The power of storytelling for environmental change

Poppy Mason-Watts of the WaterBear Network, our partners for the Environmental Award category this year, explains what needs to change in the media industry for stories to have the most impact, expanding on the idea that spurs our work through the annual One World Media Awards of supporting journalism from, in and about the global south. 


If I ask you to tell me your favourite story, what would you say? I get stuck between Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; George Orwell’s 1984 and George Lucas’ Star WarsMost people struggle when I ask that question, which is surprising when we think about what a big part of our everyday lives storytelling is. There are so many incredible stories to choose from and it’s embedded so deeply into our DNA.  Indeed, as Margaret Atwood wrote: “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.”

Storytelling can be entertaining or used to document history. But storytelling as we know it in the media industry is evolving into something more: it’s being used to mobilise public action – across documentaries, feature films and shorts. We’re even seeing changes in Hollywood, which has an uneven history depicting climate change in feature films, if it addresses the subject at all.

Lately, though, we’ve seen greater changes afoot in the entertainment world. Look at Avengers’ depiction of Thanos as eco-terrorist and the ecological collapse in Mad Max to name but a few blockbusters that point fingers. Or the recent Netflix sensation, Don’t Look Up – which, according to the brand, racked up a record number of hours viewed within a single week of launch. Director Adam McKay has since shared that the purpose of the film was to inspire conversation, critical thinking and drive people to be less tolerant of inaction from their leaders. No small feat.

In contrast, 2021 also saw Hollywood sensation, My Octopus Teacher, a story about one man, an octopus and reconnecting with nature, pick up 11 international film awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary. These very different films make something abundantly clear: relatability, comedy, humour, talent, emotion, well-developed story arcs and narrative resonate with and inspire people. Hard, cold statistics, infographics and graphs do not.  

We live in a world that is failing to tackle the planet’s emergency. We only have to look at 2021’s IUCN report to see that natural disasters are reaching grave peaks and there is little question that something needs to be done, and fast. 

The question we must now ask is: how can we use these learnings about storytelling, education and tooling in our everyday environmental quest and what do we do next?  

At WaterBear, we create atomic stories: small, focused stories that activate the masses, shift perspectives while driving engagement and allow us to imagine and build a new reality. Industry learnings from our first year show that we really need people, across both the public and private sectors, in both the documentary space and the entertainment industry, to engage in communication and focus with great attention on what they say, but more specifically how they say it, if we want to drive real change. 

Environmental storytellers in 2022 must strive to break through echo chambers and inspire audiences from communities across music, sport, fashion, faith and more. It’s only by harnessing this human capital with stories that resonate – Don’t Look Up, My Octopus Teacher and more – that we will drive real systemic shifts.  We need a range of viewpoints, we need talent from all over the world and the buy-in of major platforms and networks on which to showcase ideas. This is a new way of telling stories that is empowering and accessible, engages people and starts giving them the tools they need to make change. 


Poppy Mason-Watts is VP, Marketing Communications at the WaterBear Network