Inge Wallage portrait

‘I Opened My Eyes’

Inge Wallage talks about her transition from Big Oil to Eco-Activism


I opened my eyes. Glimmers of early morning sun were peeking through the curtains. I looked around the cabin. This was the big day.
Celebrating ten years since ‘the great transition’, ten years since humanity managed to create this new sustainable society. New energy no longer new, ecological farming the norm, animals plentiful as they were protected by humanitarian rights, basic income a given for everyone. The slow economy had proven to be an example of ‘less is more’. Growth had meant a growth of happiness, with Gross Happiness Index rather than GDP.

2020 had indeed been a year of vision – of clarity. The tipping point had been Greta, a determined Swedish girl on a mission. She had turned out to be so much more than just another poster child.

From Dark to Light

When I was hired at Equinor, or Statoil as it was called in those days, I was hired to bring an international spirit to the company, having worked in other multinationals in global roles. When I got there, however, people really tried to make me Norwegian or at least wanted me to work in Norwegian ways.

I took it for granted to enable communications in foreign cultures, allowing them to communicate in ways that were in synch with their local culture. Taking the Statoil values into a more international approach was not so natural to my colleagues, who strongly believed in the Norwegian model. It was tough, at many different levels.

So I wonder – was my time at Statoil my dark journey, to speak in Jonah Sachs’ architecture terms?

It was not just dark, obviously. It had been a good journey too, during which I trust I have been able to contribute to the company’s internationalisation. I had learned a lot too and about much more than only the beautiful Norwegian model.

I do think, however, that my time at Statoil, delivered my true tipping point.

I remember a meeting during which we were discussing a future advertising campaign. I was surrounded by people who really believed that we should communicate that we were giving people in other countries a gift by giving them energy, meaning oil, fossil fuels. Mother Earth was treated as something intangible, something one could just exploit.

I felt in my gut that this was not right. You know when something is not right, your brain is trying to make sense of something, but your body is telling you otherwise. We have been taught that this is flaw, yet that is where our true wisdom lives.

Perhaps that is always the point. We need the Dark to truly recognise, understand and ultimately appreciate the Light

Woman on the shoreline at daybreak

From Take to Give

It left me confused.

Coincidentally, if there is such thing, I got a call from a head-hunter. I remember it so well. I was in the lobby of our PR consultancy in London, on the walls screens showing various news stations broadcasting some hijacking of an oil tanker out at the sea on the coast of Africa and the voice at the other end trying to gauge my attention of joining the world’s best known brand to campaign for a green and peaceful future.

My children, aged 8 and 10 at the time, wondering when their mother would finally come home again. I was looking into their eyes, the next generation, representing future generations.

What was I going to tell them in the years to come, that their mother had been working hard on the creation of stories that was supporting to get more barrels of black gold out of Mother Earth on a daily basis or that I had contributed to making this world a better place?

From Black to Green

I took the plunge and joined an organisation where people were driven by clean oceans, protecting forests, creating an energy revolution rather than by bonuses, second homes and big cars. How inspiring.

It was also full of politics, silo mentality and alpha male behaviour [by both men and women]. Similar to what I had experienced in the corporate world. How disappointing.

We learn that to be human is to be more alike than we are different at a foundational level.

From Different to Same

Both Statoil and Greenpeace were working on climate change, each in their own way.

Statoil was working on new energy – and it invited Al Gore to Oslo to share his ‘Inconvenient Truth’. Within the company, at leadership level, we were discussing climate change.

Greenpeace were campaigning for the energy revolution, their storytelling emphasising the urgency.

Each had their roles. Each had their perspectives on each other, not necessarily with a view to striking a relationship, let alone a constructive one. Greenpeace were convinced that their strength was in campaigning rather than engaging. In not being at the table, they could remain true to their core of ‘bearing witness’ to crimes that are larger than the law.

Most people in Statoil did not understand why I was joining ‘the enemy’.

