Storytelling to Save the Planet
May 09, 2014, 5:00am

By Robert Redford, Reader Supported News

The art of storytelling is at our core. It’s the lifeblood of how we communicate and how we decide what deserves our attention and what we are content to ignore as a passing fad. We’ve accomplished storytelling on the silver screen and the latest Internet meme, but is the art of storytelling dead when it comes to complicated, politically charged issues like our environment and the need for swift action to combat climate change?

On April 13, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared, yet again, that we are in crisis — decades of political inefficiency paired with overwhelming acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions are putting us on a crash course with Mother Nature. According to the IPCC, the beacon of hope is that we’ve got 15 years to change course. One and a half decades to change the way we live, change the way we do business and change the way we think about the impact of growth.

In 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize for their report calling attention to the climate problem. While more countries have committed to climate plans amidst growing political pressure, we aren’t much better off than we were seven years ago. Carbon dioxide levels are rising almost twice as fast in the first decade of this century as in last three decades of the 20th century. With developing countries favoring environmentally unsound manufacturing and economic powerhouse countries making minimal cuts to astronomic emission levels, it appears that while highly regarded, these reports aren’t doing enough.

What are these reports missing? Is it that we don’t believe them, or is it that we don’t see enough examples of everyday citizenry taking action to inspire real change?

As an actor and filmmaker, storytelling is what I do. For more than a decade I’ve worked with the Goldman Environmental Prize to narrate documentary shorts about grassroots activists putting everything on the line to protect the environment. From a mother in New York who battled with the national government to establish superfund cleanup sites after discovering her entire community of Love Canal was built on a toxic waste dump to an Iraqi ex-pat establishing the Mesopotamian Marshlands, the original Garden of Eden, as Iraq’s first and only national park, these stories of everyday people’s successes are critical to pushing global citizens to take the same kind of action.

As I read the IPCC report, with its focus on manufacturing’s intrinsic relationship to climate change, I am reminded of Ma Jun, a former Chinese journalist turned environmental watchdog who founded the not-for-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs with the aim of cleaning up the air and water of a country that’s responsible for 25 percent of global carbon emissions. Through leveraging the pollution mapping power of the Internet and tapping China’s younger generation as a force for environmental change, Ma Jun successfully worked with both the technology and textile industries in China to clean up their supply chains with the goal of reducing harmful toxins in both the air and water.

I am reminded of Kimberly Wasserman, a community organizer and young mother whose son had his first major asthma attack at just 3-months-old, triggered by pollution from two of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the nation. Recognizing the disproportionate health problems plaguing her neighborhood of Little Village — a low-income, predominantly Mexican-American community on the southwest side of Chicago — Kimberly went on to unite local residents through a door-to-door grassroots movement, and, after a 15 year battle, succeeded in shutting down the plants permanently.

Kimberly Wasserman says, “There is no greater threat than a mom who is mad.” We should all be mad that we don’t see adequate action to address climate change.

Now is the time to reframe the conversation by pairing scary statistics with inspiring stories of environmental activism. Not only must media, big business and governments pay more attention to these stories — we all need to if we are to truly change course.

We may not all be Kimberly Wasserman and Ma Jun, but through telling their stories, and those of thousands of others like them, we can turn the tide on inaction and become part of the solution instead of the problem. We’ve got 15 years.