Meeting Climate Change with Art: Improving our Narratives

There are a lot of things we need in order to face climate change. Individual action and policy change are necessary, but we often overlook the importance of stories. Narratives help us to create meaning, and we are in desperate need of meaning.

Narrative becomes the way you make sense of chaos. That’s how you focus the world. It’s the only reason you should ever try this writing job.

– Dennis Lehane (Author: Shutter Island, Mystic River)

Put simply,

Stories matter.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Author: Americanah, Half of a Yellow Sun)

But of course, not all stories are made equal. Themes surrounding climate change are starting to find their way into popular films, but there have been some serious flaws.

Outside of documentaries, there seem to be only two main ways Hollywood has been comfortable including climate change in feature-length films: Apocalyptic Dystopias and Climate Conscious Bad Guys. Neither of these story types have been good enough.

I’ll be spending the rest of this blog post diving into examples of those two main categories I laid out, and hopefully (after laying out my criticisms) I’ll be able to layout some hopeful examples which can send your imagination off in positive directions.

This is serious. We need to do better.

Apocalyptic Dystopias

The most common and recognizable settings for climate change in popular narrative fiction comes in the form of apocalyptic dystopias. A generation before us these stories jumped onto the cold war fears of nuclear apocalypse. Now, they’ve used these apocalyptic narratives to address our looming fear of climate change.

We’ve all seen these movies, “Humans screwed it all up and now the earth is a wasteland where we play flaming bass guitars and fight over water”. Unless we’re talking about 1995’s Waterworld… in which case, “The icecaps all melted, and now some people kinda have gills and we fight on jet skis”.

Mad Max: Fury Road pulled all the stops and imagined a world hit by every single worst-case scenario of climate change.

The basic critiques of these films are pretty straight forward. They aren’t that realistic and they work off the general assumption that we all screwed it up with climate change.

The dystopian future can have a way of animating some people to act. However, these narratives don’t build us a path forward.

Motivation by fear does not give us the long term substantial progress we need. The Mad Max worst-case scenario animates despair and defeatism which may motivate some but can cause others to brush it all off with hopeless abandonment. Why even try if we’re going to destroy the world anyway?

Let me be clear. I read Orwell in high school. So, I know how important a good dystopian narrative can be, but we need stories with subtle realism communicating the complexities of climate change while providing us with a sober hope.

Besides, detrimental climate change doesn’t only look like mass desertification.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) gives us another example of a future ravaged by climate change, but — despite being a fantastic film — Interstellar also isn’t the climate change narrative we need.

Sure… It includes a final message of hope for the future, “People make it! Ingenuity and science save us”… but, the film’s hope is found by getting the heck off our planet. Earth is just considered a ticking time bomb running out of time.

But then there’s 2014’s Young Ones.

I ran into Young Ones (directed by Jake Paltrow) as an example of “water war” type movies turned a little hopeful. It isn’t Biggest Little Farm level of hope, but Young Ones makes huge steps forward compared to Mad Max: Fury Road and Interstellar.

At its core, Young Ones is a story about adulthood. The film explores 3 different characters (Ernest Holm, Flem Lever, and Jerome Holm) as they take on succeeding roles as “man of the house”.

But what makes Young Ones stand out on climate change is its opening lines:

I never saw this land when it was green. My father did. He worked it before the drought came. He used to talk about it all the time. He used to talk about the wheat they grew, and the pride they felt.

He always believed in the land.

Even as the fights over water first divided states, then towns, and then neighbors. Most people who could, left. But he had his reasons for staying. He was convinced the land would come back. It just needed water. And he was right.

Resilience is on full display in Young Ones, and the eventual hope of the narrative is found in the land itself. There’s even a little nod to organic agriculture.

At one point a “water worker” tells Flem (I know what a name) it wouldn’t even be worth bringing water to his father’s land since he “killed it with pesticides”. Ernest Holm (the one who “always believed in the land”) is the only one with farmland that could actually support crops even if water was routed to him.

