Stories of transition: lullabies and S.O.S. signals
Tessa de Geus has concluded her first 100 days as a transitions researcher at DRIFT. Over the last few months, she has used her fresh perspective to ask as many questions as possible about transition studies. In this short series she addresses three questions that stand out. In her previous blog she discussed how transitions studies might learn from traditions. You’re reading blog #2 on stories in transitions.
There’s a heatwave going on in the Netherlands. It’s our second one this year: climate change is rearing its ugly head. We hit the highest temperature ever measured in our country at a staggering 40.7 degrees Celsius. Water shortage is looming, heat stress poses a serious health risk, and livestock as well as wild animals are suffering, pushing some species to extinction in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, as Freek Bersch of Friends of the Earth Netherlands noted on Twitter, the main Dutch newspapers are showing us pictures of people at the beach, kids enjoying ice creams and people jumping off a diving-board into an azure colored pool. Exactly what story is being told here?
How to tell the story of the sustainability transition is one of the main questions that kept returning during my first few months as a researcher at DRIFT. What importance does storytelling have within transition studies, and what transition stories do we witness on the everyday news?
Stories: light, glue and web
Stories feed us meaning. As eloquently explained by Ella Saltmarshe, stories can fulfill the role of ‘light, glue, and web’. Stories are light, illuminating new and old paths; stories are glue, tying us together in communities; and stories are the web in which we make sense of ourselves and the culture we grew up in.
‘I think there is a potential to link the importance of storytelling to the academic discipline on which DRIFT was founded.’
Many of the stories we encounter are grounded in particular interests and ideology. As media scholar Dan-Hassler Forest explains in this lecture by drawing on Adorno’s theory of culture industry, iconic stories such as the Lion King are actually reflections or proxies of ideas on how the world works. Hassler-Forest gives the example of the Lion King, the movie that assures us that subverting ourselves to one totalitarian leader is the only way to safeguard peace and stability (read the full article).
I think there is a potential to link the importance of storytelling to the academic discipline on which DRIFT was founded. Transition studies explores ways to accelerate or steer transitions. It provides a way for people working on transitions to zoom out, take in a greater perspective of the scale, longevity and systems approach of transition processes, and return to their work with an improved sense of purpose and direction. I wonder how processes such as the demise of institutions or the rise of niches (see my previous blog, fig. 1) are expressed in the stories we see around us? Below I discuss a selection of narratives that I have come across over the past few months: from the lullaby, optimist rally to S.O.S. signal.
The corporate and technocratic lullabies
Transition lullabies seem to come in different shapes and sizes; I call them lullabies because they all share the feature of soothing us to sleep rather than mobilising climate action, as well as playing down the urgency of climate deterioration.
The first variation is the corporate lullaby: incumbent players from the fossil era telling stories to sooth people. Everything will be just fine. KLM launched its beautifully crafted ‘Fly responsibly’ campaign last month, urging consumers to pack lightly and sometimes take the train as a way to prevent catastrophic climate change. Righteous, perhaps, but all the while KLM is also pushing up flight frequencies by 25% between India and Europe, investing in a ‘strategic market’ at the brink of entering aviation travel (i.e. many of the 1.3 billion Indians).
‘The first variation is the corporate lullaby: incumbent players from the fossil era telling stories to sooth people.’
Another example of a corporate lullaby: Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden sitting down with us in a video, informal and not wearing his tie, assuring us that Shell is by no means greenwashing, and that we will globally come to meet the Paris agreement. The underlying message is clear: ‘We are going to meet the Paris goals, so don’t worry, we will guide you through this transition.’ On what facts Van Beurden bases his statements remains unclear.
Another variation on this theme are political lullabies. With the publishing of the Climate Law (‘Klimaatwet’) in the Netherlands, there was little left of the grandeur that the coalition had initially promised. In fact, the seemingly ‘strategic’ downplaying of the climate measures allegedly served the purpose of not ‘scaring away’ voters with a message of radical transition. In this op-ed in one of the main Dutch newspapers, two scholars argue that the Climate Law for The Netherlands is characterized by the lack of a coherent narrative that could trigger the collective imagination and tie people together. As such, it does not offer an appealing vision of the future and it merely represents an ‘arrangement of goals and measures’. The authors argue that the most distressing aspect of the Climate Law is the governments – seemingly – oblivion to the need for creating such a uniting vision.
‘The seemingly ‘strategic’ downplaying of the climate measures allegedly served the purpose of not ‘scaring away’ voters.’
