Climate Heroes Ain't Saints

We’ve been asked by a few writers: Are we causing the movement harm by making climate heroes flawed? The answer: a resounding no!

Climate psychology expert Dr. Britt Wray agrees: "Portraying climate characters as flawed and hypocritical will not harm the climate movement—it will only help it by normalizing that none of us are perfect at navigating our carbon-intensive world.”

Climate heroes are not saints!

We get that writing a “do-gooder” character—let alone a funny one—is tough. Earnestness can be a buzzkill.

Thing is, we activists are not “good”! Some of us are broke as hell, making out with the wrong people, smoking weed with VIPs at conferences, sneaking pork chops into vegan lunch buffets, going on ego trips, and doing any number of other problematic things. Some are carrying a reusable straw in their backpack while working a desk job at a big corporation. Others are stealing their neighbor’s solar power to charge their electric toothbrush. Student activists are changing the world while simultaneously being kleptos or throwing tantrums.

Like the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of us are screwing up with one hand and trying to save the planet with the other. No one’s perfect, but we’re all trying—so why not laugh about it and use it as fodder for some damn good drama?

Bottom line: give us flaws! Nothing is off the table.

Do away with the do-gooder trope

We’ve pretty much all been under the spell of the fossil fuel industry. They want us to be like Chidi from The Good Place, distracted by our own individual lifestyles, wondering which kind of milk is less evil, rather than hold corporations accountable through collective action. (BP turned the spotlight on the individual rather than corporations by creating a carbon calculator and popularizing the term “carbon footprint.") Shaming one another is an effective distraction strategy, just like Septa Unella ringing her bell through the streets on Game of Thrones.

Reverse the butt of the joke

On the rare occasion when climate shows up in comedies, it’s often in the form of the annoying neighbor yelling at you to recycle or some hippie freegan (usually played by a bra-less twentysomething) selling crystals. They are the butt of the joke by virtue of being annoying. Why not flip that on its head and let the climate conscious character be cool and the dude played by Ryan Reynolds be the annoying one? Like in The Politician’s second season, when the zero-waste climate activists are portrayed as tough, and the other characters who can’t hack it are the comedic element.

Why not make apathy the butt of the joke, while normalizing climate activism? It’s all the rage these days, you know.

Better yet, have your heroes go after the real bad guys: the fossil fuel industry.

Ensemble it up

A single character should not have to carry the weight of representing a whole group. Plus, ensemble casts happen to reflect the truth that acting on the climate crisis is exponentially easier when done together: mobilizing is the only way politicians and business leaders are going to listen to us. Besides, who doesn’t love a good ensemble?! "Reservation Dog" could never have achieved as much as Reservation Dogs.

How about a Veep-style show where staffers are working on the Green New Deal late into the night, tossing each other bacon under the table? Or a show about a group of people sentenced to community service to clean up an oil spill: one comes from a family that made its money from oil while another was sentenced for chaining himself to a pipeline. Or a super-cool crew of BIPOC twentysomethings using their birding group to bring back the golden-cheeked warbler from near extinction—all while warding off police calls from “progressive” white ladies. (And BTW, this is not far-fetched, it’s the future: see Flock Together, @flocktogether.)

✍🏽 Layel Camargo (Yaqui/Yoeme/Mayo) is a cultural strategist, land steward, filmmaker, and artist. They have spent a decade advancing climate justice through storytelling by creating campaigns like “Climate Woke” to center BIPOC voices in climate justice, and supporting media projects like The North Pole Show. Most recently, they produced and hosted the podcast Did We Go Too Far? In 2021, they cofounded Shelterwood Collective, a land-based organization stewarding a 900-acre forest; they are currently incubating an artist in residency as well as a full-length documentary on the land. Layel was named on the Grist 2020 Fixers List.

✍🏾 Thimali Kodikara is a multimedia producer and artist who fully admits to “not knowing a holy scrap about climate change” before catapulting an impact-led climate podcast into stardom. Alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins, she series-produces and cohosts Mothers of Invention, a podcast on feminist climate change solutions focused on laughter and storytelling. For season three, she moderated a discussion on climate justice with Senator Bernie Sanders and Mary Robinson, days after President Biden won the US presidential election. She has advised global and regional organizations on how to adopt intersectionally feminist principles in their climate communications strategies.