Science is the key to the future of our forests. Without it, we cannot restore and make forests resilient to climate change. But is science really all we need? What about the role stories play in forest restoration and, thinking even bigger, in systems change?
If we want to change a system and foster lasting improvements in our society, we need to tackle the root cause of societal issues. Through the SUPERB project, we are ultimately aiming at systems change by collectively restoring forests and biodiversity in twelve locations in Europe. Part of this work involves exploring how people see, feel and value these places in their neighborhoods so that the work can continue beyond the project.
So, why am I bringing up “stories” here? What’s that got to do with forest restoration and systems change?
When you start looking into the literature about systems change, you won’t miss the work by Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist who authored Thinking in Systems. According to Meadows, there are different leverage points to intervene and impact how a system operates. Whether it is a new project or a policy, most interventions we make are unlikely to persist for a long time. Instead, Meadows proposes a mindset change and emphasizes that the ability to see the paradigm differently is more effective for a big, long-term shift. From this point of view, what we need is to scale ‘deep’ in addition to scaling ‘up’, since the former addresses shifts in culture and relationships, while the latter replicates existing initiatives.
Undeniably, the future of forests we restore through SUPERB will be in the hands of local communities, practitioners and decision-makers. Not only will the existing narratives transform, but new narratives will emerge. These narratives connect interested individuals and groups and bring new people into the conversation. While some narratives may support and build on the work we leave behind, others may use it with specific interests. That is why understanding the power of story is important, as it can impact how people see, feel and value restored forests in their surroundings (For more about the role of story in systems change, I invite you to read this beautiful piece by Ella Salmarche).
So, what can we learn from the existing restoration stories? In search of successful stories, I used a YouTube Data Tool to collect the most viewed YouTube videos with the keywords
, ‘restoration’ and ‘forests’. While some of them are linked to other types of restoration, we could use these examples to identify the elements that contribute to making these stories visible online.
|no.||channel||video title||view count||url|
|1||National Geographic||50 Years Ago, This Was A Wasteland. He Changed Everything | Short Film Showcase||5160840||https://youtu.be/ZSPkcpGmflE|
|2||Andrew Millison||The Canal That Accidentally Grew A Forest In The Arizona Desert||3814238||https://youtu.be/jf8usAesJvo|
|3||Happen Films||Man Spends 30 Years Turning Degraded Land Into Massive Forest – Fools & Dreamers (Full Documentary)||3363467||https://youtu.be/3VZSJKbzyMc|
|4||Leaf of Life||How Spain Is Turning It’s Deserts Into A Farmland Oasis – Greening The Desert Project||1754190||https://youtu.be/nmOX622P-OU|
|5||Down To Earth||How A Farmer Turned 90 Acres Of Wasteland Into A Lush Green Forest In Odisha||1577571||https://youtu.be/C08FAa-Vlj0|
|6||Mossy Earth||We’re Bringing Back Iceland’s Forgotten Forests||751498||https://youtu.be/K-r2EetCtO0|
|7||Trees for Life||Restoring The Ancient Caledonian Forest Alan Watson Featherstone TEDxFindhorn||677705||https://youtu.be/nAGHUkby2Is|
|8||DW News||Justdiggit: Restoring Dry Land In Tanzania | Global Ideas||431109||https://youtu.be/RPJ9T4yAEGs|
|9||XAG Official||Application | Forest Restoration By XAG Agricultural Drone In Brazil||398272||https://youtu.be/CqivF6PaFfY|
|10||Mossy Earth||We Are Reforesting The Ocean – Here’s How||371184||https://youtu.be/pzmc8ztD4e8|
|11||Growing Small||Turning Degraded Land Into Forest, Woman Builds Natural Homestead||303170||https://youtu.be/T145drzKhGc|
|12||Mossy Earth||Bringing Back The Ancient Viking Forests Of Iceland | Rewilding Iceland||300703||https://youtu.be/5lAegYUc1lU|
While different storytelling techniques are employed in these videos, the top four have something in common; they focus on one simple solution. These videos also use a narrative that praises the power of nature.For example, the National Geographic documentary highlights planting grass as a solution to percolate the water into the ground, eventually transforming a wasteland into a biodiversity-rich area. Another video by the permaculture practitioner Andrew Millison also talks about the raised canal structure as an accidental solution for native forests to grow in a swale, emphasizing how nature makes it possible. Three out of five top videos also discussed biodiversity as a positive byproduct resulting from forest or nature restoration.
Protagonists as “heroes” is another commonly used technique in the top videos. Among the top five, three feature one “hero” throughout the story. For example, the Down to Earth’s video features a female farmer in India who bought the degraded land in the 1980s to experiment with organic farming techniques, eventually resulting in a lush forest cover. Other storiesadded personality to the protagonist by showing their daily routine and interviewing family and friends.
Unsurprisingly, journalistic videos talk about conflicts, disagreements, risks and disasters. The example from Happen Films highlights the conflicts between the protagonist, who believed gorse could transform farmland into forests and local pasture farmers who were sceptical towards his idea. In addition, a Lead of Life video with 1.8+ million views treats desertification in Spain as a risk.
While third-party YouTube channels produced the top 5 videos, some were also filmed by those involved in forest restoration. A good example is Mossy Earth, who filmed their own on-ground restoration actions in Iceland, indicating how a forest practitioner could take a viewer on a journey to forest restoration.
But a powerful story does not require high-end video editing techniques and journalistic skills. This is portrayed in the TED talk by the Tree of Life founder, Alan Watson Featherstone, who listed key restoration principles in his inspirational talk.
While these are some takeaways from the top YouTube videos, a story can also be told at a much more grassroots level. A story we tell our families, friends and colleagues can be as powerful as the story told in a professional setting. As Alan Featherstone says, “Restoration is about reconnecting the stands in the web of life, but it’s also about reconnecting people with the rest of the web”. Similarly, a story can bring the web of life closer to people, and people closer to the web of life.
Image: Parradee /AdobeStock.com