But Young Ones also stands out in a subtler way.

It has a tad more realism to it than a full-blown apocalypse. Sure, it’s still a dystopian future film, but after spending more time in the story you find out that some people actually do have water.

They talk about big corporate farms getting priority for water piping over smaller farmers and when Jerome later crosses a state line, we find a place that seems to be abundant with water. This neighboring state is home to cities and businesses like we would see today, and there’s even a shot of them in a mall with a decorative fountain in the background.

The inequality is summed up well with a quote from Anna. She had smuggled Jerome across the border and had a deal to smuggle him back, but says this:

Keep that hundred. That whole round trip thing is a scam…

You don’t need to call us, just walk right through. The border guards won’t stop you. They don’t care that you’re going back.

Young Ones provides a positive direction for climate apocalypse films, but we still have a long way before this progress finds its way into the mainstream.

Shameless Plug: If all that talk about “water wars” got you curious about that #1 resource check out my blog post reviewing James Salzman’s Drinking Water: A History.

But first, I want to talk about the other popular way climate change has recently entered our narratives.

Climate Conscious Bad Guys

We’ve seen this one popping up a lot recently, “There’s this guy trying to do some messed up things… but he’s also concerned about pollution or overpopulation. So, we can kinda sympathize with him.”

Filmmakers know that climate change is a big deal, and they know that most of us think it’s a problem worth fixing. Because of this, incorporating themes surrounding climate change has been an effective way to build sympathy towards previously 2-dimensional antagonists.

One writer from Aquaman said using pollution as a motivator for King Orm “gave him some nuance”, it made him less “mustache-twirly” (NYT Article).

In Aquaman, Orm’s first big step toward aggression with the “surface world” is to throw up all the trash from the sea onto our beaches. However, Orm’s concern over pollution is given passing attention at best and his character definitely seems more focused on the usually bad guy power stuff.

When it comes to climate-conscious bad guys, Thanos is the gold standard. Avengers: Infinity War has no new protagonists to develop. So, we’re given plenty of time and opportunity to develop Thanos’s past traumas and convictions — all delivered to us with Josh Brolin’s magnetic performance.

The simple truth is that Thanos is a phenomenal villain, and we can’t ignore that his genuine concern toward overpopulation and limited resources are a vital part of what makes him so compelling.

Then there’s the curious case of 2019’s Godzilla: King of Monsters.

The director of Godzilla: King of Monsters, Michael Dougherty, has made it clear he believes the movie is actually a well-designed allegory for climate change. Truth be told, Godzilla wasn’t always laughable men fighting in rubber suits. The original 1954 Godzilla is actually a powerful film with compelling allegories and political commentary.

Godzilla (1954) makes direct and poignant criticism of nuclear testing,

(Godzilla) was probably hidden away in a deep sea cave, providing for its own survival, and perhaps others like it.

However, repeated underwater H-bomb tests have completely destroyed its natural habitat. To put it simply, hydrogen-bomb testing has driven it from its sanctuary.

It mirrors and references the destruction of Japan from nuclear and conventional bombing in WWII,

[to her children, as Godzilla destroys the city around her]

We’re going to join Daddy! We’ll be where Daddy is soon!

AND it even delves into the moral dilemma of building a weapon of mass destruction,

If the Oxygen Destroyer (a weapon possible of killing Godzilla) is used even once, the politicians of the world won’t stand idly by.

They’ll inevitably turn it into a weapon. A-bombs against A-bombs, H-bombs against H-bombs.

As a scientist — no, as a human being — adding another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal is something I can’t allow.

The original Godzilla did NOT mess around. Seriously, the 1954 Godzilla was one of the best movies I watched for this blog post. It’s slow to start, but the ending is phenomenal. 

