🌿Wild Ones #40: Environmental Communication Digest

Re:Imagining Change from the Center for Story-Based Strategy + The new 'Seaspiracy' documentary + The Hemingway App + 'Why authors are saying the ‘natural world’ no longer exists' + More!

Hi everyone, welcome back to Wild Ones, a weekly digest by me, Gavin Lamb, about news, ideas, research, and tips in environmental communication. If you’re new, welcome! You can read more about why I started Wild Ones here. Sign up here to get these digests in your inbox:

📚 What I’m reading

This past week I started reading the second edition of Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2017). The book comes out of The Center for Story-Based Strategy, a great resource for environmental communicators to check out. They also have a neat collection of ‘tools and resources’ on their website too.

  • The book covers a lot of territory on key communication strategies for social movements, non-profits and advocacy groups, including elements of storytelling, frames and framing, narrative analysis, and a fascinating chapter on selecting a ‘point of intervention’ for changing a story.

“The story-based strategy approach outlines how well-crafted stories that communicate a cohesive set of strategic frames can dramatically boost the impact of advocacy, protest, and organizing.”
– Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, in Re:Imagining Change

  • Why do we need story-based strategy? The basic premise of the book is that the dominant economic, social, and political systems that structure how we live in the world are exploiting people and destroying the planet. We need to change these systems, and quick. But to change these systems, we need to change the stories that support them. Therefore, to do this, we need to create new stories: “history suggests that shifts in symbolic power always precede shifts in structural power.”

  • The deeper problem is, the authors argue, that the most powerful stories are the ones we take for granted, the stories that define the status quo: stories like mass consumerism, anthropocentrism, and unlimited growth. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize them as stories, as those in power who benefit from these stories strive to assert them as common sense. As a consequence, these stories have become ‘mythologies’: stories we no longer recognize as stories but live in the middle of, as common sense. But as Jonathan Matthew Smucker writes in the foreword to the second edition:

“…‘common sense’ is always itself a political achievement, typically normalizing, naturalizing, justifying, or even invisibilizing status quo power relations. As organizers and movement builders, one of our central tasks is to change the common sense. That’s what changing the story is all about.”

  • What I find unique about the book is the diverse mix of ideas in communication strategy for social movements that it brings together: “from Alinsky to Zapatismo; from critical pedagogy to advertising, branding, and communications; from grassroots organizers on the frontlines to scholars at the Harvard Kennedy School.” I think this openness to different communication strategies is one of the great strengths of the story-based strategy approach outlined in the book.

  • And I see a lot of areas for cross-pollination between story-based strategy and research in environmental communication/ecolinguistics too! For example, the ecolinguist Arran Stibbe develops the notion of ‘stories-we-live-by’ in his wonderful introductory book to ecolinguistics. Stories-we-live-by, writes Stibbe, are stories that are “not immediately recognisable as stories, and need to be exposed, subjected to critical analysis, and resisted if they are implicated in injustice and environmental destruction.”

  • But just as it’s important to be critical of destructive stories, says Stibbe, it’s also important to apply our storytelling strategies and tools to building new, positive stories to live by.

  • There’s a lot to digest in Re:Imagining Change, so next week I’ll dive deeper into the specific tools for communication developed in the book, and where I see helpful interconnections with environmental communication. Stay tuned😊

👀 What I’m watching

Seaspiracy, on Netflix: “Seaspiracy examines the global fishing industry, challenging notions of sustainable fishing and showing how human actions cause widespread environmental destruction.”

Here are some first thoughts I had about the documentary after watching:

I thought the film was overall compelling, and I especially liked the interviews the filmmaker, Ali Tabrizi, did with the environmental journalist George Monbiot and ocean scientist and advocate Sylvia Earle, two people I draw a lot of inspiration from myself when it comes to environmental communication. Also, Tabrizi’s montage and interviews on the blue-washing behind labeling of so-called ‘dolphin safe’ certifications given by the Marine Stewardship Council was illuminating, as was his look into slave labor in the Thai fishing industry (see also the documentary “Ghost Fleet” about this).

But I was curious about the wave of critical response to the film in its aftermath, so I looked into it a bit more. It wasn’t surprising to see organizations called out in the documentary for blue-washing sustainability in the fishing industry, like the Marine Stewardship Council and the Earth Island Institute, criticized Seaspiracy for spreading inaccuracies about ‘sustainable fishing.’ Also, a number of marine scientists who research the fisheries industry said the film is misleading and “does more harm than good.”

Most criticisms of the documentary I’ve read seem to center around 1) the director Ali Tabrizi’s sensationalist style of investigative journalism, as a dismissive NYTimes review wrote. And 2) the documentary’s ‘elitist’ solution to stop eating fish when “fish remain critical to food & nutrition security in many vulnerable geographies,” as tweeted Dr. Christina Hicks, a professor of environmental science at Lancaster Environment Centre who appeared in the film. This criticism was also echoed by, Angelo Villagomez, campaign manager for Blue Nature Alliance, who wrote a similar criticism in a live-tweet thread that the film glosses over how “the global conservation burden is carried by rural, indigenous, and the global south, whereas [Marine Protected Areas] in the global north are tiny to non-existent.”

On the positive side, George Monbiot tweeted a thread explaining why the documentary is a “brilliant expose of the greatest threat to marine life: fishing.” And climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor said the film “will change my activism and work from now on. If you can, watch #Seaspiracy!”

As an important piece of visual environmental communication, I'll be following the reception of Seaspiracy in the conservation community over the coming weeks. But from the perspective of environmental communication, I recommend checking out the film with an eye towards a few key questions:

  • What does the film frame as the main problem and the real-world impacts this problem creates?

  • What solutions are proposed based on the problems/impacts identified?

  • What images, metaphors, narratives, and frames are used to emphasize particular problems and solutions to viewers? What problems and solutions are ignored?

  • Why are certain ways of visualizing this issue chosen over others?

  • What concrete actions does the film want the viewer to take? And does the scale of these actions correspond to the scale of the problem(s) identified?

🎧 What I’m listening to

🔍 Tools & Resources I’m exploring

  • The Hemingway App. If you’ve been reading my newsletter thus far, thank you, I have a feeling my writing can be a bit long-winded/dense sometimes, a bad habit acquired from my years toiling away in academia. I recently watched a dissertation defense on climate communication and community outreach that mentioned the Hemingway App as an important tool for climate communicators to make their writing much more accessible in community outreach projects. It basically allows you to assess the reading level of your writing, and adjust accordingly for your audience. Hopefully I’ll be able to locate the recording of the dissertation defense to share soon as it was filled with many great insights into community-based climate communication.

📰 News and Events

📚 Research

💡 Ideas

💬 Quotes I’m thinking about

“Stories are never neutral. At its fundamental level, a story is an assertion—either a reinforcement or a contestation of our interpretations of reality. And today, the contest between competing narratives to explain the present state of our world has never felt so consequential.”

—Jonathan Matthew Smucker, in the foreword to the 2nd edition of Re:Imagining Change.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, cited in Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the Worldby Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2017).

  • And this tweet resonated a little too closely with me these days:

Thanks so much as always for your interest in my work, and if you found this digest useful, please consider sharing with others who might find it interesting too😊 I'd also love to hear from you. Leave a comment to let me know what you think about this digest, what areas of environmental communication you’re involved in/most interest you, or anything you’d like to see more of in Wild Ones:)

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