“We Need A Biodiversity of Stories”: Climate Story Lab on Why We Must Diversify the Climate Conversation

Image: Climate Story Lab participating project ‘Raising Aniya‘ by John Fiege, Christopher Lucas and Walter Hull

Climate Story Lab are redefining sustainability storytelling by putting co-creation and climate justice at the centre of the conversation. Livia Firth speaks to co-founders Beadie Finzi and Megha Agrawal Sood to find out why we need a biodiversity of stories as diverse as the ecosystem we are seeking to protect. 

When we think critically about the climate conversation, an uncomfortable truth emerges. Many of the familiar stories that make up the narrative are told from a singular perspective, and the same storylines often dominate the discussion. There is a certain disparity between the voices at the forefront of sustainability storytelling – dominating the documentaries and films around the issue – and those on the frontlines of climate emergency itself. 

Climate Story Lab works to move the dial on how the crisis is communicated by bringing together creatives from different walks of life. Created by two leaders in the documentary filmaking – Doc Society and Exposure Labs – it puts climate justice at the heart of the conversation, encouraging collaboration over single-perspective storytelling. Through creative workshops and online resources, the Lab asks people to think about new solutions to difficult conversations.

“In our own creative practice, we tend to look down rather than out and sideways, and really considering the possibility of intersectional partnership and relationships with multiple stakeholders,” explains Beadie Finzi, director of Doc Society and one of the masterminds behind the initiative. “It’s about moving away from extractive storytelling towards co-creation,” adds Exposure Labs’ Megha Agrawal Sood.

Whether through amplifying the work of existing storytellers or igniting collaborations with contrasting viewpoints, Climate Story Lab have made it their mission to diversify the sustainability conversation. Livia Firth speaks to co-creators Beadie and Megha about the problems they seek to solve, and why it is the responsibility of creatives to dream up solutions for the future.

Image: Poet Selina Nwulu at the UK Climate Story Lab in 2020

Livia Firth: Hi, Megha and Beadie – it’s so great to talk to you two. And it’s very timely I think, because in this period we really need to step up and start telling things in a different way. So, can you tell be a bit more about the work you have been doing with Climate Story Lab?

Beadie Finzi: Totally. Doc Society and Exposure Labs have collaborated for years, and we passionately believe that artists and storytellers play a crucial role in framing how our societies understand the past, the present, the future. Storytelling is how we create shared meaning, and culture is a critical dimension in the battle for the relative importance of climate change compared to all the other priorities. But we have both spent a lot of time asking the same questions: Why are we telling the same climate stories in the same way to the same people? Why are we not moving the dial? 

Megha Agrawal Sood: If you think about some of the most popular climate-themed films and shows over the last decade, you quickly realise the pattern. There is an amplification of trusted messengers who are primarily white men from the Global North. And that’s a very specific perspective. A lot of the films fall into this very typical emotional journey of fear and hope at the end… or it’s just all apocalyptic fear! And what that does is that it really leads people to engagement paralysis.

While so many critical voices are on the front lines fighting climate change every single day, their perspectives are not included in the climate narrative. And so essentially, our teams got together and said, enough, this needs to stop. What we really need, as one of our really filmmaker friends so beautifully articulated, is a biodiversity of stories as diverse as the ecosystem we seek to save. We know there’s not going to be one single silver bullet film that will solve the climate emergency. We need a thousand of them. And that’s really what got our organisation together to start thinking about the Climate Story Lab.

Image: Trailer of projects from the UK Climate Story Lab 2020

Livia Firth: You touch on a very important thing, Megha. One of the issues about climate change is that it has always been seen from one perspective, not only in terms of gender or ethnicity, but even in terms of what climate change actually is. “Oh, it’s carbon emissions?” That’s it. We haven’t told the stories linked to refugees, migration or poverty. When we talk about climate change, we’re not talking about one thing. And that’s a huge part of what you do at each Climate Story Lab event, bringing together different groups to challenge preconceptions and see what narratives can emerge. Can you tell me a bit more about the vision and philosophy behind these sessions?

Beadie Finzi: We wanted to confound people. Everybody have their own ideas about what different communities are going to hold or feel around this issue, so the Lab helps us to get out of our own head. We cannot sit anymore in our kind of ‘climate activist’ bubble; it’s going to take the climate activist in collaboration with a whole host of other groups. The exercise is intersectional and it’s humbling. It’s about listening and challenging your certainty in your own ideas.

