The power of stories

Do stories really hold the key to the future?

For a storyteller, this is heady stuff. For Jonah Sachs, author of the newly released Winning the Story Wars, it’s serious stuff. The book’s subtitle is Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future and Sachs appeared recently as part of a Commonwealth Club panel, to explain why this is true. The panel was specifically considering environmental stories, part of the Club’s ongoing Climate One program. (The time series below, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. More about the Arctic below…)

This time series, based on satellite data, sho...

The panel, moderated by Climate One Founder/Director Greg Dalton, also featured documentary film maker and University of CA, Berkeley journalism professor Jon Else, and Stanford University research associate Carrie Armel

As a power-of-stories example, Sachs cited those of presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush a few years ago. Kerry’s story (you can read a little more about it in Story Wars) managed to come across with a focus on Kerry as a good guy plus some unfortunately dry-sounding proposed programs. Bush and the Republicans managed to project a loftier story about saving the world. Whether you think the world was saved – or endangered – by the Bush presidency, we know whose story won. Sachs quotes James Carville, in Story Wars, as saying the Republicans had a narrative, the Democrats a litany. Litanies don’t seem destined to rule the future.

Moving into the evening’s topic, Sachs spoke about the long and difficult struggle of scientist James Hansen, who spent decades developing data – an impressive list of irrefutable facts – on climate change. Beginning in the early 1980s, Hansen published and promoted his data, certain that people would hear the facts and understand the need for change. Instead, there was mass denial. Hansen has since moved from scientific data to activism – and to the telling of stories in every public arena he can use.

Panel moderator Dalton brought up the story (image) of the polar bear on disappearing ice floes that came to represent climate change. Because not many Americans connect with polar bears; like litanies, the story was easy to ignore.

Is the globe warming? Will switching back to Republican policies save the world? This might be a good time to start telling stories that illuminate truth.

Palin, Pelosi & the politics of scorn

Much ado is being made over two lady politicos these days, Sarah Palin for her six-figure fees and Nancy Pelosi for her legislative expertise. Both are commendable — depending on how one chooses to commend — but unfortunately they are continuing to feed the politics of scorn. Which is unlikely to lead to bi-partisanship or collegiality any time soon. Maybe both are dead.

Palin’s usefulness to her party is a matter of dispute. According to two prominent speakers at a Wednesday breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor (as reported by Monitor writer Dave Cook), Palin’s rise is great good news for the Democrats.

“Look at this dynamic that is produced with Sarah Palin,” said Stanley Greenberg, chairman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “You have John McCain having to have Sarah Palin to save him [in a primary election race]…”

In the aftermath of the passage of healthcare reform, the ongoing discussion is “Barack Obama against Sarah Palin on healthcare,” he said.

Mr. Greenberg, who served as President Clinton’s pollster, argued that “The face of the Republican Party to the country is not the ‘tea party,’ it is Sarah Palin.”

James Carville, President Clinton’s campaign manager and the other speaker at Wednesday’s breakfast, suggested a test to the assembled journalists. “Do me favor. Call five Democratic consultants and leave a message and say I am doing a story on Sarah Palin and call five Republicans, and see who returns the phone call. I think we all know the answer to that. The Democrats will be on the phone so fast.”

Much as some of us do not admire Sarah Palin, the sneer factor employed by her detractors can be oppressive. (Come on, if you’re an anti-Palin, think of the slurs you have slung her way.) She is, herself, a master of derision in a by-golly sort of fashion, and it is this that brings loud huzzahs from her audiences when she takes on the Democrats.

Not to be outdone, Speaker Pelosi (whom I appreciate and respect) was heaping scorn upon the Republicans in speeches to California audiences this week,

… saying they “have nothing to sell” to the American people except a crude caricature of her as the midterm elections approach.

Pelosi, D-San Francisco, was surrounded at the Phillip and Sala Burton Center by ardent advocates of health reform, who cheered when she was cheerful and roared when she was defiant. And she was proudly defiant.

“I couldn’t care less,” she said of GOP efforts to use her as campaign fundraising bait. “I should be thanking them. … It really helps me with my fundraising.”

The issues are real, and occasionally that is made clear:

“This is a bill about the middle class. This is a bill about small businesses. This is a bill about affordability,” Pelosi said.

Still, Pelosi warned Democrats that the fight isn’t over, saying Republicans “are unabashed in wanting to rid us of this … and one way they think they can do it is by making gross misrepresentations to senior citizens” with what she called a “campaign of fear.”

Appearing before a crowd dominated by seniors carrying signs of appreciation – “Thank you, madame speaker” – Pelosi was lauded by a parade of admirers, including Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, doctors and senior advocates who praised her tireless push for the measure.

Admittedly, Pelosi was in friendly territory this week, as Palin has been in recent days herself.

Palin last weekend put Pelosi and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the center of her campaign-style speech to Tea Partiers attending a rally in Searchlight, Nev., Reid’s hometown. “You’re fired,” she said of the two Democratic standard-bearers.

This may be the way politics works. But wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally, some way could be found for opposing sides at least to be civil in the interest of the common good.

Defiant Pelosi scorns Republicans.