Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Once Upon a Time

All this talk of stories in relation to climate change, and it turns out Philip Pullman got there about thirteen years before the rest of us: "we'd all do well to remember that 'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart." Pullman was writing, in an article entitled "The Moral's in the Story, Not the Stern Lecture," on the issue of children's moral education, not specifically on issues of climate, but what an effective and concise way he found to express the role of storytelling in creating behavioural change. He writes:
"True moral education takes place whenever anyone, of whatever age, encounters a story with an open mind. Why else is the Bible full of stories? Why did Aesop tell fables instead of saying 'Thou shalt not'? Were the great teachers fools? They taught with the help of stories because stories work."

But there are pitfalls in the unthinking adoption of stories as a route to changing attitudes and behaviours, since "we might fall into the danger of assuming a mechanical connection. Hear this, behave like that. [...] It doesn't work like that." And several factors must be in place for the morally or socially transformative power of stories to be invoked:
1. "Stories work secretly, and almost never in ways we can predict."
2. "They work in silence."
3. "They work when they're given time."
4. "They work when they're left alone."
5. "They work when they're not explained"
6. "They work when a reader encounters a character whose fate rings true, and when a thrill of recognition makes the skin prickle or the heart pound."
7. "Good stories work better than bad ones because they're more interesting [...] they're richer. [...] They're built to last longer."
8. "They show that actions have consequences."
9. "they pass the time, they help us to endure."

Points 5, 6 and 7 seem of particular importance to stories of our changing climate, encouraging us to steer away from bald didacticism towards rich, complex tales that have aesthetic and artistic value as well as the ring of truth. Pullman notes in conclusion that, in educating children in moral matters (and, we infer, in educating any person of any age in relation to climate change) we need only three things: "books, time and silence." In this way, climate stories might be enabled to "help us to endure." With such stories forming an important body of ethically oriented work alongside climate science and policy reports, we might say that "The Moral's in the Story, Not the Stern Review."