Popular culture and the “new human condition”: Catastrophe narratives and climate change
AbstractStriking popular culture images of burnt landscapes, tidal waves and ice-bound cities have the potential to dramatically and emotively convey the dangers of climate change. Given that a significant number of people derive a substantial proportion of their information on the threat of climate change, or the “new human condition”, from popular culture works such as catastrophe movies, it is important that an investigation into the nature of the representations produced be embedded in the attempt to address the issue. What climate change-related messages may be encoded in popular films, television and novels, how are they being received, and what effects may they have?
This article adopts the cultural studies perspective that popular culture gives us an important means by which to access the “structures of feeling” that characterise a society at a particular historic juncture: the views held and emotional states experienced by significant amounts of people as evident in disparate forms of cultural production. It further adopts the related viewpoint that popular culture has an effect upon the society in which it is consumed, as well as reflecting that society's desires and concerns – although the nature of the effect may be difficult to quantify.
From this position, the article puts forward a theory on the role of ecological catastrophe narratives in current popular culture, before going on to review existing critical work on ecologically-charged popular films and novels which attempts to assess their effects on their audiences. It also suggests areas for future research, such as the prevalent but little studied theme of natural and environmental disaster in late-Victorian science fiction writing. This latter area is of interest because it reveals the emergence of an ecological awareness or structure of feeling as early as the late-nineteenth century, and allows the relationship of this development to environmental policy making to be investigated because of the historical timeframe.
Effectively communicating the threat of climate change and the need to address it, reframing the perspective from a detached and scientifically-articulated problem to one of a human condition – immediate and personal – is on one level a task of narrative, or story-telling, and cultural studies has an important role to play in this and in elucidating the challenges involved. In line with the remit of the special issue in which this article appears, it is written as a review article specifically addressing the question of what cultural studies can contribute to helping to articulate the ‘new human condition’ of existence under climate change. As such, it offers some initial preliminary readings of popular culture trends, outlines a potential methodology, briefly summarises some effective work already done in the area and suggests further potential avenues of enquiry.