Nor can its scientific basis be quite as easily denied as it once was. For many years, Fox News has told its American viewers that man-made climate change is a ruse devised by liberal elites to raise taxes or destroy American productivity, and fossil fuel industry front groups like Global Climate Coalition have lobbied government and media organisations to cast doubt on the evidence for global warming (Beder 2002: 29; Hansen 2011: 12-13). In Britain, Spiked – a magazine partly funded by the Charles Koch Foundation – has ridiculed environmentalists as middle-class moralisers (well OK, there is some truth in that) and as recently as 2007 Channel 4 broadcast the television documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, despite complaints from scientists and criticism from the media regulator Ofcom.
In recent years, however, the enviro-sceptics have lost some of their cultural credibility. The denial machine certainly hasn’t stopped, but its professional operators may be finding it harder to move through the gears. Public concern about ecological issues has surged (Dembicki 2019) and mainstream media organisations have updated their reporting practices. In 2018, for example, the BBC told its journalists that they were no longer required to interview global warming sceptics in the interests of ‘balance’ when reporting on climate stories. And a recent article about climate change denial in the US online magazine Vice points out that ‘Even with Trump in Office, the Climate Denial Movement is Quietly Falling Apart’ (Dembicki 2019), as deniers lose funding and succumb to infighting.
At the same time, climate change awareness is taking on increasingly seductive forms. Based on a short talk I gave in London recently, this entry offers some brief critical reflections on some recent changes in the style and content of popular environmental media, focusing on three currently fashionable or 'cool' instances of green media: film and television ‘enviro-tainment’; the cultural phenomenon that is Greta Thunberg; and the media communications of Extinction Rebellion.
The Rise of Enviro-tainment
Since the turn of the millennium, film and television documentaries have increasingly combined the analysis of climate science with emotive modes of address and celebrity appeal. In Franny Armstrong’s crowdfunded drama-documentary The Age of Stupid (2009), for example, actor Pete Postlethwaite plays The Archivist, a man living in post-apocalypse conditions in 2055 who looks back ruefully at the catastrophic environmental behaviours and decisions of the early twenty-first century. Surviving in a world ravaged by fire and flood, The Archivist asks why human beings didn’t act to prevent catastrophe, pulling from his library six documentaries about various aspects of climate madness from fifty years previous.
Another seminal example of enviro-tainment was Al Gore’s surprisingly popular lecture-documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Gore’s subdued lament for melting glaciers and shrinking sea ice evokes a strong sense of loss for a disappearing global habitat. An Inconvenient Truth set the scene for the 2016 Netflix documentary Before the Flood, in which film star Leonardo DiCaprio interviews climate activists from around the world and advocates carbon taxes as a solution to the environmental crisis. He also conducts an outdoor interview with Barack Obama. The film was well received by liberal commentators. Even before the film had been released, Time magazine’s Candy Lang invited her readers to coo over an official White House photograph of the DiCaprio-Obama encounter, or, as she described it, a “very excellent photo of President Barack Obama, charming leader of the free world and ultimate cool dad and Leonardo DiCaprio, delightful actor, bear-fighting environmentalist deep in a riveting conversation”.
For all the hype they attracted, these were all limited productions from a socialist perspective. An Inconvenient Truth was widely criticised, even by liberal critics, for being short on solutions. And Gore, no doubt keen to deflect accusations of political partisanship, positions the climate crisis as an issue lying ‘outside’ or beyond politics, in much the same way that Extinction Rebellion do today. The Age of Stupid is also a mixed bag. With its sci-fi premise and frantic pace, it reformats climate change awareness for a younger audience and rightly condemns the activities of the airline industry and fossil fuel corporations such as Shell. But it is less forthcoming about what action needs to be taken, focusing on condemnation rather than solutions. And as for Before the Flood, DiCaprio’s encounter with Obama fails to live up to its billing: DiCaprio gives the appearance of talking tough by adopting a sceptical expression and folding his arms determinedly; yet the meeting between the two men is inconclusive and Obama, true to form, offers little more than platitudes about his hopes for change. Needless to say, too, for all their star power and emotional appeal, none of these films identifies capitalism as the root cause of climate breakdown.
The Thunberg Moment
And then along came Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Thunberg is not the first young person to talk tough about environment in the assemblies of the ruling class. In 1992, the 12 year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki addressed the Rio Earth Summit, speaking “in the name of all generations to come” about pollution and the erosion of species diversity. But Thunberg has garnered far more attention than her predecessor. One reason for this might be that she is white. Another, no doubt, is that she has been lucky in her enemies. Her conservative critics are an uncool coalition of the political right, including Spiked magazine’s contrarian Brendan O’Neill, the bullyboy Brexiteer Arron Banks, and of course the climate change Denier-in-Chief, Donald Trump. But for all the sarcasm and put-downs she has endured, Thunberg has been quite well supported among mainstream journalists. For example, many newspapers reported Thunberg’s address at Davos in January 2019 as an ‘impromptu speech’, despite video evidence of Thunberg rehearsing her talk on social media several days before her Davos appearance. Indeed, Thunberg’s emergence as the artless truth-teller of the social media age has been made possible by a great deal of sympathetic press and PR interventions.
