THE BLOG
09/25/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Unsustainable Narratives and How They Affect You (And Our Planet) -- Isn't It Time We Tell Ourselves a Different Story?

This blog is co-written by Richard Dent

In a recent interview with ABC News, President Obama claimed that the biggest mistake in his first term as President was failing to tell a better "story" to the American people. The President stated that "The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

America is indeed facing tough times and not just from a fragile economy. With twenty-three states experiencing a "national emergency" this summer due to drought and over 3,000 daily high temperature records set in the month of June alone, regardless of where you live in the world you are likely experiencing some sort of record-breaking weather. Ice melt in the Arctic is reaching record lows.

But the underlying reason behind these events will be lost on most people who will fail to connect the dots. DeSmogBlog and Media Matters reported that the mainstream media adequately covered these weather events, however the role of global warming (human created or natural) was ignored despite a Nobel prize-winning scientist finding strong links. This is just one lost moment amongst many regards the state of the environment. In the absence of a compelling story from the Obama Administration on sustainability, the media and other information channels fill the vacuum with their own stories and narratives - which are often produced from a commercially defined agenda.

To be fair to the media, global warming and related sustainability stories are complex and not easy to tell. Advocates, politicians, scientists, economists and sceptics seem locked in a perpetual battle across the information commons. But despite progress in areas like renewable energy and recycling, an ugly truth lurks behind the overall environmental discourse. Even with current advances in clean technology, bio-degradable plastic bottles, hybrid cars and organic food, it seems little real change will occur without a fundamental shift in the dominant narratives that create and/or reinforce unsustainable cultural and social norms.

We are constantly exposed to stories and narratives that praise the automobile, highlight the importance of industry to the economy (despite the pollution caused), or that mass-produced processed food is faster, cheaper and a good value - a good life through endless consumption of unsustainable products. But are 'stories' like McDonald's sponsorship of the London Olympics inherently unsustainable? Surely they can only last as long as resources are available to support the unsustainable western food consumption norms they validate. Yet we continue to tell and consume these stories despite a mass of evidence that clearly demonstrates that current food consumption norms are simply unsustainable, even in the medium term.

We see these unsustainable stories and narratives on the news, advertising, films, TV shows, billboards, on the streets and we even hear them from our leaders. They are everywhere. For every Prius, Volt or Nissan Leaf that is advertised, ten SUV commercials are aired. For every farmer's market flyer through your door, there are ten junk-in-a-box billboards across town.

But changing the story now, to avert ecological collapse, means navigating past a social dilemma - call it an "information dilemma." Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are critical foundations of our democracy. Can we regulate large amounts of information and stories currently being distributed to the general public? How do we discriminate between sustainable and unsustainable stories? Where is the leadership from our politicians on this issue? There seems to be a deafening silence.

One explanation could be the influence of thinkers like John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film "A Beautiful Mind") and Ayn Rand on the modern world. Theories on rational decision-making pervade many aspects of the Western world - most recently with Romney's vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan extolling the virtues of Rand's ideas. Our leaders are perhaps too reliant on a 'free market of rationality' to balance out any problems like excessive unsustainable stories. It is true that civilization depends partly on our ability to make rational, slow, thought out decisions. And yet as a nation, we seem to be consciously and systematically making decisions concerning natural resources that are completely irrational and against our own interest. We are pursuing policies and practices that imperil ourselves and the world. If threats to our natural resources are real and solutions available, we might predict that a rational civilization would prioritize the issue and address it. So why haven't we?

To make a rational decision one must be sufficiently informed. Thomas Jefferson said "Democracy demands an educated and informed electorate". Many nations place a high value on education including the USA. But how much is this 'educated' society also influenced by the stories and narratives promoted in the free market of information? Could it be that the information we are exposed to is overwhelming our rational higher self? Forcing society into more immediate instinctive lifestyle decisions instead of rational ones? Who would do such a thing?

A recent BBC documentary called "The Men Who Made Us Fat' highlighted unscrupulous advertising techniques used to sell junk food to children. The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, became an expert in linking product advertising to human fears and desires. Another technique is to frame information within the cultural values of one's audience in order to persuade them to accept products that form part of the social status quo. This is powerful stuff. If anyone with good public relations skills can literally sell "fridges to Eskimos" then should our leaders be reviewing if these techniques are doing too good a job and in fact contributing to serious ecological collapse? Are we seeing an effect as serious as the physical ecological footprint? As Solitaire Townsend from UK PR agency Futerra calls it, an ecological 'brainprint'.

