A lifestyle centered around wellness has become second nature to many of us, and technology has emerged as a major driving force within this industry. Think about countless apps we can use to track our physical activity, sleep, and heart rate, and the ever-expanding list of treatments. But what is the environmental and cultural impact of our quest to eternal vitality?
In conversation with film director Joshua Ashish Dawson about the future of wellness, climate anxiety and healthy cynicism
India-born, Los Angeles-based film director Joshua Ashish Dawson is known for his body of work professed as Speculative Climate Futures. In his films he seamlessly melds CGI and live-action to explore important topics such as water politics, resource extraction, and the impact of climate change on low-income communities of color. In his latest short film Spa Sybarite, Dawson explores the future of luxury wellness in the shape of a commercial video featuring speculative wellness facility Spa Sybarite. The film instigates thoughts on disaster capitalism and the impact of climate change on health and wellness as well as their corresponding industries.
Q: Spa Sybarite has a strong ethical message, what urgency did you feel that made you direct this film?
JD: Film is my way of rationalizing, framing and disseminating my thoughts on issues and ideas that intrigue me or that I believe are overlooked. The idea for this film came from my observation of a broad societal trend: companies were increasingly focusing on adapting to climate change rather than mitigating carbon emissions. The more I delved into it, the clearer it became that "adapting to climate change" was far more profitable for companies.
In 2009, the first Lancet Climate Change Commission stated that "Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century." As the rapid pace of climate change continues to increase health risks, I realized that it was only a matter of time before wellness would be marketed as the solution to climate-induced illnesses.
I realized that it was only a matter of time before wellness would be marketed as the solution to climate-induced illnesses
I wanted to explore this complex reality where the commercialization of wellness as a climate change solution and the emerging market for maintaining the status quo through greenwashing could soon become the norm. I used the analogy of a near-future climate spa to critique this imminent future, where our adaptation to climate change is driven more by corporate profit than genuine environmental concern.
Q: You mention the wellness industry using environmental problems for their own benefit: can you give us some examples of greenwashing in this industry?
JD: Wellness is a multi-trillion-dollar industry encompassing far more than spas, supplements, or diet pills – it's a lifestyle choice that extends from simple exercise practices to elaborate interventions. Its products, marketing, and messaging ebb and flow with the trends and the latest preoccupations of its target market. So this act of misleading consumers regarding the unsubstantiated and deceptive treatment claims to market its services doesn’t stop with health but often extends to the environmentally friendly claims of its products and services.
Greenwashing can prey on people's naivete and ethical concerns to attract potential consumers
I witnessed this greenwashing firsthand when I used to work at an architecture firm that designed high-end hotels. Many clients would provide us with their Pinterest boards filled with “inspiration images” of other luxury spas from around the world. Ironically, even while they were striving to achieve “green building” accreditation, their proposed materials were never region-specific and would often need to be imported using unsustainable methods. This highlighted to me the ways greenwashing can prey on people's naivete and ethical concerns to attract potential consumers.
Q: What are the dangers of disaster capitalism and how do we avoid it?
JD: I wonder if we’ve become desensitized to companies making a profit from exploiting a crisis. Performative activism by corporations happens as a knee-jerk reaction to every unfavorable situation that we are faced with. Whether it’s loud public-facing campaigns surrounding racial and gender equality in the workplace or even meaningless trade-specific pledges to decrease a company’s carbon footprint. There’s now a sustainability “gold rush,” if you will, where companies have begun to think that climate change is a thriving new industry in which they can make easy money by doing less than the bare minimum.
It’s time we realize that the antidote to Disaster Capitalism isn’t more consumer awareness but more transparency and government regulation
I think oftentimes we as consumers are pressured to be less ignorant of a company’s true motivations… However, that burden shouldn’t fall upon us… In this day and age, where every business will soon market itself as a climate business, it’s time we realize that the antidote to Disaster Capitalism isn’t more consumer awareness but more transparency and government regulation.
