Storytelling and memory keeping as climate change activism

Buy locally, use LEDs, compost organic waste, sort recyclables from the trash, invest in an electric vehicle, or better yet, take public transportation – these are all well-known everyday strategies for combating climate change. But what about storytelling and memory keeping as instruments from the same toolbox?

This is a question Nina Hewitt, a UBC associate professor of teaching specializing in biogeography, seeks to address with the latest Green College Leading Scholars Series. Unstandardizing Standards: Baselines, Memories and Connections in the Human and Other Natural Sciences, organized by Hewitt and two of her colleagues, offers interdisciplinary talks that highlight the social and political power of remembering in the face of deteriorating environmental conditions.

“It is not just about the fact that we are losing biodiversity and systems overtime – it’s also about the collective memory of humans and observing these changes, but not seeing all of them,” says Hewitt. “We can lose an awful lot of richness, but we don’t realize it because of the shifting baseline.”

To stop this personal and communal forgetfulness, a thorough examination of individual and shared baselines needs to occur.

Normalization of climate change effects

The term “shifting baselines” refers to UBC Killam Professor Daniel Pauly’s research on how our understanding of what is normal in nature is shaped by a normalization of the present conditions, resulting in collective amnesia of nature’s past abundance and diversity. In other words, when one’s baseline – or understanding of the norm – shifts to accommodate contemporary scenarios, they may not realize they are seeing fewer ducklings hatching or fewer salmon spawning in the rivers.

Pauly’s Mar. 8 talk Rethinking Our Planetary Baselines Across Disciplines, which can still be viewed as a video lecture through the Green College website, sought to explore how baselines are defined. The problem then is not just one of what to do in the face of climate change, but how to document and recognize these changes so people are compelled to act.

For Hewitt, the answers lie in the connections between storytelling, memory, and data collection.

The importance of storytelling

As highlighted by the lecture series, storytelling is integral to both the data collection that occurs in research and the shared narrativizing of the past. The lecture series is also organized with the help of UBC assistant professors Anaïs Orsi, who specializes in researching the climate science of polar regions, and Meike Wernicke, a scholar of language education. Between the three – Hewitt, Orsi, and Meike – there is already a wide range of different disciplines.

Nina Hewitt. | Photo courtesy of UBC

For Hewitt, this is one of the keys to the series’ focus on storytelling: an intention to highlight the different methodologies used in various disciplines and the stories one can tell through these different approaches to research.

Outside of research, the human element of storytelling is also an attractive tool for science communication.

“People relate really well to data and people relate really well to stories,” says Hewitt, highlighting how storytelling is an important mechanism for making scientific information accessible.

In the next talk, Wed, Apr. 19 from 5:00–6:30 p.m. at Green College, Belinda Daniels, assistant professor at UVic and researcher of Indigenous languages and education will elaborate on these issues. Those attending in person are welcomed to join a reception after the talk for further discussions. A livestream will also be provided for those unable to attend in person.

According to Hewitt, attendees can expect a mix of scholarly insights with openness to discussion, leading to moments of deep reflection on their understanding of what is normal.

This challenging of human assumptions, as the lecture series suggests, is crucial for climate change activism. Through documenting nature and sharing memories of the past, one can recognize just how much has been lost, an important step towards taking action against harmful climate policies.

“We have to get engaged in a way with our communities and our governments – go out into nature,” says Hewitt.

It is in nature, after all, that baselines can be challenged and re-established.

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