Troubled times give us the best art. And there’s never been anything more troubling than how fucked our planet is—need I go on about all the wildfires and mass extinctions these days? So naturally, more of our media is name-dropping the environmental messes we’re facing. EcoMedia is on the rise—pop culture is increasingly littered (pun intended) with mentions of climate change, sand-headed politicians, and our impending environmental apocalypse. The ecological crisis has never been so bookable for a feature!
But what does this growing environmental emergency PR actually do? Does it do anything at all? Maybe the better question is, do we need it to?
Even though movies about environmental doom ain’t new, they’ve never been so “we’re fucked my guy” explicit until now. I remember seeing The Lorax as a kid in 2012 and identifying an obvious environmentalist theme. That’s the one where Danny Devito voices a moustached ETA’s Cheese Ball who defends the environment from a white boy twink trying to introduce capitalism to the new world. Sure, the ‘save the environment’ messaging was a bit heavy-handed—there’s literally a musical number featuring a human glow stick from swimming in pollution—but very easily understandable for the dumb 12-year-old I was. Still, the movie didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me or transform me into a recycling god. It is a kids’ movie after all, and there’s only so much education you can stuff in them before brats start acting up and asking for Cars 2 or something.
Maybe climate crisis movies need a bit more of a bite to move people. And that’s exactly the promise of Don’t Look Up. If there’s ever a movie that could convince the masses to do something about climate change, it’s one starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Meryl Streep, and Timothée Chalamet. Don’t Look Up is a satire about humanity’s refusal to deal with climate change. Using an incoming meteor as a placeholder for climate change, director Adam McKay takes the piss out of our governments, our politics, our celebrities, and our media circuses—some of the major players ignoring the Earth-sized elephant in the room, denying its existence, and distracting everyone by complaining about a stain in the carpet suspiciously shaped like China. It’s big-budget stuff, packing heat with an ensemble cast, $75 million production cost and a promo song by Kid Cudi and Ariana Grande.
However, Don’t Look Up’s been criticised for under-delivering on its environmentalist agenda—and rightfully so. Sure, the film is pretty dead-on about society’s indifference to the climate crisis. It hits the nail on the head with the ‘ignoring climate experts even though they know what’s up’ thing. But instead of holding up a mirror for people to internally reflect, Don’t Look Up deflects from the issue with mere Hollywood spectacle. The satire gives watchers enough of a reality check to see the uncomfortable parallels between the movie and real life, but keeps it tame enough that people can shrug and say, “That sucks, but what can you do?” Its exaggerated climate crisis allegory and big-name performers make for an entertaining watch, but after the credits roll, that’s all it is—entertainment. If the film had at least tried to mitigate the environmental costs of production or at least donated some of their profits to an environmental action group, rather than leave it to the efforts of individual cast members, then I could’ve believed those involved in Don’t Look Up actually gave a shit about our planet burning. Small acts of performative activism, sure, but it’s better than what Don’t Look Up is giving… nothing.
“But hold up Arela,” you might be saying, “It’s not the people’s fault! It’s the clowns-in-charge’s who are responsible for our environmental fuck ups. They’re the ones with the power to actually do something about climate change, so get fucked if you’re gonna blame the average guy.” Okay, I’ll take the L on that—yeah, it’s our leaders who pull the strings that could solve climate change. But if a movie like Don’t Look Up can’t convince people to act, what’s it gonna take for us to remember we’re the ones who decide the decision-makers? It doesn’t look like we can rely on our media to bridge the psychological distance we feel from climate change: people still feel as far away; therefore, they’re unaffected by the ecological devastation we’re all experiencing.¹ So, what are we supposed to do with defeatist media that is defeatist that doesn’t give us an alternative?
As the voiceless masses, we trust in music to speak truth to power. People want to believe a song can rile up and rally the crowd to grab their pitchforks. And climate anthems look no different, right? They can be educational, satirical, and a banger all in one—it’s what makes them appear so effective for change. Just look at Billie Eilish’s ‘all the good girls go to hell’: it takes examples from our world to paint a dire picture of the mess mankind has made of the planet, all while God and the Devil stand by and mock. Billie doesn’t fuck around with this one. The sarcasm is spot-on; the beat is addictive—no wonder it peaked at number 46 on the US Billboard Hot 100, all while the number of California’s wildfires peaked in the thousands. But all it is is just another pretty voice singing into a mainstream echo-chamber. It’s not Billie Eilish stans that need a reality check—I doubt old mate Chris is playing ‘all the good girls’ for the National caucus. And it’s not like Billie is telling us anything new. People already know we’re making a mess of things, and the reality is we’ve made it clear we won’t be shamed into changing our ways.
So, how do we make sense of this recent rise in the prevalence of EcoMedia? Probably in the most human way we can. At this point, all media can do is help us come to terms with our emotions as we own up to our inaction. The Beths confirmed their song ‘A Real Thing’ is about climate anxiety, conceived when lead singer Liz Stokes was “just marinating in dread” during the 2020 elections. It’s a feeling many of us shared and continue to share as our politicians distracted us with “talofas” so the climate crisis could fall through the cracks in their political commitments. In Stokes’ own words, “It’s not a super helpful song”. But I respectfully disagree (up my pay if you want me slagging off a Beths’ song, Craccum). We’re experiencing a collective anxiety where coping day-to-day means you numb yourself and hope for a miracle. As a song about “processing that dread” of climate change, ‘A Real Thing’ provides that much-needed emotional release. It’s an outburst of anxiety in a way we can relate to. The song doesn’t try to educate, shame or inspire people—but being able to process our feelings helps.
I’m not an environmental fatalist. But we’ve passed the point where our media can turn things around. In whatever form it takes, movie or music, outrage or humour, we’re all just looking for a way to express our grief for the world. In the words of Ariana Grande: “Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes; to get you through the mess that we made”. Not a bad dirge for the planet’s final send.
1 Milfont, T. L., Evans, L., Sibley, C. G., Ries, J., & Cunningham, A. (2014). Proximity to coast is linked to climate change belief. PLoS ONE, 9(7), e103180.