To me it was an opportunity to not only contribute to making this world a better place, but also to experience a different kind of work-place rather than working for corporations.

Initially people at Greenpeace thought that I was another one of those CV-focused people who would leave again soon enough to work on CSR, being able to say I had worked for an NGO. No such thing, joining Greenpeace felt like coming home.

Inge Wallage, portrait
Nederland, Amsterdam, 27-06-2017 Inge Wallage: communications and engagement director at the International Water Associations, Communications director for Greenpeace, portret Foto: Duco de Vrfies

I joined Greenpeace and together with my colleagues created a new global communications strategy for the organisation, with story strategy in the centre. It contributed to a new way of campaigning.

From a climate movement perspective, Greenpeace was one of the players. The year I joined COP15 was going to take place, in Copenhagen. There were joint activities with other established players like Oxfam, WWF, Friends of the Earth, but also the new ones like Avaaz.

They tried very hard to have a common narrative. I don’t know whether you remember the ‘Tick Tick campaign’, as in the clock is ticking. However, just as in the corporate world, they all wanted to differentiate.

I think the climate movement can claim victory in terms of ensuring awareness through their climate storytelling. It was built over time but has actually taken far too long, considering where we find ourselves today.

At the same time they might have stimulated the climate sceptics by way of their campaigning and by the language they used. After all, when pushed into the role of a villain, you become defensive, you close down, unwilling the hear the other….

During my days at Greenpeace and for quite a few years after that, I joined a civil society organisation that convened civil society actors and activists called Smart CSOs. They initially asked people to come together because after more than twenty years of campaigning we were still losing our planet and so we should probably be thinking of a different way of campaigning.

One of the areas was our narrative, the need to have a different one.

From Message to Story

I am a true believer of storytelling, as long as the stories are real and lead to connection, community and action. As always, this is nothing new. From Gilgamesh to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, storytelling is written into our human consciousness and pre-history. And the frameworks for it are timeless.

According to storytelling architecture developed by Jonah Sachs and Joseph Campbell, the hero goes through the so-called hero’s journey, often a dark journey. Then the hero meets a mentor and from the gift the mentor provides, our hero is able to get through the challenging journey and onto the good life.

The stories we remember are most likely based on this architecture, based on oral tradition. When I was at Greenpeace, we worked with Jonah Sachs and developed a new story strategy.

Not only was this based on Jonah’s philosophy of the beginning of a new era, the ‘digitoral’ era, but the Greenpeace hero and heroes changed too.

Jonah believed that the stories that would rule the future and that would last would be those based on the oral tradition, embedded in digital reality.

Greenpeace activists had, up to then, been the heroes in the campaigns, but we figured that the true heroes were those that enabled our campaigns to come true, our supporters, our donors, our clicktivists, our petition signers, and so on – our audiences.

Greenpeace was the mentor who gave the brand gift to heal the world.

To get this embedded into the Greenpeace way of campaigning, the way of working was not easy. Their way of campaigning was so embedded in the DNA of the organisation. As it is in any other organization.

What this goes to show is that storytelling and story architecture is about the soul of the organisation or company, and it proves Lao Tzu’s belief, I think.

And we need all the soul we can get right now.

Inge Lisenka Wallage
The Butterfly Effect – strategies for transformation

Working where sustainability and communications meet is a fundamental part of Inge’s playground. A ‘change maker’ and owner of The Butterfly Effect, she hosts debates with the intention to have conversations, driving dialogue to try and find the wisdom that lies with the gathering. ‘Listen well and you recognise something of the other in you.’ She also organises systemic constellation sessions through which people can work with issues in an intuitive way.

Inge believes that borders are imaginary, true listening an art, and is convinced of the power of fiction. She thrives on facilitating teams – large and small – to find their new realities. She is writing her first novel, in addition to poetry.

Inge believes that we need to take action to make the SDGs a reality, now more than ever. One of her main clients is the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD). She believes in the potential of their contribution to our changing world.

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