‘Nearly everything I’ve been doing has been gravitating towards this question,’ says Owen Sheers, asked how poets and storytellers can affect the narrative around climate change.

Sheers is one of the artists currently working on GALWAD: A Story From Our Future, which will be told over multiple platforms in September 2022 with live events in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea.

He is also a co-founder of Black Mountains College, a brand new education institution based in the Brecon Beacons National Park, which has as its aim ‘to create a future where humans and nature thrive.’

The National Wales: Writer Owen SheersWriter Owen Sheers

And this summer, as part of his role as Professor of Creativity at Swansea University, Sheers curated Everything Change, a series of conversations across the sciences and the humanities exploring the roles creativity, adaptive thinking and storytelling can play in overcoming the challenges of climate and ecological crises.

Ten days of talks focused on seven key areas where urgent change is necessary: Money, Food, Water, Energy, Justice, Story and Change itself, framed by the university as ‘rooted in Wales but with a global focus’ and supported by the British Council and Dhaka Lit Fest.

Answering the question about how writers can affect the narrative, Sheers quotes Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement, which argues that future generations will not only blame politicians and bureaucrats for the inaction that is hastening climate catastrophe, but will also condemn storytellers for what Sheers calls ‘a failure of narrative.’ 

‘We are an ecologically focused species,’ he tells The National, articulating the story that he passionately believes is still missing from the climate conversation. ‘How we live now feels so concrete and set in stone and inevitable, but it’s a brief aberration’. 

READ MORE: Betty Campbell statue must start new era for racial justice

He clearly believes it is the job of a poet to produce this insight, to step back from climate justice as current affairs and to illuminate the problem in the light of the entirety of human history. ‘It is the role of storytellers to imagine what an ecologically focused society looks like – and feels like,’ says Sheers.

And if narratives around climate have traditionally been categorised as science, or filed under documentary and given an intellectual approach, Sheers believes the story needs now to be grasped by the imaginative arts – and by popular forms of entertainment.

‘For ideas to have impact, they need to be carried by narrative and disseminated through popular media like film and television drama. And lifestyle programmes: they should all be greener and ecologically focused.’

Sheers sees film as ‘a quick reaction force, provoking audiences to emotional reaction on what should be the most emotive subject of all, while in the background novels and poetry work the deeper soil.’ 

The writer’s own most recent project was the television film The Trick, in which he reprised his relationship with director Pip Broughton (the pair also collaborated on Aberfan film The Green Hollow and To Provide All People, which marked the 70th anniversary of the NHS).

The National Wales: Jason Watkins who plays Professor Jones in The Trick is a Bafta-winning actor. Photo: Ian West,PAJason Watkins who plays Professor Jones in The Trick is a Bafta-winning actor. Photo: Ian West,PA

The Trick tells the story of Professor Philip Jones, Director of Climate Research at the University of East Anglia, who in 2009 found himself at the centre of an international media storm as the victim of cyberterrorism. 

The film received mixed reviews from television critics, but Sheers readily admits that he made artistic compromises in order to make sure the film’s central message came across. ‘It was scheduled for 8.30pm on BBC One and it was in the top five most watched on the iPlayer,’ he says, ‘so of course there was a bit more exposition than there would otherwise normally have been.’

And he cites an anecdote from the filming which demonstrated the impact of the script, even on the actors and crew. While shooting a scene in which Professor Jones (played by Jason Watkins) outlines the doomsday scenario we face given projected temperature increases of between 3 and 4 degrees celsius, Sheers says lots of people on set – including some of the actors – started asking ‘is this true?’ And then, incredulous at having the facts confirmed, expressed genuine outrage. ‘Why haven’t we been told?’ 

‘Our governments should be on a war footing,’ says the writer. ‘We saw it with Covid, where there has been a massive public information campaign. On climate, where has the government-led narrative been?’

Sheers says he is surprised, given Boris Johnson’s hero-worship of Winston Churchill, that the Westminster Tory government ‘don’t jump on this… it really is a “darkest hour” moment.’ 

He finishes by praising the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which he calls an ‘attempt at a national act of imagination’. He is clear that ‘we know the nature and scale of the problem, and we have the practical tools to do something about it… the challenge is to the communal imagination.’ 

READ MORE: The Well-being of Future Generations Act belongs to every single person in Wales

Sheers rails against narratives that frame the crisis as down to individual behavioural choice, and advocates for systemic change. ‘It shouldn’t be about individuals choosing eco-friendly products. Only eco-friendly products should be allowed to exist!’

Clearly storytellers are well placed to imagine a different future, but surely eco-friendly products are tinkering at the edges. What does Sheers think is the key to responding successfully to the crisis? 

The poet’s answer is as radical as it is clear: ‘We have to imagine a post-growth future. GDP is such a damaging way to measure society.’

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.