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How Artists are Transforming Climate-Related Storytelling
Silhouetted human and animal figures cross a burning, orange screen, as a narrator repeats the Bible’s exhortation to “be fruitful and multiply … to fill the earth and subdue it.”
“So why would the industries stop exploiting the Earth if it is our divine right to do so?” the narrator asks, as black talons reach for the viewer.
Part of the Climate Woke series from The Center for Cultural Power, these are scenes from a searing animation by Abraham Matias, a reminder that “we are the stories we are told,” as the narration states. Matias follows his Biblical introduction with a series of myths from other traditions that offer very different views of humans’ place in the world: stories that begin with how human beings were created from wood, mud, or corn; a Mayan creation story where humans are tasked with tracking the passage of time and caring for Earth; a North American Indigenous tale of animals saving the first woman.
This video, and others like it in the series, reexamines humans’ relationship in caring for the planet, treating it as an innate responsibility, an ongoing process, or even a profound source of joy, rather than a moral obligation or burden. It is part of Climate Woke and The Center for Cultural Power’s push to transform how we tell stories about the climate crisis from a White, Eurocentric, “doom and gloom” approach to a more constructive one led by frontline communities. The goal is to empower people to take action and, according to Cristina Uribe, chief campaigns officer for The Center for Cultural Power, to “shift our worldviews.”
“So much of what people are seeing actually reinforces this narrative that … this problem is so big, I can’t do anything,” says Uribe.
Such apathy, she says, stems from overlooking the emotional aspect of cultural change. It takes everything to make progress on climate change: facts and science, policies that can actually make a difference, and a sea change in how people feel when faced with the challenge of climate action.
“We have the facts, we have policy solutions to the climate crisis,” says Uribe. “What we don’t have is the popular imagination, and that’s why we need artists. We need those new stories.”
The Center gave the Climate Woke artists prompts, such as climate’s connection to the return of stolen Indigenous land, Black liberation, immigration, and the exploitation of workers. But beyond that, it allowed them free rein. Different things move different people, it reasoned, and who better to know how to move people than an artist?
In other Climate Woke videos, Aisha Fukushima, a vocalist and activist, highlights the work that Black environmental leaders and Afro-futurists are doing for environmental justice; Cheanie Noai, a Kaqchikel Maya artist and singer, celebrates a vision of a more just, Earth-connected future where the restoration of land to Indigenous management is a reality; and Denali Nalamalapu, a painter, uses traditional Kalamkari painting techniques to examine the roles and needs of women in the environmental movement.
The Center for Cultural Power is led by women of color who have prioritized intersectional storytelling by, for, and about Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other communities of color. That’s partly because communities of color and other marginalized communities feel the effects of climate change most acutely, but it’s also because they are often leaders in climate action and organizing. Uribe points to the presence of “land back”—the movement to return Indigenous lands—in the wider cultural conversation as an example of what effective storytelling paired with organizing can do.
Since releasing the Climate Woke videos earlier this year, The Center for Cultural Power has turned its eyes to the country’s biggest storytelling machine: Hollywood. Along with several outside collaborators, the organization has launched Good Energy, a story consulting group for writers, producers, directors, and other participants in the filmmaking process to help incorporate climate change themes into their works. According to the Good Energy website, less than 3% of scripted films and TV shows include references to the changes associated with global warming. Good Energy is intended to change that.
The move into Hollywood’s world of glossy storytelling is a shift from the grassroots artistry of Climate Woke, but one that Uribe hopes has ripple effects. “Hollywood is a very big force in storytelling,” she says. “We need to shift the type of stories that they are telling, because many have been around doom and gloom,” and centering a White, male point of view.
One day, Uribe believes, changing storytelling to reflect the climate crisis and its solutions will help cultivate a society-wide, bone-deep understanding “that we are not resigned to climate chaos … that is not the only ending to the story.”
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.
Kate Schimel is a writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Most recently, she was managing editor for Searchlight NM, a local investigative news organization. She also edited business, transportation, education and health coverage for Colorado Public Radio and served as deputy editor at High Country News. She began her career as an education reporter, covering underserved communities in New York and Denver. Kate is a member of NASW, NAJA, and EWA. She can be reached through her website at kateschimel.com.