A New Environmental Standard For Hollywood (Guest Column)

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We recently received a crackling phone call from Australia. Of all people, it was one of the producers of the 1992 animated hit “FernGully,” who had just returned from evacuation after a miraculous shift in the wind prevented his entire farm from being destroyed by wildfire. Much of the country was not so lucky. Still, in the heat of the crisis, he wanted to connect with the international community because he felt sharing his tale and spreading a message of hope was critical. At one moment, he asked, “I can’t help but wonder if this is the turning point of compassion and courage in the human story?”

Despite a seemingly contrarian stance from the U.S. government, this question is echoing throughout the halls of more engaged countries, in dialogues among scientists and economists, and solidifying a global movement. The climate crisis now provides a primary backdrop for major political summits and economic forums. The Democratic party has spotlighted it as a fulcrum of future policy and differentiation between candidates, and the world’s financial puppet-masters’ annual party in Davos was crashed by green activists. As producers, directors, scholars and activists, this question sparked a host of others for us as well, questions that link future imaginaries to present materialities, like: what if our great grandchildren travelled back in time to tell us hopeful tales of more environmentally balanced future? What if these same children brightened the dreams of today’s executives to connect the green of money with the greening of human lifestyles?

Spoiler alert: these children of the future are already here! They are leading a charge to safeguard the planet, producing box-office hits by centering marginalized voices, and creating multi-million subscriber YouTube or Tik Tok pages to make people reimagine the world. This generation realizes the power of screen culture as a mirror for our individual and collective values and hopes, and as an engine for inspiration. Out of necessity, they are calling all of us into greater ethical clarity in pop culture writ large.

Scientific consensus is unanimous: we are deeply into a climate crisis, and this crisis has been brought on by human industries. Why have these facts not prompted wide-scale change? Because the climate debate is cultural. And no single “culture industry” has as much influence, nor as large of an environmental impact, as Hollywood. From the fuel required for cast and crew to travel to the energy dependency of digital post-production, film culture is high in natural resource demand, GHG/carbon emissions, pollution and waste production. From exploitative labor practices to excessive red-carpet awards shows, and throughout the life-cycle of digital devices from precious metal mining to toxic digital dumping grounds, Hollywood plays more the villain than the hero in this narrative. Many of these practices and patterns aren’t even good for business anymore, as most investors and funds are already shifting portfolio priorities to green finance measurements.

Nevertheless, this industry of excess has a chance to be the industry of positive change – and the community that has often positioned itself on the front line of social progress has an imperative to lead this battle not only by teaching, but by doing. Good always triumphs over evil in the end, right? It’s time to write our happy ending.

As environmental messages and storytelling become more central to popular media, and as words like “climate” and “sustainability” become catchwords across business management and branding, Hollywood has proven superficially attentive to green production trends. Studios introduced green initiatives that, while a step in the right direction, are still dismissible as Tinseltown greenwashing: shifting from paper memos to email might help a studio rebrand itself as “green,” but is a meager step if business continues as usual. So, what would make a difference? With hopes of helping foster this transition, our intersectional coalition has brought together producers, creatives, green production scholars and industry experts to prioritize a call to action in five primary areas of action: Water, Forests, Finance, Energy, and Food. These areas form the supply chain “behind the screen,” but social values and cultural norms number among its outputs on and beyond the screen. It is necessary to address all of these interrelated issues, and to address them together, in order to green the industry.

Through its representations, narratives, and off-screen role modeling, Hollywood shapes popular perceptions of the natural world and the human place in it. It inspires cultural norms that span from daily behaviors to intergenerational rituals of exploitation, stewardship, or preservation. The individual movie or show may be the monetized Hollywood product, but what it really produces is a system of worldviews and ethics that for over a century have reaffirmed consumerism and an irresponsible ownership of nature.

Hollywood is not a dream factory, but a mythology factory, building ideological frameworks from oil, iron, wood, plastic, and human labor. Storytelling does and will play a crucial role in whether humanity rises to meet the emergency of the climate crisis, but we also need committed industry change in production culture values and practices. Just as other major industrial and economic sectors are recognizing the multi-layered benefits of transitioning to environmentally conscientious methods, so would Hollywood profit both economically and in its public image by embracing this change.

Is this an industry willing to demand a new equation for success where an environmental bottom-line also means an increased Return on Investment and audience connection? We hope so. The time has come to join together and rewrite the future.

This article was written In partnership with the Green The Industry coalition.