Lucy Emerson-Bell: Dangerous Narratives and How They Affect You (And Our Planet)

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, “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 23 states experiencing a “national emergency” this summer due to drought and more than 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.

However, the underlying reason behind these record-breaking weather 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 caused or natural) was ignored, despite a Nobel prize-winning scientist finding strong links. In the absence of a story from the Obama administration on sustainability, the media and other information channels fill the vacuum with their own stories which are often produced for a commercially defined agenda.

To be fair to the media, global warming and related sustainability stories are complex and not easy to tell. Environmentalists, politicians, scientists, economists and skeptics seem locked in a permanent battle across the “information commons.” Despite progress in some areas, an ugly truth lurks behind the general discourse on the global environment.

Even with current advances in clean technology, biodegradable 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 reinforce our cultural and societal norms. For example, we are constantly exposed to stories that praise the automobile, highlight the importance of polluting industries to the economy, or that mass-produced processed food is faster, cheaper and a better value. “Stories” like McDonald’s and sponsoring the London Olympics are inherently unsustainable in the long term. They will only last as long as resources (meat production) are available to support the unsustainable social norms they validate. Yet we continue to tell these stories to ourselves despite the mass of evidence that suggests this the wrong direction for our civilization.

We see these dominant 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 or Nissan Leaf that is advertised, 10 SUV commercials are aired. For every farmers market, there are 10 junk-in-a-box billboards across town.

We should be concerned that that unsustainable stories have formed a powerful hegemonic discourse that have legitimized a trajectory to an uninhabitable planet. But changing the story in advance of an 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 — do we dare regulate the validity of large amounts of information and stories currently being distributed to the general public? How can we discriminate between healthy and dangerous stories? Why is the silence from our political leaders so deafening?

One explanation could be the influence of John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) and Ayn Rand. Both believed in humans as self-interested, rational individuals that maximize the best personal outcome without interfering with the happiness of others. Their theories on rational decision-making pervade many aspects of the Western world, with Romney’s vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan extolling the virtues of Rand’s ideas. It is true that civilization depends partly on our ability to make rational 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 interest, pursuing policies 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? Why is rationality failing?

To make a rational decision one must be sufficiently informed. Thomas Jefferson said, “Democracy demands an educated and informed electorate,” and Western culture places a high value on education. But we are 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, causing society to make the wrong decision?

A recent BBC documentary called The Men Who Made Us Fat highlighted unscrupulous advertising techniques used to sell unhealthy food to children. Father of public relations Edward Bernays became an expert in linking advertising of products to human fears and desires. One trick is to frame information within the cultural values of one’s audience in order to persuade them to accept an unsustainable status quo. It seems anyone with good public relations skills could literally sell “fridges to Eskimos.”

As previously mentioned food is a key area where dominant narratives are defined through advertising, PR and the media. Large portions of cheap, corn syrup-laced food are promoted as great tasting and value for money, even though we “know” the negative externalities of this kind of consumption. These companies simply shift the burden of responsibility to the consumer to make a rational choice for their own interest. A little unfair considering the power of their stories in setting social norms? And in a fitting example, Michelle Obama has acknowledged the critical role of the media in this regard when she helped lobby media companies like Disney to reduce unhealthy food advertising to children. Sadly there is not a rush to join Disney’s efforts from others.

Arguably the most dangerous narratives being perpetuated are the dominant stories told about the environment. The media’s inconsistent use of multiple, competing, and tangential narratives produces a broad cultural inertia — relegating what should be high on our agenda to the bottom of our voting priorities. 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. We don’t do ourselves any favors by constantly reinforcing these cultural biases by and listening stories that support current unsustainable cultural norms. But if the media makes greater profits from conflict narratives that sensationalize cultural battles between two opposing sides, they will. The media is comprised of major corporations with legal obligations to shareholders to maximize profit. But their money and influence perpetuates an unsustainable use of resources and a complete disregard for limits. How do we counter their power? How can we tell a different story?

For the public to accept a different narrative, it will require a lot more than simply telling the truth. The new narrative must resonate with people and their values. When Obama wanted to justify raising taxes on the rich he faced a problem. The dominant narrative in the U.S. maintained 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 dominant narrative 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 once it was disputed by someone with credibility and legitimacy. The source was someone from within America’s wealthy culture, not a legislator nor an advocate from the outside. Buffet had the courage to stand up and make a sacrifice in the interest of the greater good. And it seems to have worked.

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 ask to be taxed for their usage of the global commons? Could this shift the stories of sustainability and climate change into more “normal” positions?

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? Or to 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 wildfires? If cultural elites stood up to pay this tax, we might just break the hegemonic position of unsustainable narratives in our civilization.

What we desperately need is new leaders that can renew the story of Western civilization and effectively counter the narratives that threaten our survival. Obama was right, we need a compelling story and the storytellers courageous enough to renew our cultural and social norms. Who out there is ready and willing to step up?

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 about to begin an mPhil at Cambridge University in Modern Society and Global Transformations.

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.