Climate Change’s Changing Cultural Meme

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Climate Change’s Changing Cultural Meme

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 10:35pm


By Carol Pierson Holding

The prevailing wisdom has been that there’s very little we can actually do about climate change. Even environmentalists are prone to admit, after strenuously arguing the opposite, that there is little hope given the amount of money controlled by the fossil fuel industry. As the International Forum on Globalization observed in Outing the Oligarchy, “Cooperative global action to address the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced is being held hostage by a handful of profiteers who wield decisive power over our governments.”

The Koch Brothers, oil and coal profiteers and founders of Koch Industries, a fossil fuel extraction leader, were featured on Friday’s New York Times front page for their new advertising strategy. Through Americans for Prosperity, the conservative nonprofit that has spent about $30 million on advertising in Senate races over the last several months, they’ve been presenting “(Obamacare) as a case study in government ineptitude.” But the organization’s president Tim Phillips, explains his real agenda: “The president’s out there touting billions of dollars on climate change. We want Americans to think about what they promised with the last social welfare boondoggle and look at what the actual result is.”

That’s a pretty ingenious positioning for a couple of guys who made their fortune from coal: Government is inept and fossil fuels are the smart economic choice.

But that message makes for lousy entertainment.

On the other hand, we have climate change’s “hopeless” idea, which makes great entertainment. For example, last year’s movie The Promised Land featured the lovable star of The Office John Krasinski as the anti-fracking hero — who turns out to work for the gas company too. There’s no way out. Many of the teen action movie dystopias from Avatar to dystopian Hunger Games and Divergent could be said to depict a post climate-change world. They’re all built on the idea that there’s little we can do.

But in just the last week or so, I’ve run across a new idea, a new meme, that’s proactively fighting climate change:

  • The Vancouver Art Gallery has an exhibit of photographs by Edward Burtynsky called “A Terrible Beauty.” The show is divided into four sections — Inhabited, Extracted, Manufactured and Abandoned — four types of forceful actions through which human beings have profoundly inscribed their presence on the world. The images are visceral and terrifying, pleading for intervention, especially in Burtynsky’s images of water.
  • Zadie Smith, the award-winning novelist, writes in the New York Review of Books’ April 3 edition on “the new normal” in weather. She bemoans the “fatalist liberal consciousness that has…as much of a perverse desire for the apocalypse as the evangelicals we supposedly scorn. …They say to each other: ‘Yes, perhaps we should have had the argument differently, some time ago, but now it is too late…’” But after describing climate induced alterations in her friend’s garden, she moves onto a new climate-change meme: “I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?”

True, my examples are random and not representative of mass culture, but I believe they mark a distinct change in our culture. It’s no longer “game over, nothing we can do.” It used to feel naïve to talk openly about your actions to mitigate climate change. “It’s all meaningless” would be the response. Watch now as the questions change from “What can be done?” to “What is being done…and what are you doing?”

Photo is courtesy of  myxgirl85 via Flickr cc.



Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,900+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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Keywords: Environment & Climate Change | Americans for Prosperity | CSRHUB | Climate Solutions | Divergent | Edward Burtynsky | Hunger Games | International Forum on Globalization | KC Golden | Koch Industries | Koch brothers