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“Telling your story is the most powerful thing you can do”

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Solitaire Townsend, founder of change agency Futerra, has worked with the UN and WFF among others. Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images
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None of us can fix the climate crisis alone. But eco-expert Solitaire Townsend believes we all have a tool that can turn our individual struggles into something with the power to change the world: our stories.

Imagine seeing the young climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate on their 50th birthdays, surrounded by children, and saying – ‘We did it! We’ve built the regenerative societies that we need.’

It’s a vision conjured by sustainability expert and solutionist Solitaire Townsend, one of three panellists speaking at the Ashoka Changemakers’ Summit in Brussels last week.

With this tantalising vision, the question is: what do we do now to make that future happen?

“We’ve spent an awful lot of our time looking at the cracks in the existing system… but we can’t only do that”

Solitaire Townsend

It all hinges on coming up with a better story, according to Townsend. A new narrative that helps instead of hinders. A narrative that’s better able to serve us as we face humanity’s biggest challenge: the climate crisis.

We’ve spent an awful lot of our time looking at the cracks in the existing system. Highlighting what’s wrong. And we have to do that work,” she says. “But we can’t only do that work. Because then we just leave people deeply aware of what isn’t working, with no pathway to change.” 

She calls the dominant climate narrative “a Frankenstein story of man makes monster, monster destroys man”. In short, the idea here is: we’re getting what we deserve for our hubris. And that is a damaging narrative for it feeds feelings of fatalism, overwhelm and apathy. 

Solitaire Townsend speaking at Ashoka’s ‘Climate Narratives of Possibility’ session with fellow panellists Luis Alberto Camargo and Ella Saltmarshe. Photo courtesy of Ashoka

Urgency vs agency

Some activists argue that we need the looming spectre of a monstrous threat to convey a sense of urgency. And you still see this theme resurfacing time and time again in environmental campaigns and society at large, including news media. But, as Townsend says, “We have to make sure that the way we evoke urgency doesn’t deny people agency”. In other words, we have to tell a story that makes room for a different ending, or even a new beginning.

This is exactly why the story we need most of all now is one of the way things could be. The good news here is that this is something we can all contribute to. Because that story is you, Townsend explains. 

“Living a sustainable lifestyle, taking action, speaking up, being more engaged in the community has real, tangible benefits and the best way to tell that story is to show and tell how you are experiencing those benefits. How great it feels, what sense of purpose, joy, connection and belonging you have – all those things that human beings are desperate for. That’s the story.” 

It makes sense, right? A story that focuses on upside of living a sustainable life is a story that people want to hear and in turn becomes a movement people want to be a part of.

Facts, stats and stories

Then comes a question for the room: “What journey have you been on to decide that this is work worth doing?” It feels like both an open invitation and challenge for the assembled audience of change makers, social entrepreneurs and NGOs. Proving an expert storyteller herself, Townsend shares her own personal experience of travelling to the middle of the Amazon before driving her point home: “I promise you that the story of you and why you do this is a million times more compelling than any fact or stat that you could ever tell anybody”.

“Narrative is the soil from which everything else grows”

Solitaire Townsend

And here’s the thing that must be so endlessly frustrating for climate scientists who have tried to get their message across, year in, year out, focusing on facts. Important facts that the world desperately needs to know, of course. But science itself shows that when it comes to getting any message across, it’s stories that stick. Facts that come wrapped in stories have been shown to be easier to remember, and on top of that, we’re more likely to believe personal experiences and anecdotes. Does that mean we should abandon science? No. But it does mean it’s time to get serious about storytelling. 

“For a long time there was this idea, do the real work and then tell stories about it. Finally we are starting to realise that stories are the real work. It’s technology – the most ancient technology we have,” Townsend says. Or, for those who prefer a nature metaphor, “narrative is the soil from which everything else grows”.

Cultivating a new narrative

Case in point is when one of 5’s community members recently shared the story of their personal eco-journey. It was heartfelt and honest, describing a shift from feeling anxious and confused to gaining “a burning sense of purpose to do my part”, while at the same time openly admitting that the result is “nowhere near perfect”. Within minutes after posting, a magical thing happened. People started automatically sharing their own comments and experiences. What this reveals is that open conversations like these really resonate, unfolding into a cumulative act of co-creation, as together we forge that new narrative we so desperately need.

So what’s your story?

There’s a world waiting to hear it.

Share your story

Here’s your chance to share your story with us. Of your own eco-journey. And of how much fun you’re having, how healthy you feel, or about the amazing people you’re meeting in your efforts to make the world greener. We’d love to hear what you have to say.


Ashoka is an international non-profit organisation supporting and connecting individual social and environmental entrepreneurship with the goal to build towards an “everyone a changemaker” world.

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