creativity

How writers using multi-sensory storytelling will save the planet

Photo by Marc Wieland on Unsplash

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince (among many others)

Today I want to talk to you about how storytelling has a vital role to play in saving the planet. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been consumed with getting ready to start my new graduate program in Sustainability Leadership at University of Cambridge. I’ve completed my first set of assignments and the first (very long!) reading list. I’ve read well over a thousand pages of documents, reports, data collections, and science journal articles. I have 10 new books on my to-be-read list, many relating to the connections between the economy, nature, and societal structure. It will come as no surprise that much of it is bleak, and there is some hope sprinkled in here and there.

Here’s what I didn’t find on a single page I read: what will our world look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like when humans learn how to live on this planet in a sustainable way?

The science matters. We have to have the reporting and data to show what’s happening in real-time right now, and explain what can happen if we don’t turn things around and fast. We need the urgency provided by the dire warnings. The doomsday scenarios are true possibilities and we’re on a collision course with them.

We also have to give people hope by explaining all we stand to gain if we change our ways, systems, governments, businesses, cities, economies, and — here’s the kicker — our values.

For decades we’ve been obsessed with efficiency and convenience, and in the process have caused a massive number of extinctions and destroyed priceless ecosystems that we’ll never see again. We stand to lose much more if we don’t realize we must value nature because nature underpins every aspect of our lives and livelihoods.

We have no future without nature and we need to wake up to that reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to give people an experience of what a truly sustainable world will be like. How can we make it an experience that sticks with people long after the experience is over, motivates them to make changes in their lives, and causes them to demand change from the businesses they patronize and the governments of which they’re citizens?

How can we, in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, make them long for the healthy, thriving, clean sea, literally and figuratively?

I’ve been immensely inspired by the immersive exhibits that are all the rage right now — Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience and Imagine Picasso are two examples of the tech-centric, projection-based exhibits that are everywhere. In February, The New Yorker wrote a long, exceptional piece on this trend. For many years, I’ve been a fan of immersive theater like the wildly popular Sleep No More that’s a bit like Clue meets haunted house meets Eyes Wide Shut, complete with masks for all guests so you feel like you’re at a costume party. Since I was a child, I’ve loved choose-your-own-adventure stories. And let’s be honest; I still love choose-your-own-adventure stories.

So here’s my proposal — what if we take the:

  • technology of immersive art exhibits
  • participatory storytelling of immersive theater
  • user-guided choice of choose-your-own-adventure stories
  • science of climate change

to not tell, not show, but allow people to experience how climate change will look, sound, smell, taste, and feel if we continue on our current trajectory and if we make the needed, massive changes to save the planet, save ourselves, and save all the species who call Earth home? There would then we an online component that would connect people to one another and provide support for making the changes we need and charting collective and individual progress because as we know, what gets measured gets done.

Would that be a way to use multi-sensory storytelling as a tool to motivate people, open their hearts and minds, and give us a fighting chance at building a sustainable society together? If executed flawlessly and meaningfully with heart, I think this might be part of the solution we need that doesn’t yet exist. What do you think?