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Hope and renewal

Alumni offer inspiring solutions to dire environmental challenges

Fall 2017 | By Paul Robbins

Confession time: I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film. Novels like The Windup Girl along with all the Mad Max-style movies, make for great entertainment. But as a device for motivating environmental action, doom-and-gloom scenarios just don’t cut it.

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Photo by Ingrid Laas.

From dire warnings of overpopulation to peak oil-driven societal collapse, the environmental movement has too often relied on scare tactics to provoke action. Simply put, this approach doesn’t work.

And yet, we may have something to learn from the kinds of post-apocalyptic stories that are more popular than ever. As literary genres such as “cli-fi,” or climate fiction, grow more and more expansive, our annual Earth Day conference in April convened leading thinkers and speculative fiction authors to explore whether dramatic doomsday scenarios, particularly in popular culture, can help the world understand and tackle today’s environmental challenges.

Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife and other dystopian novels, said at the event that presenting a possible future helps readers think about the present in a different way.

The title of the conference, Hope and Renewal in the Age of Apocalypse, gave us a chance to ponder solutions to Anthropocene challenges that strain our capacity to attain a just, sustainable future. As we intended, it was a weird and wonderful day that engaged educators, researchers, writers, conservationists, concerned citizens and more to consider constructive action against worst-case scenarios, from climate change to the loss of biodiversity.

Sherri Smith, author of Orleans and other young adult novels, told the audience that she uses fiction to raise awareness of how things really are, while also offering hope and inspiration. “I am all for story being the peanut butter that you stick the pill into,” she said.

"In this post-truth
world, there are a few 
things we know to be true:
Scaring people into action
doesn't work, and waiting
for them to agree with you
won't either. Only when we 
find common values, will
promising concepts emerge."

In this issue of In Common, we continue to elevate examples of hope and renewal, highlighting the inspiring ideas that hum through the minds of our faculty, staff and students and drive the dedicated work of our alumni striving for environmental quality and human equality all across the world.

Their innovative approaches have made headway against intractable problems, offering lessons for those striving to motivate change. From enlisting school children to out-compete their classmates in a race to zero waste, to engaging communities in anti-poaching monitoring to protect endangered rhinos, the initiatives led by the doers and fixers highlighted throughout our magazine provide a strong dose of hope. (Hat tip to the forward-looking, solution-oriented curricula advanced by our instructors.)

In this post-truth world, there are a few things we still know to be true: Scaring people into action doesn’t work, and waiting for them to agree with you won’t either. Only when we expand our audience, welcome more and more constituencies to the table, and find common values, will promising, positive concepts emerge.

Fictional depictions of dark futures can be entertaining, but the innovation going on across the Nelson community offers real, enduring hope.


Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute 

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