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How creative industries can provide a catalyst for climate action

by Madaline Dunn

Humanity’s fate hangs in the balance; that was the stark and simple warning that emerged during COP28. The UN Climate Summit brought forth the reality that, while it is global leaders and heads of state that strategize on the issue, the consequences of global warming will be life-changing for every one of us. Yet this real and substantial threat presents the opportunity for a renewed sense of shared responsibility, to consider alternative approaches that can instigate the urgent collective effort we need to preserve our planet.

Promoting engagement through creativity

Artists, writers, and creative thinkers have always had a big role to play in any situation where we have seen radical change. With the power to engage audiences that politicians or corporations cannot reach, the cultural and creative sectors have a history of raising awareness of pressing societal issues, promoting meaningful dialogue, cultivating a mindset for action, and forcing action where the current power structures may be reluctant to change.

Consider how George Orwell’s 1984 was instrumental in drawing public attention to totalitarianism and alerting us to the pitfalls of surveillance technologies and misinformation. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird showed generations of readers the sobering reality of racial inequality in the American Deep South, and inspired fundamental shifts in the collective perspective. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens brought the stark reality of poor orphans to the Victorian upper classes, eventually leading to much-needed changes. Examples are plenty.

Building understanding through storytelling

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our times, yet it can be a confusing subject shrouded in facts, figures, bleak consequences and even contradictory opinions. As a sustainability practitioner in the corporate world, trying to guide businesses in their climate action, I’ve witnessed the stifling complexity of that dialogue. Unsurprisingly, the risk-led, jargon-loaded discourse is not something that resonates across wider society. Whether through literature, art, or even music, it is relatable human stories that help people to make sense of the world around them and move them to act.

In Richard Powers’s The Overstory, another beautiful example of fiction shaping our way of thinking, a group of eco-activists are trying to figure out how to mobilize the world. Adam, a new recruit and psychologist says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” How true.

Developing new genres for emerging challenges

The creative industries enable us to communicate through different outlets and to build narratives that connect with a wide range of audiences. The emergence of climate fiction, or cli-fi, shows how the creative sector offers the freedom to explore new possibilities and find unique ways to spotlight emerging societal issues. As the conversation around climate change has become more mainstream, there is a growing appetite among audiences for stories that help us to process our emotions and make sense of what is happening around us, to deal with these challenging scenarios and then lead us towards the right and necessary action.

The role of creative professionals

With a crisis so potentially catastrophic, leaving it solely to governments and global organizations to lead the urgently needed change in behaviour would not be wise. Creative practitioners operate in a sphere that evoke emotions which can drive people to act. A creative expression of the climate crisis and its consequences can steer a person towards action in a way that a rational argument could not. Facts inform, stories inspire. Creative professionals have the opportunity to be not simply the activators, but also the accelerators of change, which is an ever-more critical role as humanity’s future is at stake.

By Surya Ramkumar, a technologist, business leader, sustainability advocate, and author of the climate fiction novel, The Sky Has Moved Away.

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