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Stories Matter

Written by Karen O'Brien, Professor at University of Oslo




Imagine a group of young people sitting in a closed circle around a campfire. It’s 2050, and they are participating in a 5-day celebratory “wake for the planet.”  This gathering has taken place annually in sacred natural spaces around the globe since 2025, before many of them were born. The wakes serve as a vigil for all that has died, but also as a celebration of an emergence from a deep sleep. Jaina, the youngest in the group, gently lifts the heavy Coulter pinecone and speaks.

 “Once upon a time, there lived a society that vastly underestimated its potential to consciously transform itself and its systems. This society was spread across the globe, like a network of mycelium, but its members were unaware of their connection to each other and to nature. In fact, most of them stood by as mere observers, watching as the planet heated, as wildlife disappeared, as sea levels rose, and as a very small number of people grew incredibly wealthy by changing the global environment, without caring for the collective good of all sentient and non-sentient beings.”


The group let out a collective sigh,  but there were grins on their faces. The pinecone story was their favorite part of the ceremony .

“In those days,” Jaina continued, “people were convinced they were small, separate, and insignificant. They thought there was little they could do to make a difference. They did not think that they mattered.” Heads shook vigorously in disbelief, as participants tried to imagine their parents and grandparents once holding these thoughts.


“Back then, people had disconnected their minds from their hearts, and their hearts from their stories. Many believed that false narratives were true, so they became emotionally attached to divisive, fracturing, and polarizing words. They forgot that they were one, and that this oneness transcended time and space.”

Jaina finished her part of the story then passed the pinecone to the next person, who cradled its spiny scales and continued. It was a story of urgency and a story of hope. As the pinecone made its way around the circle, the full story emerged. It was, in the end, a love story of transformation, and it was now being told by people all over the world. Both the story and ritual were a reminder of  how wrong things could have gone. Not listening to the wisdom of nature, including themselves, and disregarding the power of community and connection nearly destroyed them. It was the story that saved them.


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Stories matter. They play a foundational role in cultures and societies. Everybody knows that we are a story-telling species. Stories transmit lessons about relationships, including our relationships to each other, to nature, and to the future. Knowledge and wisdom are embedded in the stories that we share, especially those that are passed down through families, groups, networks, and generations.


Some stories communicate timeless and universal themes such as courage, self-discovery, liberation, and love. Rich with symbolism, insights, and lessons, these stories are relevant to the past, present, and future. They can guide us through our contemporary challenges. For example, think about The Tortoise and the Hare, one of Aesop’s Fables that reminds us of the importance of being persistent and determined, rather than rushed and overconfident. This moral tale reminds us of the dangers of racing ahead with geoengineering solutions like solar radiation management to address global warming. Amidst the urgent calls for transformative change, it suggests wisdom in the steady pursuit of practical, political, and personal transformations that address the underlying causes of climate disruptions, biodiversity loss, poverty and inequality, and violent conflict. 

Stories also transmit the wrongs and injustices of the past, reminding us of the victors and victims, heroes and villains, us and them, right and wrong, and countless other binaries. They reveal the prejudices and stereotypes that prevailed in the past, which has often led to the trauma and pains that are waiting to be healed. Stories provide clear signs that societies and cultures are continually changing and evolving. For example, everyone has heard “damsel in distress” stories, where the helpless woman is saved by a knight in shining armor. Over time, such fairy tales have been replaced with stories that convey women as strong, capable, and resilient. Powerful.


It is tempting to look back upon our old stories with discomfort and a sense of shame or embarrassment, or to condemn the storytellers for holding narrow and limited perspectives.  Yet it is also possible to use these stories as inspiration, for they invite us to identify contemporary biases and the limits to our own perspectives. How will future generations hold us accountable for the limited perspectives that guide our actions and inactions? They may question why we distanced ourselves from the well-being of animals, plants, ecosystems, and future generations, treating other species as if they were insignificant and expendable. Perhaps they will shake their heads in dismay that we could not collaborate and shift the oppressive and destructive systems and cultures that were changing the climate, especially when we knew better. They will most certainly ask, why were we underestimating our collective capacity for social change?  What was our story?