Q: Spa Sybarite looks otherworldly and futuristic. When would Spa Sybarite open its doors?
JD: Spa Sybarite could open its doors almost tomorrow.
The idea of a Climate Spa is not a far-off, completely futuristic speculation. I think some form of Spa Sybarite already exists out there but perhaps not centralized or unified, or branded as a single service or commodity.
And where is it located?
It’s nestled in a secluded oasis in the California Mojave Desert.
But it won't be long before Spa Sybarite is a brand that will eventually be franchised and opened in every major city around the world, not unlike any other exclusive private club with highly coveted memberships that are hard to come by.
Q: How did you come up with Spa Sybarite’s facilities and treatments?
JD: The facilities and treatments at Spa Sybarite were designed to address the potential psychological and physiological ailments that might emerge from the climate crisis. I didn't want the treatments that are featured in the project to be science fiction, but present-day reality. Bathing complexes, IV therapy, nutrition-specific hydroponic systems, and immersive virtual reality caves are all popular technologies today, which the project packages and rebrands as “climate-specific treatment.”
The facilities and treatments at Spa Sybarite were designed to address the potential psychological and physiological ailments that might emerge from the climate crisis
The concept of solastalgia, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht, describes a form of emotional or existential anguish caused by environmental change. In the film, our character is seen suffering from solastalgia due to the loss of her childhood home in a wildfire. As a therapeutic intervention, she uses holographic generators that recreate a 3D version of her lost home based on her memory, which is reminiscent of AI text-to-image generators but for holograms. This was the only treatment that felt like I needed to invent a little bit. But beyond the rational…it was an opportunity to use satire to critique the ways we craft meretricious language to extract maximum value from everyday experiences.
Q: What type of person would book a visit to Spa Sybarite?
JD: In the film, we see our character, Marcy Davis, check in with a simple swipe. Her name pops up on the interface, and the system recognizes her origin, parses its climatic condition, and in combination with her electronic medical records (EMRs), runs a health analysis to recommend corresponding treatments. The display identifies her as a somewhat affluent woman who has traveled from a wealthy neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles to avail of its services. This is the spa's target demographic that could perhaps be lured in through complimentary visits that are peddled through lifestyle management companies that offer their clients exclusive treatment packages.
Would you book a visit yourself?
It's a complicated question. One that I think is at the core of the project. As George Monbiot once said “Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn't moral purity (no one manages that), but cynicism. Give me hypocrisy any day. That being said, I would love to be a Sybarite... if I were able to afford self-indulgent luxury amidst the apocalypse to rejuvenate my own body, it would be hard to resist the temptation. I hope as a filmmaker I’ve made the viewer feel the same way.
I would love to be a Sybarite...if I were able to afford self-indulgent luxury amidst the apocalypse to rejuvenate my own body, it would be hard to resist the temptation
I think for me the morality of it becomes a lot blurrier and more confusing when I ask myself if I stood to profit from being commissioned to craft ad campaigns or design these infrastructures of care that are exclusionary to certain groups of people, would I take it on? If a professional or practitioner, even a successful one, declines a project in our current system, they are balancing tremendous financial obligations with tenuous and dwindling job security. So unless there’s a radical reshaping of our economic policies to ensure that they serve to bridge rather than widen the existing disparities, the benefits of maintaining and perpetuating inequality will always be at odds with one’s ethical stance.
Q: What message do you want to bring into the world with your film?
JD: The most important question the Climate Spa seeks to raise is one of access. The fact that basic human needs are depicted as a luxury, prompts us to wonder who can or can’t afford these facilities in the face of environmental degradation. Will the viewer have access to and afford this establishment? Spa Sybarite’s critique doesn’t intend to target the concept or practices of wellness, but caution us against an industry exploiting our desire for health amidst a changing climate. How can we make the best of wellness services and healthcare equitable and affordable to everyone and not just the wealthy few?
In a world still grappling with inequality, the allure of Spa Sybarite aims to get its viewers to reflect and pose challenging questions on personal ethics and the larger societal norms.