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Lights, camera, climate action!

Climate change is becoming an increasingly prevalent theme in books, films, and even music worldwide. Can reel life play a role in encouraging real world environmental awareness and action?

Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio grabbed headlines in February when he clinched his first Academy Award after many years in the industry and several unsuccessful nominations.

Taking the opportunity on the global stage during his acceptance speech, DiCaprio declared: “Climate change is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders… who do not speak for the big polluters, but for (all of humanity, indigenous people, and underprivileged people)”.

DiCaprio’s speech was widely reported and went viral on social media. His strong message was unusual for the glitzy award ceremony, but environmental issues such as climate change and pollution are becoming an increasingly common theme in films, books, and even music around the world.

Famous examples range from Hollywood hit movie The Day After Tomorrow, which portrays extreme weather events that usher in global cooling and a new ice age, to Earth Song, a 1995 piece by American musician Michael Jackson, which discusses environmental and animal welfare themes.

Whether it is fictional novels and movies or factual documentaries and books or songs, the media is an effective way to raise awareness about global issues like climate change and drive behavioural change, say experts. 

Michael Broadhead, a Canadian teacher in Singapore and organiser of the first crowd-supported environmental film festival here, tells Climate Challenge that “when films, novels, and music start to incorporate themes like climate change, it helps to permeate the message through society”.

“That repetition is key to building support for change, says Broadhead, whose brainchild, the Earth Film Festival, will be held in April. As part of the initiative, members of the public can screen one of six environmental documentaries for friends at home. 

Available titles include Heart of the Haze, a documentary about forest fires in Indonesia which produce greenhouse gas emissions and cause haze pollution throughout the region every year; and Cowspiracy, which explains why meat is the worst culprit of global warming.

The power of film

“Effective documentaries are incredibly refined ways to communicate a complex message and visualise global problems which we cannot see in our daily lives” says Broadhead, who works at the Canadian International School in Singapore.

In 2014, for example, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including director James Cameron, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger banded together to produce Years of Living Dangerously, a television documentary series focused on climate change.

With stars Ian Somerhalder, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Jessica Alba narrating segments, the series received positive reviews and was hailed by The Guardian as “perhaps the most important climate change multimedia communication endeavour in history”.

In addition to documentaries, books and literature can also expose unseen environmental issues to the public.

One such book which explores the environmental and social impacts of the fast fashion industry is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by American writer Elizabeth Cline.

Fast fashion refers to low-price clothes of an inferior quality from high street brands, which are mass produced and easily available.

The book highlights how beneath the glossy exterior of trendy clothes, the industry is rife with labour exploitation and environmentally unfriendly practices in factories in emerging countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, where regulations are not as tight.

Cline also narrates how visiting a Salvation Army clothes distribution centre in New York showed that while the centre processes five tonnes of clothes a day, only a small proportion of clothes are resold in the charity’s thrift stores. The rest is landfilled or recycled.

In addition to the stress this places on landfills, the culture of throwing out clothes soon after buying them also wastes the resources used to make and ship the clothes in the first place.

One cotton shirt, for example, can require up to 2,700 litres to make; according to a 2014 report in The Guardian, while powering factories as they churn garments round the clock and shipping them across the world also uses energy and increases the garments’ carbon footprint.  

Producing nylon and polyester—which have become the dominant fabrics in the fast fashion industry—also damages the environment, research shows. For example, a 2015 article by news site Alternet reveals that manufacturing nylon emits a large amount of nitrous oxide—a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

It also takes about 70 million barrels of oil to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics each year.

Despite this, Cline notes that brands such as Sweden’s H&M and Zara roll out new designs and urge consumers to keep up with the latest trends on a weekly, if not daily, basis. 

For Singaporean web designer Low Hui Wei, 30, reading Overdressed sparked a major change in her approach to choosing and buying clothes.