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The stories we tell are interpretations of reality that are filtered through perceptions, bathed in emotions, and riddled with blind spots. Some of our stories are impactful and can drive positive change, whereas others may subvert or paralyze it. Or push us in the opposite direction, amplifying our tendencies to divide and destroy the very communities and ecosystems that are critical to our well-being. In a world where millions of stories are vying for attention and where disinformation is ubiquitous, how do we discern which stories are worth listening to, which ones we will share, and which ones we are ready to let go?

A first step is to listen deeply and take in what is happening in the world. When we read the news these days, the top stories convey a tragic sense that something is terribly wrong. The hottest year on record, again. Extreme heat in South Sudan, a severe drought in Afghanistan, wild and destructive fires in Canada, melting ice in Antarctica, and on and on. Scientists have been observing the patterns and connecting the dots for decades, and the implications for both our present and future are clear. A sense that we are diminishing and destroying the potential for life to thrive on Earth makes it easy to conclude that we have collectively “lost the plot.”


What does this mean? In relation to stories, losing the plot implies a lack of direction and loss of coherence in the overarching narrative. It reflects an awkward disconnect from the larger context. The global challenges we face today demand that we recognize this disconnect and tell stories that point us in the direction integrity and wholeness.


A first reaction is always, “easier said than done.” Yes, it is easier to tell stories of disconnection to fire up negative emotions, and we indeed need to give words to our grief and grievances. Drawing attention to present and future dystopias is an opportunity to hold ourselves and others accountable for the damages we have done to others, or that others have inflicted upon us. Stories of disconnection are often stories of responsibility, and they say a great deal about our ability, inability, or failure to respond.  


A second step is to recognize that telling stories with integrity involves being in integrity. This includes catching ourselves when our words do not resonate with what we care about for ourselves and for others – our deepest values.  It means recognizing that our connections are entangled in a larger context. To take care of the whole, we need to acknowledge it first. Integrity is, after all, the state of being whole.


Climate science has a lot to tell us about systems and relationships, and it reminds us that connections matter, whether through microscopic bacteria in soils that influence the carbon cycle, or through the regional impacts of the Arctic Oscillation teleconnection.  The impacts of climate change we experience across the globe and anticipate for the future are clear signs that it is time to listen, and to consciously choose a different story.


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We are all storytellers, and we are always contributing to a larger narrative, whether we tell our stories in conversations, through poems or short stories, through novels or works of art, or through films and documentaries. Stories collapse a world of possibility and potential into something material – with matter referring to both substance and significance.  Not every story that exists in our imagination must be told, and choosing which stories to tell and repeat is an act of responsibility.


The basis of our humanity lies in shared stories. We connect to each other through stories, and their shared meanings hold us together. We can heal ourselves and our environment through stories., including regenerative stories and collective action stories, inspiring stories of courageous individuals who challenged the status quo, and powerful stories of communities who acted with integrity and responsibility. We can also tell stories of our entangled future, and remind ourselves that we are creating the future right now.


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Looking back from 2050, young people sitting around campfires will likely be grateful to the storytellers who listened then spoke responsibly and with integrity, transmitting universal values and themes that could be embodied and expressed in the world through individual and collective actions. They will appreciate every story that broadened and deepened our understandings nature and the nature of reality.


Most of all, they will celebrate the love story of transformation that drove social change, leading to an equitable and just world where they and all life could thrive. As they pass around the pinecone, a symbol of human enlightenment, wisdom, and regeneration, young people will thank the generations ahead of them for recognizing that their stories mattered.



 

Karen O'Brien is an internationally recognized expert on climate change and society, focusing on themes such as climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation including how climate change interacts with globalization processes and the implications for human security. She is interested in how transdisciplinary and integral approaches to global change research can contribute to a better understanding of how societies both create and respond to change, and particularly the role of beliefs, values and worldview in transformations to sustainability. She is passionate about what potential there is in quantum social theory and the implications for climate change responses. She currently leads a Norwegian Research Council Topforsk project called AdaptationCONNECTS (Adaptation: Combining Old and New kNowledge to Enable Conscious Transformation to Sustainability), that aims towards developing new understandings of whether and how transformations can contribute to successful adaptation to climate change. She has been heavily involved in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Change Programmes and the transition to Future Earth, a 10-year global change research initiative. She is the co-founder and partner in cCHANGE, an Oslo-based company.  cCHANGE is a beacon for individuals and organizations seeking a new perspective, inspiration, knowledge, and tools on climate change and sustainability transformations.


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