Sci Fi, Imagination & the Future of Conservation : Storytelling
Part 1 of 2
Let’s go to the year 2047.
In world news 13,000 researchers and assistants boarded helicopters today for the beginning of operation round up. The project is a collaboration bet the UN & the International union for Conservation of Nature. It is aimed at gathering up endangered species to prevent extinction.
“Operation Roundup” is the 4th phase of the larger “Project Ark”, a worldwide push to save endangered species, by housing them in zoos worldwide. For the past 10 years, over 180 countries have constructed zoos to house their region’s wildlife. Maya Win the chief scientist for “Project Round” up says that she expects the gathering process to take at least 3 years.
This is the radio drama style opening of Caged, an episode of Flash Forward by Rose Eveleth, a podcast on speculative futures that I recently began following. The episode begins with this short radio drama segueing into a discussion with experts examining the meaning of conservation of species and our motivations for doing it.
In listening to this episode, my two worlds, conservation and design collided. In this collision, we may find a possible solution to a problem conservationists struggle with, inspiring consistent conservation action. Right now, we rely on either the Scientific Narrative, which generally leads to glazed eyes and boredom or the Doomsday Narrative, which usually leads to complete paralysis due to fear or pessimism.
One of the biggest challenges in getting people to take biodiversity loss and conservation more seriously is that its effects cannot be “felt” equally. But, if we can create an empathy for the rich biodiversity, among a wider population, we can create a shift in the way people understand its importance.
I propose we build this empathy by using the immersive storytelling techniques successfully adopted by fantasy authors, science fiction and animated films. Authors like J. K. Rowling and filmmakers at Disney and Pixar have masterfully wielded their ability to tell compelling stories and made us laugh out loud or shed real tears with hippogriffs, house elves, toys, and monsters. All seemingly absurd, yet accomplished masterfully through the narrative prowess. Their secret weapon, making us feel!
A recent Harvard Business Review article recommends that business leaders read Science Fiction to make better long-term decisions. This sounds insane doesn’t it?! On closer examination though, it doesn’t seem quite as crazy when we begin to realize just how much of the technology and built world would have seemed like science fiction just a decade ago.
The creativity with which decades of Sci Fi filmmakers and writers have made us long for, or fear worlds that seemed quite familiar yet alien inspired us to create entirely new ones in reality. Why not use these same techniques to re-frame the problem of environmental challenges to make it more approachable not just for conservationists and scientists but for the world at large?
What these master storytellers all have in common is the ability to build these future worlds so real, that they make us feel invested in their fictional events and inhabitants. Isn’t it ironic then, that we aren’t able to use these same principles to make people invested in the future of the real world? How might we inspire the the same emotions for the real ecosystems and their inhabitants as they experienced in their journey through The Jungle Book or as they romped through the Savannah with Simba and his friends?
Let’s use popular culture and fiction to provoke conversations about our future in a language familiar to us conservationists and our audience. Let’s use the Fossil Fuel wastelands in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One or the incredible dystopian landscapes in Paolo Bacigalupi’s award winning dystopian climate fiction Windup Girl, Water Knife and Ship Breaker.
Sounds a bit contrarian doesn’t it? I just mentioned that Doomsday Narratives induce inaction and now I am saying let’s use Dystopian Climate Fiction to solve the problem? There’s a major difference between the two, the Doomsday Narrative speaks in absolutes, it shows you dying baby seals and tells you how you are going to be living under water in a decade or so.
Dystopian Climate Fiction on the other hand provides the safety net of fiction. This automatically removes the fear-induced paralysis. Here, we are simultaneously creating a safe vantage point while sparking the imagination. The reader/viewer can now navigate this world keeping her/his faculties engaged and imagine their own solutions to the problems the protagonists face.
To paraphrase Bacigalupi, he wants his readers to feel a sense of anxiety, yet find pleasure in navigating these odd new worlds in his stories. He wants them to then come back into the world and view it from a new perspective, affected by the experience of the story, so that when the reader comes across the extreme issues they have seen in the books like water rights, etc. in the real world, they can relate them to what they’ve read and begin to grasp the gravity of the situation. (See the entire interview in the video below)
On the other hand you have Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One or Pixar’s Wall-E describe the perils of future worlds rendered wastelands due to over-consumption, rogue capitalism and fossil fuels dependency, so much so that its inhabitants escape it by “living” in virtual reality. Both of these scenarios help us understand the future of unchecked consumption and introspect course correct appropriately. More importantly it paints a picture, in language and imagery the reader/viewer can relate to, with protagonists willing to take action to change their reality.
The more we can engage our audiences in these optimistic approaches, inspiring discussions and imaginations the more likely we are to be able to harness these imaginations into creative solutions. Even educational institutions, like Arizona State University are adapting these imaginative approaches to inspire a new generation of conservationists.
The way to effectively counteract denial of environmental degradation is not through raw data and statistics, but by putting these numbers into a different contexts which people can understand and engage with we might be able to create a shift in attitudes.
Next up: In Part 2 let’s discuss the use of Immersive Experiences & their applications for conservation
I personally live in a realm between the past, future, real and imagined. So if you have an idea that agrees or contradicts my views, or would like to work on create these new fictions that spark the imaginations and discussions, I’d love to hear from you at email@example.com