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“We’re hacking popular culture to inspire a new generation of climate activists”

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Tobias Nicolai

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Science has given us a pretty clear picture of how our climate is changing and why. The tougher question is: how do we get people to do something about it? Now, a unique new organisation wants to see if the entertainment industry can succeed where others have failed. 5 met its CEO, Molly Fannon.

On 9 August last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest, starkest warning about our planet’s future.

In the following days, online searches for climate change spiked. But they didn’t come close to rivalling the numbers of searches for Free Guy, a comedy-action movie about a video game, which was released the same week to lukewarm reviews. Among other terms attracting more interest than the UN’s “code red for humanity” were Justin Bieber, Roblox and Crocs. In the words of the IPCC’s own communications advisor, “climate change doesn’t communicate itself”. No kidding.

It’s this same, frustrating problem that sparked a unique music project in Colombia during the Covid lockdowns. With nightlife shut down and everyone stuck indoors, DJs from the Bogotá club Kaputt asked people to go to their windows, get out their phones, and record the sounds of birds and animals, then upload them to an online sound bank. Artists including Polaris Music Prize winner Lido Pimienta and Latin Grammy winners Aterciopelados then spun the crowdsourced snippets into brand new electronic music. The project, called Sonidos Desde Tu Ventana (Sounds from Your Window), has spawned no fewer than four albums where artists jam with nature itself, and got thousands of music fans to engage with biodiversity in a whole new way.

Más Allá De La Ventana by Aterciopelados, one of the songs to emerge from the Sounds from Your Window project.

All this was made possible by a new organisation which, in the words of its CEO, Molly Fannon, is here “to get hundreds of millions, if not a billion people, taking action in the world on all of our most significant challenges, beginning first with climate”.

It’s called The Museum for the United Nations, or UN Live. The name and mission statement come courtesy of the UN, but UN Live is its own thing, independently funded and run.

We the peoples

UN Live isn’t like any museum you’ve been to. For now, you can’t ‘go’ there at all – there’s no building to visit. Instead, Fannon explains, “we go to where people are”. That means the dancefloors of Bogotá, the movie theatres of Lagos, the football terraces of Manchester and the streaming playlist on your phone.

“We must create empathy across generations, across geographic difference, even across species”

The organisation’s mission goes back to the origins of the UN itself. The first three words of the 1945 UN charter – “we the peoples” – encapsulate a spirit that Fannon feels is as relevant to our current climate and biodiversity crises, as it was to the aftermath of the Second World War.

“We must find ways to create empathy across generations, across global geographic difference, even across species, which sounds crazy, but I mean it,” she says. “We need a new sense of interconnection between people who might think they have no reason to understand, or even, I’m going to use the word ‘love’, one another.”

Change can happen

This isn’t the first time Fannon has helped a museum to chase ambitious new goals. She was previously the Smithsonian Institution’s first head of international relations and global programs, tasked with leveraging that organisation’s considerable resources and prestige to make a tangible impact around the world.

At UN Live, the challenge is even bigger. She describes the organisation – which currently employs around a dozen people – as “radical”, “risk-taking” and “scrappy”. It’s going to have to be, if it wants to have a chance of shifting mindsets around climate and biodiversity in the short time that scientists are telling us we have.

But that kind of change can happen, Fannon believes – just look at the evidence of how unconscious biases have changed over the years. Long-term studies in the United States show that bias relating to sexuality has declined rapidly in recent decades, and part of that change is thanks to popular culture. Prominent gay characters in shows like Ellen and Will & Grace helped to move the needle, raising visibility and pushing at social norms. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s no doubt that 2022 is a different world from 2002. UN Live wants to use TV, music and whatever else it takes, to pull off the same trick for climate and biodiversity.

For Fannon, this is something of a lifelong passion. As a student she explored how societies have used culture – street theatre and murals in the Chicano civil rights movement, romance novels in newly independent Latin America – to make sense of where they’ve come from and illuminate where they’re going. So she’s in no doubt that culture can change the world. “It always has.”

Besides, scientific communication on climate and biodiversity has, in Fannon’s words “utterly failed”. “We’ve done a huge disservice to the science by trusting the communication to scientists alone,” she says. That’s why UN Live is bringing together figures from the entertainment industry with experts in climate, biodiversity and behavioural science from institutions all over the world, including the UN. It can’t control what they choose to write, sing or code, but it can offer input, and big names are showing a willingness to listen.

You have more power than you think

If UN Live’s goals sound grandiose, its plan to achieve them couldn’t be more inclusive. Fannon wants to reach people who don’t sit at the big decision-making tables, or read IPCC reports, or watch worthy documentaries. Her audience is “the many” – as “many” as possible. In India, UN Live has been working with Disney+ Hotstar, the country’s biggest streaming provider, on the forthcoming series Defenders of Planet Earth, which celebrates real people doing extraordinary things in the fight against climate change. Its next project in India is more ambitious still: a “climate thriller” series from writer Piyush Gupta (whose resume includes the Bollywood smash hit Dangal), slated to feature megastar Amitabh Bachchan.

UN Live is also working with a major player in the music industry to build on the success of Sounds from Your Window, in a project which Fannon believes could be “one of the most significant programs that merges popular culture with science, perhaps ever”. Details are under wraps, but this time around the plan is to “model a wholly new conservation finance mechanism” to contribute directly to supporting biodiversity.

Considering the gravity of the climate crisis, the world of culture and entertainment has had surprisingly little to say about it up to now. One exception is the Netflix hit Don’t Look Up: the darkly comic disaster movie that satirised inaction on the climate, smashed viewing records and divided opinion. Whatever you thought of it, the success of Don’t Look Up was groundbreaking for a film about climate change, and Fannon praises its “leadership and chutzpah”. Now she wants to see it taken further. “Imagine combining that popularity with the science of what moves people to action,” she says. That means telling stories of hope – not shying from the challenges we face, but celebrating the actions we can take to overcome them.

After all, the real impact of UN Live’s work relies on people picking up these causes and running with them. Whether or not you feel qualified to call yourself a defender of Planet Earth, Fannon’s message is: “If you have a hunch that you could contribute to positive change, you’re probably right.”

Things you can do

Check out the Sonidos Desde Tu Ventana albums.

Listen here

Discover more about UN Live’s work.

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