A recent ACF project explored narrative and the power of stories. ACF’s Communications and Mobilisation Manager, Kathryn McCallum explains.
I often read the letters ACF supporters write to decision makers as part of our campaigns and the comments you leave on our Facebook page. The language you use is persuasive, clear and alive with what motivates you to show up, speak out and act for nature. You talk about the places you love, your love for your children, or the solutions you know we can create.
You are intuitively using language that engages and inspires people to care and act.
Over the past year, ACF’s Narrative Project took a deep dive into understanding exactly how this works. And now I want to share a few insights.
Through this project, we reviewed the literature on persuasive and motivating communication. We researched the dominant stories told about our environment by industry, government, media and pop culture. We delved into how the way we talk can strengthen certain values that we all hold. And we ran focus groups and polled representative samples of both ACF supporters and the broader community.
We discovered that the old story of “man” and nature in Australia is dominated by colonial ideas about exploration, conquest, dominance and a battle with nature. In this story, people are not a part of nature. Nature is either a resource for our use, or it is “over there” locked away. In this story, we must trade off nature for jobs or wealth. This story cannot imagine a world where nature and a rich life coexist. It is locked into the idea that life is a battle.
We want to tell a new story where people are part of nature — not apart from nature. We want to turn the story of division into one of connection. Life is not a battle. Life is all living things. In this story, wildlife, rivers, forest, people and oceans are part of an interconnected community of living things. It’s the web of life.
Life is also an experience. It’s the feeling the sand between your toes and drinking the fresh, forest-filtered water from your city tap. This story tangibly links our lived experience to our need to thrive with nature.
When we tested the language of this new story, people engaged strongly with these ideas and felt that they described a world they live in and a future they want to be part of.
It is very hard to enter the ideas of the new story when we use the language of the old story, which is why ACF is working hard to move beyond the language of “the battle.”
Telling a more generative story was engaging for both public audiences and ACF supporters. It intuitively made sense to them. Once people were immersed in the ideas of this story, they strongly rejected ideas based on selfishness, division and trade off.
Moving away from the “life is a battle” story does not mean we don’t hold to account the people who are deciding to destroy nature, pollute and send animals extinct. We will name what they do and who is doing it. The climate isn’t changing all by itself — a handful of big polluting companies are damaging it with their pollution. People caused our problems, and people can solve them.
Another story that it is important we tell is the story of collective action. Individual heroes will not solve our pollution and extinction crisis. It takes many of us working together. People know this intuitively, so a solutions story that focused on isolated, individual action is ultimately disempowering.
Our research showed that people believe we all share a responsibility to look after our air, water and wildlife. They know that government, business and the community are all important players. People think that government has a duty of care or a responsibility to protect nature. They feel that government has the most power, and business has a lot of power too. We are building up the story that the community has power too.
ACF is growing a passionate community for nature. It is growing fast. We meet, act and celebrate. Together, we connect landscapes and transform how we use energy. We sow the seeds of change.
This is a story of democracy. When communities are active and engaged, political parties and businesses are compelled to do the right thing.
This story can draw on history, when people have stood together and demanded what is right. People power gave women the vote. It stopped apartheid. It abolished slavery, even though the naysayers said it would ruin the economy. History shows, it is organised and mobilised people who create the change that improves lives and societies.
When we tell these stories of how people came together and solved problems before, it helps paint a pathway to action now.
It helps get over the sense of isolation and despair into more motivating emotions like urgency and connection. Hearing stories of how others learned to act, despite uncertainty, paints a picture in the listener’s mind of how action is possible, and how they too might act.
Together, we can grow a community that is strong enough to stand up to the power of big polluting companies and show our politicians that we, the people, care.
So let’s show up, speak out and act.
When we asked you what you wanted to be part of — a movement, a team, a network or a community — you overwhelmingly told us you wanted to be part of a community.
We also use language that speaks to our identity as citizens, not consumers. Citizens vote, participate in the community, look out for neighbours. Consumers are defined by one thing only: buying stuff. Reminding people of these identities literally creates different behaviours.
Framing people as consumers reduces environmental behaviours. In a fascinating experiment that shows the power of a single word, two groups of volunteers were given an identical task — to fill out a survey labelled either a Consumer Reaction Task or Citizen Reaction Task. The ‘consumers’ became more competitive and less likely to engage in collective action such as volunteering to join a group. They also conserved less water in a resource management game, and felt less personal responsibility for environmental problems.
The naysayers say people don’t care. Or if they do, it’s too late. We’re calling them out. People right across our wide, brown land care deeply — and they want to come together to create a brighter future.
Everywhere and every day, ordinary people are willing to transform inertia into action, isolation into connection and destruction into beauty.
The majority of people care about our living world, but in a strange twist, many people mistakenly think that others don’t.
In research by the CSIRO, people predicted 23% of Australians were of the opinion climate change isn’t happening, yet fewer than 8% actually hold that view.
Our opponents like to frame “greenies” as a fringe-dwelling minority. Actually, poll after poll shows, no matter who they vote for, the majority of Australians want a government with a plan to protect our wildlife, air and water. A majority of Australians think pollution is a problem and that polluters should be regulated.
An overwhelming 89% of people are concerned that “pollution and how we overuse our rivers, forests and oceans are threatening the health of people, cities and wildlife.”
During the research, we noticed that ACF supporters can fall into this trap of thinking we are a minority, struggling with a majority who don’t care. In our focus groups with ACF supporters, you talked about how if only you could make others understand what you know about what is happening to our environment, then they would care and act. But then the general public focus group would come in, and it quickly became apparent that they accepted the idea that a pollution and extinction crisis threatens life on earth.
They just didn’t know what to do about it. And many of the solutions they hear just don’t add up.
In a representative sample of Australians we polled, 74 per cent of people agreed, or strongly agreed that “the global pollution crisis is a threat to life. Clean energy is a key solution.” 21% were uncertain, but only 4.6% disagreed.
More recent polling indicates the proportion of Australians who are concerned or alarmed about climate change is growing.
Our challenge is not to convince people there is a problem. Our challenge is providing plausible pathways to action where people feel that they have a role to play.
For people who are uncertain, the best messenger will often be a trusted peer. Your family and neighbours will be more influenced by a conversation with you, than by anything an organisation tells them.
For the very small percentage of people who think that climate change is a global conspiracy and extinction is okay, don’t waste your time! Our task is too urgent to spend more years trying to convince people who don’t want to be convinced — especially when so many others are looking for solutions.
Our words, metaphors and narratives help us make sense of why we are here, what is important and where we are going. Stories make us feel emotion, which reminds us of our values. They convey the “fierce urgency of now” and describe the challenges and choices we face.
To solve our environmental challenges, we must fix the system, we must build people power, and we must change the framing story within which all this sits.
If we do this authentically, passionately and fearlessly, we will strengthen a set of core values burning bright in us all — connection, compassion, hope, generosity, creativity and love for our beautiful natural world.
Your story is part of this story. Your personal experiences can bring alive your motivation and courage for others. We invite you to own ACF’s story as your own too. Share it, tell it, speak out. And together we’ll create a tomorrow even more beautiful than today.
Want to know more?