Because of this, I gave Godzilla: King of Monsters a chance to be more than a monster fight flick. You can actually see how they tried to construct the climate change allegory. The destructive force that is Ghidorah is stored under the ice of Antarctica and, when people release him, Ghidorah rapidly approaches the gulf coast surrounded by a “category 6” hurricane (so big they had to make a new category for hurricanes).

But… Godzilla: King of Monsters falls flat in the face of its lofty ambitions.

At best, they try to jam in too many things about nature, human action, and religion for a 2 hour movie, but there are just too many contradictions and cringe-worthy oversimplifications for this to be a successful allegory.

Don’t even get me started on the end credits montage seeming to suggest Godzilla fixes every ecosystem he touches because of his magical cure-all “radiation” — including the cities he just destroyed?!

Props to them for trying… but Godzilla: King of Monsters is simply one more monster fight flick.

The only substantial way the story brushes up against climate change is with monologues from… *drum roll*… climate-conscious bad guys!

Who are the ones that let Ghidorah (who apparently represented climate change) go? Eco-terrorists!

Why? Because they want to “return balance” by wiping out “civilization” and human’s influence on our planet.

Balance is literally Thanos’s thing…

Unfortunately, the role of these climate-conscious bad guys seems to just stop at sympathy.

Whether it’s Aquaman, Godzilla, or Avengers, the good guys beat the bad guys, we feel victorious, and when it’s all said and done, the story chooses to simply ignore the antagonist’s climate change related motivating factors and roll the credits.

When everyone comes back in the crescendo of Avengers: End Game, they have a huge battle, iron man pulls big time on our heartstrings, and we’re set up for another fantastic spider-man movie, but no time is devoted to that original issue of overpopulation.

I can’t hide the fact that I still loved both Avengers. I’m really a sucker for Iron man and I loved his story arc, but we can’t ignore the fact that simply including overpopulation just for bad-guy-sympathy ultimately dismisses the problems of climate change.

A promising model forward

A golden example of how we might better improve the role of climate change in our narratives actually comes from another Marvel film.

Black Panther (2018) directed by Brian Coogler.

A lot of great things can be said about Black Panther. It put black female leads front and center and excited our imaginations with a futuristic African society untouched by colonialism, but for the purpose of this particular blog, Black Panther provides a north star on how we can better portray narrative conflict between our protagonist and antagonist.

It did something Avengers couldn’t do.

Killmonger, like Thanos, has a sympathetic past trauma motivating his actions, but when Killmonger is defeated, the moral of our story isn’t a pedantic “killing white people is bad”.

As the protagonist, T’Challa (the Black Panther) must honestly address the legitimate problems animating Killmonger’s actions.

Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other.

Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.

And T’Challa’s transformation doesn’t come off as quick or cheesy. The seeds of this change are planted early on with T’Challa’s ideological conflict with Nakia, whose empathy for people outside Wakanda — in addition to the trauma and injustice represented by Killmonger — helps to push T’Challa to question his isolationist beliefs.

This is a huge step forward in popular narratives addressing race in the United States, and Black Panther’s delicate handling of a complex situation is something we need to learn when it comes to climate change.

Imagine what it would be like if conflict with a climate-conscious bad guy forced our protagonist to honestly address the issues animating our villain. We’d get all the sympathy required of a complex antagonist AND our narrative would positively address climate change along the way.

Wrapping It Up

I don’t pretend to be some expert in what exactly we need to do differently, but it’s clear that our current narratives are woefully unequipped to address the complexity and depth of climate change. Remember,

Stories matter.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Author: Americanah, Half of a Yellow Sun)

There are two additional films outside the “Apocalyptic Dystopia” and “Climate Conscious Bad Guy” categories that I do want to talk about — First Reformed and Downsizing.

But this post is getting to be LONG, so I’m cutting them out to publish separately.

In the meantime, let me know if there are any stories I’m missing. Any other movies? Also, I know this held a big focus on feature-length films, but are there any good books that step up to the challenge?

(This post has since been edited and re-published on Medium as ‘Hollywood Needs Better Climate Change Narratives’).

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