—— A good story has the power to change everything: humankind, the world—and possibly even the topic of sustainability. Three examples of the impact storytelling can have.

If you want to make a difference you need good ideas, a lot of perseverance—and a plausible story. That’s why many of the really big changes that we can remember start with a brilliant tale. This isn’t surprising in the least, since humans have loved stories since time immemorial. Our brains need them to reduce the complexity of a chaotic world—and to become emotionally attached to a cause. “Stories link the deeper emotional centers in the brain, particularly the limbic system, with the cerebrum, which is responsible for memories, planning actions and planning for the future,” notes psychologist Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel from the specialty consulting firm Nymphenburg Consult. 

Historically speaking, when social movements trigger significant events and create change, it is usually under the collective banner of a shared story. Even in the aftermath, these stories often remain so vivid that they can be recognized just by their slogans: Let them eat cake. Black lives matter. Fridays for Future. 

Especially in the struggle to achieve environmental sustainability, storytelling can play an important role. That’s because it will take a joint global effort for the world to meet the scientifically determined climate goals—which will only be possible when people across the globe are convinced of the need for change. Motivating them and getting them to commit to these common goals is best achieved with an inspiring story. “Things are often complex or in a gray area when it comes to sustainability,” says sustainability expert Harald Willenbrock, who works for the brand and communications agency Strichpunkt. “A good story helps to convey these complicated relationships in a way that is understandable, memorable and more emotional.” The lasting impact of effective storytelling, even on a small scale, is impressively demonstrated by the following examples. 

Chasing Ice

The documentary Chasing Ice was released in 2012. The film accompanies photographer James Balog as he chronicles the disappearance of glaciers. The filmmakers themselves cited the desire to draw attention to the topic as their primary motivation. As a secondary aim, they wanted to show the many minor adjustments that people can make in their everyday lives to help counteract climate change. The film is so gripping that it won numerous awards. The impact was huge—and measurable: according to a survey conducted before screenings, only 61 percent of those questioned believed that climate change was real. After seeing the film, the figure increased to 75 percent. The share of people who recognized climate change as a problem rose from 28 to 46 percent. The film inspired the founding of companies focused on sustainability, the purchase of electric cars and changes in government policies. In 2016, the film won the docimpactaward

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The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat was still a teenager when he took the stage in Delft in the Netherlands for a TEDx talk in which he spoke about his underwater diving experiences. He told his story without reciting figures or statistics. He told his story as if he were just showing a few vacation photos to some good friends. They saw a manta ray, a shark—and then beaches full of garbage and birds dying because of plastic waste. It was the beginning of a talk that lasted eleven minutes and the first time that he introduced his visionary idea: The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization that fishes plastic out of the oceans. It could have been one startup presentation among many, but Boyan’s personal experiences impressed the audience and won over investors, who subsequently provided millions for the implementation of his idea. Now, more than ten years later, The Ocean Cleanup employs 120 researchers and scientists. By 2021, the organization’s boats had managed to remove 460 tons of plastic trash from the world’s oceans.

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Bear 71

There’s a great need for environmental protection in those areas where wildlife and human habitats overlap. Yet the problems are usually described from the perspective of what humans want: clean drinking water, fresh air, unspoiled panoramas. Back in 2012, an innovative web documentary impressed viewers with its virtual interactivity and fascinating multimedia story. Bear 71, launched by the National Film Board of Canada, tells the emotionally moving story of a wild grizzly bear in the immensity of the Canadian wilderness. The expansive 3D topography can be explored in great detail by clicking on video snippets as we follow the female grizzly. She is tagged with a tracking device and tells us from her own perspective the story of her beautiful, exciting and also confusing and dangerous life. She lives in a nature preserve, but highways, trains, garbage and tourism are increasingly constricting the bear’s habitat. The amazing thing is that the story doesn’t blame us—but anyone who gets through the twenty-minute documentary without crying probably wasn’t really paying attention. 

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