... in arts and entertainment.
Recently, I came across two of my go-to writers in environmental matters basically saying the same thing: climate change happens too slowly for humans to be bothered by it.
Bill McKibben: Just a Little Too Slow
In his blog ‘The Crucial Years’, 350.org founder Bill McKibben draws a parallel between ‘Don’t Look Up’ and what he’s been observing in the media for a long time now: climate change moves too slowly for journalism. In geological terms, that particular comet is hurtling towards us at break-neck speed, but climate change today feels pretty much the same as climate change yesterday and tomorrow.
It’s not NEW and therefore doesn’t sell. Ten or twenty years is not a unit that works on Twitter or on TV. McKibben admits he doesn't know how to fix this, except to continue building movements: they are able to interject drama and storylines into the mix, and hence give reporters another way to cover the ongoing drama.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Abrupt Climate Change = 500 Years
Similarly, sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson says that when he consulted a climatologist for his (excellent!) book New York 2140 to find out how quickly New York would be inundated once the West Antarctic Ice Shelf breaks off and melts, the answer was, ‘that would be abrupt’. Define abrupt? Oh, 500 years or so…
As KSR says in this excellent session hosted by the Long Now Foundation: It’s hard to spin a good yarn when the catastrophe is creeping up on you. And we all know the metaphor of the frog getting boiled very slowly in a jar of water it could easily jump out of. But how much more urgency do we need?
The heat wave on the Eastern Seaboard last summer. Fire season in California is now basically all year round. Record temperatures in Australia this January. Still not enough?! Perhaps it’s time to call…
Roland Emmerich: We need more blockbusters!
Emmerich’s upcoming Moonfall seems to be the usual catastrophe-from-space story, but in a recent interview the disaster movie director says the world needs more blockbusters on climate change to wake up people to the challenges we’re facing. Referring to his classic (if inaccurate) The Day After Tomorrow, he claims that the underlying science was absolutely right but ‘if it kind of happens over 10 years, you can’t really make that into a movie, right?’ Right.
So what’s a poor climate storyteller to do? Go for accuracy and have no one read or watch it or worse, have no one feel the urgency because ’10 or 20 years’ is not a unit in today’s currency? Or lay it on thick, entertain the masses, and have no one feel the urgency because ‘it can’t really happen like that’?
Climate is changing. But so are our audiences.
I wonder whether what with all the increase in climate-related catastrophes, people might watch The Day After Tomorrow with a different mindset today. Would they say, sure, this is totally exaggerated but… what happens overnight in that film might happen over ten years in real life, and I will still be alive then, so it might happen to me…?
Or consider films like Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995). Covid propelled especially Contagion back up to the top of many people’s watchlists. I posit that this is because in those two films, the virus was eventually vanquished - and people want to see that this is possible.
To be quite honest, it’s hard to come up with a believable story where the climate crisis is ‘vanquished’. But that’s our job as storytellers. And I do believe that the audience who is ready for this, willing to swallow the exaggeration and able to get the warning underneath, is growing.
So I challenge you to take a climate crisis scenario (plenty to choose from), intensify and speed it up a little, maintain some inner logic, and above all: have the protagonists be deeply and directly affected, and show the emotional urgency with which they respond and come up with solutions.
Big and small, blockbuster movies and short stories - we need them all.
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