Captain Planet sucks  

But he’s our best hope

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Artists have a valuable function in any society, since it is the artists who reveal the society to itself.  

– Harry Belafonte’s March on Washington address 

THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS has a problem. I’m hugely underplaying this – it’s got many – but one glaring oversight is the lack of cultural output that relates to the fact we broke the planet. Yes, we enjoyed Don’t Look Up, but it was not the searing cultural meteorite we were hoping for. I’m an old-fashioned gal and subscribe to the Brechtian idea that while we might be in dark times, perhaps there should be more singing about it. 

The climate emergency is gathering pace: our oceans are dying, greenhouse gases are at an all-time high, we have breached the 1.5 degree target globally with Australian land temperatures frontrunners and we now need a new category of hurricane. In addition, we can’t even console ourselves with offsetting, as recent analysis shows the value of carbon offsetting is over-estimated by 406 per cent, and only 6 per cent actually leads to any emissions reduction. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that the weather continues to be weird, but our elected (on a climate-change platform) leaders continue to approve coal mines. 

Earth is being pretty comprehensively destroyed – without too many of us seeming overly concerned about it. Art and culture are not stepping up to cover how screwed we are, which is a shame for both the ailing arts industry and the humans who might purchase matinee tickets if global average temperatures stay within liveable ranges. 

Earth Aid Live has announced a series of concerts and EarthPercent use the music industry to raise funds for climate initiatives and campaigns. Exciting. Good – but it’s still not enough. When it comes to coverage, the climate crisis is either ignored entirely – or is blighted by a journalism that is earnest, hand-wringing, unattractive. We need to get the creatives in on this.  

According to Ian McEwan, it’s ‘a shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson’, but I really think we need to deploy art and culture to make people feel the emergency part of the climate emergency more keenly. We’ve tried school strikes and we’ve tried legislation (Lite™). We haven’t had huge success. Although, to be fair, the wildfires raging across New South Wales are quite distracting.  

TO OUT MYSELF as a millennial: I grew up watching Captain Planet and the Planeteers. For the uninitiated, this was a (low-quality) Saturday morning cartoon in which a gang of pals collaborated to save the planet from CFCs and the like, while leaning into mildly racist stereotypes – so far, so ’90s. Could we give Captain Planet a reboot? Get Greta Gerwig on the case? It might prove more effective than (roundly ignored) IPCC reports. Our inanition towards the crisis must be challenged – and if it involves aesthetically pleasing superheroes, all the better. 

As an academic exercise, I racked my brains for notable examples of artwork in which climate change was meaningfully addressed and came up with: The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979), FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–96), The Day after Tomorrow (2004), The Happening (2008), WALL-E (2008), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), Solar by Ian McEwan (2010), Before the Flood (2016), The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018), Don’t Look Up (2021) and Silent Night (2021). 

Cue a flurry of strongly worded letters to Griffith Review for all of my glaring omissions – but in them lies my point: yes, I’ve lazily reeled off the ‘big ones’ from the top of my cerebral filing cabinet and yes, a deep dive (or cursory google) would unearth more, but frankly, if me, a climate writer, prolific reader and culture vulture isn’t stumbling across them, we have issues. Surely the enormity of the climate crisis, impacting every facet of life for every single thing on Earth, should have a few more reels of film to show for it.  

Certain tetchy creatives will scoff and say that their work obliquely references man’s destructive practices, but I think the time for allegories has passed. Allegories tend to go over our heads – they especially go over those of our elected officials – and we can ill afford subtlety at this juncture. We need a motivational soundtrack, lights and magic to get at least the necessary 25 per cent of the population interested to create a tipping point. We need pathos not bathos. As Flint Lockwood says in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, ‘We’ve got diem to carpe.’ I’m perhaps leaning too heavily on a fifteen-year-old animated movie but (a) it’s excellent and (b) there’s precious little else to draw on. 

If, like me, you can only sensibly process things through associative thinking, you have a problem: we’re missing the cultural vernacular when it comes to climate change.  

MUSICAL THEATRE HAS a lot to offer here – fantastic staging, stirring performances, the songs that get into your head and heart. The enduringly popular Les Misérables, which everyone thinks was set during the French Revolution, definitely made me interested in French history. (Well, not exactly interested, but if pressed, I could bullshit a bit about post-revolutionary Paris.) If Jean Valjean belted out a song about how the sand is too warm to produce population-sustaining male turtle hatchlings, there would be standing ovations all round! 

Remember Rent and the AIDS epidemic, Miss Saigon and the bụi đời? (Okay, citing a musical where they cast a white man in yellowface to demonstrate the power of cultural expression to educate the world is ethically wobbly, but stay with me.) Just imagine if we got Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tim Minchin on this. I contacted both their agents to pitch the idea of them writing Climate Change: The Musical, but so far, no dice.  

As Claire McKenzie, one half of musical theatre duo Noisemaker, says, ‘Musical theatre does human stories really well,’ which is convenient because climate change will have a huge impact on human lives. A reminder that the Department of Health and Aged Care has announced its National Health and Climate Strategy, which seeks to find ways of saving our physical and mental health from being trashed by the impacts of climate change. 

IF YOU QUESTION the power of art, consider the authorities’ response to the accusations that the music of Sāmoan-Australian Sydney drill group OneFour incites violence. What we need to do is incite a violence of feeling – ideally with a comparable 150 million downloads. This is perhaps especially poignant given that climate change is an existential threat to some Pacific Island nations.  

Perhaps we also need to be a bit more forgiving of artists and performers who make the odd blunder. Not all creators have been paragons of planetary perfection thus far and that’s okay. Even Leonardo DiCaprio, who has a real thing for saving Earth, still favours single-use girlfriends. Western culture has a cringey track record of art as protest. (‘And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime,’ anyone?) Almost all examples are problematic and ripe for us woke twenty-first centurians to pick holes in. Was it right that two straight men played the couple whose lives were decimated by AIDs in Philadelphia (1993)? Probably not, but at least people were talking about it. Sometimes, we need people to be the ‘gateway drugs’ of awareness, and it might be worth granting them a bit more latitude because what the climate crisis really doesn’t need is partisan posturing.  

From 1999, the British government-backed Post Office prosecuted, and in some cases wrongfully convicted, its postmasters due to faulty accounting software. It took ITV’s 2023 dramatisation of the scandal to make elected officials intervene. There has been much sneering about ‘lowbrow’ artforms dictating public policy, but the green movement needs to wake up and smell the sausage sizzle. 

I HEAR THE sceptics pointing out that we have now had six (yes, six) Terminator films warning us of the risks of evil, fighty robots and yet here we are, merrily cracking on with more and more advanced AI. What could possibly go wrong? But we need more art, not to write it off. We need the kind of cultural gold that goes straight to the pool room. We need film, music, television, visual art – hell, interpretive dance, if we must – to do for climate change what Sister Act did for nuns, what Harry Potter did for boarding schools. We need a mammoth cultural agenda, unapologetically geared towards motivating people to take meaningful action. 

So, arts and cultural creatives, the power is yours! 

Image credit: Canva

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About the author

Emma Armstrong

Emma is a naturalist and writer on the natural world, as well as the author of I Used to Think Vegans Were Dicks. She has...

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