On Writing for Sustainability

We lost a great last week. Mary Oliver died at the age of 83 after an extraordinary career writing beautiful poetry that connected her readers to the importance of the connection between humans and nature. And, she said that “poetry mustn’t be fancy”.

Sustainability writing can be very technical and scientific. It is very easy to hide behind a lot of jargon and elitist language when talking about climate change, poverty reduction, gender equality or any of the other 14 Sustainable Development Goals. These are shared goals, so the language should be too. Mary Oliver had a way of getting to that.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

This poem, Wild Geese, also outlines a shared world. There is the shared space between the reader and the writer, the geese and the reader, the community space and most importantly, “no matter who you are, you are a part of this too”.

Mary Oliver

Another prominent writer in this area is Barbara Kingsolver. While she is a great writer whose subjects are very nature-oriented, she didn’t study writing. She is a biologist and credits a lot of her career in writing to the fact that she can tell a human story around issues that are very scientific. For example, her novel, “Flight Behavior” examines the plight of the monarch butterfly which is directly due to climate change. As a result of this book, there are those that believe that policy was influenced by it.

The eminent lepidopterist Lincoln Brower, who co-submitted a petition to the government asking that the monarch be listed as endangered—its numbers have plunged from a billion to thirty million in the past twenty years—is convinced that Kingsolver’s novel has “influenced and educated many folks”

Nina Martyris for the New Yorker

Scientific writers, for the most part, have a terrible time telling a story around their research. The policy wonks are worse but they do try hard to bandage the issue. I have seen a 600-page report written (many actually) which is full of jargon. Then, in an effort to entice their audience, they will write a 20-page executive summary. Communications teams will make an interactive summary of the book, write the press release, draft a blog post, and break it all down into several tweets. Then, if it is interesting enough, the journalists will call the press offices to try to make heads or tails of it.

When I think about Mary Oliver who probably made her name with accessible writing, I am struck by how simple and powerful her messages are. They are the same messages that the scientists and policy wonks are sending. But, Mary makes it really hit you at a level where you pay attention. This is what the environmental poets can do.

Critic Jay Parini explained in his introduction to Poems for a Small PlanetContemporary American Nature Poetry, “Nature is no longer the rustic retreat of the Wordsworthian poet. … [it] is now a pressing political question, a question of survival.” Distinct from nature poetry, environmental poetry explores the complicated connections between people and nature, often written by poets who are concerned about our impact on the natural world. Poets today are serving as witnesses to climate change while bringing attention to important environmental issues and advocating for preservation and conservation.

Poetry Foundation

What if the United Nations were to do their research in cooperation with a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry? Perhaps this way the research can be more connective. In “Flight Behavior” Kingsolver seamlessly explores the conservative culture existing in some pockets of rural southern America, without pointing fingers at climate change deniers. She focussed on culture in transition instead.

Some organizations will say that their audience are politicians and they won’t read more than a few bullets about their research. To that, I would say that this needs to be examined. The political power is shifting now towards businesses, citizens and non-profits. So, the stories need to be told so that each of these groups (including politicians) can use them and make their own decisions. While some progress is being made especially around the use of video, there is a long way to go to reach audiences and connect with them. Using stories to connect the dots to wider relevance as well as to a company’s vision and goals.

Is this a world where we could see the UN begin to employ novelists to write short fiction stories around their research? Can we see pages on the UN website where the poets take over? Could the OECD start publishing sustainability relevant fiction and poetry as well as their reports?

These are just a few of the questions I have as I think about writers like Mary Oliver and Barbara Kingsolver and their efforts to connect us in a way propels us forward.

Categories: Art, Partnerships, Sustainable Development Goals

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