Stories inspire change, facts seldom do.
This is An "Act of Leadership" logged by The Xylom's Founder and Editor Alex Ip as a Climate Reality Leader. He has been trained by former US Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore in Atlanta, GA, March 2019.
Parents pride themselves on remembering their children’s “firsts.”
The first time they walked, their first day of school, their first concert, or their first race. I clearly remember my daughter’s first nordic ski race. I think she was one of the last three to cross the finish-line but nothing made me prouder on that bluebird sky winter day than seeing her persevere and ultimately reach her goal.
We celebrated her first race with a maple creemee, an iconic Vermont treat that the family-run Morse Farm had been offering up for generations along with a side of outdoor trails and nordic skiing. This beloved community business is a fixture in Montpelier with both visiting tourists and residents eager to taste their maple treats and enjoy the farmscape in all its seasons. Hundreds, if not thousands, of children, have had their first ski race at Morse Farm, and many more have learned to glide across its groomed snowy paths. But what we didn’t know at the time of one of our daughter’s “firsts” was that it was going to be a “last” for Morse Farm and its ski trails. The following autumn as the fall colors spread across our landscape so did the news:
“After much soul-searching and deliberation, we’ve concluded that Morse Farm will no longer offer ski touring. Climate change has not been our friend. The 17 years we’ve worked at this has provided some of the most memorable winter experiences any of us have known and we are incredibly grateful we were able to fulfill an important part of our original mission by providing a healthy-happy outdoor community experience for Central Vermont. For the project to work we needed bad weather years to be the exception. Unfortunately, now the good years are the exception. To reliably deliver the minimum level of skiing, staff, equipment, and maintenance the ski area requires is simply more than the climate is now offering in snow.”
A local business was changing and a community resource disappearing because of climate change. In a state like Vermont with a robust outdoor recreational economy built on the promise of snow for half the year, this was a sober harbinger. As the more sophisticated downhill ski areas grow more dependent on snowmaking technology, what did this mean for our small community based outdoor centers that had to weather the ups and downs of increasingly volatile winters?
As concerning as it is to hear about glacial melt or disappearing pacific islands, sometimes the news needs to be more local and more relevant to sound the alarm that these changes are not taking place continents or oceans away but that irrevocable changes are being felt everywhere in ways big and small. We must search for, identify, collect, and amplify these stories over and over again to create a new shared story about a changing environment and our role in it.
We so desperately want facts to convince and convert but they don't have the same power as a story to impact our perceptions and behaviors. Research proves this to be true. The dirty work of decision making doesn't take place in the rational more evolved side of the brain but in the more primitive recesses of our emotional limbic and reptilian brains. Stories inspire change, facts seldom do.
Stories also build trust—signaling to audiences that we share similar values and universal concerns. A business owner can empathize with another business owner about losing revenue. A farmer can relate to thin profit margins further exacerbated by weather. A parent can easily share in another parent’s disappointment about a lost opportunity for their child. Climate change isn’t the starting point of the story, but the story is the entry point to a conversation about the impacts of climate change.
As we further retreat to our fragmented ideological corners, stories hold the potential to build bridges between our shared experiences and to reveal what we keep forgetting, that more unites us than divides us. But the question remains, can we pen new conclusions to these narratives? Do we simply remain passive bystanders to the climate storyline or do we see ourselves as protagonists in the stories or maybe even heroes? The more the audience sees themselves within the story, the greater the opportunity for action.
We must search for, identify, collect, and amplify these stories over and over again to create a new shared story about a changing environment and our role in it.
I would like the opportunity to re-write the ending to Vermont’s Morse Farm story that reads: “As the beloved business shuttered its trails to local schools for ski races, the community realized it needed to do its part to protect its winters for future generations. As a first step, the neighboring school districts banded together in an ambitious plan to electrify their school bus fleets after they learned that Vermont’s transportation footprint is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in their state.”
While this remains fiction, for the time being, the involvement of Vermont’s Republican administration in the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) to improve transportation, develop the clean energy economy and reduce carbon emissions, is not. But it is a work in progress with draft recommendations being released in December 2019 with a goal of adoption by 2022.
Will this policy action make it successfully to the finish line? Time to get our stories ready to help craft a new chapter.