Writing for a cause

Research from Professor Denise Baden at the University of Southampton provides important insights into how to use fiction most effectively to inspire greener behaviour.

Some of the research is available on http://theconversation.com/environmental-storytelling-can-help-spread-big-ideas-for-saving-the-planet-107621

Baden, D. (2019). Solution focused stories are more effective than catastrophic stories in motivating pro-environmental intentions. Ecopsychology11(4).

Baden, D.: 2020, ‘Which work best? Cautionary tales or positive role models?’ In Molthan-hill, P., H. Luna and D. Baden (Eds.), Storytelling for Sustainability in Higher Education: An Educator’s Handbook (Routledge, Abingdon).

Baden, D. (2023). Readers’ Emulation of Green Behaviours in Fiction: A Case Study of Habitat Man.  Sustainable Innovation: Accelerating Sustainability in the Creative Economy and Creative Industries, Online. https://cfsd.org.uk/events/sustainable-innovation-2023/

Baden, D. (2023). The Role of Fictional Characters in Consumer Culture.  Sustainable Innovation: Accelerating Sustainability in the Creative Economy and Creative Industries, Online. https://cfsd.org.uk/events/sustainable-innovation-2023/

Baden, D. and J. Brown: forthcoming, ‘Climate Fiction to Inspire Green Actions: A Tales of Two Authors ‘, In Wang, H. and E. Coren (Eds.), Story telling to Accelerate Climate Solutions (Springer, Cham, Switzerland).

D Baden, 2022. The Missing Ingredient to Fight the Climate Crisis: Positive Role Models. The Conversation,

Denise also provides one to one consultancy for established authors working on new material on how to smuggle in green solutions. Again, payment not always required. She works across several genres, for example, her most recent consultancy was on the comic The Renegades Flames of Amazonia published by DK children. Denise was also on the expert panel for the Global Action Plan Flickers of the Future project (patron Richard Curtis CBE) providing advice on green content for finalists.

Upcoming Events

We have a series of both online and in-person events coming up about writing for a cause. Check out our events page for the latest details on what’s happening, and subscribe to our mailing list to be notified of any new events. Professor Denise Baden is also happy to talk at writing and/or sustainability-themed events or as a guest lecturer on creative writing courses about her research and her new novel Habitat Man. Payment beyond expenses is not always required, depending on the nature of the event.

Tips on how to write for a cause

Findings by Professor Denise Baden indicate that solution-focused stories with a positive tone are more likely to inspire greener behaviours and a proactive mindset to address sustainability issues than stories with a catastrophic focus. This seems to be because negatively framed stories can either make people avoid the subject and switch off, or leave them feeling helpless to make a difference. Example quotes relating to the various stories illustrate:

The positive stories were inspiring and made me realise everyone can make a difference.

I think the ones with solutions have more impact than the over the top scare mongering.

The second story felt inspirational. It gave me a simple option that I could take to do something positive for the environment. 

This was very frightening and negative. It made me angry and I switched off

Scaring people only leads to switching off.

Psychology of behaviour

The theory of planned behaviour proposes that behaviour results from awareness, social norms and perceived behavioural control i.e. we know about an issue, see that other people approve of a behaviour and feel able to do it ourselves. Behavioural control also includes the belief that what we do makes a difference. Research indicates that social norms and feelings of behavioural control are the most important influencers of behaviour. That is, awareness of the benefits of a behaviour are not enough to lead to action – it is important that we feel the behaviour is approved of by people who matter to us and also that we are capable of carrying it out and it will have an effect. So knowing that recycling is a good thing is not enough. What really matters are social norms (i.e. those around us recycle and would disapprove of those who don’t) and ability to carry out the behaviour (i.e. recycling facilities are available, and it will make a difference to amount of waste).

You can use this insight to find ways not just to raise awareness, but to promote pro-environmental social norms and show readers how actions make a difference. So it is enough often just to show social approval of green behaviours or disapproval of harmful behaviours, or simply a positive role model. 

Common mistakes

Focusing on problems not solutions

Many writers still focus on problems not solutions. For example we had numerous entries on rain forest destruction for our writing competitions which is an issue everyone must surely be aware of, so raising awareness won’t necessarily help. What might help would be showing the link between rain forest destruction and meat, especially beef, or talking about where to source wood. If you want to change behaviour, it is not enough to show the consequences, you must also show solutions that the reader is likely to be able to engage with – few readers will be able to become eco-warriors and tie themselves to trees in Indonesia!

Preaching to the converted

It’s important to engage everyone in the fight to tackle climate change, and some people will switch off the moment environmental issues are raised. But most green solutions have numerous other benefits so the good news is that you can promote them subtly without mentioning their sustainability credentials at all. For example, seasonal food is much cheaper and healthy; washing clothes less often saves water, energy, money, time and extends the lifespan of fabric etc. Low resource products such as dry shampoo save money, time, energy, water, make hair easier to style, can be used anywhere – you don’t even need to mention the environmental credentials (93% of the carbon footprint of washing hair is in the hot water used).

The novel Habitat Man  illustrates some of the techniques of writing to promote a cause. 

‘Habitat Man’ is a fictional account of Tim, who finding himself fifty, single and in a job he hates, begins a quest to find love and meaning. As a result of a life-coaching session, Tim finds new purpose when he starts the Green Garden Project, which gives free advice on how to turn gardens into habitats for wildlife. His first client is the beautiful Lori and her teenage son Ethan, who loves wildlife just to kill it (along with all potential suitors). When digging for a pond for another client, Tim is shocked to find he’s inadvertently dug up the bones of the famed guerrilla knitter who mysteriously disappeared thirty years ago after achieving notoriety for covering a statue of a colonial imperialist with a knitted shroud. The conspiracy theories that surrounded her disappearance lead to this becoming news. Tim finds himself a key witness in an inquest to determine what really happened – was it really a natural death?

The book celebrates real local projects/organisations such as the Front Garden project, Transition group, guerrilla gardeners, Green Garden Consultancy, Natural Death Centre and others. Through Tim’s journey to confront the secrets from his past and his interaction with a wealth of characters, readers learn about seasonal/low carbon food, how to create habitats for wildlife, home composting, composting toilets, green funerals, roof gardens, green fashion, how to effectively campaign for green policies, the sharing economy, the merits of costing for nature (triple bottom line) accounting and others.

Many scenes take place in back gardens, but each garden has something to keep the reader hooked beyond the advice on wildlife gardening:

  • In the gardens with the love interest, Lori, the readers are kept engaged by seeing the romance play out.
  • In ‘the Polyamorist’ Tim talks about home composting, but the reader is waiting for Dawn the polyamorist to make a move.
  • In the scenes with the wizard, Tim promotes the idea of a pond to attract frogs and bats, but the reader turns the pages in anticipation of some fun magic or wizardry.
  • In Daisy, the Feng Shui gardener’s garden, the mystery of the body in the garden keeps the reader’s interest.
  • Having a body enables a coffin and a burial, enabling the promotion of green funerals. An inquest into the death provides a natural opportunity for a witness from the Natural Death Centre to talk about greener options