In September 2019, Thunberg followed in DiCaprio’s footsteps by meeting the Cardinal of Cool, former US president Barack Obama. In a photograph of the meeting that Obama posted on his Instagram account, Obama adopts a relaxed stance in open neck and shirt sleeves, fist bumping Thunberg (with a potted plant in the background, for added enviro-credibility). "We’re a team", Obama apparently told the young Swede. Thunberg herself tweeted a more subdued black and white image of her meeting with Obama. The composition of this self-consciously ‘posed’ photograph is oddly sombre - funereal, even. Thunberg faces the camera, but her arms are folded and her eyes are downcast, in what could be read as a gesture of scepticism or even displeasure. Obama appears side-on with his hands folded in a self-effacing stance. He also seems lost in contemplation, his eyes fixed to the floor.
It’s a cool photograph. Monochrome photography, as critics including Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have pointed out, has connotations of documentary authenticity and seriousness. Because of these connotations, black and white “has the potential for legitimation, giving archival aura to people and politics” (Grainge 1999, p. 385) and creating a sense of “epic factuality” (Grainge 1999, p. 386). Put more simply, the photograph invites us see Thunberg’s meeting with Obama as “historic”, the word the press used to describe Obama’s 2008 electoral victory. In fact, Obama replied to Thunberg’s tweet with a phrase borrowed from his initial presidential campaign: “Yes we can, Greta. I’m hopeful because of you and all the young people who are fighting to protect the planet.” In a later tweet, Obama gave a corporate endorsement of Thunberg who, he said, “embodies our vision at the @ObamaFoundation”.
To borrow a term from the American historian Daniel Boorstin, the Thunberg-Obama meeting could be regarded as a ‘pseudo-event’, a PR spectacle that gave a green makeover to a president who was not only one of the world’s bloodiest political leaders, but who had a dubious record on the environment. To be sure, Donald Trump’s dismissal of green issues is atrocious. But let’s not forget that it was Obama who was in power as the inhabitants of Flint, Michigan drank poisoned tap water, offshore drilling was expanded and new oil pipelines were approved. This is to say nothing of Obama’s part in the destruction of human life via his drone assassination programme. Obama’s appearances with DiCaprio and Thunberg were yet another example of the former president’s sham humanitarianism. Indeed, the rebranding of Obama as a climate hero is an impressive feat of greenwashing and the widely shared images of the Thunberg-Obama meeting are a triumph of what the cultural critic Jim McGuigan calls ‘cool capitalism’: the system’s co-option of critique, its recuperation of rebellion.
Extinction Rebellion have been very prominent in the media recently. Their spokespeople have appeared in television news and discussion programmes and they have installed themselves remarkably quickly in the public consciousness, albeit most recently because of their damaging and unpopular stunts on the London Underground network. Extinction Rebellion’s predictions of imminent civilizational collapse seem exaggerated. And there is little point in appealing to capitalists to fix the problems they themselves have caused. They have also established their brand through slick videos with high production values, fast-moving images of youthful crowds in urban settings and upbeat electronica soundtracks. XR's aesthetic repertoire resembles that of Invisible Children’s infamous Kony 2012 campaign, which aimed to engage public participation in securing the arrest of Ugandan guerrilla leader and all-round badman Joseph Kony. Their use of lurid banners, esoteric symbols and capitalized sans-serif fonts, as well as their encouragement for activists to engage emotionally with their cause, are all reminiscent of the Kony campaign. And just as the Kony 2012 campaigners described their cause as ‘one thing we can all agree on’, Extinction Rebellion, for the most part, talk of climate breakdown as an issue that lies ‘beyond’ politics.
XR – and much of the recent media discourse about the environment – seeks to motivate activists by promoting a sense of anxiety about the future and their videos often move between tearful predictions of climate catastrophe and upbeat scenes of determined activism. Their materials, like the films and photographs discussed above, are heavily infused with melodrama. As several theorists have argued, melodrama is characterised not just by emotional outpourings, but also by stark moral binaries of Good and Evil and a dialectic or movement between what the theorist Linda Williams calls “too late” and “just in time”. All three of these melodramatic frames are reflected in contemporary green media constructions of climate heroes (Obama/Thunberg) and villains (Trump), the exhortations to tears, panic and self-sacrifice, and the oscillation between gloomy imaginings of planetary destruction and manic activist urgency.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with emotional responses, especially over subjects as momentous as climate change. But it does depend on what emotions we are talking about. It is not at all clear that panic and fear can help us to develop a clear understanding of the environmental crisis or enable effective political action to address it.
And if socialists are to wax emotional, it has to be for the right reasons. There is a mismatch between the intense emotions that activists are called upon to display by Extinction Rebellion and XR’s limited understanding of what needs to be done. It’s no good asking the very capitalist politicians responsible for climate change to make things better. And Extinction Rebellion’s focus on fossil fuels and biodiversity ignores many other important contributors to climate change, such as the immense contribution of the military machine to pollution. Moreover, human beings are themselves a part of nature, so if we’re serious about preventing environmental collapse we have to stop the wars in which human beings are dying, end hunger and starvation and stop the exploitation of human labour. In other words, the struggle to save the environment can’t be separated from the class struggle. That is why, for all its celebrity glitz, the new green media is a distraction from the main task at hand.