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A tale about telling stories about a climate-neutral future

Speech by Per Grankvist at CPH:DOX 2024 - Climate Story Lab



Once upon a time, a little boy grew up on a farm in southern Sweden. He lived there with his father, who raised pigs, and his mother, who had many dogs and ducks. Every night before bedtime, his mother would read him stories about various animals. The boy soon noticed that all stories started the same way: “Once upon a time,” and ended the same way: " And then they lived happily ever after.”

But the reading stopped one day, only briefly before he turned five. It so happened that he had cracked the code of reading and no longer needed his mother's assistance - he was soon reading every book he could get his hands on.

One day, some years later, he discovered that stories about families may start similarly but do not always end with them living happily ever after. His parents told him that they were having a divorce, so the boy and his mother had to leave the farm and move to a nearby town. They settled into a small house, and since it was just behind the local bookshop, he was happy again.


*


This is how the story of my life began, and like any story, it draws you in. As soon as you heard me utter the words once “upon a time,” you knew the format and what to expect. The built-in promise of a happy ending will keep you engaged; you stick around to see what happens, and often, the story will teach you something about life along the way.


Joan Didion writes that we tell ourselves stories to live. However, we also tell stories to understand because there is no more effective way of transmitting knowledge than through stories. Our brains are not information-processing machines, as we often like to think, but story-processing organisms. That is why we find it frustrating to listen to people who cannot tell stories or pile one fact after another on top of each other. Our brains are protesting.


When it comes to our personal story, we hope that it will end happily and that we will live a long life. But of course, we never really know for sure.

As the saying goes, we live our lives forward but only understand them backwards. That’s why it’s so hard to talk about the future.

As we move through life, we accumulate events, thoughts, and feelings into an emotional library that we can use to understand the world a little better. The older we get, the easier that is. We could use our experience of the past to understand the future as long as the story about the future involves something we can relate to.


The problem is that most stories about the future are not relatable but boring and confusing. They tell one fact after the other, and the story will not end happily for us. People keep saying everything will be different because it needs to be different. Climate scientists have told us our lives need to change if we want to live happily ever after. We are constantly told that we will have to stop eating burgers and give up our cars, but what if what makes you happy is dining and driving? You will get sad, mad - or both. You will resent the facts, resist the change, and fight the future like it would be the dragon in a bedtime story.


*


Once upon a time, a beautiful Swedish innovation program faced a challenge.

The program was called Viable Cities, and it was the princess of all publicly funded programs in the country. It also had the most ambitious goal—to make 20+ cities climate-neutral by 2030, twenty years ahead of the European Union. Since everybody admired the beautiful program, the EU said it also wanted to make cities climate-neutral, just like Sweden. Hence, the EU created an attractive program of its own to make 100 cities climate-neutral.


At this time, Viable Cities realised that facts were insufficient to change people's behaviours and that many resisted change, which was the challenge. By now, the little boy who grew up on the farm—that was me—had grown up, and the beautiful program asked me to become the hero in this story by finding a way to tell people about the future that did not seem as frightening as a dragon.


In a way, the polarisation of the climate issue is a problem as big as the climate issue itself. If we cannot agree on a solution, we cannot solve the climate problem. Because of how brains work, we cannot reach a consensus and change behaviours just by referring to science. But fiction can.


As I joined Viable Cities, I wondered if science fiction may hold the key to explaining the future in a way that does not feel threatening but exciting and engaging. As science fiction writer William Gibson once said, the future is already here, only unevenly distributed. Five years later, the result is a strategic consensus-building framework for describing the future using a storytelling approach inspired by science fiction and applied to the city planning process.


The framework is not the result of academic research but years of on-the-ground studies in several Swedish cities, interviews with citizens and policymakers, and local pilots trying to shape public policy. The framework is called “Welcoming our common future” because that is what we must do. We can only go forward. If you are a city planner or anyone else trying to make a change, here are the stories you need to tell and how to structure those stories.


The framework's first condition is that for someone to adjust their behaviour, they must feel that there is a place for their identity, even in the future. Identity is key.

For decades, oil workers in Norway were told they were the backbone of their society. However, recently, they feel that their work has gone from a high to a low status and that they are perceived as enemies of the planet. To get on board, they must find identity not as oil workers but as energy workers. They must understand that their expertise is still valuable in other parts of the energy sector and will help the transition.


In the words of the German philosopher Jaeggi, ‘We are “caught” in roles and shaped by them. ' However, as a set of rules instructing our actions, roles are also malleable. By taking up roles and actively appropriating and interpreting them according to our reflexivity, we simultaneously affirm ourselves as social beings and modify the script of our roles.


That’s why it is important to stress that most of our lives will remain unchanged in the future, even in a zero-carbon economy, to make the future seem less terrifying. As Gibson put it, the future is already here but unevenly distributed. People are already living a good life within planetary boundaries today, and we can learn from them.


