Making Sustainability 'Cool'

Sustainability suffers from a decided lack of 'coolness.' Scientists who warn about climate change are a serious lot and glaciers receding do not have the drama of, say, a zombie apocalypse. Species extinction makes a better plot device when it can be reversed and wreak havoc à la Jurassic Park.

Actors and celebrities have taken up the cause to some extent, but far more revel in, and are recognized for their lavish lifestyles and excesses than those who choose to live demonstrably more reasonable and responsible lifestyles. While politicians have helped to bring attention to the issue of climate change, it has also had the result of turning it into a partisan issue.

How can we make it 'cool' to be sustainable? The power of movie and television stars, sports heroes and the like to make behaviors glamorous is well known. Millions of young people sought to emulate their heroes and took up the smoking habit in the 1940s and 50s.

So the question becomes; how could those who help shape our culture make living a sustainable lifestyle 'cool?'

Music is a common way for artists to express their concerns about political, social and environmental issues. Protest songs against war and social injustice in the 1960s expressed consciousness and determination, a trend that continues. Band Aid and then USA for Africa created songs in the 1980s that brought needed awareness and raised money to fight famines in Africa. In addition to collaborating on the later single, superstar Michael Jackson also wrote and sang 'Heal the World' and 'Earth Song.' Jackson Browne's 'The Pretender' is a cautionary tale against succumbing to the temptation of putting material possessions ahead of everything -- including love. John Mellencamp's powerful 'Rain on the Scarecrow' brought attention to the economic plight of farmers forced into foreclosure. Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA' was a powerful statement about a returning Vietnam veteran struggling to find work and acceptance back home -- a point that was not lost on millions of fans (even as some tried to turn it into a rallying cry for American pride.) Pop princess Madonna may have made parents cringe with some of her lyrics and antics, but it is hard to argue with the empowerment messages in 'Express Yourself.' Likewise parents raising young adults ought to thank Pink for writing "Change the voices in your head, make them like you instead ... Pretty, pretty please don't you ever, ever feel like you're less than ... perfect" -- including just enough obscenities to make the song subversive, without talking down or preaching to her fans.

Sustainability and the concept of shared fate -- that we're all on this small planet together and our fates are woven together -- could sure benefit from a good song (or two).

Hollywood and television can play a role as well. I am not talking about documentaries -- because they appeal to a segment of the audience. What we need is something that has broader and mass appeal. Shows like All in the Family were cultural touchstones because they reflected their times, but they also helped drive public opinion. Shows like 'Star Trek' imagined a future were all people of the Earth had come together.

Just as that television show crossed over to movies, films can play a role in showing a more sustainable world as attainable. We have already seen many blockbusters focus on the potential extinction of the human race. While errant asteroids and hostile aliens make dramatic 'villains,' the 'battle' to build a sustainable future does not lend itself to dramatic confrontations and powerful explosions. The Day After Tomorrow dramatically combined the long-term impacts of climate change into a short-term event but the fact is the problems were are facing are not going to dramatically change the world overnight, nor are they going to be solved by the actions of Batman, Superman or even John McClaine.

The film Jaws -- one of the first blockbusters -- does offer the following warning spoken by scientist hero Matt Hooper: "You are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you!" The same may be true for the social, economic and environmental issues we are facing today.

Sustainability will only work if we leave the personal spaces we inherited a little more sustainable than we found them. Therefore we must build a sustainability-focused consumer revolution and to do that we need a hero who is cool, hip and passionate about the subject. Like the science officer Spock on Star Trek (and arguably those on The Big Bang Theory) geeks can be popular heroes.

Would any of these ideas work? It is possible. As Stuart Williams of Plan C3 points out,

We are the first generation that has the knowledge and technology to effect the changes necessary to save the planet and hence the human race and more importantly we are being followed by a generation that cares about the planet, understands there's a problem and is happy to change. Now we just need cultural icons to lead the revolution.

*The author is not affiliated with any of the artists, programs, films, etc. mentioned in this piece. References are based purely on observations and do not reflect any personal or financial interests.