July 10th, 2012


Researcher, Stanford

Cinematographer, Last Call at the Oasis

CEO, Free Range 


Are facts more compelling than stories? Regarding climate change, we might know who the villains are, but who are the iconic heroes? And what stories will motivate people to action?

Jonah Sachs, co-founder of Free Range Studios and author of Story Wars, believes that we’re driven by myths rather than facts. He tells the story of James Hansen, who in the late 1960s was one of the first individuals to investigate global climate change. “He felt that if he could simply turn the information over, everyone would act. That it would be unseemly to do anything else.” The response to his facts was mass denial. Why? It was too difficult to do anything about it. Then came stories from the opposition, primarily the fossil fuel industry, to cast doubt on his findings. More recently, Hansen has stated that facts cannot rule the day and we have to tell a story about what climate change means. 

Jon Else, director of the Documentary Program at UC Berkeley and producer of the film The Island President, among others, agrees that facts alone cannot win the day in a democracy. We need powerful images. In referring to the Civil Rights movement, he said that the facts were known for a long time, but it wasn’t until we had the image of Rosa Parks sitting on the bus that we had policy change. “One of the problems with climate change, and especially with Hansen’s early work, was that no one ever succeeded in tying that to a dog going after a demonstrator and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama.” There are few powerful images such as glaciers, melting icebergs. But nothing “hot.” 

According to Carrie Armel, director of Sensor & Behavior Initiative at Stanford University, people can’t visualize what’s going to happen well into the future and they’re much more affected by immediate experiences and visualizations. She speaks of different levels of knowledge—things that are hardwired, things that are learned through associations, and lastly, the facts behind them. “The more degrees of separation, the less real, the less tapping into the visceral motivational associations there are.” 

Regarding stories, Sachs pointed to a current theme of environmentalists, that every time we get on a plane or get in our car, we’re planet wreckers. “We need a new story that is not ourselves because it is not working.” 

Else related that to a successful commercial in the 1970s that showed a Native American paddling his canoe and pulling it to a shore littered with waste. The message was that individuals make the pollution and individuals can stop pollution. “That shifted the blame to all of us who throw litter out of our cars, and it ignored the enormous production of carbon in fossil fuel plants just off camera.” He called it “a cover for the enemy.” 

Sachs added that it was a campaign designed by beverage and container makers who didn’t want to see deposit laws on bottles. They said, hey, here’s a new idea: it’s not our problem. “It’s the most iconic environmental campaign of all time, incredibly effective because it was an amazing story.” 

Can regular people be heroes? Armel told of the work she is doing at Stanford, identifying actions individuals can take to reduce energy use. Using behavioral techniques, she is studying ways to empower people through the metaphor of hero. The messages currently out there about climate change are mostly negative. “We realized that this whole movement is unempowering people.” When people are unempowered and feel they can’t take action. “A common reaction is denial.” 

According to Sachs, people who are engaged in doing something that matters tend be more joyful in their lives. “I think that a story that needs to come forth is credible and joyful rebellion against this problem.”