How Climate Infiltrated Pop Culture in 2021

Photography by Alexandrov Klum/Vogue Scandinavia

How Climate Infiltrated Pop Culture in 2021

As 2021 draws to a close, Atmos reflects on some of the ways in which climate influenced music, fashion, film, and television over the past 12 months.

The year 2021 will be remembered for a number of key events: not least the widespread rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine, but also the U.S. Capitol insurrection, President Biden’s inauguration, devastating wildfires, the Taliban’s return to power, COP26, hurricanes, tornados, and now the surge of the Omicron variant.

 

But it wasn’t all bleak—in the culture sectors, across music, fashion, film, and television, ecological and environmental storytelling became increasingly commonplace. The world may be on fire, but it seems that a growing number of artists, musicians, and filmmakers are eager to spread awareness and inspire action. From Lorde’s nature-inspired album, Solar Power, to the Met Gala’s role in facilitating ethical policy change inside a luxury house, climate has rightly cemented itself into our popular imagination.

 

Here, Atmos looks back at some of the ways climate infiltrated pop culture in 2021.

Climate in Music

 

More so than any other year, 2021 saw eco-pop enter the mainstream and climb the Top 40. In August, Lorde released her third studio album, Solar Power. Although the singer said at the time that she did not create her big climate change record, the songs on the album are heavily inspired by nature, rising temperatures and the state of the ecological world. For example: one song, titled “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” alludes to the ways in which Lorde’s emotional state is contingent on rising temperatures: My hot blood’s been burning for so many summers now. It’s time to cool it down, wherever that leads. In “Leader of a New Regime,” she imagines an apocalyptic world ravaged by climate catastrophe where humans wear SPF 3000 for the ultraviolet rays as they flee the burnt-out scenes on the last of the outbound planes.

 

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Lorde isn’t alone in singing about her climate anxiety. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi teamed up on a ballad about impending climate doom for Adam McKay’s satirical film Don’t Look Up (more on that later), which includes lines like, Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists and you’re about to die everybody. Lana Del Rey, too, turned her attention to the climate with the release of her eighth studio album, Blue Banisters, which references Santa Clarita fires and the dry heat that so often drives wildfire season.

 

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Climate change is informing not just the content of the songs produced by the world’s biggest pop stars, but also the infrastructures and practices of the industry. In October, Coldplay pledged to embark on a carbon-neutral tour by following a 12-point plan that includes powering their concerts using kinetic flooring and audience movement, while Harry Styles partnered with Reverb, a nonprofit that helps musicians “to green their concert events,” to reduce the waste and eliminate the carbon emissions generated from his latest concert tour, Love On Tour.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s biggest record labels, including Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group, this year signed the Music Climate Pact, which requires signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Climate in Fashion

 

The Met Gala—typically dubbed the Oscars of fashion—was different this year. The event, which is normally held on the first Monday in May, took place in September as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. It was also the first time since the gala was founded that a celebrity utilized the opportunity to influence company policy change at one of fashion’s biggest luxury houses. It’s true: Billie Eilish wore an Oscar de la Renta gown on the condition that the label promise to stop using fur across all aspects of the brand. And Oscar de la Renta adhered to the request, pledging to terminate all fur sales by the end of October, 2021. Oscar de la Renta was swiftly joined by Kering—owner of luxury labels Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga among others—in banning the use of fur across their portfolio of brands later that same month.

 

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The Met Gala also made headlines this year after a photograph of cultural icon Sebastian Hernandez, also known as @brownskinhazel on Instagram, shared a photoshopped picture of themselves dressed in Indigenous clothing and covered in blood on the red carpet with a caption that reads: made an AMERIKKKAN appearance or wtvr. #metgala. The image went viral and sparked conversations across the internet around the systemic violence inflicted upon Indigenous communities and their land. Meanwhile, outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Black Lives Matter activists protesting for racial and social justice were being arrested by police.

In other news, Greta Thunberg appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of Vogue Scandinavia in August, shot by photographer Alexandrov Klum. At the time of the magazine’s release, Thunberg tweeted: The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposables. In her cover interview, Thunberg outlines her vision for a sustainable future.

And, once again, Extinction Rebellion showed up at fashion week to protest the industry’s extractive and exploitative practices. Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2022 show was the target as an XR activist stormed onto the runway in Paris, holding a banner that reads Overconsumption = Extinction.

Climate in Film & Television

 

The ecological messages in some of this year’s top performing films aren’t hard to find.

 

Take, Dune, a sci-fi epic by Denis Villeneuve about a feudal interstellar society that saw moviegoers flock to cinemas en masse once lockdowns were lifted, which dissects the ever-relevant themes of colonization, power, resource extraction, and warfare. Set against sprawling desertscapes and rocky, otherworldly terrains, the film follows the race for valuable resources and exposes the corrupting effect of greed in the process. “Dune is a fantastical tale that underscores the urgency of autonomy and land rights,” Atmos climate director Yessenia Funes wrote earlier this year. “It raises concerns around white saviorism and leadership. The film is also a sobering reminder of all the real lives colonialism and war have ravaged.”

 

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Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari gave visibility to Asian-American identities rooted in land work after it was released on popular streaming services in February, 2021. The film, which won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year, is a necessary reminder that Asian-Americans have nurtured U.S. soil and, consequently, shaped the country’s natural, economic and social landscapes for generations, according to Atmos contributor Alexis Cheung. More recently, Don’t Look Up, a star-studded satirical film by Adam McKay that imagines a world threatened by a fast-approaching comet, exposes the extent of humanity’s narcissism and greed. Of Don’t Look Up, Atmos’ Hannah Mendez writes: “The film is the perfect metaphor for the climate denial that feeds the climate crisis today. While some of us choose to look down and ignore the reality of our world’s ecological collapse, others can’t afford to.”

Some of television’s most talked-about series explored similar themes. HBO’s hit show The White Lotus, another satirical take on the self-centeredness and entitlement of the white upper classes, this time set in a luxury resort in Hawaii, presents the wealthy guests as destructive invaders. Although The White Lotus has attracted criticism for reproducing the very hierarchies it claims to critique, it does—at least to a degree—underscore the ongoing effects of colonialism through its representation of the tourism industry’s commodification, appropriation, and erasure of Indigenous histories. Another eco-show to emerge from 2021 is Netflix’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the life of Gus, a young hybrid boy who is part human and part deer. “The show is also an allegory for our various ecological crises—and the power of the youth who are determined to save the world,” writes Funes.

2021 was also the year that the Sustainable Production Alliance—a union of ​​film, TV, and streaming companies like Amazon Studios, Disney, Netflix, and WarnerMedia that have pledged to clean up their act—released its inaugural carbon footprint report in a bid to hold the film and television industries accountable. The report, which breaks down and ranks the emissions generated on productions from the likes of fuel, air travel, utilities and housing, followed an announcement by Netflix that it would achieve net zero emissions by the end of 2022.

Looking back on 2021 and the plethora of ways in which environmental destruction has shaped popular culture, it is clear that storytelling is key in communicating the urgency of the climate crisis. And it’s only up from here. 2022 is sure to see more of such narratives as culture-makers across the board take the responsibility of spreading ecological messages more seriously than ever before.

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