Research and Teaching in China

In Search of Eco-Storytellers

On certain occasions, words used in the mass media capture the spirit of the times. The term Eco-Anxiety is all over the news. It is treated as a raising psychological condition that is affecting the global population, particularly children and teens. While some people blame it on ecological alarmists and panic mongers, there are good reasons to be disturbed by the human impact on our biospheres.

For instance, the computation of our ecological footprint over the last 40 years shows that the extraction and consumption of water, food, and construction materials is a serious threat to our future. It demonstrates that most of the contemporary national states are facing a severe Ecological Debt (Biocapacity per person minus Ecological Footprint per person). The ecological footprint of hundreds of countries is increasing dramatically, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Fresh ingredients to be anxious about.

In a fascinating and beautifully written text called Being Interlocal in the book Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, Suketu Mehta asks: What is the story of a city? It depends on who is telling it, and who is listening. He mentions:

The conversation around urbanism these days is like the Latin Mass, laden with jargon, reinforcing the barriers around a professional guild. As a result, people don’t listen to good and professional planners in Mumbai or Mexico City, because planners don’t speak in a language that people can understand. Or they speak only international languages like English and Mandarin, and not local languages like Marathi of Fujianese (…) Meanwhile, the real estate developers invest in professional storytellers to sell their sugared dreams of swimming pools and towers in the park to an uninformed populace.

Who is singing the song of the city? Who is listening? We have an Eco-Storytelling deficit. While luxury real estate business and extraction-based policies are fully aware of the power of stories for their own agendas, sustainable development narratives are enclosed in weak and shallow frames that only offer reaction and resistance toward power structures. What to do in order to break this cycle? Where to start?

As Paul Hawken notes in the book Drawdown, climate science contains its own specialized vocabulary, acronyms, lingo, and jargon. Thus, as a means of communication to the broader public, it can create separation and distance. Hawken proposes to bridge the climate communication gap by the words we use, the analogies we avoid, and the metaphors we employ. My own experience in academia tells me that we can shape a sense of Eco-Storytelling via the construction and implementation of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods of research in the fields of ecological design and sustainable development. I talked about this last October in the 2019 Association for Interdisciplinary Studies Conference, in Amsterdam.

A new generation of Eco-Storytellers is ready to be motivated and guided in thousand of cities of the world. They need help from people in the humanities, sciences, and arts. They need this aid now so new songs in the city can be sung.

Seoul, South Korea. June 2019. Photo: Ernesto Valero Thomas

Seoul, South Korea. June 2019. Photo: Ernesto Valero Thomas

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