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Climate change is happening, but our stories don’t reflect it. With intensified flooding, shrinking ice sheets, and hotter summers, the impact of our climate crisis is stacking up. Yet, popular culture remains comfortably encased in an amber of normalcy, spinning fictionalised accounts of life that are blissfully divorced from reality.
The glaring absence of climate representation across pop culture presents a question that has puzzled people for a while now: if art truly imitates life, why doesn’t climate change — a global reality that is sure to affect everyone’s lives — seem to exist in the stories we tell one another?
This is not to say climate fiction (or cli-fi) doesn’t already exist in the mainstream. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Day After Tomorrow, and Snowpiercer are just a few examples of productions that feature compelling eco-catastrophes. But these dystopian fantasies, believable and thought-provoking as they are, just aren’t relatable enough to our version of reality. Where’s the climate representation in other facets of entertainment? How does the climate emergency really sink into the public consciousness if we aren’t seeing it across our rom-coms, soap operas, crime thrillers, and political dramas?
While climate representation remains sorely lacking as a whole, the good news is, it is starting to peek out from pockets of pop culture. Below are some examples. But warning: minor spoilers ahead.
Big Little Lies
When it first aired in 2019, the Big Little Lies episode “The End of the World” immediately struck a chord with viewers. Young Amabella (Ivy George) suffers a panic attack in class after learning about environmental sustainability, and her protective mother Renata (Laura Dern) demands the school to stop inundating kids with terrifying information about climate change.
Eco-anxiety hasn’t been represented on TV like this before, and viewers quickly identified with the second-grader, who has since become a Summer 2019 Anxiety Icon.
Years and Years
Described as “2019’s most terrifying TV show,” this sci-fi political drama offers a chilling look at a not-so-distant future with technological and climate changes that appear slightly dystopian but certainly conceivable. In 2028, bananas no longer exist, butterflies have gone extinct, and Britain would be steeped in 80 consecutive days of rain. The most terrifying part of the viewing experience, however, is how these little nuggets of information are scattered throughout the series with unsettling nonchalance, leaving us with no time to dwell on these harsh everyday realities confronted by the characters.
In the second season of the Netflix dramedy The Politician, the politics of climate change underpins much of the plot and character development, as we see protagonist Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) running for New York State Senate on a climate change platform. Yet, the underdog’s campaign is shrouded in somewhat disingenuous, performative climate activism from the outset. This is perhaps best encapsulated in his exchange with a young volunteer who questions if he truly cares about the environment. “Of course,” he says. “It’s the centrepiece of my campaign.” But, in the spirit of keeping things real, he also admits that climate change wouldn’t have been his pet issue if it didn’t spur young people to vote for him. Then he takes a cold shower in front of an enthusiastic crowd — a publicity stunt that his campaign manager described as “zero-waste bullshit that people love.”
When Norway decides to shut down oil and gas production, Russia begins a quasi-occupation of the country to safeguard its energy supply. This global fuel crisis sets the stage for the Norwegian political thriller Occupied. Interspersed within the geopolitics-fuelled drama are breathtaking scenes of sprawling wilderness, in a fashion that highlights both the majesty and fragility of the world as we know it.
The Good Place
This philosophical comedy is loved by many for its hopeful message about age-old ruminations on life and death. And while the show is mainly set in the afterlife, climate activism makes a notable appearance in the season two episode “Somewhere Else.” After getting a second chance at life, protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) joins an environmental group and becomes an environmentally conscious do-gooder. For six months, she dedicates herself to volunteer work, endures mockery from her friends, and incurs financial woes by owning up to her wrongdoings. But her determination eventually unravels when she realises how little credit she’s given for undertaking tedious lifestyle changes. “Being good is for suckers,” she concludes in a tirade. Ultimately, her short stint as an environmentalist highlights the experience of contemporary climate activists who, in spite of it all, are still trying their best to do good for the environment.
Santa Clarita Diet
Living in a friendly neighbourhood with a flesh-eating zombie mum who’s constantly trying to cover up her murderous tracks proves challenging for teenager Abby (Liv Hewson). In the zombie comedy Santa Clarita Diet, she finds an outlet for her unusual anxieties in environmentalism.
Hoping to make a radical statement, she blows up a local fracking site with her best friend Eric (Skyler Gisondo). They later find themselves desperately fending off investigators who are pursuing the case of eco-terrorism.
Eco-terrorism is also the focus in an episode of crime thriller series The Blacklist. In the episode “Gaia,” FBI agents are hot on the heels of an eco-terrorist (known as Gaia) who “kills innocent people to make the point that innocent people are in danger.” As Gaia’s back story — which goes back to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster — is gradually pieced together, his journey of self-radicalisation draws sympathy while serving as a caution against extremism.
Here’s where it’s worth noting that eco-terrorism has become an increasingly common occurrence in fiction, almost rendering it a trope — think overpopulation in Avengers: Infinity War and water pollution in Aquaman — in a troubling pattern. While these movies and TV shows make an effort to humanise the motivations behind eco-terrorism, these climate-motivated “villains” are more often than not defeated by valiant “heroes” who safeguard the status quo. Well, what message does this send to viewers who are predisposed to root for our telegenic protagonists? I’m not saying Thanos’ methods were right but, in constructing a narrative that is environmentally pertinent and palatable for mass entertainment, filmmakers also risk condoning a dangerous sense of defeatism and escapism in the current climate discourse.
BoJack Horseman is critically acclaimed for a number of reasons — it dives deep into mental health, tackles prickly social issues with astute humour, and explores the tenderness of animation. But as it turns out, the beloved TV series also offers several climate predictions in the episode “Ruthie.” In Los Angeles, Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) imaginary granddaughter gives a class presentation while the “Hollywoo” sign outside the window sits precariously above vast blue waters — a nod to rising sea levels. According to posters around the classroom, people consume “nourishment cubes” and a temperature of 127 degrees Celsius is considered “chilly.” The year? 2121.
While Norse mythology takes centre stage in Ragnarok, a coming-of-age fantasy series, signs of climate change loom omnipresent. At the start of the series, teenager Magne (David Stakston) moves to Edda, a small Norwegian town suffering from environmental degradation and industrial pollution. We follow Magne as he grapples with his newfound superpower, befriends an outspoken climate activist, discusses the climate crisis in class, and wages war against supernatural schoolmates who are also culprits of local pollution.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)
Based on the book of the same name, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba), a 13-year-old Malawian boy whose innovation saves his family and village amid a crop crisis. In 2005, a drought wreaked havoc on William’s village in the form of a grievous famine, political instability, and violent looting. Using knowledge gleaned from a library book and scrap components scavenged from everywhere, William successfully engineers a wind turbine that sows crops in the fields and reignites hope for his village. The film pulls no punches in its depiction of the human costs of climate catastrophe, foregrounding the heroism of William against a sobering backdrop of one of the communities most vulnerable to climate change.
We get it. The climate crisis can be a huge bummer to bring up. Most mainstream TV and movies are meant to be a delightful escape from reality, not a hard-hitting reminder of what’s wrong with it. Some argue that a topic as grave as climate change is simply too hard to dramatise, and that’s perfectly valid. But having better climate representation could also mean that climate-related events like erratic weather, urban flooding, and unexpected wildlife relocations will become as ubiquitous as seeing movie characters use smartphones or ride on underground trains. Not all climate representation has to be a profound meditation on our ecological disaster.
However uncomfortable climate representation may be, the alternative — one that disregards our changing reality in favour of pseudo-mundanity — is far more treacherous. Willful ignorance may be reassuring but also delusional. We don’t live in ordinary times. Not anymore.