Is Climate Change the Most Important Story of the 21st Century?

There will be many world-changing stories throughout the 21st century. Artificial intelligence and genome science are two that will alter the very nature of how humans exist and interact. But it may well be the story of climate change that is the most important of them all, as it’s a story which describes how the nature of our entire planet will be changed in ways that make it much less hospitable to life itself.

It’s difficult to find a metaphor that properly parallels climate change, but there’s one I often use that’s close. Like a car traveling at 100 mph towards a brick wall, when you apply the breaks, and how hard you push on the brake pedal, will determine the outcome. Too little, too late is not an approach that works well in this scenario.

Some say the wall doesn’t exist, others see the wall yet feel we still have plenty of time to react. I’m in the group who believes that no matter how hard we brake, a collision of some sort is inevitable. We have long since passed the point at which a safe stop can be executed. (I truly hope that I’m wrong in my thinking, but many trends are going in the wrong direction)

Hands Earth Climate Change Protection

How that story ultimately plays out is dependent upon all of us, but I have my doubts that the story will have a happy ending without honest and committed leadership. On that front, many leaders have chosen to ignore reality, but others are making heroic efforts to create a different outcome, one that turns the CO2 tide and ensures a vibrant future for humanity.

At the 2016 TED Conference, one of these heros took the stage to tell her story of challenge and of hope on the topic of climate change. Having served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres understood the topic well, having played a pivotal leadership role leading up to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

In her TED Talk, Christiana observes that perspectives and mindsets need to shift if we are to address the critical issues that climate change represents, and uses the shift from failure at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to the success achieved six years later in Paris to illustrate what can happen when decisions are based on a shared vision of the future instead of protecting one’s own turf.

As inspiring as Christiana’s talk was, it left me wanting to know more about her background, passion and motivation. That’s often an issue with developing a short presentation – this was under 15 minutes – as there’s only so much information that can be included. The fact that she worked on the Paris agreement lends credence to her qualifications as a speaker, but I knew there was so much more to the story and was therefore left a bit unsatisfied.

Which is why The TED Interview Podcast is so brilliant. Debuting in 2018, the format allows Chris Anderson an opportunity to get behind the interviewee’s talk as a way to understand more of the speaker’s background, their motivation, and how their talk is playing out in the months or years since.

After you’ve had a chance to watch Christiana’s TED Talk, pour yourself another cup of coffee and listen to the podcast interview. You’ll gain a much better understanding of who she is, why she ended up in such a critical position, and how her desire for a sustainable world continues to feed her passion.

And here’s the challenge: Were there parts of the interview that you felt should have been included in her TED Talk? If so, what parts of the TED Talk would you have pulled out, assuming the length had to be the same? You will face the same issue when trying to determine what events, feelings and insights you want to put into your narrative, and which ones to leave out. Narrative impact will vary greatly based on this selection.

While creating your story blocks you will need to determine how long each one is, and which ones to leave in the final version. If you’re creating multiple versions – 15 minute short talk vs. 45 minute keynote – those decisions will be different, as will also be the case when addressing different audiences. Before speaking, understand who is listening.

TED Countdown Project

p.s. For those of you interested in being part of the climate change solution, check out TED’s bold initiative – Countdown – that is bringing the world’s foremost experts and thought leaders to the table as a way to create impactful solutions while also encouraging grass roots, community-based movements to support the goal of environmental stability.

An Immigrant’s Story Nearly Lost

Despite its rather modest size – the current population hovers around 1,000 – the history of Plymouth, California is something of a cultural stew that contains flavorful and contentious stories of both mining and viticulture. Its modern day persona is that of a waypoint in the middle of the Amador County wine country, but a century and a half prior, the area was a puzzle piece within the geological landscape that played host to the California Gold Rush.

Plymouth CaliforniaMy 48-hour residency there was the result of a friend’s wedding nearby at Amador Cellars. A beautiful event indeed, with the red, gold and yellow hues of the vineyard serving as a vivid palette for the couple’s nuptial bliss.

As I gazed across the acres of dormant vines before the ceremony I tried to imagine what life had been like during the mid – late 1800s when this remote region was awash with fortune seekers prospecting for gold, as well as fortune seekers prospecting for miners. At the time there were more than 100 wineries satisfying the thirst of those fortune seekers.

While most of those in the area were of European decent, there was a small contingent of Chinese who had ventured from San Francisco to seek their fortune, and during the morning hours before the wedding ceremony became the center of my attention, I took a slow stroll through town and came across a building that had been owned by one of those immigrants.

Old Ming Chinese Store Plaque in Plymouth CaliforniaThe square brass plaque told an abbreviated story that inspired far more questions than it provided answers.

So Plymouth used to be called Pokerville? Who was Old Ming, and how did he play into the Gold Rush story? What happened to him?

Returning to my hotel I was certain that a quick search would clear the air and provide me with a sense of historical enlightenment, but my grand assumption proved incorrect.

Old Ming Chinese Store Front in Plymouth CaliforniaPlymouth never had much of a Chinese population, but in 1882 Ah Ming purchased a building of stone and brick on Old Sacrament Road where he operated a store. Known to locals as “Old Ming”, he apparently kept a vegetable garden behind the store and sold firecrackers, as well as general merchandise … his store stands as the only reminder of Chinese presence in Plymouth. Excerpt from Banished and Embraced by Elaine Zorbas.

That was it. Just one fleeting mention from a single authoritative source. We can skip the chronological inconsistency (was it the late 1870’s or 1882?) and the conflicting information offered up by various online sources as to whether or not Plymouth had once been referred to as Pokerville, or even Puckerville before that.

What I found disheartening was the fact that none of the stories – Ah Ming’s or the store’s – had apparently been preserved. That Ah Ming was a proprietor in town, as opposed to a laborer in the mines, spoke volumes about the life events that brought him to Plymouth in the first place. What products did he sell, who were his customers, and most importantly, what stories were told behind that brick and steel facade?

What is known from other accounts is how difficult life was for Chinese immigrants during this time. Similar to the actions of many today who seek to vilify immigrants, anyone who didn’t come from European stock was often looked upon as something less than fully human.

So as you craft your own personal story, consider the value that your words and experiences can bring to current and future generations. I have a feeling that Ah Ming could have taught us a thing or two about honor, respect, and compassion for those who are different than us.

Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.