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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

March-April 2014

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Editors' Picks: The Power of Narratives in Environmental Action: New Approaches


Margaret Somerville, New York, NY, and London, UK: Routledge, 2013.


Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.


Michael D. Jones, Social Science Quarterly, 2013: 1-39, doi: 10.1111/ssqu.12043.


Raul Lejano, Mrill Ingram, and Helen Ingram, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

Throughout human history, storytelling has been the principal way of conveying information, and narrative analysis is a familiar tool in the humanities. Narratives are very different from scientific exposition and typically involve plots, and characters that may include heroes, villains, victims, and the like. Stories, like the "paradise lost" narrative in its many variations, have played a prominent part in inspiring environmental action. Consider the impact upon conservation of species of Aldo Leopold's narrative of extinguishing the "green fire" in the eyes of the dying wolf in the Sand County Almanac.1 Yet, many modern environmental scholars have discounted narrative, noting how story is as likely to move audiences toward inaccuracies, falsities, and myths as toward sound science.2 The scholarship reviewed here embraces narratives as means for capturing some kinds of environmental knowledge and as mechanisms that support environmental activism. Taken together, the books and article reviewed here advance narrative analysis as a valid and useful methodology for social science research in the environment.

Proponents of including traditional or indigenous knowledge (TK) in environmental decision-making often complain that the fragmented and reductionist science categories into which TK is supposed to fit violate holistic understandings that do not separate natural from social or animals from humans. A narrative in which there is a plot, sequences of events, characters, and other narrative elements is able to convey a more complete and nuanced understanding of people's environmental experience traceable back many generations. Margaret Somerville, in Water in a Dry Land, argues that the "knowledges" that are held in language and story could potentially enable humans to live in balance with the natural world. Language links speakers to landscapes in ways that are often not translatable, and vast knowledge bases are being lost faster than species are going extinct as languages disappear. In her book, Somerville attempts to bring Australian aboriginal worldviews to light through stories, poetry, and art. The result is a sometimes-uncomfortable mind-bending exercise that reveals how much our standard environmental discourse is circumscribed and constrained by culture and narrow views of science that eclipse emotional human attachments and understandings.

Shannon Elizabeth Bell's Ironweed is a more accessible book in which twelve women in Central Appalachia tell in their own words the stories of the varied circumstances that led them to the environmental justice movement. Each of the women tell about disastrous encounters with damages done by the coal industry, including well-water contamination, speeding coal trucks, coal-dust-laden air pollution, and mining-related floods. Drawing upon their roles as wives and mothers, they found legitimacy for confrontational actions to protect their families' food, shelter, and healthy environment. The stories also reveal how new communities and personal transformations emerged through environmental activism. In the conclusion to the book, where the author switches from her interviews to her own voice, Bell explains how women characterize themselves as protectors, expanding their motherhood role to encompass defending the home place, the community, and all of Central Appalachia. The attachment is not only to the physical place, but also to culture, history, and way of life. Government agencies and coal company officials emerge as contending characters that belittle, dismiss, and try to intimidate the women. Male supporters of the coal industry are seen as mobilizing the gender hierarchy, sometimes including the women's miner husbands, to silence and marginalize women environmental justice activists. Refusing to back down in the face of threats is a part of the activists' narratives. The passion, commitment, and perseverance of the women, shared in their stories, is mutually inspiring, welding together a movement that has had real effect.

Michael Jones makes a powerful empirical case for the influence of narratives, particularly the hero character, upon shaping the public's perception of risk and policy preferences in climate change. In his article, the author draws from an Internet-based experiment in which 1,500 people were exposed to climate change information packaged in different narratives drawn from cultural theory: waste and profligacy or the egalitarian story; blindness to expertise and planning or the hierarchical story; mutual adjustment through competition and markets or the individualist story. The reality of climate change is described in the same way in each story, but there are different heroes, villains, and morals or policy solution. Jones finds:

In short, this research shows that narrative structure helps people form initial emotional assessments of characters, and helps steer those assessments in different directions. Once in place, those same narratively directed assessments of characters play a powerful role in helping people support the assumptions and arguments imbedded in the narrative. It would seem that narrative structure matters. More specifically, respondents are persuaded through the vehicle of the hero. (page 22)

Based on these findings, Jones concludes that the public misunderstanding of science model that is the basis of many efforts to change public perceptions about climate change may be misguided. Instead he writes that "Explanations of the public's perceptions of risk and climate change policy preferences should more explicitly account for the role of dominant climate narratives" (page 1).

Rather than on public opinion as in Jones's article, the focus of the book by Lejano, Ingram, and Ingram is on what the book calls "narrative-networks," and the methods employed are interpretive case studies based on interviews and the public record rather than statistical analysis of surveys. Like Jones, however, Lejano and his coauthors rely upon the attributes of narrative, although the contents of the narrative characteristics vary somewhat. Chapter three of the book presents a parsimonious list, tailor-made for use in the social sciences, drawn from a longer list of categories that narratologists have found helpful in capturing the essence of narratives. The narrative elements identified as crucial to analysis, and presented in a schematic figure, include emplotment, characterization, alterity, breach of convention, and context or gap. These categories guide the analysis of environmental networks that have been effective in three very different venues: the Sonora Desert that straddles the United States/Mexico border; the Turtle Island rookeries in the Philippines; and the international alternative agriculture movement. The authors write:

We see the concept of network as fundamental to understanding environmental action: how separate groups of individuals develop relationships with their environments, organize themselves, and take action to manage change. We argue that networks need stories in order to make sense … stories or narratives create the glue that binds people together in networks, providing them with a sense of history, common ground, and future, enabling them to persist even in the context of resistance. (page 2)

The final chapter of the book includes these findings: Narrative-network analysis reveals the quality of arrangements, complex motivations, and relational knowledge that sustains environmental causes. Also, narrative-networks can extend and improve ecological democracy.

Even though the four pieces of research reviewed here are but a taste of the rich smorgasbord of applications of humanities-inspired narrative analysis in environmental research, the flexibility and potential of the approach are clear. Narrating a good story is essential to environmental action, and understanding how narratives perform their magic is a worthy challenge for environmental researchers.


1. William Cronon, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1996).

2. Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1962).

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