Consumption of Environmentalist Media: Solely Affection Or An “Attenborough Effect”?


In the age of social media, the dissemination of climate change awareness has taken on a new face. Recent examples include Netflix’s new series, Our Planet (a collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund and Sir David Attenborough) and rapper Lil Dicky’s single, “Earth.” However, it’s important to examine whether such efforts procure any value.

Our Planet, more so than Attenborough’s previous projects, relies on image politics (rhetoric that frames environmental ills around often visceral images) to engage viewers. For example, one of the most provocative scenes in the series shows walruses falling to their deaths from heights they do not normally inhabit but had to reach because of the diminishing ice in the Arctic. BBC Earth’s Blue Planet II also employed similar tactics by showing birds feeding plastic to their chicks.

The way these series frame climate change and environmental degradation has led to what is being termed the “Attenborough effect,” or the impact of documentaries on prompting the wider social movement against plastic. Research company GlobalWebIndex (GWI) surveyed 3,833 people across the United States and United Kingdom and found that single-use plastic usage dropped by 53% over the past year. Additionally, 66% of respondents favoured brands that practice corporate social responsibility through making a sustainability pledge. GWI finds that this is heavily attributable to Attenborough’s recent documentary as web searches for “plastic recycling” in the UK increased 55% following Blue Planet II’s release.

Another popular strategy for environmental awareness and mobilization is celebrity activism. Such is the case in Lil Dicky’s single, “Earth,” (the music video gained 3.5 million views in a couple of hours) which features the vocals of more than 30 celebrities (including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, and Snoop Dogg). The rapper says his motivation is “to make it a really mainstream entertaining piece of content that gets people to understand the core realities [of climate change].” At the end of the music video, he directs people to his website, (welovetheearth.org) which he calls a “tutorial about climate change for dummies,” placing emphasis on the accessibility of information exchange. All proceeds from the single will be donated to non-profit environmental charities in collaboration with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

These examples are related to two significant features of modern environmentalism: individualization of responsibility and decentralization of environmental governance. Individualization of responsibility is when environmental problems are framed as the culmination of harmful individual actions, inferring lifestyle changes are the only viable solution. For example: Participants in GWI’s survey cite change in behaviour is due to a desire to reduce personal ecological footprint. This idea effectively detracts from the reality that the corporations who produce unsustainable production patterns and supply chains continue to do so without accountability.

The decentralization of environmental governance indicates that the mechanisms through which environmental outcomes are influenced and its associated success is not dependent solely on government action. While this can potentially widen the arena for involvement, it could induce “slacktivism.” The term “slacktivism” refers to passive acts towards environmental issues such as signing an online petition, liking a picture on a social media platform that promises “for every 10 likes one tree will be planted”, or streaming the aforementioned single “Earth.”. As with individualization of responsibility, these acts do not correct the imbalance in power distributions that is often the root of environmental ills. Moreover, it risks assuring people that their current minimal efforts are adequate, keeping them from mobilizing further change and placing them as consumers first and politically-active citizens second. While GWI attempted to draw a correlation between individual behavioural changes and the Attenborough effect, little is known regarding the media’s effects on policy implementation. Modern environmentalism cannot ignore that policy change is an important facet in environmental governance.

However, celebrity activism and social media engagement is not without value. A notable finding in GWI’s research is that Generation Z are more receptive to image politics and thus, take sustainability into consideration when making everyday purchases. On the other hand, consumers aged 55-64 place more weight on affordability when making purchasing decisions. Trend manager at GWI Chase Buckle identifies that “younger generations grew up during the height of the sustainability crisis with high-profile, environmentalist documentaries widely available.” As such, these two new trends in environmentalism adapt to the target demographic. Consuming this media can encourage individuals to align their values with their actions and the media itself acts as the tangible element of collective ideas and beliefs. This is seen even with Attenborough who, while urging people to be more sustainable, further inspired viewers because his team cleaned the litter in the oceans they shot. Lil Dicky also exemplifies the potential reach of this media since DiCaprio’s Before the Flood helped him become more aware and inspired.

It is imperative to consider the messenger of climate change awareness because it could differentiate the effects of how the message will resonate. In a new show, Climate Change: The Facts, Attenborough takes focuses on the science of climate change, featuring contributions from leading scientists and records from the Met Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Japan Meteorological Agency. While the message remains the same, this series makes research more accessible and appealing as Attenborough has won the respect of both academia and the public. Information exchanges can create social norms which positively influence how people conduct themselves around shared resources, fostering values which motivate individual action. However, we must keep in mind that environmentalism is not merely an aesthetic, but a growing set of ills that must be diagnosed and combated effectively.

Sofia Lopez

Sofia is a Political Science specialist at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on environmental degradation and sustainable development.
Sofia Lopez

About Sofia Lopez

Sofia is a Political Science specialist at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on environmental degradation and sustainable development.