Climate Change and Popular Culture

Shel sez: try this: how climate change is portrayed in popular culture

My first thought: what is "popular culture", and where do you find it? As an anthropologist I ought to have a unique and nuanced understanding of "popular culture", but I realize that mine is ...deficient. Where to begin to repair? My first attempt at a summary of essentials:

what people (people at-large, in socially-defined groups) know/think/say; the common/shared core of understanding, of language and of memes; the clichés invoked, what people are fed by the media they attend to, which they then repeat...
...which leaves out quite a lot that's important. If there ever was a single "popular culture" in American society, it has shattered into so many shards in the last 50 years that 'mosaic' might be a better descriptor for the many tribes and age grades and territories involved. Thus, Colin Woodard's "eleven rival regional cultures" assuredly have (and themselves contain many) different "popular cultures"; and it's common to speak of "culture wars" as popular activities in present-day North America. So this is a live and lively problem.

And that's another thing: the rapidity of change negates any possible definition of a stable "popular culture", as both infrastructure and content continue to morph. Whatever "popular culture" was the last time we looked, it's moved on. Case in point: the last year of AI development ... or cast your mind back to Napster, about 25 years ago, when the distribution of popular music was transformed to streaming digital.

It's tempting to think of "popular culture" as a shared transpersonal manifestation of the Noösphere: a set/cluster/clump/bolus of ideas and understanding and beliefs more or less shared —or at least widely distributed in a population such as 'Americans' (or Nova Scotians, or Texans, or ...)

How is such a framework of ideas spread/promulgated? Essentially via an evolving spectrum of mass media to which people attend. Some examples: viewers of Sesame Street; or of Star Trek; or Seinfeld; or The Ed Sullivan Show; or Saturday Night Live; or Fox News; or the Superbowl; or the Academy Awards ... each recipient/participant imbibes/is fed streams of information, which serve as mental tarbabies with which they become entangled.

Shel's question refers especially to the relation of such media-defined "popular culture" to the burr of "climate change". What messages reach people, and what do they take from them?


Popular culture Wikipedia

Climate change in popular culture Wikipedia


Memes are a potent medium, indeed THE currency of "popular culture". The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), and so has been in the lexicon for almost 50 years, but the notion of "...a cultural entity that an observer might consider as a replicator ...a unit of cultural transmission... transmitted only through the senses" has been active for longer. The WWII ubiquity of Kilroy Was Here (Wikipedia) seems to have been one of the first widespread memes avant la lettre.

Meme Wikipedia

Climate memes and cartoons

Climate Memes

Why did this beloved source of climate memes disappear?

A Gallery of Memes about Climate Change


Reading remains an important information source for many people, even in the noisy buzz of digital media, and some of what gets read finds its way into "popular culture". Novels are an effective delivery mechanism, because they entangle their readers in stories, and so inject ideas into discourse.

Some pointers collected (and still to be contextualized):

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction Wikipedia

Climate fiction Wikipedia

The Best Climate Change Novels - Five Books Expert Recommendations

Compelling Climate Fiction To Read Before It Becomes Nonfiction The New York Public Library

10 Fiction Novels That Focus On Climate Change Brush with Bamboo

A Bookseller Recommends: Climate Fiction Elisa Picks 10 Books for Our Changing World

Climate Change Fiction Goodreads

Cli-Fi: Climate Change Fiction (384 books) Goodreads

Climate Fiction Book Club Group at Goodreads

The definitive climate fiction reading list — 20 books to explore cli-fi

The Climate Fiction Issue: How fiction can change our reality Fix

Climate Fiction Will Not Save Us Jeff VanderMeer at Esquire

Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism Adeline Johns-Putra (pdf)

My list:

Stand on Zanzibar John Brunner (1969) (on stylistic grounds, but not primarily Climate) (see my Kindle Notebook)
Plug cue: "SCANALYZER is the one single, the ONLY study of the news in depth that's processed by General Technics' famed computer Shalmaneser, who sees all, hears all, knows all save only that which YOU, Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, wish to keep to yourselves."...

...Bathed in his currents of liquid helium, self-contained, immobile, vastly well informed by every mechanical sense: Shalmaneser. Every now and again there passes through his circuits a pulse which carries the cybernetic equivalent of the phrase, "Christ, what an imagination I've got."

The Sea and the Summer George Turner (1987) (said by somebody to be beginnings of Cli-Fi)

Parable of the Sower Octavia Butler (1993) (cited as an early influential)

We human beings seem always to have found it comforting to have someone to look down on—a bottom level of fellow creatures who are very vulnerable, but who can somehow be blamed and punished for all or any troubles. We need this lowest class as much as we need equals to team with and to compete against and superiors to look to for direction and help.

Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood (2003)

He doesn't know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there's the future. Sheer vertigo.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

The Water Knife Paolo Bacigalupi (2015) (see my Kindle Notebook)

Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They'd played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They'd pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they'd turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans—vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They'd had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable Amitav Ghosh (2016)

The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence—a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms
(Amazon blurb)

The Ministry For The Future Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) (see my Kindle Notebook) looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States—mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal.

Weather Jenny Offill (2020)

Termination Shock Neal Stephenson (2021) (see my Kindle Notebook)

America will be very angry for forty-eight hours and then get bored and get angry about something new. A movie star will kick his dog or a quarterback will park his Lambo in a handicapped space.

...a thing of seemingly immense importance that Rufus, in his whole life, had never even heard of. But he had somewhat grown accustomed to there being such things and to the Internet suddenly revealing them to him and so he got over it pretty quickly.


It's important to note that an individual person can make a significant contribution to popular understanding. In the "climate change" realm, surely Greta Thunberg exemplifies, by exposing hypocrisies and raising the hackles of those In Charge. The long history of such personal bravery and principled action is cratered with unhappy endings (think of Aaron Swartz, of Edward Snowden, of Martin Luther King...).

Don't Look Up
"...a satire of government, political, celebrity, and media indifference to the climate crisis."
Wikipedia page


South Park has been a potent and uber-popular generator/promulgator of pop-culch memes for a generation (the first episodes aired in 1997), and "climate change" figured as subject matter for satire at several points. Here are some examples:

South Park: ManBearPig Wikipedia

Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow Wikipedia

The Issue of Climate Change in South Park Edubirdie

South Park Season 22 Episode 6 And 7 Review: Al Gore Returns

South Park Highlights the Tragic Absurdity of Climate Change

ManBearPig: 'South Park' on climate change Michigan Daily

What 'South Park' got right about climate change


Who will Tell the Story of Regional Climate Disasters when the News Desert Swallows all Local Newspapers? Jane Braxton Little at TomDispatch

...and just how AI figures into emergent popular culture isn't at all clear, but consider this just in from PetaPixel: People Support Car Bans When Shown AI Images of What Cities Would Look Like


Another delicious example of a meme wreaking necessary havoc:

Mansplaining Wikipedia

Mansplaining via Google Scholar

Men Explain Things To Me Rebecca Solnit KindleNotebook