Revision and (Re)Structure: Breaking Free From Big Oil Propaganda

How, exactly, does a writer NOT fall into the trappings of fossil fuel industry propaganda or the colonial mindset we’ve all grown up steeped in?
I don’t think we talk enough about how surreal it is for the planet to be on fire, everyone knows it’s on fire, but the people in power can’t be bothered to do anything meaningful about it. There’s nothing outrageous about wanting to save the planet. It’s literally the only rational option on the table.
Mary Annaïse Heglar, climate storyteller, poet, and podcast host

The ugly truth is: we all got got. More than a century of fossil fuel propaganda has obscured the truth and layered in some nasty narrative traps. Our own narratives might contain propaganda and we might not even know it! Which is just such an exhausting thought.

But that is what revision is for. Just as white culture has now begun revising its assumptions about race and privilege, we must similarly come at the climate crisis with newly opened eyes. We’ve got to understand how the fossil fuel industry has shaped our relationship with nature and energy. Rewriting is a way to learn about our own blind spots—it’s empowering to revise ourselves as we revise our writing.

And if we wanna, we can also deliberately counter the narratives that the fossil fuel industry would prefer us to tell (we highlight some of these narrative strategies in our Greenhouse Gaslighting section). We can move away from fear-based stories that have us hiding under blankets—stories that conjure shame, not action.

(Re)Structure: Telling a New Kind of Story

The structure of mainstream society today is based on extraction and conflict. If we as storytellers want to see societal change, we might need to rethink the structure of our stories, so that they challenge the underlying structure of our society. In other words: a conflict-based story model is only one model of many.

What is the shape of your story? A linear story of a storm, a family who can’t afford to evacuate? A non-linear intergenerational tale of a farm? A road-trip structure showing climate impacts across the country?

Maybe the wave or arc is the appropriate shape. Especially if you’re writing the ultimate good vs evil hero’s journey, with the fossil fuel industry as the perfect villain.

But we can also consider how to harness the power of the hero’s journey in a way that is inclusive and regenerative. Perhaps the “hero” is a group of diverse heroes, rather than just one dude (like Charlize and co. kicking ass in Fury Road).

If you’re writing a community-based story, maybe your structure is more of an interwoven tapestry à la Robert Altman’s Nashville or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Or maybe your script takes the shape of a tree, like in the novel The Overstory. Maybe the tale ripples out like Babel, showing how a local climate issue has repercussions across geographic divides. The possibilities are as endless as the patterns found in nature itself.


What shapes in nature would be reflective of the way we experience climate catastrophe? A sunflower? A nautilus shell? A tree branching outward? What is the best structure for the climate story or portrayal you most want to tell?

These are the stories that will remind us that we’re all responsible for each other and that we’re not alone in this.

Radical Systemic (Re)imagining

In collaboration with our partners at The Center for Cultural Power, Favianna Rodriguez and Layel Camargo

When I tell stories, I try to dig into the root cause. Climate change is not a story about energy, it’s a story about power and power structures.
Amy Westervelt, climate journalist and podcast host

One reason it may feel hard to tell stories about climate is that our exploitative and extractive systems are so highly normalized.

HOW, exactly, does a writer approaching a new story NOT fall into the trappings of the colonial mindset we’ve all grown up steeped in, whether we come from a colonizing community or a colonized one? How do we avoid telling what we might call extractive stories? This is the system we live in, for crying out loud. How do we imagine new stories, with new systems?

One key way that extraction continues today is its invisibility: it is purposefully hidden from us by those whom it benefits most. We are shielded from seeing the mechanisms by which people and planet get exploited without end; we only see the pretty things that make us want—and consume—even more pretty things. (Few people are immune to this!)

So one place to start is getting educated on these processes. What if we understood where our clothes and food came from? What if we really learned what life is like in fracking towns and the regions mined for the rare metals that make our electronics? What happens when we pull the curtain back on the systems that make our life possible? What do we see? Once we take a cold, hard look at our harmful systems, with clear eyes and present hearts, we might find that denormalizing them comes naturally.

What if it was a story norm for our biggest polluters to be our villains—the way Nazis have been the go-to villains for decades? What if it was standard for characters to call out polluters, or to be activists, rather than that being some exotic or freakish character trait? What if a story could make us feel the pain of the Earth, through deep imagining, as oil is drilled out of her? What if we could experience the destruction of our living world from the point of view of fish, or monkeys, or bees?

“LandBack,” “Reparations,” “Defund the Police”—these are all narratives that invite us to investigate our assumptions about what systems could look like, and to reimagine our whole world. They’re the kind of radical narratives we need, along with stories about the interconnectedness of this planet. These are the stories that will remind us that we’re all responsible for each other and that we’re not alone in this. As climate scientist Kate Marvel puts it, “The sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort.”