Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 671–684 | Cite as

The power of story for motivating adaptive response–marshaling individual and collective initiative to create more resilient and sustainable food systems

  • Michelle Miller
  • Jeremy Solin


What can environmental scientists and teachers do to make our food system more resilient in times of rapid change and food system failures? One low-cost and high-impact way is to encourage people to tell their stories of food and farming. Stories are one way we navigate complexity, and our food system is increasingly complex. Facilitating individuals and groups to talk about their experiences and direct observations is a powerful tool to help people understand their role in the food system. As each individual makes his or her own personal story explicit, they begin to listen to the stories of others and see how their daily choices shape the system. People are then in a position to better understand complexity and make conscious choices that support resilience and systemic change. We offer three cases in different contexts that illustrate how anyone can facilitate an adaptive response and what outcomes could be expected. The first case involves discussion of agricultural ethics in a children’s classroom setting. The second shares experience of apple growers who wanted to reduce pesticide risk but were thwarted by the management complexity. The third case brought together business leaders interested in making regional food systems more resilient. In these cases, narratives based on personal experience helped people understand their role as a central actor in the food system and make them conscious of their responsibility for the health of the system. It encouraged their curiosity and interest in specific questions that scientific inquiry could address. Storytelling empowered people to act individually and collectively to make the food system more resilient within their spheres of influence and built the skills necessary for effective civic engagement on complex systemic issues.


Storytelling Narrative Civic engagement Food systems Resilience Systems thinking 



The authors wish to thank the many reviewers who patiently worked with us to strengthen the article. We also wish to thank the many people who have shared their stories with us and taught us the power of story in creating a food system that we have envisioned together. We are especially grateful to Gerry Marten, editor and organizer of the symposium on food systems, for the contribution it makes to the understanding of the challenges before us and opportunities to improve resilience.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Integrated Agricultural SystemsUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Program Development and EvaluationUniversity of Wisconsin Extension-Cooperative ExtensionMadisonUSA

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