When challenged the companies involved in production and advertising unsustainable products and lifestyles might shift the burden of responsibility to the consumer. 'We all have free will' they'll say, 'just make a rational choice for your own interest not to eat the junk food and problem solved.' A little unfair considering the power of their communication techniques to induce instinctive decisions whilst the constant repetition gives the impression that these stories describe our cultural and social norms. It doesn't help that humans seem hard-wired to form opinions and behaviors based on cultural affinities even if these behaviors ultimately undermine one's self-interest.

Michelle Obama has acknowledged the critical role of protecting children from these moments, recently lobbying Disney to reduce unhealthy food advertising to kids - something that has been illegal in parts of the EU for years. Sadly there is no rush to join Disney's efforts from other large US media providers and distributors.

Arguably the most worrying narratives being perpetuated are stories being told about the environment and hot topics like global warming. The media's inconsistent use of multiple, competing, and tangential narratives seems to be contributing to a broad cultural inertia - meaning the media is partly responsible for relegating what should be high on our agenda to the bottom of our voting priorities. The media is comprised of major corporations with legal obligations to shareholders to maximize profit. If they can make a buck out of sensationalizing climate change, they will. But their reach and influence in this regard could be perpetuating an unsustainable status quo, disempowering society from challenging politicians to act. So, what to do?

Firstly, we must realise that for the public to accept sustainable stories about food, energy and the environment we will require a lot more than simple truth telling. The new story must come from someone who resonates with the people we need to reach and their values. Environmental activists might learn from a moment that occurred in 2011 when Obama wanted to justify raising taxes on the rich. At the time he faced a problem.

A dominant story or narrative in the US maintains the ethos that if someone worked hard and earned their own money, they deserved to keep as much of it as they desire. However, this idea was challenged by Warren Buffett's opinion piece in the New York Times. Buffet advised "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice." Suddenly, the dominant narrative shifted having been disputed by someone with credibility and legitimacy. Someone from the culture of success, not a legislator nor an advocate on the outside. Buffet had the courage to stand up and make a sacrifice in the interest of the greater good. It seems to have been an effective strategy.

What if the same approach was applied to sustainability and climate change? What if there was a similar cultural icon, like Buffett, who had the courage and audacity to demand to be taxed for their usage of the global environmental commons? Would this shift the stories of sustainability and climate change to a 'normal' and not 'radical alternative' position?

They could call it the "American Natural Resources" tax or the "American Resource Protection" tax. It would require that individuals calculate and then pay a necessary tax on the products and services they use that damage or deplete our natural resources. What if instead of resisting this payment, people were proud to pay a tax that went to farmers and fishermen to secure their harvests in the face of extreme weather caused by climate change? Or for cities to secure their energy supplies with renewable energy? Or to coastal areas to strengthen their levies against rising tides? Or to rebuild houses decimated by extreme wildfires? If elite figures stood up to pay this tax from across the cultural spectrum, and the story got out, would we see a challenge to the hegemonic position of unsustainable stories and narratives? Maybe.

No one would argue that we need is new leaders that can renew the story of Western civilization and effectively counter the stories and narratives that threaten our survival. Obama was right, America needs a compelling story and storytellers. Perhaps most important of all are stories and storytellers courageous enough to help renew our cultural and social norms toward sustainability. But who out there is willing to step up and inspire the world in this way?

Richard Dent is a climate and renewable energy communications consultant based in London. He has worked on projects such as Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour, European Commission's Energy Union Intelligent energy PR project and more recently for GCCA (TckTckTck) on communication strategy. He is currently doing an mPhil at Cambridge University in Modern Society and Global Transformations.

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Lucy Emerson-Bell works for the non-profit eraGlobal Alliance, with a particular focus on climate change campaigns. Lucy graduated with a degree in Biology from Colorado College. After graduating, she worked on sustainability initiatives and resource management for the City of Denver for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Lucy served as the Campaign Director for The iMatter March, a campaign through the non-profit organization Kids vs. Global Warming, which engages youth from around the world to bring attention to their right to an intact planet and the urgency of climate change. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.