suffered negative tones and a depressing lack of interactivity.

Castells identifies successful networked social movements as being networked both online and offline. Similarly, movements of positive environmental change will require much more than awareness-building by scientific or communication elites. They will require individuals and communities to pursue pro-environmental change both online and offline. We increasingly need citizens to take ownership of environmental issues such as climate change, coastal flooding, land loss, drought and pollution. Again, broadcast communication programs don’t help this sense of ownership and community empowerment.

How can we encourage citizens to develop open-ended communication networks around the environmental issues they face, and empower them to create positive environmental and social change as they see fit? It certainly requires crafting better, more engaging narratives around environmental issues than the classically polarized story of global warming. The narrative (yes, even scientific facts are laid out in particular ways to tell a story of what is happening in the world around us) climate scientists and communicators have built up to today around global warming and its implications is, simply put, sub-par. As Jonah Sachs writes in Story Wars, the battle to be heard in today’s overcrowded media marketplace is currently being won by brands. Nike and Starbucks are simply telling more compelling stories. As environmental communicators, our job is create even more compelling stories than the brands and organizations today winning people’s hearts. And even more, to create stories that encourage audiences to tell their own stories, and to engage in their own ways via social networking technologies as well as face-to-face communications.

Climate change is a global problem. But as Castells points out in his book, citizens engage in global debates all the time on the Internet, on a range of social and political issues. Why couldn't movements surrounding both local and global environmental issues occupy the same spaces?

“The networked social movements of our time are largely based on the Internet, a necessary though not sufficient component of their collective action. The digital social networks based on the Internet and on wireless platforms are decisive tools for mobilizing, for organizing, for deliberating, for coordinating and for deciding.” – Networks of Outrage and Hope

Perhaps it is time that environmental communicators step back and stop trying to persuade us to act, stop trying to lay out problems and solutions from the top down. It may be time, instead, for environmental communicators to introduce compelling story lines that let audiences fill in the blanks, online and offline, with their own concerns, personal experiences and views for the future. If social networks and their corresponding public spaces are where social movements are being organized and enacted, then environmental communicators need to enter these spaces at the community level.

Some examples of environmental organizations “winning the story wars” are The Story of Stuff project and The Meatrix. Do you know of examples of environmental organizations or movements that tell good stories and empower citizens to create their own solutions? Comment below!

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