Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Storytelling key to effective sustainability leadership says Ed Gillespie, Futerra


By Janine John

Good communication can improve our response to many environmental and social issues, and there is a lot that all practitioners in sustainability can learn from this fascinating area of work.

Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications

Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra Sustainability Communications in London, recently visited the University of Cumbria's Ambleside campus and gave a talk for the IFLAS (Institute for Leadership and Sustainability) series of open lectures. As someone with a particular interest in the communication of sustainability issues, I was really looking forward to attending this presentation, and I wasn't disappointed. Here, I share some of the notes I made during the lecture:

'Telling a new story: How heartfelt, authentic communication can effectively enhance your leadership for sustainability'

The stories we tell ourselves

Ed focused his talk on how important good story-telling is to being an effective sustainability leader, and how we frame our narratives. He has spent 20 years in sustainability, starting out as a marine biologist. However, he says that he didn't want to spend the rest of his career saying that if we don't stop catching all the fish, there won't be any fish left (and it happening anyway). He therefore co-founded Futerra with Solitaire Townsend, starting out with a small office in Brixton.

Ed argues that in order to subvert the current dominant paradigm, we need to be having more fun than the rest, and to be seen to being doing so. Futerra's own mission is about 'making sustainable development so desirable it becomes normal'.

At the heart of Futerra's work is the ability to tell stories. This is because stories are how we make sense of the world and it is narratives that hold us together. Our brains are wired to understand stories and they are something we need.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Philip Pullman
Some of the famous stories we can look to include:

  • Nelson Mandela's use of the term 'Rainbow nation'.
  • Cool Britannia during 'the age of Blair', in which Britain was branded a creative, design-led country.
  • The Age of Austerity, a dispiriting narrative, which suppresses our sense of what can be done.
In the age of the Anthropocene, humans are now the primary driving force influencing the future of the planet. Ed says that he finds this inspiring, as we are the first generation fully aware of how we're getting things wrong, and can act on this knowledge. As a result, we need to reconnect. Ed also asks, what is the point of economic growth if it doesn't make us happier? Consumer spending and GDP are both increasing, but life satisfaction is not. Our current cultural narrative is to buy more.

Psychological mechanisms which are limiting

For me, this next bit is the most interesting, because we move on to understanding human behaviour, and a number of useful terms to boost our communications vocabulary:
  • The first term to get to grips with is the single action bias. This is where we feel we've done our bit (for example, we've recycled) and that we've therefore earned our flight abroad.
  • The second term worth getting familiar with is the bystander effect. According to Ed, if you have a fall, you need only one person to be near you at the time. This is because one person will help you, whereas a crowd of people will look to each other, thinking that someone else will do something. He argues that climate change suffers from the same bystander effect because everyone thinks that someone else must be doing something about it.
  • The fog of concern and the 'finite pool of worry' also limit us. We feel distanced, as though bad things are happening to someone else, somewhere else. In reality though, we now live in a complex, interconnected world in a way we never have before.
  • Denial is a big problem – humans simply don't like change.
In his presentation, Ed also tried to address an issue he sees with environmentalism, which is the perception that some environmentalists don't like people. As well as clarifying that he likes people (!), he argues that it's not the planet that needs saving but ourselves – the planet will still be here long after we have destroyed our own existence.

It is an astonishing fact that in 40 years, 50% of vertebrate biomass has been lost. Humans are subject to what's called shifting baseline syndrome, in which we don't recognise the change going on around us. This is perhaps simply because we are unfamiliar with how bountiful things once were.

We also need to add to this that we have a growing population and climate change to think about. Ed compares our response to climate change as 'like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush', although he is optimistic about how we can solve these problems.

For his book Only Planet, Ed travelled around the world in 13 months using any transport method except air flight. Apparently this had a grounded 'Overview Effect' on him, comparable to that astronauts report experiencing when they look back on earth from space. This means that he could view all of our problems from a distance. He says that from all the experiences he has had across the world, what divides us is petty and what unites us is powerful.

On his trip, Ed was also particularly inspired by the story of the Monarch butterfly, which migrates from Mexico to Canada and back, but takes five generations to do so. In the same way, he argues that our problems will not be solved in one (or our) lifetime, but rather over a series of generations.

