Conversation Starters is an initiative by members of the Environmental Change and Governance Group (ECGG). The premise: We pose intriguing or provocative questions to initiate discussion among students and faculty associated with ECGG, and with the colleagues and communities with whom we work. Each episode of Conversation Starters will feature responses of 250 words or less from a small number of ‘virtual panelists’ to initiate discussion. Anyone is welcome to comment on the panelists’ responses or reflect on the initial question via the comments section below or using the #ECGGconvo hashtag. Our aim is to inspire critical reflection and dialogue through web-based social media platforms. So, please join in the Conversation!  



Thomas Dyck 2 Thomas Dyck, ECGG PhD candidate (@everytomdyck):

I attended Water Innovation Lab 2013 organized by Waterlution that touched on creating dialog through story. One thing from the workshop that resonated with me was the idea that a story is the shortest distance between two people. I realized that through story we can quickly connect with people and bring our common experiences to light. I think the connection that story facilitates creates opportunities for communicating environmental change and governance research.

Story connects the storyteller and the listener. A good storyteller connects with their listener by sharing and bringing together common experience and values. I think that through these common experiences and values the storyteller builds a sense of trust, honesty, and respect that make a story meaningful for their listener. A good listener connects with the storyteller by also being respectful as well as open to hearing a new message, perspective or truth. By listening we can improve our understanding of the storyteller’s experience and values while at the same time improve our understanding of our own ideas and values. In turn, by telling our story honestly and respectfully we help our listener hear the common experience and values that we share.

Everyone is unique in how they experience environmental change; however, there are common threads that story can reveal which connect us. Through trust, honesty and respect, storytelling brings people together over shared values and experience. The more we appreciate the common thread, I think the more open we are to working together to address the unique challenges associated with environmental change. Who knows what thread may be the shortest distance between us.


steve-quilley-180x189 Stephen Quilley, Associate Professor (ERS, University of Waterloo):

In a general sense human beings are biologically attuned to stories. There is clear evidence for instance that math problems posed as a story involving people are more readily solved by children than the same problems presented with unadorned and abstract numbers. It makes sense for academics in all fields to present their findings in creative ways, using narrative, theatre etc. But that is a rather mundane point…and kind of obvious. It is more important to recognize that competing stories are themselves the problem and should be the focus for research. As Daniel Quinn puts it in his novel ‘Ishmael’, a big part of the ecological crisis…rising to the current crescendo over hundreds and thousands of years, is that we are enacting a particular set of stories which make certain feature of the universe visible and meaningful, whilst obscuring others. The story that makes sense of the world for agriculturalists centres on the idea that nature is a resource provided by God and that human beings are a special category of being for whom natural laws do not apply. The modern Promethean version strips out God and completes the disenchantment of the universe and places humanity in the driving seat. As Stewart Brand said ‘We are all gods now’. This story writes a blank cheque for human expansion and facilitates scientific understanding and has given us nuclear warheads and antibiotics … as well as a complex connected cosmopolitan civilization. And it has also brought us to the brink of destruction because the story provides no basis for individual or collective restraint. It is a story that celebrates a species-level narcissism incompatible with ecological conscience formation. For Aldo Leopold, the Darwinian truth that we are kith and kin with all living things…would be sufficient to trigger an expansion on our understanding of community to include non-human nature…and the emergence of a land ethic. How could we drive other species to extinction if they were part of our extended family? Clearly the land ethic has been still born. The 6th great extinction crisis rolls on. So if scientific understanding has not engendered ecological restraint, how might we go about changing society, culture and ourselves?

More than anything else we need to enact a new story, rooted in a re-enchanted view of the universe. Science has to find ways to reconnect with problems of meaning (‘ontology’ for the philosophers). Human beings create meaning by telling stories, through ritual, through play, through collective affirmation, through active/visceral/kinaesthetic engagement with the stuff of nature (making things, craft, cooking, hunting, art), through theatre….by holding hands and looking up. We will be back on track when scientists and engineers habitually step out of their offices every day at a certain time to hold hands, affirm our home in this universe, say a prayer and enact a different kind of story. For a bleak but powerful example of counter story telling, see I am not optimistic.


Kaitlyn Kaitlyn Rathwell, ECGG PhD candidate (@kjrathwell):

I would like to expand the assumption that story is to be used only for communicating research – this limited view reminds me of a conduit idea that research is done in a lab and that the results must then be communicated to the world. But what if the world must be involved in creating meaningful stories?

The value of telling stories:
• Story and storytelling creates opportunities to engage with multiple forms of expression to communicate environmental change and governance research
• Combining, oral history, music, theater, visual arts create larger netting with which to draw in listeners/ participants
• Including the arts in storytelling means speaking from/to our hearts and our heads
• Embedding monuments and oral history together can be a way to learn from past mistakes

The process of telling stories: creating stories and then re-enacting them, or elements of them (via behavior) over and over again via e.g. community song, hunting, recycling will be how society is able to navigate complex environmental change. Stories and narrative is how we make sense of the world, develop our ontology and strive to see that narrative repeat in the future. Currently, we need to make sense of the complex environmental change and scholars should not be the only ones creating stories to make sense of these unprecedented changes. Perhaps an important question is then how governance research and practice can engage with storytelling processes? across scales? across different cultures?

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2 Responses to Conversation Starters – Episode 2

  1. I love this topic and I thought that Tom, Stephen and Kaitlyn brought up interesting aspects to think about! I’ll add to the mix by sharing a link to a blog piece about the role of storytelling in the transition towns movement:
    The post brings up the point about the role of storytelling for those ‘aha’ moments where ideas start to make sense for the real world.

    Perhaps others can start to share more links here for other online resources! Videos, blogs, papers…

    Mark Andrachuk,
    ECGG PhD candidate

  2. Here’s another example of using storytelling from Esri (not sure it’s actually from @Esri or @EsriCanada). They have a series of videos on using maps for telling stories:

    I like this quote from the first video: “A good map teaches you to ask better questions”

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