Pop culture and nature – exploring the connection

by Laura Chevrot, Assistant Editor

“I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green & pleasant Land”

William Blake’s Jerusalem, chanted as a hymn throughout the United Kingdom, was written in 1810. And yet, it already explored one of the most topical questions of this century: the conflict between nature and development. Through the image of a pencil – the sword that will not “sleep in [his] hand” – Blake vows that his activism will not stop until nature is protected and once again consecrated. In the lead up to the COP26, it strikes me how relevant the conflict between nature and development is today – yet few artists explore it or strive to preserve nature through their artwork.

For centuries, nature has been a muse for authors and artists, inspiring some of their greatest works. Yet, the 20th and 21st centuries are marked by a steady decline in references to nature in popular culture. A 2017 paper from the Association for Psychological Science reported that the presence of words associated with nature in films, songs, and books, has declined by 63% since 1950.

Why does it matter? The thought hit me when I was babysitting once – children today are growing up with completely different distractions to those we knew. I was astounded by the fact that these friends who hadn’t seen each other for years wanted to spend all day on Minecraft instead of playing together. Then I realised it’s a common sight: the average American child spends between four and seven minutes playing outdoors. We already know that our relationship to nature as adults is eroded, but it is even more worrying that younger generations, whom we count on to prevent environmental destruction, are plagued by the same phenomenon. Louv terms this the nature-deficit disorder, and rightly asks what will happen of environmentalists in the future if children aren’t encouraged to nurture their connection with nature. Indeed, research shows that people who engage in outdoor recreational activities demonstrate stronger concern for the environment than those who don’t go outdoors. In other words, our declining sense of belonging to nature threatens our capacity to mobilise populations and engage them in activism.

So how can we reconnect children with nature? It seems that the very things which are alienating us from our environment can be transformed into tools to safeguard it.

Popular culture has a large influence on children. For example, Walt Disney films hugely influence the way children view society and the culture they grow up in. Studies show that whilst some of their films, such as Bambi or WALL-E, encourage audiences to connect with nature and protect it, others, such as The Little Mermaid, idealise material accumulation and consumerism. What if we had more Bambis and WALL-Es and fewer Little Mermaids? Surely, popular culture could endorse the role of reconnecting us with nature.

Some artists are already taking on that responsibility. Taylor Swift, for instance, mentions nature 7 times more often in her albums Folklore and Evermore than the top 32 songs on Spotify do. In filmography, Avatar is often cited as a model of environmental activism through fiction. By exploring the destruction of Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi tribe by humans, director James Cameron recreates reality through science-fiction. This brings us back full circle to the conflict between development and nature explored at the start of this article. In the end, maybe artists like William Blake haven’t disappeared – their form of artistry has simply changed.

The influence of nature on popular culture and vice versa is one that has many dimensions, some of which will be explored further in upcoming articles.

Header image by Matt Popvich, via Unsplash

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