As I flip through TV channels, I hardly find anyone talking about climate change. With floods storming across the world and people currently dying from heatwaves, it’s a bit shocking that so few are covering this crisis. I have been a climate activist for over a decade, and the lack of storytelling on climate change baffles me. But while rewatching a few anime, I realized there is a lot we can learn about climate activism from some of our favorite stories.
Image via GKIDS
One classic film that does this so effortlessly is Princess Mononoke. The film depicts what happens to nature as a result of industrialization and our voracious consumption of natural resources. The story features Lady Eboshi, who runs a mining town that is extracting iron ore and resultingly degrading sacred forests. Her encroachment on nature causes conflicts with the animals and spirits of the forest who grow enraged as their home is destroyed. Princess Mononoke grew up in nature and is connected to the spirits of the forest. She understands the value of the natural world and risks her life to protect it.
It’s not hard to understand where they are both coming from: they are trying to protect their way of life. Lady Eboshi, however, is so steeped in capitalistic pursuits that she forgoes the long-term wellbeing of her people and jeopardizes their existence by wreaking havoc on nature.
Having worked with the United Nations, it is clear to me that Lady Eboshi doesn’t take sustainable development into account at all. Developing areas without understanding impacts on the natural world always has bad consequences. When nature is pushed to its limits, it fights back, just as it does in the film. The climate crisis is the starkest example of this, and our extractive pursuit of fossil fuels is now resulting in the death and destruction of nature and people’s way of life across the world.
As a climate justice activist, I sympathize with Princess Mononoke. If she does not fight to protect the forest, who will? It is perhaps this universal theme and the global presence of environmental destruction that makes the storytelling of Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki relevant over 20 years since its debut. But with the global climate justice movement now at the forefront, the film takes on a new meaning as a climate allegory, and it has become increasingly difficult to sympathize with the short-sighted colonial greed of Lady Eboshi.
Image via Pokémon
Pokémon, one of the most canon examples of climate awareness in all anime, encourages people to love animals, and certainly did that for me. Most Pokémon are directly inspired by plants and animals from the natural world. In a direct nod to the climate crisis, Pokémon recently created a bleached white version of the coral Pokémon, Corsola. The official Pokédex entry states that sudden climate change wiped out an ancient kind of Corsola, leaving us now with Cursola. Chillingly, Corsola went from a water to ghost-type Pokémon, just as our precious coral reefs seem to be. This comes at a critical time now that our coral reefs are experiencing coral bleaching due to ocean acidification and global warming.
As a child, I used to carry a stuffed Pikachu everywhere I went. Nowadays while doing research across the world, I index different plants and animal species in a notebook. In some ways, I feel as though I am completing my own Pokédex as I detail the wonders of the natural world. The franchise has talked about extinction and biodiversity from the beginning, but seeing Pokémon now directly talk about climate change has been very motivating. I’m not alone in finding inspiration from this. In fact, protesters recently dressed in Pikachu costumes to demand an end to coal power in Japan at a major UN climate conference.
Image via GKIDS
It should come as no surprise that environmentalism and climate change are core to many anime. The island nation of Japan is facing increasingly severe environmental impacts from the climate crisis, ranging from massive rainfall to intensifying heatwaves.
The recent film Weathering With You is a climate power thriller laced with love and longing. Nearly every scene centers around the weather. The movie starts with a powerful typhoon and elders note that spring and summer were once defined by blue skies instead of endless rainfall. Hina, a “sunshine girl” with the power to clear the sky and bring sunshine, shows how much we rely on a stable climate, especially as we see intense weather ruin weddings, flood subways, cancel flights and halt a functioning society.
Years back while living in Japan, I took a course on sustainable water management at the University of Tokyo. The city is incredibly well designed, and water is at the heart of substantial infrastructure investment. Still, its systems are largely built for the current climate. Weather events are already becoming more intense due to climate change — and a recent typhoon resulted in $10 billion in damages, with $4 billion of those damages directly attributable to climate change.
Weathering With You depicts an uninhabitable Tokyo, where large swaths of the city are under water and residents are forced to abandon their homes. This is not too far off from our current models of the future, where our world will see over 200 million climate refugees by 2050. In many ways, the film serves as a wakeup call to the realities of the climate crisis.
Image via GKIDS
Can anime inspire us to save the world? One pitfall it faces, from Princess Mononoke to Weathering With You, is that it often relies on one central character that is tasked with saving the world. The climate crisis, however, won’t be solved by one individual. It will require massive, communal transformation in different sectors of society all across the world. Each of us will have to contribute in our own way to transform our society to avoid the collapse of our climate system.
At the same time, the hyper-engaged following that anime has makes it the perfect medium to share environmental messaging. I recently posted that I was writing this article on my Instagram. I was surprised by how many people from the climate movement came forward with enthusiastic recommendations for this piece. At a time when our reliance on climate change-causing fossil fuels is sadly increasing, we need powerful stories that depict the damages we are causing to our society, and we need to inspire people to take action.
We are most powerful when we come together and take collective action, and the most impactful way to do that is to mobilize your friends to vote to ensure we have a livable planet.
Perhaps Goku’s spirit bomb from Dragon Ball Z is an appropriate metaphor: if we each put in just a bit of energy, we can become strong enough to avert this catastrophe and save and protect our one precious planet.