Tell a Story Today; Change the World, by Eric Witchey
We live in an age when most rational, educated people believe substantial national and global changes to personal behavior, economic structures, and political structures are needed if the human race is to survive and, hopefully, thrive. Some people despair that ingrained, culturally-reinforced behavior has too much inertia and that nothing short of catastrophe can create change. However, culturally-reinforced behavior does change. Unfortunately, it only changes when scientifically proven knowledge becomes a story that can be repeated by people who have no direct access to, or knowledge of, the science that suggests the need for change. Catastrophe does instantly generate culture-wide story, but it is only one way to generate a culture-wide story. Luckily, there are other ways.
Scientific knowledge and the dissemination of scientific knowledge doesn’t have enough social mass to create large cultural changes. Knowledge has to become part of the national folklore that is repeated in ignorance as truth. Huge campaigns to create the science-based, viral memes that seat belts are good, littering is bad, and cigarettes kill had to be undertaken in order to make these messages a part of the unconsidered oral tradition of all the micro-cultures that make up the overall culture of America.
A person can be, but rarely is, logical and rational. A company, a crowd, a tribe, a state, or a nation is always irrational. I am not saying that irrational is bad. I am saying that irrational is the absence of objectively-considered choices that include weighing of long-term and global impact. By this definition, a company, a crowd, a state, or a nation cannot be rational without abandoning its own, shorter-term interests. These institutions are all monkeys with their paws stuck in their own jars. Only when the results of science become part of the foundation of their irrationality does culture change for the better. Corporate marketing people know this. Politicians know this. Story tellers have always known this. Little-by-little, story tellers are making the knowledge of this phenomenon part of the cultural awareness.
Consider the development of the science behind our understanding of climate change. The first presentation of the concept of carbon impact on the future environment was presented early in the 19th century. I wrote poetry about climate change when I was in high school in the 70s. The Carter administration worked hard to address the known issues of fossil fuel dependence and emissions output. About the time I entered college, my home town cut their coal-fired power plant smokestack in half and installed scrubbers. Way back then, we were on our way to cleaner air and alternative, sustainable fuels.
Administrations change. The message to the world changes with them. The influence on developing folklore changed from long term thinking to policies of immediate gratification, and that was the end of that.
The new, functional electric car disappeared. Emission controls were defanged. Education funding was cut, and schools were privatized. Concerns were put down with bandwagon and ad hominen attacks like, “Everyone who really understands the economy knows that’s silly” and “Oh? So, you have doctorates in climatology and education economics, do you?”
It has taken very expensive disasters and some creative rhetoric to make the popular oral tale shift from “Don’t be silly” to “Oh, shit. We better pay attention to this.” Nobel Prize winner Al Gore is one of our world’s best story-tellers. Piggy-backed on the rhetoric of “Oh, shit” is a narrative about how we got to this moment by letting corporate story override objective science.
It is no coincidence that at the same time this message is taking hold, attacks on funding to university research and attempts to mandate “usefulness” of federally funded research are underway. And so it goes.
The true battle is over who tells which story to the tribes. As fiction writers, we have a social responsibility to create tales that allow readers to feel hope and associate that feeling with models of successful personal and organizational behavior. We have a responsibility to create tales that allow the reader to experience the consequences of the individual’s failure to take action when action is called for. We, more than politicians, more than corporate marketing people, and even more than Al Gore, are responsible for creating the national folklore that drives discussions and motivates action.
Create a story today. Change the world.