Stories on progress and climate change

One thing for certain is that facts and evidence don't tend to work, whereas stories do, and Ed reflected on what those in the Mayan civilization might have been telling themselves before they were finally beaten by climate change.

The story we tell ourselves now is the story of progress, where things keep getting better and better. But in actual fact, progress happens in peaks and troughs, and it is very easy to fall into 'progress traps' which undermine our ability to make the future better. It could be that fossil fuels, whilst they have been incredible in transforming our lives, will now set us back. Ed argues that in order to change, we do not need to blame the past but look to a better future. We are currently looking to tar sands and deepwater extraction etc., which is probably something we shouldn't be doing, whereas equally there are examples of communities across the world who are successfully becoming 100% renewably powered.
“We are not blindly opposed to progress… we are opposed to blind progress.” John Muir
We now see in common use the terms unburnable carbon and the carbon bubble, as well as huge interest in divestment programmes. Big names are discussing and supporting these ideas, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.

Climate change is extremely tricky to talk about because it is a 'wicked problem'. As such:
  • it resists definition
  • it's ambiguous
  • it's chaotic
  • it's social
  • there's no right or wrong
  • it requires change to belief, behaviour and identity
  • there's no precedent
  • there's no intention
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Mark Twain
Climate change is also a very awkward subject to talk about with friends, and can be a complete no-no in social circumstances. Naomi Klein argues that climate change doesn't need to be a story about constraint, and that instead things can be better. It is also completely wrong to say that we cannot fix the economy and the environment at the same time.

 The rational vs the irrational 

One of the major obstacles we need to overcome is the irrationality of humanity. It is easy to assume that as humans we are rational, and that we make decisions based on cost and benefit. In reality, we are emotional, and act on instincts and habits. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says that parole prisoners should always hope to appear in court after lunch, because apparently the time before lunch when a judge is hungry is also when they are least likely to get parole.

Behaviour change has used facts and strategy instead of emotions and feeling, but this doesn't work very well. In fact empathy and emotional connection produce chemical changes in the brain with the release of oxytocin, creating a lasting emotional connection. Although we like to think we are in conscious control, we are not. An analogy in common use is that of the rider and the elephant. The rider thinks they are in control, but the elephant actually decides. Worse still, the rider acts as an apologist for what the elephant does. Note that most advertisements don't contain facts and statistics, but are instead more likely to use talking animals. This makes content sticky in your brain, because your brain chemistry has been affected.

The future for businesses and the 'consumer'

We're in disruptive times and it is important not to ignore that. Consumers want to 'live meaningfully and engage brands with purpose'. It's worth noting that whilst companies may argue people are not bothered about sustainability, research in fact shows that 'most people would not care if 73% of brands disappeared'.

The key to success is to identify a purpose, because if we don't have a purpose to serve, we will only end up serving ourselves. It is important to avoid a 'Kodak moment' by ignoring the currently changing circumstances. Kodak ignored the possibility of the digital camera because they thought it would be damaging to their existing business, but the lesson is, if you don't do it yourself, someone else will do it for you. This presents huge challenges for leaders, as most businesses have shorter lives than they used to. Now companies are asking, what purpose can we have in the world where we can have commercial success at the same time?

In Ed's opinion, it is important to kill off the word 'consumer', which changes the way we behave and makes us individualistic, selfish and concerned with our own rights.

For further insights into storytelling, he highly recommends the book Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, and quoted three great storytelling rules by John Powers, the world's first copywriter:
  • be interesting
  • tell the truth
  • live the truth.
In conclusion, Ed says that we now have two divergent approaches facing us: either to treat the earth as an inert commodity, or as something living with intrinsic rights. In terms of cultural narratives, we now need to unravel progress and find a story that serves.

Please note that the contents of this blog post are a personal interpretation of Ed Gillespie's presentation, and are not a complete account of the whole lecture. Headings have also been included to adapt the talk to the format of a blog post. IFLAS will be posting a video of the lecture online shortly, which it is highly recommended you take the time to view. You can follow Ed on Twitter: @frucool

Janine John is a communications consultant based in the Lake District, and has a particular interest in the communication of sustainability issues. 
Twitter: @janinemjohn