You do have to ask yourself.
There’s no question that the issue of climate change is important . . . right? Everyone who knows anything about this stuff tells us it’s important. There are eminent, articulate scientists all over the world, going blue in the face trying to impress upon us just how cataclysmic the changes in our weather could be.
Yet, there’s still that question, that grotesque beast of a question, scratching at the undersides of the floorboards in your brain, grunting at you to let it out into the light. Yes, you’ve been informed. You’ve accepted the facts. You’ve been convinced. You’re a reasonable, rational human being who cares what happens to the world and the people who live in it. You have no doubt about it. But still, those claws keep scraping at the wood.
‘Deep down, do I really care?’
Because, let’s face it; if human beings were spurred into action by something as straightforward as facts, we’d have solved most of society’s problems a long time ago.
The changes that we have inflicted upon our world occupy many of society’s greatest minds, so you might think things are getting really desperate when the experts start looking to storytellers for help. Writers of fiction. Sure, we use facts all the time. To make up stories. We weave contrived lies for the purposes of entertainment. Not a good qualification if you’re being asked to engage people in a very complicated, scientific problem.
None of the five Weather Stations writers is a scientist. Even if we were, climate change is a vast, intangible and mind-bogglingly complex subject that very few have a comprehensive knowledge of. It is a baffling world of degrees, percentages and long-range predictions based on minute measurements across an array of variants. So what’s the point of dragging five storytellers into this?
It’s not my job to appeal to the rational mind. It’s my job to lie down, press my eye to a gap in the boards and address my words to that beast of a question under the floor.
‘Do you really care?’ I whisper to it. ‘Perhaps . . . if you’ll let me, I can show you why I do.’
Then I start prising up the nails that hold those floorboards down.
Science is founded upon logic and the elegant purity of posing a question and finding the tangible answer that best withstands the challenges of rational investigation. In science, there is such thing as the best answer to a question. Or, at least, the best answer so far . . .
In storytelling, we have questions like ‘What is happening?’; ‘Why is it happening?’; ‘Who am I?’; ‘Where have I come from?’; ‘What is the difference between us?’; ‘What effect is this place having on me?’; ‘What will happen next?’. And most importantly, that most head-wrecking question for any writer of fiction: ‘Why should you, the reader, care about any of this stuff I’m just making up?’
None of these questions have a single tangible answer that will guarantee satisfaction. Their most satisfying answers change from story to story, moment to moment, character to character and from reader to reader. But once writers have learned to ask these questions in the right way, in the right tone, with the right inflection, at the right speed and in the right order – if we can then deliver the answers with sufficient skill, we can inspire sadness and happiness, excitement and fear.
If the reader will only consent to take our hand, we can lead them on a dance, and in the course of that dance, in that whirling momentum, we can steer them in new directions. If they invite us into their minds, we can seed new thoughts. We can show them the world through our eyes. We can manipulate emotions.
And it is emotion, far more than reason, that compels us to act. Facts may offer a compelling reason for doing something, but if you want to provoke people into action, you have to get personal.
At any given moment, each of us has a chaotic storm of thoughts in our heads. Composing those thoughts into something coherent that can be communicated is a skill every human being spends a lifetime learning. We have limited means: speech, facial expressions, body language, writing and perhaps drawing. When a writer is telling a story, it’s not enough to just relate the events. You can’t take your audience’s attention for granted. They must be helped to understand the ideas you’re trying to plant in their minds.
A reader really is more like a dance partner than a film viewer. They have to take an active part in the telling of the story.
And to keep them in receiving mode, they must feel compelled to give a damn about the end result. I even have to bear you in mind, as you read this piece. In order to tell you my story, I must make you curious, make you wonder what happens next, and I have to make you care enough to find out. I must be deliberate about what I pass from my imagination to yours – and do so in a way that ensures you will continue to accept it.
We are bombarded every day with news of disasters and tragedies, tales of horrible injustice. But what is often lacking in the myriad of ‘shocking’ statistics about various issues we hear about, are the little details that can really engage the emotions. If you tell me that there are over eight hundred million people around the world who are starving, for instance, I can act shocked, but it is frankly impossible to empathize with eight hundred million people. I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but at a gut level, I just don’t care. And it’s the gut level that really counts.
These people are a faceless multitude, and it takes a great deal of effort to give that number any kind of reality. It’s too big, too distant. The scale of it would overwhelm me if I had that kind of perspective. I have too many other problems closer to home to worry about. Most humans are not motivated by numbers. But tell them a story about just one engaging character, someone we can imagine liking if they were real, someone who is suffering from a clawing hunger that is causing their gums to recede so their teeth begin falling out, causing sores on their skin, causing their vision to fail, all as their body starts to essentially digest itself. Tell them that character’s story, and people might be more likely to sit up and take notice.
Now, instead of millions of starving people, let’s imagine you have to make people care about changes in the weather. Some places will get hotter, others will get colder. Or wetter. We’re not sure how much. The sea’s going to rise. A bit. We’re not sure how much. Apparently, things could get really bad.
It doesn’t really set the heart racing, does it? And yet it’s the biggest environmental crisis we’ve ever faced. It could be the biggest crisis of any kind, that we’ve ever faced.
This, to my mind, is why Weather Stations was set up, and why so many other writers around the world are getting engaged in this issue. Any storyteller must ignite his or her audience’s imaginations and create empathy, to make their audience care about their characters, to hold their attention.
And now that’s what we have to do with the facts that should do the job for us, but don’t.
We’re only human. For most of us, our motives, perceptions and concerns are largely selfish, extending beyond our immediate loved ones and environment only when we can spare our attention and our resources. We just can’t be expected to care about millions of people – imagine even trying to count to a million – or even worse, be expected to be care, deep down, about the world’s oceans, the land, the atmosphere. It’s too big an idea to get your head around.
All I undertake to do with any story is get my reader to take an interest – even in some small way – on a visceral level; to engage their emotions and through that, their imaginations and, perhaps, aim their attention in a given direction. When that ugly monster of a question bursts up through the floorboards and demands an answer, I’ll have one to give. I do care, because this is my problem. I’m making it my problem.
Other people have more valuable, more substantive roles to play in this enormous task we must set for ourselves. But finding the words and pictures that will seed new thoughts in people’s imaginations? That’s my bit.