How to Tell Grounded Stories
enero 30, 2020

Aviation is deeply engrained in the lifestyle of many people in the Global North. Decades of advertising and campaigning by the industry lead to a view of flying that is connected to freedom and an open minded society. But with the rapidly escalating climate crisis this picture is beginning to crack. It becomes visible what aviation really is: The most unjust mode of transport and a main driver of the climate crisis. Now, it’s more important than ever to talk about transport and the climate in a way that is not just in line with the scientific facts, but also in a way that unveils the green lies of the industry and paints a picture of a future mobility that is socially just and respects planetary boundaries.

On the 30th of January 2020, we dedicated a webinar to the question: “How do can we tell stories about the problems of aviation and alternatives, so they reach, inspire and empower people?”. The content of the webinar was input by Stay Grounded communication campaigner Manuel Grebenjak, and co-founder and press speaker of Stay Grounded, Magdalena Heuwieser, as well as discussion between all participants.

“What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives.”

To effectively craft stories and frame our message, it is helpful to clarify and understand some terms: What are narratives, and frames, what is storytelling. At the beginning of the webinar, these notions were explained. In short: Narratives are ways to explain (an aspect of) our world in a certain way. They are formed, reinforced and contested by stories every day in our minds. In order to change the discourse fundamentally, dominant narratives – like the growth paradigm and its alleged benefits for society – have to be contested. This is can normally happen through smaller stories. We talked about the expansion of an airport and its negative consequences as well as an assumed struggle against it. Stories like such an anti-airport struggle have different dimensions. According to the Center for Story-based strategy a good story should include the following five elements:

  • conflict, e.g. an airport to be expanded and the resistance against it
  • characters, the protagonists involved; who tells the story
  • imagery (words that capture imagination with metaphors, strong pictures)
  • foreshadowing: hinting to the outcome, e.g. if we don’t stop airport expansion and reduce flying, we face climate breakdown
  • underlying assumptions, the unstated parts to the story that must be accepted in order to believe the story, e.g. questioning the need for economic growth

Framing: Our language should match our values and believes

What is meant by “framing”? We should not use the same terms, the same frames, when talking about an issue – if we do, we stay in the dominant narrative. For example, talking of “tax burden” creates the feeling that taxes are heavy and horrible. If we talk of tax contribution, instead, it creates a positive association – it’s something that is necessary for a functioning society. Or take “global warming”: Warm is a nice, positive frame. It’s therefore better to speak of “global heating” or the “climate crisis”. Language activates pictures in your mind, so it’s important to choose the words wisely.

Found your stories on morals

According to the moral foundations theory by Jonathan Haidt, how we react emotionally to certain stories and frames we hear is based on six moral foundations. So clearly talking about the values that stand behind what we do and want, is highly important. The foundations are: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty.

Messages to Stay Grounded

When talking about aviation, it’s important to think about the story we want to tell. How do we achieve that people don’t feel “shamed”? Or that people feel that not flying is a “sacrifice”? How to achieve that the debate shifts, that people like grounded travel, looking forward to a future where our children can still travel.

Do we want to talk about the positive alternatives? The report “Beyond Flygskam” actually has another finding: Most people stop flying not because they heard positive stories about non-flying travel, but because they realized that flying is worse than they thought. Flying already is responsible for 5-8 percent of global heating.

So yes, let’s tell people that we’re flying straight into climate breakdown – if we don’t reduce flights and end the privileges of the aviation industry. Avoiding that people feel shamed can be done by pointing out that it’s understandable that people fly: It’s often cheaper than climate friendly alternatives, some have families abroad, and everyone (apparently) does it. Still, by building a movement we can manage to change the rules of the game: Make those pay who fly excessively through a frequent flyer levy or make trains cheaper than planes. Also, funny and cool messages can help making the grounded people appealing: Penguins will be the symbols of the new grounded movement, the “Let’s stay grounded!” campaign wants to trigger – because “The coolest birds stay on the ground”. Join the #PenguinsForFuture!

Stay Grounded Core Messages

As Stay Grounded we have some main messages, we try to speak about in every interview, presentation, article etc. We want to spread them as widely as possible and use always the same pictures and metaphors and speak to certain values.

Aviation’s climate impact is much worse than we thought

  • We’re on a flight towards climate breakdown.
  • Flying is the fastest way to fry the planet.
  • Aviation is responsible for 5-8% of climate heating worldwide!
  • It’s not just CO2, it’s not just emissions – it’s the “climate impact” of aviation (plus other negative effects like noise, health issues, biodiversity loss etc.)
  • Aviation is growing faster than other sectors of the economy – even though it’s the most climate damaging form of transport.

It’s a justice issue

  • These emissions are emitted by only about 10% of the world population, while the majority have never set foot on an airplane.
  • There are also major disparities within countries, mostly linked to income: e.g. in England, the 10 % most frequent flyers took more than half of the flights abroad. (fairness)
  • While some fly, we all pay for the subsidies. (loyalty)
  • While some fly, others bear the consequences: residents exposed to noise and particle pollution from planes, local ecosystems, future generations and those in the Global South who are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.  (fariness, sanctity)

Greenwashing is no solution – we have to reduce flying

  • We should not talk about “green flying”, “sustainable aviation”, “carbon neutral aviation”. We should talk about “degrowth/ reduction of aviation”
  • Offsetting is a modern sale of indulgences: it’s ineffective, leads to land grabbing in the Global South, and doesn’t tackle the problem.
  • Tell what we want:
  • Trains, not planes
  • Stop unfair subsidies – tax kerosene
  • Put a levy on frequent flyers (not on those who only rarely fly)
  • Red line for airports – set moratoria

“Grounded travel” – alternatives

  • Trains, night trains, passenger ships, coaches, etc.
  • Paint a vision: a world in which we can travel in a way that our children can still travel, too.
  • e.g. Chris Watson does not talk about aviation/flying, but about “climate safe travel”


Here, you can find the slides of the presentation, here an overview of all Stay Grounded webinars so far and there is a playlist with all our webinars on our Youtube channel.


Further reading: