Released on Netflix in December 2021, Don’t look up focused on the struggles of two scientists trying to warn humanity of a planet-killing comet that was about to destroy Earth. Despite their best efforts, it ends in the destruction of all life on earth. The film was critically acclaimed and hailed as an example of our own impending climate crisis in real life.
However, what role do these types of films play in changing our attitudes and, more importantly, inspiring action towards environmental issues?
Such an example of inspirational action in cinema can be seen in the 2013 documentary, black fish.
The documentary focusing on Tilikum, an orca kept in extreme isolation at SeaWorld for decades, caused a public outcry. SeaWorld park attendance down 5% and California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom, inspired by the film, worked to have the Orca law on well-being and safety has been passed in California in 2019.
For an environmental issue that focuses on a specific issue, change is easier to make. But what about something as global and complex as the climate crisis?
Oscar for former US Vice President Al Gore, An inconvenient truth shocked moviegoers with the bleak reality of the climate crisis in 2006. At the time, it won plaudits for raising awareness about the climate crisis and breathing new life into long dormant environmental activism.
Despite this, raising awareness is only the first step and is not enough on its own to translate into meaningful action in the face of a global crisis.
A 2010 study conducted by the University of Scranton Professor Jessica Nolan found that people became more aware and concerned about the climate crisis immediately after viewing An inconvenient truth, but this did not translate into a change in behavior a month later. Nolan explained one reason for the hesitation toward long-term change.
She says, “although providing knowledge about the adverse effects and consequences of global warming in general, greenhouse gases in particular are driving significant awareness and willpower among people, they cannot easily transform them. in practices or lifestyles”.
It is not surprising that the more we perceive the necessary changes, in this case, significant changes in our way of life, the less willing we feel to face the crisis before us.
Studies have shown that as a society, we overvalue short-term benefits over potential long-term benefits. Harvard Business Review Explains that “individuals don’t have to change the cars they drive, the products they buy, or the homes they live in if they ignore the influence of their carbon footprint on the world.”
Likewise, for many, the climate crisis can be seen as an abstract issue. Most people do not find themselves dealing with the results of the climate crisis (e.g. extreme weather events) on a daily basis. For this reason, it is extremely difficult to motivate people to take action and change their daily behaviors.
In the Fledgling Fund Report 2008 on the impact of creative media on social change, they recognize that once the public is aware of the impact of a problem and the solutions that accompany it, there must be more than just discussions and brief moments of inspiration. “There must be an infrastructure in place that encourages individuals, organizations and/or communities to take action.”
Overall, movies like black fish, An inconvenient truth and Don’t look up are all great tools for sparking dialogue around the issues facing our world. However, what matters most in the face of an environmental crisis are the actions and changes we are prepared to undergo as a global society long after the credits roll.