The power of positive storytelling

Liontrust's Parker looks at how far we've come towards a sustainable future and the part investment has to play

Storytelling is a powerful medium. It is by reading books such as Jonathon Porritt’s The World We Made or enjoying artwork by “the man who draws the future” James McKay with my children that I am best able to communicate with them about where we are now as a society, and where we need be. This, in turn, helps us make choices and changes aligned with that vision. As author Annette Simmons said, “people don’t need new facts – they need a new story… change their story and change their behaviour”.

This is a strong antidote to the hopelessness we can often feel when we scroll through the doom and gloom, fed to us by news channels and social media. We are more drawn to bad news than good, but this aspect of human psychology means we often anticipate or prepare for the worst, despite the facts indicating otherwise; in general, we see societies evolving to become cleaner, healthier, and safer.

Consciously promoting positive stories could help counteract the dystopian future we are warned we are heading for. In sports psychology the power of visualisation is paramount. When we know it works, why are we not, as a society, doing more to drive a positive vision and narrative of our future? Media, public messaging, and schools could choose to deliver these kinds of stories more often.

One of the reasons the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are so powerful is because they provide an inherently positive message, targeting clear outcomes. Working in a sector that once almost ridiculed the notion that investments could have social and environmental goals alongside financial ones, to where we are now, where almost every fund manager is trying to integrate ESG, signals a step change.

Stories of the future and the role investment can play in bringing about positive change also need to be true. Greenwashing an investment process that is based on business-as-usual and is neither redirecting capital nor encouraging better management at the pace required is not helpful. But we are finally seeing a shift to more progressive thinking in investment ideas that were once radical, such as phasing out coal, quickly becoming widely accepted.

Positive advancements

We harnessed the power of steam and water 250 years ago, used electricity to power the next revolution 150 years ago, and just decades ago began automating production using electronics and IT. Living as we are now, amid the next information-based revolution that fuses all this technology, we will likely see a further increase in velocity but also scope, with the power to change entire systems, impacting how we produce and consume. The speed of technological breakthroughs means we can now see it within our own lifetimes, evolving from a linear to an exponential pace, which will likely result in continued raising of living standards.

How productivity gains are distributed is key; but with our understanding of the costs of inequality alongside huge shifts towards consumer power, with social media and greater levels of transparency, increased knowledge of natural systems and our innate desire for progress,I’m hopeful as to what we might achieve. When we ‘dare to dream’ and put people and the planet’s needs at the heart of our actions, the human spirit rises to solve complex problems.

Psychologist Steven Pinker says it nicely: “Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved.” Only in recent decades have we come to understand the devastating impact we are having on the planet; it will take time to implement solutions to live without fossil fuels and within planetary boundaries.

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Natasha Turner

Natasha is global deputy editor at ESG Clarity, part of the Bonhill Group, and has been a financial journalist for six years. She has been shortlisted for Story of the Year and Investment Journalist of...