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Game of Thrones & Climate Change: A Cultural Conversation

What do Game of Thrones and climate change have to do with one another? Well, I suppose “winter is coming” is rather central to the show at this point, and certainly the longer it lasts, the more dire the consequences.

But what I’m getting at has more to do with our cultural conversation surrounding both. Game of Thrones is, for lack of a better phrase, a “water cooler show,” and with the conclusion of its sixth season—the most popular season on record—I came to realize something: this is a show that revels in its own darkness. It’s not just the way we as viewers are encouraged to gasp at each shocking death; it’s the fact that Game of Thronesembraces nihilism.

Characters who offer compassion to one another end up in the ground, be it a friendly pacifistic priest or a relatable actress in a play. And in the end, it is always the characters who harden themselves and murder who prosper. It’s a setting where everything is bad, and only the strong prevail (though sometimes even they fail). It’s a rather apocalyptic world-view when you get down to it:  there’s no point in believing or trusting and there’s no room for kindness, because the world is terrible and will swallow you up. In fact, the explosive nature of the finale confirmed what one has to do to achieve any sort of power.

I don’t mean to pile onto Game of Thrones, of course. There are numerous TV shows on right now that seem to revel in a similar darkness: Walking DeadThe 100House of Cards…heck even The Good Wifeisn’t above using shock deaths as a narrative device. And at a certain point, I have to start wondering: what is this saying about our culture that this is what we are consuming as entertainment? Perhaps more importantly, what is the impact?

I’m afraid to say that the answer seems to be downright chilling. Since Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truthdocumentary in 2006 (and far earlier for anybody in field), we have known about climate change, and its potentially catastrophic impact on our planet. Global warming entered everyone’s vocabulary at a time when our cultural zeitgeist was centered around the rise of epics and vigilantes: Return of the King had been on our screens only three years before, Batman was newly re-launched, and Marvel was collecting itself for its slow and systematic releases of every other superhero under the sun.

Yet no hero has taken care of climate change for us. Perhaps Al Gore could have been our Frodo, but no fellowship has risen. We tried in Copenhagen in 2009. We reached an agreement in Paris last year, though the Kyoto Protocol already showed us the difficulties of binding international deals. Domestically in the United States any new regulation or tax incentive geared towards creating a cleaner economy has been incremental at best. By and large, we have a Congress that sits on its hands. And with each passing year, the predictions from the scientific community become worse and worse. We’re seeing some businesses take charge, determined to join the Avengers. Yet for others, the tone went from concern to resignation by the early 2010s. The “tipping point” already passed, didn’t it?

Cue the rise of that grimdark genre on our screens. Perhaps originally this was an appealing concept to explore because of our impending disasters, or our increasingly severe weather patterns. Yet the result seems to be a certain immunization to the stark realities of a destroyed planet. If week after week we are expected to consume doom and pain as entertainment, how can we not become inured to the concepts?

I’m not saying, of course, that it is the fault of Game of Thrones that we don’t have a carbon tax. But what I am saying is that we as a society need to wake up. There’s a world out there that’s worth fighting for, and until we can break ourselves of the habit of being voyeurs to tragedy, we won’t take action. So in this summer off-season, which is likely to be the one of the hottest summers on record, let’s try to make that change; let’s step away from the screens and into the sunlight and remember what it means to be a citizen of the world—our world.