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Environmental Storytelling

Two SXSW Eco panels, one 'Inconvenient Truth,' and unlimited possibilities for human stories inspiring green change

By Jessi Cape, Fri., Oct. 11, 2013

Sustainability Goes Viral! winner Follow the Frog
Sustainability Goes Viral! winner "Follow the Frog"

Once upon a time, Earth was in crisis.

The planet is at the center of countless stories, but precious few truly capture the heart of its people enough to spur action. Perhaps most crucial to the success of the story of the planet's fight for survival is an engaged audience. "When stories are told well about our issues, people wake up and care," said Chip Giller, founder of the popular green news website Grist, in his SXSW Eco panel earlier this week.

Storytelling is an integral part of human history. "We're hardwired to [tell stories]," Giller said, and we do it both to inform and to entertain. "Stories aren't just for fun ... Storytelling activates the brain," claims Giller. Yet the key to bigger reach is telling stories about people's involvement with green causes. "We love our critters, but guess what? Most 25-year-olds ... don't necessarily give a hoot about polar bears." No judgment passed, Giller said, but "we have to engage a new generation and broaden the movement. And in my mind, the story of the planet has become, and has to be even more, the story of people."

On Monday afternoon, the finalists of the Sustainability Goes Viral! Future360.tv short video competition put that theory into practice. Just as with written word, filmmakers must tell a story that resonates, especially in this field inundated with intense emotion, piles of data, and significant political and cultural ramifications. But the competition entrants' use of video – the most accessible medium – to tell those stories likely results in an eco-friendly story that sticks.

The films ran the gamut of genre and emotion, but most struck a chord with audiences by homing in on the story of one person or small group. As Giller put it, "We also think it's really important to put a human face on environmental problems and solutions." Citing the example of Sarah Silverman's viral YouTube campaign in 2008 to encourage senior citizens to vote, Giller explained a well-known theme with his claim that Al Gore's tour for An Inconvenient Truth was the most important way to associate a face with an environmental issue and story.

"The brilliance of Inconvenient Truth wasn't Al Gore's data. It really wasn't. It was seeing this dude ... schlep around the world giving this PowerPoint. It was about his obsession, his commitment, his weirdness for it that struck a chord with people," said Giller.

"You can't appeal to pure idealism all the time," Giller said. "You have to find a way to meet folks where they're at, and we are a people-obsessed people." Whether it is boiling down the cost of carbon on the individual wallet or pairing a poppy Jason Mraz song with clear-cut physical effects of sugar, the stories must incite and awaken. Tapping human emotion is also a critical component – getting the audience to shift in their seats.

Regardless of medium, though, an engaged audience will gladly spread the word for a good story. "When stories work at their best, and resonate, people will want to share them," Giller explained. And when it comes to green news, Grist and the Sustainability Goes Viral! contest give hope that an increase in action is just a click away.

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