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Why Isn't Pop Culture Better at Talking About Climate Change?

Some of the best art of the past year tackles major social issues like racism and surveillance. So why don't more TV shows and movies take on climate change?

by Jordan Foisy
Dec 14 2015, 7:05pm

Scrolling through the best of the year lists one is struck by the wide breadth of challenging topics covered. Racism (To Pimp a Butterfly), the financial crisis (The Big Short), surveillance (Mr. Robot), and myriad other pressing issues were explored and humanized in the way that only great entertainment can. Except there was one glaring omission: climate change. If you were looking for a tale or song that put a human face on perhaps humanity's most dire problem the best you got this year was Neil Young's new album, which was less an album and more just an hour of an old man rambling.

I was thinking about this as I watched Aziz Ansari's solid show Master of None, in which the main characters discuss diversity, sexism, and being second-generation immigrants. Yet not once did these beautifully shot brunch conversations veer into climate change, though it could've easily fit into the vibe of the show:

Brian: Man, my dad was telling me sea levels may rise 20 feet if all the ice in Antarctica melts, which is looking increasingly likely.

Dev: So?

Brian: Well, think about how many times restaurants you like to take dates to are near the coast.

Dev: Daaaamn. Why does dating in the modern world have to be so complicated?

This isn't meant as a criticism but as an observation of a devastating lack in modern culture. There isn't any art that depicts climate change as a dilemma for the average human being, as an ethical issue that we are all engaged in. Instead it's either an apocalyptic polemic that's issued with plenty of moralizing guilt or it's a horrible, weightless celebrity-infused sing-along. What I am asking is: Why can't there by an episode of It's Always Sunny where the gang freaks out after watching Cowspiracy or a Coen brothers flick about a complicated academic who lives an environmentally sound life but only to shove it in people's faces? (Probably because that last one would be a bad movie).

More of this, please. Photo via Flickr user Takahiro Kyono.

It's admittedly difficult to write about climate change in a way that avoids those tropes. I don't know how to do it. I'm a comedian and have never written a joke about the subject that hasn't elicited more than uncomfortable shifting in the seats. My notebooks are littered with pages that have the phrase, "Climate change is very scary and an urgent problem, it's like..." scratched out and followed by anecdotes about the troubles one gets up to when drunk.

One reason I find it hard to write about, is that it is still mainly an abstract problem. (Though I'm writing this during another "unseasonably" warm December, so we'll see how long that feeling lasts.) It's a crisis that exists mainly in the numbers and graphs of scientists as opposed to issues like equality and poverty which we've all seen or been affecting by. This problem of it remaining an abstract dilemma has only been exasperated by the billion dollar denial industry cooked up by petrol interests, which has forced climate change voices to focus on the science and on inscrutable facts that are firm and true as opposed to a more human tale.

Even the phrase "climate change" is an example of this. I hate it. I understand that global warming was an inaccurate description of the process and ripe for criticism from idiots who would claim that snow is evidence that everything is fine. But "climate change"? It just sounds so passive and harmless. It sounds less like humanity's most dire problem and more like a James Taylor song about wanting to move out of the city to the country. Break out the nylon-stringed guitar, it's time for a climate change sing along. How about a name that more explicitly expresses the stakes like, "Surf's Up Everybody And We Do Mean Everybody" or just simply, "Aaaaaahhhhh"?

Yet this excuse of it being an abstract problem only goes so far to explain the problem. I mean, death is pretty abstract, yet we've spent thousands of years imagining and humanizing it. I think the sanitized nature of the term "climate change" hints at what is the deeper problem of writing about it. "Climate change" as a term suggests a problem that is bigger than us; one that is about economics, about science, about forces that do not involve the type of society we live in and the choices we make day to day. We've cordoned off climate change as a problem that doesn't involve us anymore—it's for the politicians to figure and scientists to solve and activists to chant about. We've cordoned it off because the reality of it is too painful and hopeless, it's a reality that the society we've built is fundamentally broken and unsustainable, that there is a crack that runs right through the foundation of it. I think this is why we avoid it as artists and audience, it's the fear and dread of it. It's the knowledge that our dramas, as powerful and just as they are, are taking place on a stage that is rapidly eroding.

We are no longer dealing with a problem of awareness. We're aware of climate change. We just don't want to talk about it because it's hard and scary. The world is like a party and climate change is the wasted guy that always drives drunk and he just showed up, keys in his pocket. We'd rather not think about it right away to stop him and potentially ruin the party. We need to start talking about it, though, before he drives his car through the wall of the living room.

This is why artists have to have the courage and creativity to talk and write about climate change. To put it in our movies, records, shows, and books. I do not mean we need to admonish people or offer solutions, but to at least make it human and individual problem. We can articulate the fear, the confusion and even the hopelessness that throbs underneath every news story and graph about the warming planet. We can highlight the emotions that the scientists cannot. Artists should stir up conversations, that's what we pride ourselves on doing. And if climate change is as bad as science has proven it is, the least we can do is talk about it.

Except for you, Neil, you're good.

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