Now five decades old, the modern American environmental movement began in the 1960s and was sanctioned as an official epoch in 1970 with the creation of Earth Day by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Since then, environmentalism has fluctuated in popularity; but by the 1990s, it had become somewhat trendy again.
In 2019, though, a young, Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg gave environmentalism a jump start. Her concerns about climate change infused the movement with a new urgency. Via her social media networks, Greta reached millions of people; and her Fridays for Future school strikes spread through hundreds of cities around the world.
Why was Greta able to break through years of relative complacency and make such an impact? What do people need to hear to convince them to change their ways in order to stop harming the environment?
A new study finds that stories are significantly more motivating than scientific facts—at least, for some people.
Greta and “glocal” social movements
According to a recent study that was published in the media-education research journal Comunicar, scientists from the Research Group on Youth, Society and Education in Barcelona, Spain, analyzed Greta Thunberg’s speeches and messages on social networks. They concluded that she was so influential because she accompanied her communications with a personal story that follows what academics call a “monomyth structure.”
In art and mythology, the monomyth—commonly referred to as “the hero’s journey”—is the template for stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure after receiving a calling, faces a crisis and wins, and comes home changed or transformed.
In August 2018, when Greta began to demonstrate in front of the Swedish parliament alone, holding up a sign reading Skolstrejk for Klimatet (school strike for climate), her solitary bravery was picture-worthy and grabbed media attention. Her Instagram and Twitter followers grew dramatically; and soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together, they organized a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future.
After Greta Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world. In 2019, there were multiple, coordinated, multicity protests involving more than a million students each.
The authors of the study that came out in Comunicar looked at Greta’s Instagram and Twitter content published in Barcelona from February 2019 until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results showed a clear influence of the activist teenager on the discourses of local environmental movement advocates and followers.
The study also revealed how the experience of local environmental groups in turn influenced the evolution of Greta Thunberg’s communications, which have changed over time to incorporate new actors and strategies. This discovery highlights how social movement frameworks arise from two-way dialogues between the global and local levels.
The study’s scientists say that their work demonstrates that “glocal” (global plus local) dynamics resonate best with the most people during the creation and continuing messaging of global social movements, as well as the central role that social networks play in this process.
Personal stories and scientific facts
Greta’s rise to fame and the analysis of the reasons why she was able to achieve so much attention for her cause brings up a question: what spurs people to care about the environment? Stories or facts?
Another recent study provides an intriguing answer.
Published in the journal One Earth in April 2021, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, found that how a message is framed makes a significant difference in how people act toward the environment. It also suggests there is no one, best way to motivate people.
Unfortunately, scientists have few guidelines on how best to communicate with the public about environmental threats. Increasingly, they have been encouraged to leave their factual comfort zones and tell more stories that connect with people emotionally. But scientists are reluctant to tell such stories because, for example, no one can point to a specific, deadly flood or a forest fire and conclusively say that the deaths were caused by climate change.
So, the question that the Johns Hopkins researchers hoped to answer with the One Earth study was: does storytelling really work to change people’s behavior? And if so, for whom does it work best?
To find out, the scientists conducted a field experiment at an agricultural event in Delaware. They surveyed 1,200 people who had gardens or lawns and who lived in watersheds known to be polluted. They then used a random-price auction to measure how much participants were willing to pay for products that reduce nutrient pollution. Before people could buy the products, they watched a video with either scientific facts or a story about such pollution.
In the story group, participants viewed a true tale about a local man’s death that had plausible but tenuous connections to nutrient pollution: he died after eating contaminated shellfish. In the scientific facts group, respondents viewed an evidence-based description of the impacts of nutrient pollution on ecosystems and their surrounding communities. After watching the videos, all participants had a chance to purchase products costing less than $10 that could reduce stormwater runoff: biochar, fertilizer, soaker hoses and soil test kits.
On average, people who heard the story about the local man’s death were willing to pay more than those who heard the straight, scientific facts. But the results skewed greatly when broken down by political philosophies. The story made liberals 17 percent more willing to buy the products, while making conservatives want to spend 14 percent less. This deep, behavioral divide surprised the scientists, who typically see little difference with survey respondents when it comes to matters such as energy conservation.
The researchers say that their findings suggest the power of storytelling may be akin to preaching to the choir. For those who are not already leaning toward environmental action, stories might make things worse. Should the messages even come from scientists themselves? They hope that their study inspires more work about how to communicate the need for urgency regarding climate change action and other global environmental challenges.
Monomyth and megahit
I fondly remember the first Earth Day in 1970. It seemed so clear back then: pollution of any sort was bad. Clean air and clear water were good. Hearing about a warming planet was just getting underway, and we thought we had time.
But here we are, 50 years later. We are still fighting for clean air and water, and the climate crisis has reached a tipping point. I think Greta Thunberg may have more reach than we environmentalists did five decades ago; but, in some ways, she and her young followers have it harder. Because now, you not only have to get the scientific facts out there, but you also must overcome some entrenched, basic beliefs.
I do hope that Greta’s monomyth story finds full success and we change, this time around.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,