Megha Agrawal Sood: Exactly. And I think one of the most important things we believe is how all storytelling really needs to be centred in climate justice. It’s about having a very honest discussion and recognising that the perspectives of those who are on the frontlines fighting the climate emergency are often not integrated at all into the stories that are told. And a lot of that is also thinking about how a story is made. It’s about moving away from extractive storytelling towards co-creation; not seeing the people that you’re telling the story with as subjects, but actually as participants. 

Video: Climate Story Lab participating project ‘Swampscapes‘ by Juan Carlos Zaldivar, Kim Grinfeder, and Liz Miller.

Livia Firth: That’s so true. There are two things in particular that Climate Story Lab does that I wanted to dive into in a bit more detail. The first is your work with comedians. One of the things that has really, really been missing in climate change storytelling is that comedy part of it, because as you told me, there is even some research which shows that when we laugh, we become more active. Can you tell me a bit more about what emerged from that particular panel with the comedians and also about this research?

Beadie Finzi: Of course. We have a long-standing colleague called Caty Borum Chattoo, who is the executive director of the Centre for Media and Social Impact in Washington DC. She has written a beautiful book which offers the framework and social science behind this question of unleashing comedy for social change. What she says is that if we can do the right comedy, we can unlock audiences and have difficult conversations, particularly in these polarised times. The irony is that climate change is a profound existential challenge, to gaze at the meaning and the enormity and the speed with which it comes towards us. And actually, comedy can offer a way to make that whole conversation palpable, bearable. It takes you to a place of engagement that other forms of advocacy or information could never do. 

Megha Agrawal Sood: What was so fun about having Caty at the Lab is that she brought a group of professional comedians. One of the storytelling teams that was there were from an advocacy organisation called the Hip Hop Caucus, which has been doing environmental justice work in the streets for many years, really thinking about creative ways to tap into pop culture and media to reach people of colour in the States. The Hip Hop Caucus partnered with Caty and her group of professional comedians, and they now have a variety special that’s coming out this year called ‘Aint Your Mama’s Heat Wave,’ featuring professional comedians of colour talking about climate change. It just shows how much creative collaboration can come out when you bring together people from different backgrounds that all try to address the same issue. 

Video: Climate Story Lab collaboration ‘Ain’t Your Mama’s Heat Wave’ by the Hip Hop Caucus

Livia Firth: That’s amazing! The second thing I wanted to touch on goes back to what you were saying before, about integrating those on the frontlines into the storytelling process. Last autumn, I participated as a listener to this gathering of indigenous populations from all over the world in London called Flourishing Diversity. They spoke so beautifully about the forest and the river as Mother Earth. Sustainability is all about those values, it is the true essence of the conversation, and so why have we been eradicating these voices, and how can we bring them back into the mix? 

Megha Agrawal Sood: It’s a great question. I believe these stories are being told, but they’re not being heard. And I think that’s actually the key issue. They’re not getting the same type of funding or distribution support. There is a disconnection, seemingly, in terms of people understanding how to be working with the stories of these communities. And we really want to have that critical discussion about how to address that.

Beadie Finzi: I think we have a role to play in creating space and uplifting, as well as fiercely challenging the kind of received wisdom of the funders who commission a lot of this work. We have all got to improve – no more can we talk about one kind of storytelling. 

Livia Firth: You say that you might have a role to play, but actually, you have just launched a huge operation with a big report on the Climate Story Lab and a toolbox, which I believe is the first of its kind to ever being created. How do you see this working?

Climate Story Lab participating project ‘Necessity‘ by Jan Haaken Director and Samantha Praus

Beadie Finzi: Well, after a year of listening and convening with a lot of very smart people, we’re convinced that the Climate Story Lab model offers a sort of productive space to critically analyse climate storytelling and to start to answer what is needed now, in multiple contexts. Because remember, there is not one answer – it’s totally local, and different in national and regional contexts. I think we’re in a remarkable moment of plasticity and possibility right now because Covid-19 has created the conditions for a radical kind of political and social reorganisation. But what are the new politics that we can put into the cultural space which will unite publics and inspire politicians? So, we’re encouraging cultural organisers all over the world to have a look at the Climate Story Lab framework and experiment where they are. We’ve created this simple toolkit which is available for anyone to use.

There’s this wonderful quote from an Indian writer, Amitav Ghosh, who says: “When future generations look back, they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.”

Livia Firth: That’s so true. Today, it is writers’ and artists’ and storytellers’ responsibility not to miss this opportunity. Well, with what you have created in the past with the Doc Society and Good Pitch, bringing so many different stakeholders together and producing some of the most relevant documentaries of the last two decades, I couldn’t imagine anyone better than you two to really unleash this now for it for the next decade, and the storytellers of the future.