From Sally Rooney to Avatar: How popular culture can help address climate crisis

Inserting the crisis into popular books, films and shows can highlight challenges we face

I remember the first time I felt despair around the climate crisis. In fact, I can recall it down to the outfit I was wearing.

One of my closest friends and I used to have a routine of going to see a film once a week after work. We’d take turns picking what we were going to see after leafing through reviews.

There was one week in September where he couldn't make it, so I decided to go on my own to see First Reformed at the Irish Film Institute. I pulled at the sleeves of a well-worn sweater as I watched and towards the final third of it, I sat completely still.

Without giving away any disturbing spoilers, I'll give you a brief synopsis: Ethan Hawke plays a troubled priest who is asked to counsel a depressed environmentalist in his community.


Leaving the cinema that evening, I felt dizzy. I hardly slept that night and the next day I left work early with a pounding headache

It was 2018, just weeks before the now-infamous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on 1.5 degrees of warming was published. I knew climate change was an issue, but I thought it was a matter solely of sea level rise that we could adjust to it with a piecemeal approach over the stretch of centuries.

I was able to think all of this because as a middle-class white person in a wealthy country, by and large the climate crisis had perhaps cast its shadow over my door as a looming future threat, but it never knocked it through the frame.

This film, also featuring a middle-class white person in a wealthy country, shattered those incorrect assumptions. The main character grapples with palpable grief over the state of our climate. The unjust nature of how we got to this point is highlighted. The question of how we go on in the face of this is mulled over in backlit shots of quiet upstate New York kitchens. The violent thread throughout the film, which didn’t resonate with me at all, is particularly distressing and makes one final appearance towards its end.

Leaving the cinema that evening, I felt dizzy. I hardly slept that night and the next day I left work early with a pounding headache. I was just starting out in journalism and had yet to come across a beat I wanted to cover. Until then.

Now, three years later, I’m a climate reporter. I sit in on relevant committees, I pore over reports, I document protesters getting arrested for their cause. As an avid news consumer, I see daily how unequal this crisis is and how those who are least responsible bear the biggest brunt of its force, both at home and abroad.

How the climate crisis appears in the culture we consume can be pivotal. Sometimes it arises in the form of “cli-fi”, which is fiction that explicitly deals with the climate crisis. The list is exhaustive, but Jenny Offill’s Weather was one that stuck with me as a woman processes the scale of the problem in real-time raising her child.

There's Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future, a novel where an actual ministry is set to protect all living creatures that cannot speak for themselves in the face of climate catastrophe. I've also got Parable of the Sower on my desk, an apocalyptic masterpiece by Octavia Butler that holds chilling observations about climate and inequality between its pages.

Lots of films explicitly deal with fraught relationships with our natural world, including the late 1990s cinematic masterpiece that is Princess Mononoke. A Japanese animated medieval epic, it features talking wolf gods and forest sprites and my all-time favourite final shot of any film I've ever seen.

While some have predicted the ever-growing rise of cli-fi as the crisis itself worsens, there are those who note that the genre tends to attract people who are already concerned. So the argument made by many before me goes that in order to pull a new cohort, the climate crisis needs to be imbued into culture that isn’t solely created to address it.

Michaela Coel's all-encompassing I May Destroy You brilliantly explored the relationship between the climate movement and systemic racism. Min Hyoung Song made the astute observation in the Chicago Review of Books that the haunting 2019 South Korean film Parasite had laid bare the disparity between classes when it came to dealing with extreme weather.

As someone whose full-time job is dedicated to this crisis, I'm often asked what gives me hope. Truth be told, I hate this question

Sally Rooney’s latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You has multiple references to the climate crisis peppered throughout. Bo Burnham’s latest comedy-musical special had specific references to a burning planet and rising seas.

In all of these examples, the climate crisis is a permeating presence that wreaks havoc to varying degrees. To put it more simply: they often give us jagged pieces of a puzzle we’re all still trying to figure out.

As someone whose full-time job is dedicated to this crisis, I’m often asked what gives me hope. Truth be told, I hate this question. It can feel like an abdication of responsibility from the asker or, depending on the day you ask me, an exhausting mental exercise – and I’m not even at the forefront of the worst of climate breakdown.

When I need something to keep me going in this line of work, I think of an episode of one of my childhood staples – Avatar the Last Airbender. An animated fantasy series with a complex world filled with spirituality, magical abilities and unfolding war.

In one particular moment, the main characters find themselves lost in a desert. Their normal mode of animal transport has been kidnapped, so they are left to their own devices. One character responds with rage, another by accidentally ingesting a liquid that causes him to hallucinate.

Katara, a key protagonist, then takes the metaphorical reins and decides they are going to find a way out.

She keeps the group moving and comes up with potential solutions to their predicament. She suggests navigating by the stars and stays up planning a route while the others get some rest before the unrelenting heat returns.

She’s determined, but she has no guarantee of success. She traces her fingers over pockets of light on a map, hoping that it might work as a way to avoid the worst. She does it because it’s the right thing to do, not because she knows it will work.

And during one quiet moment as night falls in the desert, she looks back at her weary friends and without knowing what lies ahead says, “We’re getting out of this desert. And we’re going to do it together.”