2019’s biggest pop-culture trend was climate anxiety
Alright folks, I’m calling it: 2019 was officially the year the climate crisis went mainstream. Think about it. No longer is mention of the warming atmosphere, melting ice sheets, and acidifying oceans — along with the resulting human suffering — limited to the “environment” section of the newspaper. It’s not a niche worry for small pockets of concerned citizens.
Instead, the planetary crisis came up in movies, songs, and books meant for widespread consumption — a bar that many of them actually met. And for once, the subject got some major airtime from the Democratic presidential candidates. Given the changing climate’s potential to reshape every aspect of human life on Earth, it makes sense that it’s starting to get mentioned in nearly every cultural sphere.
Why now? Concern about the crisis has been building for decades, and the combined efforts of activists and scientists around the world surely had something to do with that. You might also point to the uptick of visible, dramatic consequences, like record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, and floods. Or the culture-setting power of young people, who literally made “dying of climate change” into a TikTok meme.
It’s probably all of those things! But the “why” matters a lot less than the “what” — and climate anxiety definitely blew up in 2019, in everything from pop hits to the Impossible Whopper.
I’d thought Game of Thrones’ final season was going to be the big climate pop-culture event of the year, seeing as it’s a confirmed climate change allegory. And while the finale gets props for raising one crucial environmental management issue — sewage — the resolution didn’t provide much to read into in terms of the climate. And trust me, I tried.
But there was no lack of climate change themes in some of the popular TV shows that filled the Game of Thrones–shaped hole in our lives. Season 2 of HBO’s Big Little Lies spent an entire episode on the subject, as Renata and Madeline struggled to talk to their kids about the crisis. And the final season of The Affair jumped 30-plus years into the future to a climate change–stricken Montauk (writer and producer Sarah Treem describes the environment as being like “a character itself”).
There were also plenty of new nature shows — and in 2019, they came with a darker twist. Netflix’s nine-episode series Our Planet looked like Planet Earth at first glance, packed with stunning nature shots. But not even David Attenborough’s dulcet tones will be enough to stem your dread in the face of constant reminders that cute critters face imminent danger as global temperatures continue to rise.
If you’re sick of cutesy, charismatic megafauna being framed as the mascots of climate change, YouTube’s Hostile Planet is not sugarcoating anything. The series documents how animals adapt to extreme conditions, and it does not hold back. I could only watch a few minutes of it before I was shouting “Catch him!” at the adult Arctic goose as a fluffy baby goose hurtled off a cliff toward the jagged rocks below, covering my eyes before it hit the ground.
This year, we saw approximately 20,000 books about the Green New Deal, including On 🔥 by beloved Canadian Naomi Klein. [Editor’s note: OK, we’re exaggerating, but you should see the towering pile of GND-themed galley copies sent to Grist HQ for reviews.] And it wasn’t just climate hawks reading books about environmental catastrophe this year — David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth had a broad reach, if its six-week stint on the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list (and 3 million copies sold) is any indication.
The 8th-highest-grossing movie of the year took on the colonial origins of the climate crisis. I don’t mean Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest documentary, Ice on Fire, that focused on technological solutions. No, I’m talking about Frozen II, the sequel to Disney’s 2013 masterpiece Frozen, wherein Anna and Elsa must save their kingdom from a natural world that is “out of balance” by reckoning with their family’s harmful environmental legacy.
Besides Disney, the cute Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe prompted a Grist investigation when Vivian Bang’s Jenny made a comment about celebrities — namely, Leo — solving climate change. It’s a one-liner, but we’ll take it.
The biggest moment of the year for fast food culture was probably that whole Chick-fil-A versus Popeyes chicken sandwich conflict — I mean, come on, people were stabbing each other — but the runner-up has to be Burger King’s Impossible Whopper.
Cutting carbon-intensive animal products from your diet is one of the simplest ways to significantly reduce your carbon footprint, and beef is the worst, with 20 times the climate impact of plant-based proteins like beans and soy. So replacing our hamburgers with processed soy-and-coconut-oil patties that taste like fast food hamburgers (and bleed like fast food hamburgers) could be a big deal. These faux meats are everywhere now, including your local grocery store. 2019 might be the first year that fake burgers got big, and if the makers of Beyond Meat and Impossible Meats have anything to do about it, it won’t be the last.
Celebrities didn’t hesitate to speak up about climate change this year, whether it was a cause they’d championed for a long time or not. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (that’s Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) made the environment their “issue of the month” in July. Jaden Smith encouraged young climate activists to draw their parents into the action. This summer, Megan Thee Stallion took to Instagram Live to suggest her followers hold beach cleanup days — “Y’all gotta come in y’alls bikinis and we gonna go clean up some sh*t, you know what I’m saying?” — and also shared some eco-friendly lifestyle tips on Twitter.
For some celebrities, actions spoke louder than words. The 81-year-old-star Jane Fonda first got arrested in October for protesting climate action in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement, the weekly school strike for climate action started by Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg. Fonda has been protesting every Friday since, sometimes getting arrested, and her famous friends — including Sam Waterson and Sally Fields — have been joining her.
Remember Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”? What a silly question — of course you do! That catchy tune isn’t going to be un-stuck from your head anytime soon. Well, Lil Nas has claimed on Twitter that the longest-running Billboard #1 song is, in fact, about climate change. (How, exactly, is kind of hard to say.)
What’s clear, though, is that Lil Nas is definitely anti-climate change.
He wasn’t the only pop artist to mention the climate crisis in his music this year. Do the names “Billie Eilish” and “Lana Del Ray” ring any bells? Both are defining artists of their respective generations — 17-year-old Eilish has a massive following among Gen Z, while Del Ray has been crooning Millennial angst-anthems for years. In some of their music, the burning planet is the backdrop against which the usual pop-song stuff, like the triumphs and woes of growing up and falling in love, play out. Climate change is the setting, not a cause, in the music of these contemporary pop stars — part of everyday life instead of a distant political issue.
I should also mention some new songs of the “climate movement anthem” variety, which haven’t really caught on — probably because they’re pretty out there. On Earth Day, Lil Dicky released a track called “Earth,” accompanied by an animated music video with guest appearances from a slew of other artists, including Snoop Dog as a pot plant and Lil Dicky as himself in a loincloth. The 1975 teamed up with Greta Thunberg, youth activist and Time Person of the Year, to record a “song” that’s just her reading one of her speeches over background instrumentals. And finally, we’d be remiss not to mention that Raffi of “Baby Beluga” fame released (another) song calling for climate action: