Stories can teach, stories can lie: Alaska News Brief April 2022
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Stories can teach, stories can lie: Alaska News Brief April 2022

It doesn’t take long spending time with dogs, bears, birds and bees to know they communicate. Some animals even manipulate. Only human animals uniquely share knowledge, wisdom, tall tales and lies through stories.

The writer Margaret Atwood describes the origin of storytelling as the coupling of language with concepts of the past, present, and future to help people learn about what happened before—to teach people things to avoid having to learn by trial and error every time.

Stories helped people and their communities survive.

Animals like arctic foxes use camouflage to deceive potential prey animals when hunting. Photo by Mike Lockhart, USCGS

As language grew more complex, people could talk about things that weren’t visible, like gods and ideas about the ways and whys of how things work. The problem, she explained in a recent Ezra Klein podcast, is that “you can make up really destructive things and use them in an instigated and malicious way for your own ends… So we are a species that deceives. Other species deceive, too. But we do it more elaborately, and we do it with stories. ”

For those of us who look to facts and science and data as essential for making decisions about human impacts on the world, stories often seem to skirt the substance we adore. We wonder, why don’t people just look at the facts? Yet research shows that facts, no matter how sound or immediate, do not change people’s entrenched views.  

When you dig deeper into the research to understand what’s going on, what seems weird or incomprehensible to those of us who believe we are rational thinkers makes a lot of sense from the point of view of social cooperation.

As Atwood said, the story tellers who lie to us understand and manipulate what we want and fear. They begin with emotions. They begin with toying with how we think and feel about ourselves. They begin with the question, “You want to be a good person, right?”

Right now, there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty and loss in the world. And a lot of information coming at us. The politicization of these emotions and information turns into a weapon for agendas that come with deep inequities and costs.

Instead of solving problems together, people fall back on social identities that  politicians and those with economic power exploit to prop up the status quo.

Faced with a multiplicity of global crises, these deceptive stories have again been polished and propagated.

Decision makers like Sen. Manchin have responded politically to the war in Ukraine by going all in on accelerating oil and gas drilling in North America, conveniently  turning his lifelong pro-carbon economy agenda into a deceptive story of crisis response.

What the war factually reveals is how the reliance on oil and gas is one of the major problems we need to solve via clean and sustainable energy investment to ensure energy security and the health of the planet. We know this and have known it for decades now. Yet, the same players use fear and crisis to manipulate stories that maintain the status quo, which for oil and gas corporations means receiving huge government subsidies without the requirement to pay the costs of toxic sites they leave behind or of the human health and other impacts of oil and gas industrialization.

This politicized story deceives because it fails to see the world holistically. It fails to envelop what’s good for all people and living systems. It fails to address the real costs of oil and gas exploitation on communities and the planet.

For over 100 years, the oil and gas industry has relied on public relations firms to churn out these deceptive stories of oil and gas extraction as a good and right thing, not the destructive system that fuels conflicts and imperils all life.

Yes, the entwined crises we face are complex and horrifying, the work ahead hard. If we’re going to survive—indeed if many living things are going to survive—we must grapple with this moment’s crisis by also doing everything it takes to sustain the planet that gives us sustenance.

We must remember the oldest of old stories—the one meant to teach us an essential truth, so that we don’t keep learning by trial and error after error after error until there’s no room for errors: Humans do not control the land, air and water and all that the planet holds. We’re part of it.

We cannot afford to forget.

Vicki Clark, executive director

PS. Thanks to your support, we can continue fighting to protect Alaska’s land, water, air, wildlife and people!

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