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How Creative Thinking Can Save the Planet


Creativity and art, associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, is not typically connected with the climate change conversation. In fact, we have largely relied upon well-researched, unbiased climate data dispassionately delivered by highly educated experts to explain the crisis and how to solve it. While strangers giving us bad news can be extremely effective at scaring the bejesus out of us, it has yet to instigate the requisite mass mobilizations on behalf of our struggling planet.


Empathy and meaning, however, may prove to be more powerful motivators in our journey to save the planet than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have been. Harnessing the power of our right brains can help us put climate science into the context of our lives and allow us to empathize with each other. Storytelling, play and making things are creative tools that can be deployed to humanize the impacts of climate change and thus, should be the needles and threads in our climate change solution toolkit.

Creative thinking is the ability to look at a situation from a fresh perspective. As author Dan Pink explains in his book A Whole New Mind; Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, the left hemisphere of the brain handles reading, writing and analysis of details, all of which have been so ubiquitous (and obviously critical) in the discussion of climate change to date. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with creativity, contextualization, synthesis, holistic reasoning, pattern recognition, emotional and non-verbal interpretation- all functions which are invaluable when approaching a wicked problem like climate change. It is the right hemisphere of the brain that helps us understand the human and non-human elements of a situation and make meaning of it.


So let’s start by telling our climate change stories, especially the ones with happy, actionable endings. Andrea Collier beautifully sums up the power of the story in her Greater Good article saying, “storytelling gives us both roots and wings.” In his Fast Company article Michael O. Cooper puts it this way, “In sharing our stories, we generate the empathy and collaborative commitment… Right-brainers are not afraid to capitalize on the fact that we as humans value meaning over data.” By telling our stories, we can both convey what has happened to us and, importantly, imagine the future we’d like to see based on the context of our experience.


The happy ending is important because as Solitaire Townsend describes in Forbes, the climate change story is often told as ‘humans created a monster and the monster killed us’ which leads to inaction and despair. Townsend posits that what we really need is a ‘hero’s journey’ where the overwhelming odds are overcome by an unexpected figure (think Greta Thunberg) using courage, friendship, cunning and creative thinking, of course. Sharing our climate stories is important, but teaching our kids how to tell their own stories is key. As Townsend says, “We must teach our children this new ‘heroes’ journey’ story…[because] this is an epic.”


We can also use the often overlooked tool of play to help save the planet. Play is for kids you say? Indeed it is, but it can also be a way to create social change on the sly. Play expert Stuart Brown asserts that play creates “engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.” How often can we say that we experience a similar feeling while calling our representatives or marching in a protest? I would guess not often, and would even go so far as to predict that we might be more likely to take action on behalf of the planet if it was fun.


Sarah Brin, Digital Storytelling Manager at Meow Wolf immersive experience in Santa Fe NM, says that play is a way to re-imagine common human experiences and insert a narrative for social change. One reason for this is that playing is a verb and the act of doing it removes us from the role of observer and puts us into the role of participant. Climate activists are leveraging this shift in thinking about how to motivate people. Consider the annual “Play-In for Climate Action” organized by the Mom’s Clean Air Force. The event includes kids activities and kid oriented music which provides a fun and participatory context for environmental action. Another example is the Queer Dance Party for Climate Change protesters who “put their bodies on the line for our earth and all those who depend on its resources” as they danced their way through DuPont Circle in Washington D.C. The people in these examples are engaging in situations that are commonplace (lots of us have kids and like to have dance parties) and, incidentally, fun, that generate a lot of interest and, therefore, may be more effective than a traditional protest.

The act of making is yet another way that we can use the creative hemisphere of our brains to move people towards action for climate change solutions. Making something can have a powerful and transformative effect, especially when addressing an issue that can feel so global and therefore paralyzing. Brene Brown writes in her book Rising Strong that “[C]reativity is the ultimate act of integration. It is how we fold our experiences into our being.” Making and sharing food, for example, can be an act of resistance. The “Harm to Table” public art installation by Matthew Mazzotta is an invitation to dine together on prepared foods that are threatened by climate change.

Craftivism, the process of using craft in the service of the greater good, is another example of making turned into activism. Betsy Greer, who coined the term craftivism, writes, “the creation of things by hand…reminds us that we have the power.” The UK based Climate Coalition’s #ShowTheLove campaign is an example of craftivism. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to make green hearts for Valentines Day, share them on social media and send them to decision makers with a message about protecting the planet.

I can't leave out the Pussyhat, an excellent example of craftivsm gone mainstream. The iconic knitted pink hat with cat ears was born in a knitting circle in L.A. and was popularized at the 2017 Women’s March as a “symbol of support and solidarity for women's rights and political resistance.” Making, giving or wearing a pussyhat is a powerful statement.

You’ve likely heard the Einstein quote about approaching a problem using the same thought process that created it. Einstein says It doesn’t work and I agree. Despite decades of scientific data screaming that we must make change or else, we have not changed our consumptive, fossil-fuel-burning habits nor have we succeeded in convincing the collective that our current path is untenable and destructive. So let’s try something else. Play, tell stories, make stuff! Sounds kind of fun doesn’t it?