Scientific advancements, policy changes, and technological solutions are certainly important in our fight against climate change, however, we cannot rely only on these methods if we truly want to help the environment.
To effectively tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis, we must also reassess the culture of consumption that we have cultivated. One way to help us reflect on and change our ways is through public role models. We should ensure that green-minded role models are featured in the stories we consume so that the audience is more likely to take on the same mindset.
Role models are mostly found among the rich and famous celebrities, however, fictional role models also have a powerful influence on cultural values.
According to research in the budding field of educational entertainment, when an audience is absorbed in a story, then the persuasive messages embedded in that story are more likely to be well received. This process is known as narrative transportation and demonstrates how fictional role models have real cultural impacts.
Cognitive science research also supports the claim that role models are valuable because they help us learn how our brains process and learn new information. Role models can also affect values and behaviors in a more subtle but impactful way than simply telling people what to do.
Right now in popular culture, TV shows are full of main characters who indulge in expensive lifestyles full of private jets and fast fashion, while green characters (“the vegan,” for example) are often portrayed as annoying or odd. The reality is that we need green role models to normalize environmentally conscious behaviors and lifestyles.
Instead of showcasing characters who wear new, flashy outfits every day, popular media should feature characters who style themselves at vintage second-hand shops, rent formal attire from an ethical online service, and attend fashion swaps. This could all be done without taking away from plot lines or from stylish clothing.
The Netflix film Don’t Look Up shows that green role models can affect behavior. After the film’s release, more than 250,000 people pledged positive action on the movie’s website. Even though these are simply pledges, they are still a good indication of an audience’s response to green-minded characters or solutions within a story.
Luckily, there are initiatives out there that are trying to encourage writers and creatives to develop more sustainable role models within their work. Check out Green Stories writing competitions that push writers to weave sustainability solutions like personal carbon allowances into their stories. Their work will be extended into a video, in collaboration with Bafta’s Albert initiative, through a competition of short clips that highlight the impact of fictional role models. The hope is to open the eyes of writers who create characters that implicitly promote excessive consumption, and to inspire them to imagine new characters who model the kind of green lifestyle we should all be aspiring for.