The Story Arks Institute

Mission Statement 2015


Our Purpose 

         Why “Story Arks”?  The Ark is the vessel Noah used to carry the animals through the flood and renew the world.  Arcs, in drama, are curves that trace the development of the plot from catalyst to climax, and the evolutions of characters in conflict.  Put the concepts of the vessel and the dynamic curve of story development together, and you have an institute dedicated to bringing forth the dramatic stories in cinema, television, and other media that may carry us toward a new way of living on the Earth.

         In the new reality of climate change, The Story Arks Institute has been established (2009) to advocate a new paradigm for the dramaturgy of the 21st century and to facilitate the proactive engagement of media professionals in the great issues of sustainability that will occupy our generation and generations to come.  The Story Arks Institute directs its focus toward cinema, television, and the new media, with the hope of promoting a paradigm shift to a global vision of that sustainable future.  The battle for a sustainable future is in reality a battle for a sustainable paradigm, a comprehensive new way of understanding ourselves, our relationships to others, and our interdependence with all life.  We dedicate our efforts with confidence in the assessment of Frank McConnell that “stories are the greatest form of self-help that mankind has ever invented.”


Who Can Use The Story Arks Institute?


         The Story Arks Institute addresses itself first of all to professional screenwriters, story editors, directors, producers, and media executives with the goal to facilitate them becoming more proactively engaged in climate change and related issues—be they scientific, social, or ethical.  For storytellers in the major media, The Story Arks Institute offers a platform to seek out and develop the concepts, the images, the metaphors, and the themes that will be key to a dramaturgy of the 21st century.

         It is also clear that ecological and integrative perspectives must be brought to bear on the way the media see themselves, their public responsibilities, and their mission.  Ecological and integrative perspectives mean an emphasis on networks rather than hierarchies, on more open participation, more transparency and accountability.  We can already see storytelling shifting from formally hierarchic production and distribution systems toward a cacophony of new arenas and distribution modes for video, such as U-tube.  Therefore, at The Story Arks Institute special programs are in the works that will focus on “new network” storytelling: direct to Web, interactive-collaborative storytelling forms that will be the next steps beyond U-tube.  We welcome the pioneers in these new fields of storytelling.


How Does The Story Arks Institute Function?


         The Story Arks Institute began with screenwriters and story development experts coming together with climate scientists, engaged NGOs, and regional broadcasters to ask how the climate change crisis and its emerging repercussions might be made more visible despite widespread denial, disinformation campaigns, and plain ignorance.  One convergence point was the UNESCO Broadcast Media and Climate Change Conference in Paris in September 2009.

         Keith Cunningham’s special workshops and lectures in this area have been ongoing since 2008 with his first mini-workshop, together with co-leader Thomas Schlesinger, on The Road Ahead: The Dramaturgy of the 21st Century at the Medienakademie of the German broadcasters ARD and ZDF. Workshops and lectures have taken place in Germany, Spain, and Austria.  Future workshops will focus on new dramatic forms; the dramatic potential of the great, “longitudinal” TV series; and using drama to question our notions of “progress” and “success,” and re-vision them for a sustainable world.

         Another branch of The Story Arks Institute’s engagement consists in project development and consulting: bringing forward-looking perspectives into existing genres, characters, dramatic situations, and other elements of dramaturgy—as well as creating and developing entirely new dramatic works.

         Anticipated next stages of The Story Arks Institute’s activities include mounting a screenplay competition to award scripts that successfully mate superior dramatic quality with sustainable visions of the future; staging larger conferences to promote increased interaction and collaboration with climate scientists, green thinkers, and regional broadcasters; and advocacy for change at the editorial levels of the major media.

One major project in development is a personal collaboration with my colleague Claus Josten. It is not a Story Arks Institute project, but is in the same spirit. It is a far-reaching concept involving many partners. We plan a complex interaction of filmmakers and society across the Euro-Mediterranean region that will include collaborations between filmmakers and scientists, film festivals, and a unique forum process designed to bring science, media arts, and the public together in the countries taking part in the project as well as shared across the project region. We will make more details public as the stages of the project progress. 

—Berlin, March 2015



The 100-Months Project

 The Challenge to Storytellers, Media Professionals, and Artists to Envision a Sustainable Future.

         This is an open letter to my colleagues in the media as well as decision makers in corporations, NGOs, and foundations. It concerns the greatest challenge that we all face together——in fact, the greatest challenge that mankind has ever faced.

         Perhaps being a screenwriter, a professional storyteller, has turned my mind toward ecology, or perhaps my lifelong involvement in ecology has impacted my view of stories and their worth. But I see that both drama and ecology share the perspective that there exists a nexus of patterns and implications behind local events, and it is these larger patterns that are of ultimate concern.