Part of this political lullaby is the issue of technocratic jargon. Let’s be honest: to a normal human being, explanations about district heating, heating pumps, or peakshaving, are boring to listen to. Starting as a researcher in the energy transition, I found many discussions to be unnecessarily technocratic, while the actual content is fascinating. In the energy transition, we hardly ever manage to transcend such technocratic descriptions of transition plans. In her op-ed, Copernicus Institute scholar Annick de Witt argues that rather than focussing on technocratic terms, the focus should instead be on tangible nature-based solutions that improve peoples’ living environment instantly, such as planting new trees. This way, people will respond more positively towards climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Allegedly however, some have argued that making the energy transition seem overly complicated and having people feel obtuse, might actually provide top-down energy providers with more strategic legitimacy to take the steering wheel, rather than opt for bottom-up solutions that put citizens at the heart of the discussion.
‘The biggest danger is not our inaction. The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening.’
Greta Thurnberg summed up the risks of the lullaby-narratives powerfully in her address to the Assemblee Nationale: “Only setting up these distant dates and [giving] the impression that things are being done and that action is on the way will most likely do more harm than good. (…) The biggest danger is not our inaction. The real danger is when companies and politicians are making it look like real action is happening while in fact nothing is being done, apart from clever accounting and creative PR.”
The optimist rally
On the side of climate organisers, the positive ‘optimist rally’ has for long been an important strategy, to prevent climate messages from sounding too alarmist. Organisations like Urgenda work hard to demonstrate and prove how a turnaround is concretely possible to reach the Paris agreement, for instance by proposing a plan of 40 measures that could be implemented on the short term to reduce CO2 emissions. Internationally, the documentary Tomorrow is an example of an optimist rally that unlocked a grassroots movement in France through its positive approach and uplifting account of people taking charge of changing systems. Indeed, research conducted by Climate Outreach confirms that images of ‘solutions’ to climate change generates largely positive response from people across the political spectrum.
‘The positive ‘optimist rally’ has for long been an important strategy, to prevent climate messages from sounding too alarmist.’
A Dutch journalist took it to himself to reframe the climate debate (Dutch only), that according to him all too often focuses on ‘losing’ privileges like eating meat and flying. Rather, he argued, the story of sustainability has to be one of improved lives for everyone: sustainability as a resource for universal progress. The message throughout the optimist rallies is the same: the emphasis is on what opportunities the sustainability transition creates, rather than on what happens if we fail to act. Others however, take a different approach, arguing that the optimist rally is too naive in its emphasis on a happy end.
The U.K. declaring a climate emergency, the protests by students across Europe, as well as Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience, might signal the story of emergency becoming increasingly mainstream. The article Deep adaptation by Jem Bendell and the book Uninhabitable earth by David Wallace-Wells have stressed how too many stories about climate change refrain from describing in detail how extreme climate conditions will destabilise our societies, leading to the collapse of ecosystems and civilisations. Although they too lobby for systems change, they also acknowledge that we have to prepare for what is to come in a terrifying future and that projections about the future have been too mild up until now. The question remains whether instigating fear for the climate changing will incite the rapid action needed.
‘There are two sides to the S.O.S. signal coin: Trump, Farrage, and Le Pen are no strangers of using the emergency strategy against climate change mobilisation.’
There are two sides to the S.O.S. signal coin: Trump, Farrage, and Le Pen are no strangers of using the emergency strategy against climate change mobilisation. Fueling concerns by social movements such as the yellow vests, they argue that climate measures pose a threat to the stability of peoples’ lives. It is a battle between two opposing narratives seemingly drawing on the same mobilising factor: fear and concern for the welfare of people. Whereas the latter negates scientific consensus, it is still a narrative that needs to be reckoned with.
Untold stories and telling our own
Next to shedding light on the narratives that underlie discussions on transitions, we also need to increase our awareness of the stories we do not hear in transitions. Those who have a stage to share their stories determine what stories shape society. Creating a wider diversity of stories to include people from across society is key for social justice in transitions. Where you come from matters for what stories you will tell.
‘A better understanding of storytelling, those who tell them and the anticipated audience would greatly benefit how science is embedded in society.’
For our own work, we also have the opportunity to reflect on how we present the results of our work and who we want to reach with our message. A better understanding of storytelling, those who tell them and the anticipated audience would greatly benefit how science is embedded in society and can contribute to informing responses to societal challenges. Diving into these questions, together with expanding my understanding of the narratives outlined above will be an important challenge for me as a transition scholar.
Do you want to continue reading about my insights and experiences? Read blog 3 on the paradox of time in transitions!
Want to know more about transitions studies or the work I do at DRIFT? Write me message email@example.com, check out my profile, or read about our consultancy, academy and research work.
July 25, 2019