This year’s best movies, books, and podcasts about climate change
I don’t know about you, but I spent a good portion of this year escaping. When your day job involves running fact-checks on the bizarre and short-sighted decisions that will determine the future for you and everyone you know, well, it helps to take a time-out every once in a while.
And there was some high-quality escapism on offer this year, from superhero blockbusters to dystopian page turners. But even in the fluffiest, most candy-coated realms of pop culture, our anxieties about the world have a way of creeping in. We’ve been steeping in this stuff and it shows, from the increasingly beleaguered comedians of late-night who have to keep coming up with new jokes about Paris climate talks to robo-future shoot-em-up Blade Runner 2049’s thinly veiled warnings about devastating environmental change.
So here are some of the most notable pieces of entertainment that brought the Grist staff down to earth this year:
The best thing on TV in 2017, and maybe ever, was the last season of The Leftovers. The premise is that 2 percent of the population spontaneously evaporated from the earth one day, and those remaining — the leftovers, you see — have to deal with the disappearance of their loved ones. One story line follows the Guilty Remnant, a cult dedicated to remembering the event with tactics that range from annoying to emotionally terrorizing to literally terrorizing. The overwhelming public response to the Remnant is: “Leave us alone, so we can stop thinking about what we’ve lost.”
I don’t believe it’s meant to be an analogy for the climate conversation, but I saw so many similarities. Part of the resistance to acting on climate change comes from an unwillingness to acknowledge what is already lost — certain sea-level rise, locked-in temperature increases, and irreversible change to our environments. It requires a kind of reckoning, a mourning, that most people would rather not undergo. If you watch the show as a portrayal of that kind of internal struggle, it’s really jarring.
Eve Andrews, Associate Editor
I love disaster movies. The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Deep Impact — give me a ridiculous global threat for our main characters to race against, and I’ll watch every rerun on SyFy. This year’s disaster flick is Geostorm. Given its 13 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, let’s just say this climapocalyptic blockbuster won’t be taking home any statues this award season.
The plot hinges on a government-run satellite system that controls all weather on Earth. Things go wrong, the satellites malfunction, and extreme weather starts leveling cities. It’s an overblown portrayal of the threat posed to life on earth by geoengineering and climate change.
Is this movie at all scientifically accurate? Nope! But if you, like me, enjoy watching people get frozen by ice storms, thrown around in tornadoes, and wiped out by skyscraper-leveling tsunamis, it’s worth a watch. Preferably in 4DX.
Cody Permenter, Social Media Manager
“Alternative facts” was the final straw: America has kind of lost its grip on reality. Gimlet Media’s podcast Science Vs cuts through the crap: Do vitamin supplements do anything? Is 100 percent clean energy possible? Do women’s menstrual cycles actually sync up?
The podcast’s fearless host — Australian science journalist Wendy Zukerman — combs through the latest science, chats with experts, and cracks jokes that would make your dad proud. You might not always like all the answers (listen to the organic episode, dear Grist reader). But that’s sort of the point. It’s the antidote — not the anecdote! — that America needs right now.
Kate Yoder, News Editor
Bill Nye: Science Guy
If you grew up watching Bill Nye give zany televised lessons on the fundamentals of science, you’ll probably enjoy this introduction to the man behind the bow tie. Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg originally set out in 2014 to make a fun documentary about Nye’s legacy of communicating science by being irresistibly goofy. But then 2017 happened. “With the Trump administration, it became so much more serious,” Alvarado says.
The resulting film follows Nye on his quest to protect science education from creationists and climate change deniers, venturing into creation museums and theme parks to debate evolution. It’s not a purely flattering tribute, though it also delves into questions about Nye’s pedigree as a scientist (he has B.S. in mechanical engineering) and about how much he loves the limelight.
Justine Calma, Justice Fellow
This movie is deranged, in the best possible way. If you know anything about director Bong Joon Ho, that won’t surprise you at all — his last feature to hit American theaters was 2014’s Snowpiercer, a parable of class warfare and global warming set on a perpetual motion machine of a train. Talk about a plot device!
Okja takes on globalization and animal agriculture with the same off-kilter enthusiasm, pitting terrifying, twinned Tilda Swinton against a South Korean farm girl and a friendly giant of a genetically engineered pig. The filming famously turned the director vegan (at least for a few months) and having watched it, I can see why! But its charms outweigh the ick factor, largely thanks to Ahn Seo-hyun’s performance as Mija and her bond with the lovable Okja.
Amelia Urry, Associate Editor
Many people I know are truly scared to watch this documentary because they think it is all doom and gloom, and we’ve got enough of that going around as it is. But Chasing Coral is more than that — it’s luminous, honest, funny, and moving, a love letter to the magic of nature and the joy that we get from exploring the world. The filmmakers take us underwater to some of the most exquisite coral reefs and fish communities remaining on the planet, giving us a front-row seat to climate change in action.
I’m going to host a showing of the film for friends in the new year. Eulogy or wake-up call, I think it’s worth being moved by the stunning and humbling complexity of our oceans and the coral that has been its seedbed.
Kate Jackson, Director of Networks
Sourdough is a ridiculous and playful novel by Robin Sloan (who, full disclosure, wrote a blurb for one of my books). I mean, c’mon, it’s about sentient sourdough starter. It’s also the most realistic and compelling guide to the modern food debate I’ve encountered.
The story takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the scene of an ongoing struggle between two very different versions of foodie utopia. On one side is an Alice Waters–like character who champions tradition, artisanal labor, and the flavors of nature. On the other side there’s a Soylent-inspired company promoting exploration, efficiency, and new creation. According to the classic sci-fi formula, the story would be about how technological advancement creates a monster that must be defeated. But this book refuses to take sides. Like most of us, the novel values culture and tradition, but also yearns for newness and exploration. Like most of us, it’s wonderstruck by technology while also skeptical of it.
If everyone engaged in making a more equitable and sustainable food system took the lessons in Sourdough to heart, I think the partisan debate would end. It’s the techie-hippie divide that’s unnatural — most of us want a bit of everything.
Nathanael Johnson, Senior Writer
If you haven’t heard 2017 breakout podcast S-Town, please tell me what rock you’ve been living under so I can build a nuclear bunker there that would make John B. proud. The story, from the producers of This American Life and Serial, documents the life of one disillusioned, brilliant, misanthropic horologist as he alternately despairs and rejoices in the human capacity to muck up the best intentions. And, yes, that means he talks about climate change A LOT. As narrator Brian Reed laments, that doesn’t always make for uplifting conversation. (SORRY for boring you, Brian.) But it does make for some pretty gripping radio.
Amelia Urry, Associate Editor
Terrestrial is an environmental podcast like you’ve never heard (case in point: Its unofficial tagline is “We’re fucked. Now what?”). Currently in its second season, the show profiles individuals making tough choices in the face of climate change, like a conservative hunter who breaks rank to defend public lands or a teenage girl who joins a group suing the government over climate inaction. The show tackles big issues — like climate change, air pollution, and environmental justice — and tells those stories in a way listeners can relate to.
Jesse Nichols, Contributing Assistant Video Producer
I was worried about the planet turning into a giant garbage patch where violent cage matches serve as the only distraction from pollution and massive income inequality. Then, I watched Thor: Ragnarok. Now, I’m thrilled about our planet turning into a giant garbage patch where violent cage matches serve as the only distraction from pollution and massive income inequality, as overseen by emperor Jeff Goldblum. Now there’s a magnetic personality!
Darby Minow Smith, Senior Managing Editor