Sometimes the buzzwords, newly coined phrases and terms that scientists use to describe environmental concepts and their research make it hard for us to understand what’s going on in the natural world. While that’s a problem that exists in many areas of academic work, it is particularly troublesome when it comes to climate change—a challenge that needs to be tackled with urgency.
As the planet warms and climate change problems increase, it becomes more important than ever for scientists to become more creative in relating the facts about their research in an engaging manner. We now know that communicating through specialist language is not adequately conveying the messages that all of us need to hear.
So, to start connecting with people in ways that will involve them and are a bit more playful, some scientists are making use of fairy-tale characters as metaphors to explain the policy challenges of renewable energy (as mermaids), car travel (as vampires) and plastic pollution (as witches).
And although it’s tempting to interpret this work as a trivialization of scientific research or, even, a patronization of potential readers, that is not the intention. The point is communicating information that’s vital for your life in a more accessible manner.
Will it work?
Fictional figures for the environment
In a paper titled Telling Tales: Communicating UK Energy Research through Fairy Tale Characters that was published in the July 2023 issue of the journal Energy Research and Social Science, researchers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the University of Manchester in Manchester, England, have sought to communicate typically complicated, environmental topics in evocative and engaging terms by using fictional characters—mermaids, vampires and witches—as metaphors.
Responding in their paper to some of the challenges of climate change, such as electricity generation, low-carbon transport and plastic pollution, the research team presents three “telling tales” that take inspiration from well-known fairy-tale characters to cast scientific research in a familiar but powerful light:
• Renewables are mermaids. While alluring and attractive solutions for increasing energy demands, renewables are a distraction from other important routes to net zero, such as demand reduction. Like mermaid figureheads on sailors’ ships, renewables should accompany our transition to net zero, but they should not be the only destination.
• Cars are vampires. Dangerous and deadly entities that suck the well-being from communities by dividing retail outlets and workplaces from homes, cars create lengthy commutes. Policymakers have, until now, waved garlic at them, to control how fast and where they travel, rather than reaching for the stake (to the heart) and reimagining everyday life without cars.
• Plastics are witches. Plastics are a complex category, and currently there’s a witch hunt against them. Though they can be harmful (for example, single-use plastics), they can also have “healing” properties (such as when used as durable and useful materials that can substitute for more damaging materials). The research team says that policymakers should work toward systems of reuse to maximize the benefits of plastics, rather than simply demonizing them in general.
Having developed these tales, the scientists worked with an illustrator to create a range of expressive images.
Transformational adaptations for the climate
This new, Energy Research and Social Science paper is a response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) call for “transformational adaptation,” a strategy that aims to reduce the root causes of vulnerability to climate change in the long-term by shifting systems away from undesirable or unsustainable paths.
The concept of transformational adaptation is frequently contrasted with incremental adaptation and is characterized by: 1) system-wide change or changes across more than one system; 2) a focus on the future and long-term change; and 3) direct questioning of the effectiveness of existing systems, power imbalances and social injustices.
For example, farmers can replant damaged crops (a coping strategy), build irrigation systems to reduce future risks of crop failure (incremental adaptation), or fundamentally change the characteristics and properties of land use through the adoption of agroforestry or reforestation (transformational adaptation).
In Telling Tales: Communicating UK Energy Research through Fairy Tale Characters, the authors outline alternative policy approaches for the types of shifts that we need right now:
• Renewables, though important, are not the only measure required by a future of fossil-free electricity generation. Demand reduction, though a less attractive solution, must be considered to ensure this future is possible.
• Cars are known to be dangerous and deadly, yet we have designed daily life and society around their use. More stringent measures will be required when thinking of what role they should play in future societies.
• Plastics are currently demonized. Plastics are not to blame as much as the systems of production, consumption and disposal that they are tied up with are. Policies should encourage systems of reuse to maximize their benefits, rather than simply stating that, in general, they are all bad.
Scintillating science stories for the future
Communicating in new and intelligible ways that combine the complexity of scientific research with inspiring stories is important. There’s a real urgency now for transformative responses to climate change. But the types of change we need won’t be made if they’re too hard to understand by those who hold the power to do so.
The authors hope their new concept will inspire the scientific community to communicate energy-based, social science research in more digestible forms. This summer, they plan to hold an online workshop with other researchers and illustrators to develop and extend their cast of fairy-tale characters.
Their hope is that by moving research findings beyond academic circles to policymakers and popular audiences, all of us will want to help bring about the modifications required.
A fairy tale can be a story involving fantastic forces or beings that culminates in a moral—or a narrative in which what once-were-thought-to-be improbable events eventually lead to a happy ending.
I do hope that in the case of how we ultimately decide to deal with climate change, it’s the latter.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,