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Voices from the Future shares stories from the front lines of climate change

After Hurricane Dorian tore across Grand Bahama in 2019, Dave Mackey called his home “a paradise, but a temporary one.”

Photo illustration by Ashley Quay.

With climate-related disasters increasing across the globe, Mackey’s statement could easily apply to the entire planet. In 2020 alone, the world watched devastating fires rage across Australia, the Amazon rainforest and the West Coast of the U.S. The Atlantic hurricane season has proved to be the second most active on record, with two major storms battering the Gulf Coast. This year is also on track to be one of the warmest years on record.  

Climate change is on our doorstep, and it’s not knocking politely. Steven Beschloss wants people to think about how they’re going to answer. Enter Voices from the Future, an initiative from the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory chronicling the experiences of more than three dozen survivors of extreme climate disasters across five continents.

“I think there's been a failure to convince the public about the scale of the problem, the nature of potential responses and the science and the reality of climate change,” said Beschloss, narratives lead of the Global Futures Laboratory and director of the Narrative Storytelling Initiative

With his background as a journalist and narrative nonfiction writer, Beschloss saw an opportunity for storytelling to succeed where data and science failed. 

“This idea emerged to tell largely journalistic stories that would help people better understand these extreme weather events and what they mean,” he said. “What people go through, what that experience is like and ultimately, with the goal of increasing empathy.”

The stories, primarily compiled by writer and journalist Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss, examine extreme climate events from the perspective of their survivors. The stories span the globe, chronicling floods in West Virginia and Jakarta, raging fires in California and Australia and super powerful storms sweeping across Texas, Oklahoma and the Bahamas. 

“Whether it’s five or 7,000 miles away, the challenge is making people feel a sense of alarm and urgency to do something when it doesn't touch them in an immediate way,” said Beschloss.

Urging people to reconsider the effects of climate change is a sentiment shared by subjects of Voices from the Future, such as Mackey and Greg Kochanowski.

“I don’t think we are able to solve these problems on an individual basis, but with mass education,” said Kochanowski, who survived the 2018 Woolsey Fire. “We need a psychological shift that people start to demand those sorts of things.”

In addition to giving readers a firsthand look at climate disasters, the series explores the fallout of such events, examining how communities respond, rebuild and find support, as well as how inequality and economic fragility are as much a part of climate change as weather. 

Beschloss hopes that these stories give readers a chance to consider what they would do in similar situations and how they might persevere and adapt to our changing world.  

“Neighbors that don't know neighbors suddenly realize that their survival and ultimately their long-term well-being depends upon being able to connect and live together in a way that they haven't before,” he added. 

Amplifying voices from tomorrow

Beschloss thought the project’s global scope and appeal to action would be a good fit for the magazine The New Republic, which has a section dedicated to green politics and climate change.

In August, he partnered with the magazine to showcase the series. The New Republic has since published seven of the stories, as well as an introduction from Beschloss outlining the project.  

In another opportunity to bring Voices from the Future to a wide range of audiences, Beschloss and the Global Futures Lab partnered on a monthly series with PBS and veteran reporter Frank Sesno and Sesno’s Planet Forward project at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. The series features climate change issues and solutions with experts, innovators and others who can share compelling personal experience. Called “Planet Forward,” the series is part of Peril and Promise, an ongoing public media initiative from WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York. 

Co-produced by Beschloss along with the Global Futures Lab and hosted by Sesno, Planet Forward’s director, the first episode, “Can youth be the bipartisan climate communicator?,” focused on youth climate activism. Several subsequent episodes will draw from survivors featured in Voices from the Future to show the individual impact of climate change.  

“I'm encouraged by the way in which Voices from the Future is really connecting with people, and in ways that actually exceed what I would have anticipated,” said Beschloss. 

Voices from the Future has also grown to serve as the linchpin of a seminar class Beschloss is teaching with Michael Rohd, Institute Professor with the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Beschloss originally sat down with Rohd, a theater professor, to explore the possibility of collaborating on a script for a short performance piece centered around the human experience of climate change. 

“And he said, ‘Well, you know, maybe we ought to build a class around it,’” said Beschloss. 

The class, Shaping Climate Narratives, is a Humanities Lab seminar that spans a range of climate change media, from books such as "The Uninhabitable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells and "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert to films like 2006’s "An Inconvenient Truth."

“The first five weeks we mostly focused on kind of laying the foundation of climate coverage and climate narratives, the ways that different writers and filmmakers and creators have gone about trying to engage the topic,” said Beschloss. 

Following a foundational review, the class moves on to exploring the Voices from the Future stories, with the ultimate goal of drawing out universal themes and experiences to create performance pieces, digital media or data visualizations that convey the human aspect of climate change.

The students enrolled range from freshman engineering students to graduate students in the arts, so the final pieces will have input from a diverse mix of talent and disciplines.

The pandemic has shifted expectations for the course’s final product — for now, it’s unlikely a live, traveling performance would reach the intended audience with the necessary social distancing and safety precautions.

“So we have to be adaptive in terms of how we are able to sort of communicate these stories to people,” said Beschloss. 

However, he ultimately thinks that the pandemic, like Voices from the Future, can rally people to action and inspire them. 

“The pandemic is an experience that has been global in nature and has touched people everywhere, just as a big climate-related event can actually touch the whole world,” he said. “I don't think we've quite teased the significance of that, but there surely still is a hope that we will actually recognize that our global interconnections are real and meaningful and necessary.”

pzrioka@asu.edu