“I was ashamed of being so consumerist and having so much of my money go to unsustainable clothing chains,” says Low, who read the book in mid-2013. “I shop far less frequently now and try to save up for higher priced items that I love, instead of impulse buying cheap fashion”. 

Climate change is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.

Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio

Beyond facts

But it’s not just hard-hitting books and documentaries that can raise awareness about pressing global issues, says Broadhead, who refers to the incorporation of environmental messages into films, music, and novels as “artivism”.

Genres such as science fiction or dystopian stories can also show people the potential consequences of inaction or alternately, a path to positive change. Looking to the future is something humans are ill-equipped to do otherwise, and fiction can help, says Broadhead. 

Recent examples of this include the 2014 Christopher Nolan film Interstellar, which depicts a future where the planet is ravaged by climate change; and science fiction classic Star Trek, which Broadhead says “shows humanity evolving past competition, materialism, capitalism and greed”.

Beyond the silver screen, books and music are also gaining ground as popular platforms to discuss climate issues. “Cli-fi”, or climate fiction, is now officially recognised as a literary genre, with famous authors such as Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and English novelist Ian McEwan exploring environmental themes in their recent books, MaddAddam and Solar respectively.

Music, according to industry professionals, may be an even more effective medium than film or fiction to communicate environmental messages.

For Singaporean musician Jack Ho, a well-written song can get the point across to the public better than traditional awareness campaigns because it appears “more heartfelt and less preachy”.

An example is an annual song-writing competition about environmental issues organised by the National Environment Agency since 2010. The Eco-Music Challenge is a platform for aspiring musicians to pen songs about sustainability. 

Ho, who is a mentor for the Eco-Music Challenge, cites Saltwater by British musician Julian Lennon as a song with an important environmental message. With lyrics like “But when I hear of how / The forests have died / Saltwater wells in my eyes”, the 1991 song is an emotional portrayal of environmental degradation and poverty, says Ho.

No silver bullet

Broadhead notes that apart from the medium itself, celebrities behind these creations can also use their influence to raise awareness. “The message will receive more consideration from their fans”, he says. 

However, “there is no silver bullet to raising awareness and inspiring change,” he acknowledges. “What inspires one person does nothing for the next”. 

National University of Singapore sociology professor Chua Beng Huat, agrees, noting that popular culture is not as effective a vehicle of awareness and behaviour change as peer influence, and that there is no strong evidence that it directly affects behavioural change.

“An audience won’t watch a television show or read a book if they cannot identify with what is going on,” he says. 

He also points to the short-lived impact of high-profile celebrity-fronted environmental initiatives such as the Live Earth concert in 2007—a global mega-event where musicians performed in cities across the world to raise awareness about climate change—to suggest that celebrities have a limited effect on driving behavioural change. 

“Consumers are more likely to be influenced by other people’s behaviour than by big stars telling them what to do,” says Chua. 

The upcoming Earth Film Festival agrees and will integrate a community element into the film screenings. Getting individuals to host viewings for friends can help create a shared experience that inspires people to discuss sustainability with one another, says Broadhead.

Inspiring action through video-making

Convincing people that their actions matter is also the motivation behind a video competition launched by the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS). 

NCCS’s annual National Climate Change Competition, first launched in 2011, is a platform for students as well as young animators and film-makers to submit short films about climate change. 

Yuen Sai Kuan, Director of Corporate Affairs Division, NCCS, notes that “many people feel that there is little which they can do to address climate change”, but this is a misconception as individual actions like using less electricity and recycling can make a difference. 

“Films and videos can help to raise awareness and inspire action in a visually-powerful and enjoyable way,” he adds. “The NCCS video competition provides a creative avenue for students to express their thoughts and ideas on climate change by creating their own short clips. We hope that through the competition, students learn more about the topic and are inspired to make a change.”

The 2016 National Climate Change Competition is now open for registration:

The story was first published on the NCCS website. Subscribe to their newsletter here or follow them on their Facebook page.

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