The narrative we chose to tell the story of climate change
Will we die of burning, and skin peeling or will oxygen deprivation suffocate us before temperatures increase drastically?
Or will every prediction and expectation be thwarted and utopia lay before our eyes?
That is the question people ask when they hear about climate change. The future is not written despite the many narratives out there showcasing what route the future can head into. And yet we are impacted by narratives and stories showing how important they are in influencing people. The only problem we face in the 20th century is how we tell the story of climate change. If an optimistic future is shown, it takes away from the urgency of tackling climate change. However, if an apocalyptic future is shown, it adds to climate anxiety and demotivates people. Why should anyone do anything if they are told that the future is doomed no matter what is done?
The ClimateStory Lab Africa illustration by Brian Omolo
The struggle to predict the future of mankind has led people to turn to creative mediums to tell their stories, whether apocalyptic or utopian. Brian Omolo, an illustrator and teacher in Kenya, believes, “art is always a powerful tool to get people, to learn about things, to see things in a different way. And it sort of draws people in.”
As She Rises Podcast from the Wonder Media Network
It could be a more effective tool for visualising the future than any report in his opinion. Science has been around for years and yet warnings of the doomed future are still here. Grace Lynch, the host of As She Rises a podcast that brings stories and poems from indigenous women on the impact climate change has had on their communities and homes, had the idea of creating a podcast that came from a place of not connecting to science and numbers when communicating climate change. She says, “How do you always hear about climate change? It just was always through the lens of numbers. And as someone who doesn't find that as compelling, I found that, I just instead of engaging with climate change, which I knew I was supposed to do because I'm alive and aware. I just found myself really pushing back on it.”
It tells us that combining art and science may be one way to persuade change or to start conversing on the issues.
Many artists have taken to their mediums as a substitute for science to tell their stories and thoughts of the future. Nika, a graphic designer, wanted to show the problems and their severity of it in a poster format. He wanted to use his mediums to raise awareness as he believes that, “the more people will know about these problems, they will start talking about the problem and they will find the solutions.” His art tells a story, a narrative of the hurt climate change has caused. Stories have power that many don't realise. It can influence people’s futures and the choices they make. For Eren Can Ileri, activist and Financial Regulation Campaigner at Sunrise Project, “storytelling about a future that we want to live in could help convert people into activist advocates, people who cared, but also gave a counterfactual that yes, another world is possible.”
And yet some believe that dystopian narratives are essential in iterating the urgency of the situation. Eren says, “It's difficult to take an optimistic outlook when the stakes are so dire and the stories are so dramatic.” These are important to showcase why it’s crucial to tackle climate change now, less our future ends up as catastrophic as shown in these movies and books.
Artists like Midhun Suresh, have taken this catastrophic narrative and used illustrations to visualise how terrifying and cruel the future could be. He created a series of illustrations in a campaign format called Too Late- a series of illustrations demonstrating an alien invasion who were too late to conquer earth as its inhabitants have died due to climate change. His art shows a connection between climate change and human extinction by using a museum setting with human bones on display. Humans have now become the history to be looked at by another species who’ll write and analyse what humans did in classes learning about history. He says, “And somehow I was like looking at the link where I could connect climate change and human extinction together. That's why all the skeletons and this initially came to me.” Why were illustrations his medium to raise awareness about the issue? “Powerful images that speak about climate or like try to make them aware that, OK, this is part of your daily life.”
Dystopian narratives are a wake-up call to some. They could represent the severity and danger of the situation. Pedro Gonçalves, a freelance illustrator, focusing on the editorial and advertising markets, created illustrations of the Amazon Forest- an image of a hand holding a lit match, surrounded by smoke and burning trees. For him, the aim of the project, “is to be a reminder of the situation that we live in. A reminder that we cannot let the destruction of our planet keep happening, and the consequences of a future with climate change.”
Although this only increases climate anxiety. With everyone telling people the world will end in chaos due to climate change, how can they not be anxious? Most warnings say the same thing that he world is heading to a messy future that does not seem liveable.
Yanning Tan, a media and communication student, created a project called Climate anxiety, trying to portray the futility an individual may feel when tackling climate change. “It's a feeling that I myself have experienced - switching to metal straws or reusable mugs and shopping bags, for example, can feel like efforts that are far too minute to make a difference in the larger scheme of things, especially when the media is constantly portraying images of natural disaster or a sense of irreversibility surrounding climate change. When we look at these things, we get the sense that there's no stopping the process of climate change, that it's far too late, so we might wonder why we continue to try.”
Another narrative is then needed to display an alternate future we could encounter. The environment is stable, living conditions are safe and the climate around us is not going to harm us. A utopian outlook in the future is needed to remind people that there are people fighting climate change. Slowly change is made and one day all these grassroots efforts or policy changes will lead to a better future. For Eren, optimism is needed to “create an alternate storyline of the world that can be a demonstrating that another world can be possible.”
Hope is something many like Carolina Baumgarten, a comic artist, illustrator, and college instructor, felt when reading about Solarpunk- a genre of works that show an alternative future to climate change. One where communities work together, renewable energy is the source of energy globally and climate change was resolved many years ago.
Solarpunk inspired character created by Carolina Baumgarten
“It was definitely like a light at the end of the tunnel, and from then on I felt empowered to truly start my sustainable journey,” Carolina says as she found a way to pour her newfound and overwhelming feelings of hope and excitement into an illustration. Her name is Fig and Carolina hopes to explore her solarpunk-inspired character more. “I still have so much to figure out and learn about her.”
The Myconaut illustrated by Karl Schulschenk
Karl Schulschenk, a storyboard artist, concept designer, illustrator and art director, was also inspired by Solarpunk. He wanted to “highlight in the story to celebrate difference and to celebrate diversity, but to also encourage empathy and understanding.” Dystopian narratives can sometimes make people feel alone. His art was created to connect to people and remind them that there are people tackling climate change in their own way which one day could stop the dystopian narratives from coming true. Yet he didn’t want his work to be too optimistic. For him, “framing the future in a practical way, like embracing technology in a sustainable way, not completely disregarding or doing away with everything that we've engineered and created,” is important.
The narratives around us, the stories of hope and destruction may empower change or they may grow a sense of dread in the air. A tension that can’t spiral out of control. Ultimately a balance between utopia and dystopia is needed to keep us moving forward despite how uncertain the future may seem.
“Sometimes people need a reality check, but constant pain and hopelessness only lead to burnout. Cyberpunk has become more popular than ever, and I wonder if it’s because it matches with the mentality a lot of us have: the world is already going to shit, so I might as well just have fun while it lasts. So what happens when fun things also help the environment? There must be a balance between dystopian and utopian content. One wakes us up and the other keeps us going” (Carolina)
The future hasn’t been written yet and can still be changed. Both can inspire hope and change. Dissolution and abandoned homes, ruined cities and broken bones, forests extinct and life diminished can be the motivation for a future activist to want to ensure this nightmarish future never comes to pass. For another, green being the main colour palate in a drawing, words that tell of how flowers and grass are in abundance in man-made cities, new generations never having to see or experience what fossil fuel is and renewable energy is their new norm warms up the future activist inspiring them to try to bring this future to pass.
“The world needs affirmation of the seriousness of our situation, but we also need to face it optimistically and to improve the future” (Pedro)
Both narratives have the power to change things. Finding that middle ground in communicating and telling the story of climate change becomes necessary.
“It all comes down to narratives, the words and stories we choose to use to tell the story of crisis, of collapse, but also of hope, and optimism” (Eren)