A month ago, I had the privilege of being a Leading Change delegate at the GLOBE 2020 Forum, the largest sustainable business summit and innovation expo in North America. It was energizing and uplifting to be among the 150 like-minded young leaders and thousands of conference delegates. It renewed my own sense of mission.
Junxion has been among the purpose economy vanguard for more than 20 years, rallying those who care about the impact that we and our businesses have on the world, its people and its ecosystems. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and humbling to be among the leaders of this movement. During the Forum, changemakers outlined their philosophies and shared their theories of change on five key themes: Climate Crisis, Sustainability as Strategy, Energy Transformation, Circular Economy, and Mobilizing Capital.
Even in the context of all this inspiration, our optimism and determination can often be tinged with melancholy and frustration. The widespread phenomenon of eco-anxiety—defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”—is increasingly common among those at the forefront of the work we do. Many of us succumb to the feeling that our efforts now are ‘too little too late’ and simply aren’t gaining as much momentum and reach as is necessary to reverse the ticking clock of the climate emergency.
How do we continue the good work we are doing, staying grounded and committed in the face of paralyzing anxiety and depression over the state of the world?
Can we humanize climate change?
As Pete Muller, National Geographic Fellow and photographer, rhetorically asked the audience at GLOBE, “How do you humanize climate change as an artist?” His inspired solution was his project on solastalgia—a form of homesickness one gets when still at home, due to the effects of a changed environment. Coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia is defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.1
In his project, Muller documented the retrenchment of the sacred ‘Qoyllur Rit’i’ ritual in the high Andes of Peru. Glaciers that were once the cornerstone of the Cuzco culture are receding, rupturing age-old traditional practices. In another story, this time from across the globe in Australia, excessive mining has permanently defaced the landscape, leading inhabitants of surrounding areas to deal not just with loss of land, neighbours and scenery but also long-drawn inconclusive legal battles against accountability-dodging mining companies. And in Paradise, California, devastation caused by the Camp Fire, one of the deadliest wildfires in history, wiped out an entire community. Widely documented in the media at the time, the fires left most parts of the town uninhabitable, pushing 90% of the original inhabitants to surrounding towns and permanently affecting the quality of air, water and health.
Each of the people featured in Muller’s project reacted differently when faced with catastrophic and devastating change in their hometowns. Some were stuck in denial; some settled into a grudging, helpless acceptance. Others obstinately avoided the situation: Muller gave an example of John Lamb, an Australian man who drove a full 20 miles longer on his commute to and from work, so that he wouldn’t have to be faced with the degradation of the bucolic landscape he had called home his entire life.
Muller narrated each of these stories with powerful storytelling and utterly captivating photographs. His images shone a spotlight on the stark alternate realities of people directly affected by climate change and communicated these in a universal language of love and loss. Albrecht’s ‘solastalgia’ serves as a common thread connecting diverse experiences of loss.
The transformational power of storytelling
This moving narrative left me thinking about how each of us can ‘humanize’ the climate crisis, so that it doesn’t seem like a lost cause or a problem too big to solve. It left me asking, as an individual or as a business, how can we convey with urgency the immediate impacts of climate change on society and on life as we know it? How can we engage those who don’t have the advantage of our foresight or our expertise? How do we meet each person at their unique point in their personal journey of dealing with this crisis? How do we inspire people to pay attention to and participate in solutions? …Ethical supply chains? Impact investing? Responsible consumption?
Insight descended swiftly and surely: We need to share our stories.
Storytelling has long been the thread that has connected us to our ancestors and that connects us, also, to the generations after us.
Stories move us. Stories challenge us. Stories make us think and they help us feel.
In the end, what does more to make us human than our stories?
Which are the stories that have changed your life? Perhaps they were those in which you saw a reflection of yourself, those with which you empathized deeply, because you identified with the cause, the situation or the people involved?
Powerful stories change us, opening our eyes to a bigger vision and shifting our thinking. They reject ‘us versus them,’ helping us truly to empathize with those who may be more of less affected by this dramatic, unprecedented, and scary change.
The most powerful stories—the ones that connect us across the wide diversities of our backgrounds, our identities and our lived experiences—are the ones that spur us to action. They push us to act as one, working together for a better tomorrow, for ourselves, for those around us, and for a higher purpose.
So, trust in the power of sharing your brave, authentic story, because, as Sage Vyasa muses in the Mahabharata, “If you listen carefully, at the end, you’ll be someone else.”
Menaka Premkumar is a Consultant at Junxion’s Vancouver office. She’s found her calling in helping leaders of the next economy share their stories of transformational impact. Reach her at [email protected]