Why storytelling matters—Jon Mooallem at TED2014

To start his talk at TED 2014 in Vancouver, conservationist Jon Mooallem told a story. It wasn’t a brand new one, but an important and enlightening one. Back in the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt was on a hunting trip, and a group of his attendants captured a bear, battered it, and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt. But Roosevelt spared the creature, believing this went against his sporting instincts. This spawned a political cartoon that appeared in the Washington Post, and eventually, the creation of a brand new toy, the Teddy Bear.

But prior to this incident, nobody would have ever thought that a bear would make for a cuddly, protective toy for a child to clutch while he slept. And that’s because the previous story of the bear was not an uplifting or comforting one. They were seen as beasts, a creature the federal government was actually in the process of exterminating. But the incident with Roosevelt changed everything, and the invention of the Teddy Bear, according to Mooallem, showed how dramatically our ideas about nature changed, and was proof that the stories that we tell can dramatically change nature.

An unfortunate truth is that we’re living in a time of extinction, and Mooallem openly wondered why it is that we care about some species and not others? Aside from perception equaling reality, it’s crucial that there be a perception in the first place. Species whose stories remain in the dark are at a higher risk for extinction. Take, for instance, polar bears. Mooallem showed a humorous collection of letters from schoolchildren to President George W. Bush, who were urging him to do something to save polar bears. In the 1980s, this may have seemed ludicrous. But with climate change now at the forefront, polar bears’ story was finally being told. And this rapidly altered the perception of polar bears from a mysterious animal to a sympathetic one.

Storytelling is always subjective, but it is ever more so for the stories that are told about wild animals. Being afraid of the unknown is nothing new, but unfortunately this can have dire effects on certain species. The animals that are most endangered will only survive with human intervention, and Mooallem believes this can start with changing narratives.

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