One day roughly 7,600 years ago, with glaciers melting and global sea levels rising, the Mediterranean Sea burst over the last rocky precipice separating it from a shallow lake north of what is today Istanbul. Thundering downward with the force of 200 Niagara Falls, this catastrophic deluge destroyed nearly everything in its immediate path and triggered history’s first recorded displacement of climate refugees.
Ask people if they know this ancient calamity and most will say no. But ask if they’ve heard of Noah’s Ark, the biblical rendering of this very flood, and most can recount not just the story but also its moral: the imperative of saving life on Earth from destruction by rescuing two of every animal.
That’s the power of a strong story. It endows events with meaning, motivates people to action, and survives the test of time. Today, as we confront a rapidly warming climate, rising sea levels and an accelerating loss of life among everything from corals to honeybees to elephants, we need more — and more effective — storytellers to help bend the arc of natural and human history.
Our challenge lies in the fact that the strands of these stories are often abstract, distant and complex. Yet nobody is more skilled at distilling complex stories than the entertainment industry.
Hollywood’s best movies (and increasingly, Bollywood’s and Shanghai’s) engage and inspire mass audiences. Among those, the best environmental stories frame tough challenges in ways that not only spark people’s sense of morality, but also empower them with the belief that they can make a difference.
Consider “Blood Diamond,” which exposed many to the “conflict diamond” trade for the first time and helped boost the man-made and traceable diamond efforts.
Or “Erin Brockovich,” which transformed a lawsuit over contaminated drinking water into a modern-day iteration of David and Goliath.
Once people see such compelling movies, many see the world, and their role in it, a little differently. We need more stories like these. A lot more. With epidemics on the rise, massive ice shelves breaking off Antarctica, coral reefs dying and stubborn droughts driving millions of refugees to risk everything for a better future, we need to engage a much broader cross-section of people in solving today’s environmental challenges — not sometime in the future, but now.
According to a recent survey by Yale University, 70% of Americans already believe global warming is happening. At the same time, only 40% worry that the changing climate will harm them personally, and 49% believe its consequences are at least 25 years away.
We need to change this misperception, as the environmental challenges we face only get harder to address with every additional year of inaction. Inevitably, people’s roles in turning this tide will be very different. But whether individuals choose to address these challenges through entrepreneurship, research and innovation, consumer choices, greater political activism, volunteer work or other channels, their actions as citizens will be crucial to driving change. Of course, broader and more intense engagement won’t happen by itself — inspiring more people to action will require many more powerful and truthful stories, creatively told.
The past teaches us that great causes — democracy, abolition, suffrage, civil rights and others — have all been inspired and defined by clear, powerful narratives. Today, there is perhaps no greater cause than saving the complex web of natural systems that support and sustain human life on Earth, a web that continues to unravel at a quickening pace.
So, in confronting this unsettling and urgent challenge, we pose the question: How can the entertainment industry — the most powerful network of storytellers in history — help spark and sustain the public determination necessary to restore the balance of nature before climate change, ocean acidification and extinction pass a point of no return?
In the story of Noah, a prophet’s swift action to save Earth’s biodiversity was successful. In today’s crisis, the outcome of our story is still uncertain — and up to us. Together, let’s write an ending that makes us all proud.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is the founder and executive producer of Vulcan Prods., which produced documentaries including “Racing Extinction” and “The Ivory Game.” Peter Kareiva is the director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.