         We have all come to accept, even very belatedly and with much resistance, the reality of global warming and the grave dangers it poses to us and everything we hold dear. The urgent consensus of the world’s scientists is that these next 10 years are the decisive ones for the future of the planet. If we pass certain environmental tipping points, we cannot bring them back to the status quo ante no matter how much we may “wish upon a star.” There will be no instant replays, no second chances.

         My assessment is that we cannot and will not arrive where we must in 10 years without the urgent and proactive, sleeves-up involvement on the part of the media and everyone involved with them. The scientists are doing their part. But people still tend to bury their heads in the sand and hope the storm will blow over——or worse, to divert their anxiety into blaming the messenger.


This is a real race against time in the best cinematic tradition!


         People need many kinds of messages about the future. Dire warnings by themselves tend to throw people into denial. Reassuring lies are simply that. The entire society is in need of a preventive trauma therapy and an adaptive tune-up. Among the messages that people need to hear are a positive vision of what a sustainable future might be like—look like and feel like—and what sorts of mature individuals might inhabit that new world. This is part of the prophetic function of mythologies, those stories we live by and depend upon.

         We also need to be kept aware of the clock, that it is ticking. And we need to learn how to use the clock productively. Every football team has a “5-minute drill.” That’s when you are down 10 points and there are five minutes left in the game. They have a play-by-play strategy worked out, plus contingencies. This is a heightened energy state, a state of more intense concentration and focus. Let’s accept that this is where we are, globally. There is a fine space between denial and resignation on one hand, and panic on the other. The media can help people find that groove of heightened focus, and the ecstasy of success against all the odds.

         But so far, my colleagues in the media have mirrored attitudes in the general public, including fear and denial, rather than taking on the mantle of responsibility of those who claim to be leaders. (And generating, producing, and broadcasting mass-media products aimed at manipulating the “hearts and minds” of the public is an implicit claim to leadership.)

         To help media people become more proactively engaged, I am launching a program, The 100 Months Project. The 100 months coincides with this crucial 10-year horizon, announced by Al Gore to the US Congress, that scientists give us for making the decisive and sweeping changes that are necessary. In fact, the idea is to involve everyone from media funders and sponsors to media personalities and celebrities. We are, all of us, impacted by the global changes now underway.


The greatest threat to civilization is our tendency to believe our own lies.


         We media people know how to work with images and stories. That’s our business, our expertise. The question is: to what ends do we focus our talents, our resources, and our star-power?

         Starting right now with the organization, my plan is to convene, in the summer of 2010, a working session/congress to be focused on the following:


Ø    Convince media professionals that proactive engagement with climate change is both necessary, worth doing, and possible;

Ø    To bring media professionals up to speed on the latest science, its trends and implications;

Ø    To collectively imagine new images, metaphors, and stories that can help make a viable future visible and desirable to the public;

Ø    And to inaugurate a detailed program to help turn new visions into new realities, to help those involved move from raw new concepts toward viable productions. This program will entail professional mentoring and retraining of how we use our creative resources and ourselves. The ecological crisis is an inner as well as outer crisis.


For better of for worse, the coming time will change us all. This is the “coming of age” rite for our species.



         People who work in the media appear from the outside to have a great deal of power. From the inside, we also know that we are under all of the pressures, stresses, and feelings of frustration that afflict modern man in general and corporate employees in particular. We are especially susceptible to the dictum, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” There is a power hierarchy that we simultaneously respect and rebel against. Think of the energy invested in all that just waiting to be harnessed! 

Reviewing our attitudes, values, and goals is implicit in readying ourselves for the challenges of this new time, and is incorporated into the program itself: 

  • Recovering integrity and the courage to speak the truth;
  • The ecology of identity and integrity;
  • Leaving the paranoia of “scarcity consciousness” for the power of sharing;
  • Ecological pattern-awareness and the power of creating;
  • Practicing honest communication, connection, and community in the media;
  • Recovering a sense of intrinsic value and possibility;
  • The strength and joy of engagement;
  • Practicing compassion as a way of changing the media environment;
  • Hope-giving myths of the new, sustainable world;
  • Keeping faith with our past, present, and future: engagement in the long human adventure;
  • Individual visions/cooperative sharing in story and project development;
  • Concrete steps toward realizing the new projects and the new world;
  • Developing a “5-minute drill” media approach to the next 100 months. 

Finally, let me remind you that the response to the narrow-minded, short-view pragmatism of “Looking out for #1” has already been given by Benjamin Franklin in 1775, when he said:


“If we don’t all hang together, gentlemen, we shall all certainly hang separately.”


©2015, Keith Cunningham