Initial Publication Date: October 3, 2019

Sustainable Futures Storytelling

Russanne D. Low, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies

Emphasizing sustainability in our classrooms is a great way to build interest in Earth system sciences. Unlike climate change (and in some circles, even environmental science), sustainability is one of the rare scientific concepts that does not polarize audiences or drive political agendas. It has the feel of a traditional value that meshes well with a variety of cultural backgrounds. It also provides a point of entry into the geosciences that is appealing to general education students from all disciplines.

I've always been a proponent of transdisciplinary education opportunities, and sustainability is a topic that can be explored in from a variety of backgrounds and contexts. Students with majors in a wide variety of disciplines have some preparation in at least one of the Three Pillars of Sustainability-so students with backgrounds in the humanities, social sciences, environmental sciences and technology/engineering will see ways to connect their nascent interests and backgrounds to Earth science topics and begin to build a deep appreciation of the complexity associated with human sustainable systems.

This workshop call for participants holds great interest to me. At my undergrad alma mater, there are broad offerings of sustainability courses- the majority are found in engineering, economics, liberal arts, peace studies and plant, soil and environmental sciences. Seating one or more sustainability courses in Earth system departments would provide more opportunities for students to become familiar with specific Earth system concepts and knowledge about the physical world so they can not only be well informed but also take action to enable Earth's sustainable future.

Approaches to Sustainability Education

My experience in almost two decades of college teaching evidences that students who experience problem-based, data rich opportunities for exploration of ideas and concepts in the Earth sciences tend to learn more, remember more, and have a more satisfying course experience. The series of courses and modules developed through the InTeGrate is a powerful resource for college educators looking to apply this approach in new and novel ways in their classroom. I'm not sure we can easily improve on this model- but we might be able to extend it, and even gain a broader student audience in the process. I'm suggesting taking on storytelling as an approach. It's not so far removed from what we do as it seems- I think I heard more about storytelling in geology classes than in any other, because as we know, Earth tells her story in her sediments and her landforms.


Storytelling is right now in vogue-- in science, in university settings and in the public. From the popularity of Ted Talks to AGU's Voices for Science (of which I am a 2018 alumnus)- storytelling has been heralded as a way to connect with an audience, drive home a message, and have a lasting impact.

I am interested in ways that we can connect geoscience education with storytelling. I got this idea from my 84 year-old mom, who is taking a MOOC on writing science fiction. In creation of her dystopian future, she has researched countless geoscience topics. We sit down to dinner and she tells me about the hydrology cycle, about the environmental impact of desalinization, about abandoned oil pipelines and fossil fuel reserves, and the moral dilemma of inequitable resource access-- as she pulls together a story about cities that are established underground or in domes. Adding a couple of equations to what she has discovered on her own, she has successfully self-taught at least half a semester of a natural resources or geology 101 course. And my mom, though brilliant, is not the least scientifically inclined- she thinks of herself as a graphic artist who makes linoleum and wood cut prints, a former girl scout leader and primary school teacher.

I got to thinking about my own freshman year in college, when I had no real understanding of what geology was (that happened in my sophomore year when I took historical geology). I had to take a required writing course, so I chose creative writing: science fiction. I don't remember even what the story was that I created, but I know it all came from my head- no research required.

I think that an Earth science-based Sustainable Futures storytelling course would be a popular and powerful way to engage students in seeing how environmental knowledge is critical to envisioning sustainable futures. And a team such as the one we are assembling could create content resources that could be used by faculty teaching the course.

Of course, other stories can be told, not just futuristic dystopian ones. But grounding characters in a universe that is (or is not) sustainable and applying scientific knowledge to flesh out the story so it is both realistic and plausible, is an educational experience a creative student looking for a 3-cr science course would never forget. Such a course would need to be developed using a transdisciplinary team, that would include faculty who teach English or creative writing as well as scientists. And I know from reading Stephen King's memoir that the key to writing is to write about something you know intimately, so learning about writing these stories would begin with gaining a familiarity about their own Earth science context (place-based science).

With the majority of students not taking on a science major, it's important to provide opportunities for students to see the value of and the excitement of the geosciences. I'm a good example of this- I started out as an anthropology major, interested in past societies. Over time I became interested in the critical way that environmental conditions interact with cultural behaviors. Ultimately, I found that I was far more interested in past environments than in stone tools and potsherds and ended up in an Earth sciences department applying biogeochemical proxy climate data in my doctorate work. And now, I am most interested in developing ways to engage even more people in the Earth sciences, ways that are useful and meaningful to them on whatever path they are on- and it might be that sustainable futures storytelling might be a productive approach.

Downloadable version of this essay