‘Ted Lasso’ is a masterclass in environmental storytelling
Recent research suggests that people who are not interested in explicitly “environmental” entertainment will avoid it, either because they disagree with his point of view or because they are simply looking for entertainment. That’s why we need a lot more shows like Ted lasso.
The Apple TV + show follows the main character, an American football coach hired to lead a struggling football (aka soccer) team in the UK, along with his team and surrounding characters. Especially during the pandemic, the show was a Welcome slight distraction for a wide range viewers. Which made his sudden focus on environmental injustice this season – and flawless execution – such a surprise.
In the third episode of season two, Sam Obisanya, a young Nigerian defender who has slowly become a team leader, is delighted to land a deal featuring in an advertising campaign with Dubai Air (a fictitious airline), one of his club’s sponsors. Obisanya sends a message to his father, expecting congratulations, but is informed that Dubai Air’s parent company, Cerithium Oil (a substitute for Shell), is responsible for “destroying Nigeria’s environment and bribing government officials”. Sam asks not to be in the ad, which the club owner accepts. He goes further by organizing a public demonstration on the ground on which the whole team supports him.
Research has shown that although we know that the fictional characters are fictional, on a neurological and emotional level, we seem to interact with them as if they were real. As such, the media we consume inevitably have a powerful effect on our perception of ourselves and the world around us. Other shows should take note of Ted lasso‘s masterclass on how creators of non-environmental media can and should integrate environmental issues.
First, the show offers a model of moving from ignorance to action. In this episode, Obisanya initially ignores Dubai Air’s connection to the devastation in Nigeria. After being alerted to this fact, he does research to educate himself. Then he decides to take a stand, informing the club that he will ultimately not be part of the advertising campaign. In the locker room ahead of the club’s next game, Obisanya takes it a step further by placing black tape over the airline logo on his jersey.
To state the obvious: action is critical. We tend to fetishize consciousness, but that doesn’t mean anything unless it leads to changes in attitude, behavior, and commitment. In this episode, viewers see an individual move from ignorance to self-education and then to awareness and action. Most of us don’t have the platform of professional athletes, but portraying someone previously indifferent to environmental issues who is ready to educate themselves and take action, Ted lasso normalizes this process and presents viewers with a role model to follow in their own lives.
Second, the show portrays environmental activism as collective and joyful. One by one, Obisanya’s teammates stand by his side to blacken the airline’s name on their own jerseys. Obisanya’s action begins as a lonely position, but quickly receives social approval, support, and solidarity from her peers.
In addition, it is amusing-Despite the loss of the match, the team then celebrates together. We tend to lionize the only dissident who perseveres in the face of social disapproval and punishment, demonstrating heroic determination, but that’s asking a lot of people! Most of us want to do the right thing, but we also want the support and approval of our peers, we want the community, and we want to have a good time.
This is not only possible through activism, it is what most successful movements and effective environmental groups have done. The Sunrise movement, for example, emphasizes storytelling and collective song, which encourages people to interact and find community and joy in the face of what appears to be an intractable problem. Just like the team does in Ted lasso.
Third, the action taken by the team is likely to be effective, in large part because it is collective and public. A single athlete undertaking a solitary action would make headlines but have less impact. While Obisanya left the campaign, if he had stopped there, he wouldn’t be an ideal role model for environmental action – it would make him feel better, but no one would know what he did, and someone else would take his place in the countryside.
Raising public awareness to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry is seen as a necessary and effective tactic by both activists and strategists. It is not just a bandage or something that relieves a sense of guilt, but is part of a larger strategy to keep fossil fuels in the ground. As deeply concerned as a growing number of people concern climate change, they often think they should engage in trivial or even counterproductive actions in response, to using less plastic to buy carbon offsets.
Fourth, the action is successful! In the eighth episode of the seasonwe learn that Cerithium Oil has been ordered to cease operations in Nigeria, and Obisanya is described by his loving father as “the butterfly whose wings made it possible”. Successful campaigns are surprisingly rare in television and film representations of activism. While activism and political commitment shouldn’t be based on results alone, showing that even limited victories can happen is more likely to encourage viewers to step up.
There is much more than Ted lasso could do with this scenario, of course. Calling Obisanya “the butterfly” that led to the downfall of Cerithium does not recognize the decades of real-world activism against Shell in Nigeria, sparked by the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni activists in 1995 after the company conspired with the Nigerian government. Ideally, shows can highlight the work of grassroots activists, and celebrities who act publicly do so after consulting them.
Ted lasso could return to this story as well, showing how environmental concerns and actions become a part of her characters’ lives. Perhaps the team will become the favorite of environmentalists and passionate football activists around the world, and find an exciting sponsor in a renewable energy company, leading other clubs to follow their lead and reject sponsorship of fossil fuels. (As it stands, the team ends up being sponsored by a dating app that also plays a central role in the show.) Such developments could lead to a virtuous circle that also sees more pro-environmental actions from the community. from the players.
This would be helpful because climate change, the crisis of nature, and other systemic issues will not be solved by people doing one thing. Fossil fuel companies are not going to disappear overnight and whatever we do now climate change is will only become a bigger factor in our lives over the next several decades. The fleeting performances ignore the fact that these problems cannot be solved with one daring act.
Whether or not that happened, a light sports show became an instructive model on how cultural workers can incorporate environmental messages into non-environmental TV shows, and how they could do more. We can and should educate people through non-fiction articles and books, but it is almost certainly more effective to show them through stories about hit TV shows with millions of viewers. Faced with the urgency of the climate crisis and the power of the media, Ted lasso modeling environmental activism at its best is a very welcome development. And one that we need a lot more, across all media.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is an expert in environmental literature, media, culture and politics. He is currently an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College.