*


The second condition is that quality of life must be the focus, not low emissions. This reflects the truth that everybody cares most about their lives and the well-being of themselves and their loved ones. You can still eat hamburgers and own a sports car if that is something you like, although the burger might be plant-based and the car electric in the future.


Of course, it stresses the importance of identity and what makes life worth living. Too often, we oversell the future as a green utopia where everybody is young, healthy, reasonable, and kind. And that’s not something most of us can relate to.

If you remember the science fiction movie “The Fifth Element” by Luc Besson, you know what to expect. There may be flying cars, but you can still laugh, love, drink, and smoke—even simultaneously! Plenty of people will lie, cheat, and steal; oddly, that is reassuring because that is something you’ve experienced before. Most of the future will be the same. You will still be able to have a hamburger at McDonald’s that is so saturated with fat that it can kill you, even though it’s made of plants.


Think about it: Most of your life today is the same as before the iPhone, even though it was introduced as revolutionising the world. We should not oversell the future, promising people that everything will be perfect or that they will grow up to marry a princess. That is unlikely to happen.


The third condition is that the story is emotionally true, locally relevant, and scientifically accurate so that the audience cares enough about it to consider changing their behaviour meaningfully. As I was watching the science fiction movie Wall-E by Pixar Animation Studios with my kids, I realised how moved I was by the story and how weird that was. On a high level, it’s a movie about the loss of humanity through consumerism, but that’s not something you realise from the start.


You get a story about the love between a garbage-compacting robot and a droid, set hundreds of years into the future, without dialogue between the main characters. No one speaks for the first 40 minutes or so! Still, there are scenes where tears will fall down my cheek every time. Why? Because they are emotionally true. I recognise their feelings, allowing me to relate to this dystopian future, even though I haven’t experienced it.


I tested the theory this last weekend for scientific purposes, and yes, I cried this time, too. That’s why any story about the future needs to be emotionally true. It needs to move us and needs to make us care. Your story also needs to be locally relevant. Climate change is a global phenomenon, but its implications can only be understood locally. It’s the law of proximity; the closer something feels, the more attention we pay. To describe the future, you must convey locally relevant details that make people relate to it.


Little Red Riding Hood may not qualify as science fiction, but it still has an important lesson. To understand the significance of local adaptation, I studied several language versions of the book and paid close attention to the forest.

In the Swedish and Finnish Versions, the forest is thick, made of pine and fir, and the wolf is grey and mean. In the French version, however, the forest is made of oak, and the wolf has a beige fir. It is arrogant and smokes Gouloise. “Where are you going, to your grandmother, non?” In Spain, the forest is an olive grove, and the wolf takes long naps in the middle of the day.


My point is that it seems like children across Europe have no objection when they are told a wolf can do a convincing drag of an old lady, but if they do not recognise or relate to the forest in the background, they will throw the book out of the window.


Finally, we must be scientifically accurate when we tell stories. After all, facts are essential, but we shall not fool ourselves into thinking they are enough. Remember Ibsen's play “The Enemy of the People”, where Doctor Stockmann discovers the water in a small Norwegian village is poisoned. Once he reveals it and presents the facts, he expects to be celebrated as a hero by all, but instead, he meets with fierce resistance from his neighbours.


“If the public baths are being closed because of this, what should I do?” someone who identifies as a bath owner asks. “What will happen to the local economy?” someone else thinking about the local relevance asks. Nobody takes Stockmanns side even though he is scientifically accurate. Spoiler alert: That story does not end with them living happily ever after.


Emotionally true, locally relevant, and scientifically accurate are the keys to telling stories about the future if you make people care. But if you are in a hurry, making it emotionally true matters the most. Then, you have to consider the importance of identity and put quality of life at the centre. Only when all conditions are met can consensus be built around public policies shaping our shared future. The framework acknowledges that there is no such thing as a single story about the future in the city and that the storyteller needs to be someone they trust. If so, my framework has proven to de-escalate political conflict and ideological divisions.


*


Once upon a time in the future, there will be a place for you and everyone you care about. You will recognise most of it. You will be able to be who you are and do most of the things you already love, even though some things will be done differently. There will be burgers, cars, beer and football. And sushi, bikes, wine and opera, for that matter.


Life is not predictable or perfect. There will be anger and agonies, divorces and deaths, and you will be tested again and again. Eventually, you will learn that what makes you happy are the variations and the little things in life. We know this because people in this city already live like this. That’s why I know that in the future, you can make ends meet and meet new friends, laugh and get laid, have dinners and go dancing, share our burdens and joys, watch movies and sleep under the stars. These are things that make life worth living. That’s the kind of happy life we all long for, and there are already people living it today in our cities.

Using our framework has proven effective in getting people to welcome our common future, build consensus about where we need to go and what the future will feel like today, and have reasonable expectations of happiness.

It reminds us of how my mother finished all those bedtime stories and what everybody wants to hear at the end of the day.

“And then they lived happily ever after.”


Thank you.





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