The bigger picture: Art for the sake of the planet

“We need our culture to be permeated with environmental ideas.” Manchester Green Party member Jonny Keen calls for better representation of environmental issues in film, music, literature and across the artistic sphere – to raise awareness of the impact we are having on our planet.

The 'Stink Spirit' from Hayao Miyazaki's film Spirited Away
The 'Stink Spirit' from Hayao Miyazaki's film Spirited Away

Still taken from 'Spirited Away', Studio Ghibli (2001)

The so-called 'Stink Spirit' in Hayao Miyazaki's seminal animated film Spirited Away turns out to be the spirit of a river that has been polluted and corrupted by the huge amounts of human-made waste thrown into its waters.

Jonny Keen
Mon 12 Nov 2018

Humanity is facing a deadline. In the space of a few weeks, we’ve had to come to terms with the findings of the IPCC’s report on global warming and the WWF’s Living Planet Report, further underlining the need for humanity to take drastic action.

The race is now on to change the way we live and reduce the enormous impact the human race is having on the planet. We as environmentalists already know this, but we have to make sure everyone else does too. Greens around the world are at the forefront of the battle to make sure environmental issues are brought to the front and centre of international debate.

For this reason, there is a desperate need for environmental issues to be better represented in art and popular culture. Academics and scientists are making good progress in educating people on the need for environmentalism but I’m sure most Greens would agree that we as a society are not taking nearly enough action. To help our cause, we need our culture to be permeated with environmental ideas. Green issues must be represented in film, music, literature and every other artistic medium.

Around the world, this cultural shift is already beginning to take shape with great effect. Japan has experienced surging levels of environmentalism in recent years. These changes have been influenced by events such as the Fukushima disaster, but the debate has also been shaped by popular culture, which has pushed environmentalism increasingly over the previous decades.

To help our cause, we need our culture to be permeated with environmental ideas

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most celebrated film makers in Japan and is perhaps best known globally for the Oscar winning Spirited Away, a film that features the dangers of pollution as a major plot point. Several of Miyazaki’s other films, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo among them, are simultaneously hugely popular (both critically and commercially) and based on a strong message of environmentalism. This has an enormously beneficial effect. Generations of people in Japan and beyond have seen these films and come away with the profound message that we must protect our planet and if we fail to do so the consequences could be dire.

Environmental messages can even be found in Japanese video games. Final Fantasy VII was played by millions of young people around the world and the storyline revolves around a group of characters trying to shut down power plants which are destroying the world.

Moving across to Europe, German author Frank Schätzing explored environmental themes through his sci-fi novel The Swarm, a book which explores the effect of humanity's destruction of marine habitats. The book remained at the top of the German bestseller charts for eight months, was translated into 18 different languages, has been slated for a major film adaptation and has even been made into a board game! Fewer novels in recent years have reached such a wide audience.

All of the works mentioned above have something in common, aside from their environmental themes. They are not propaganda, or documentaries. They are simply wonderful pieces of art, superbly executed and loved by millions which happen to reflect their creators' concerns about the environment. Nobody watched the films, played the game or read the book because they wanted to learn about environmental issues. But nevertheless, these pieces of art exposed millions to these issues, raising the public consciousness about pollution, climate change and the decimation of wildlife populations.

In the UK, our art and culture lags behind other nations when it comes to talking about the environment and green issues. We need to see more Green artists producing work that reflects their beliefs, but they can't do it alone. They need their publishers, producers and agents to stand by them and encourage this kind of work – before it’s too late.

Jonny Keen is a novelist and member of the Manchester Green Party. 

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