Ecological dystopia

On October 8, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report detailing the urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit anthropogenic global warming to 1.5ºC, with immediate and dramatic action necessary by 2030. You would never know this from the report’s official title, which straddles the line between the nomenclature of contemporary bureaucratic nightmares and the verbal largesse of 18th century treatises: Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Media around the world quickly picked up and reported the most salient point from the IPCC document, namely, that unless fundamental changes occur in the next decade or so to move the global economy away from reliance on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, global temperatures will well overshoot the 1.5°C increase that became the most optimistic and politically palatable target as adopted in the 2015 Paris climate accord. In other words, everyone stop using oil and eating industrial beef or get ready for ice-free Arctic summers, the extinction of coral reefs, and general climate chaos.

This landed like a thud, quickly buried in the current 24-hour news cycle. But beyond the normal ebb and flow of media reportage, the relatively tepid reception to the IPCC’s latest warning about climate inaction, at least in those quarters where it probably most needs to be heeded, is based on three factors. First, the institutional foundations and structural supports for the 1.5°C temperature increase limit are found in the voluntary nature of the Paris Agreement. The accord has almost no teeth, so the only drawbacks to not hitting your own national targets are that you’ve somehow fallen outside an internationally agreed-upon but unenforceable norm, and maybe your country’s energy or agriculture sector is behind the curve over the long term. For politicians who worry about the next election cycle, the long term barely enters into their strategic thinking. Second, there is no global climate agreement or strategy that can succeed without official US involvement, and that is simply not going to happen before 2020, and probably not even then. The US remains the world’s second largest emitter of GHGs and its largest economy, and (like it or not) is politically indispensable, even if it has become an outlier on a number of issues, climate change being a major one. Blame the erosion of decent basic science education, or intense lobbying by polluting industries, or naked self-interest on the part of lawmakers, or wishful thinking bordering on delusion. While the US public, generally speaking, wants action on climate change, it doesn’t care so much that the issue will swing elections or undo longstanding ideological and partisan preferences.

Third and finally, the IPCC report as covered in media exhibited the catastrophism that has come to define how the public imagines the environment, ecological change, and the scale of human-environment interactions in the Anthropocene. “Do something now, or society and the environment will collapse!” So … buy some of those energy savings bulbs? Eat slightly less red meat? Take the bus instead of drive to work? The scale of the problem and the type of solutions available to individuals are thoroughly mismatched, filtered through a collective inability to imagine truly radical change, in terms of either ecological resilience or social structures and relations. While conservatives get much of the flak for refusing to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change as a problem, this inability to imagine far-reaching environmental and social change is not their cross alone to bear, but is present across much of the ideological spectrum. Or better, the inability to imagine anything other than two equally untenable options — the ecological and social status quo persisting well into the future on one end, rapid ecological and social collapse on the other — is the hallmark of, respectively, right and liberal left reactions to things like the most recent IPCC report. The IPCC and its scientific research and public advocacy work are thus imagined as either a conniving band of liberal scientists pulling the mother of all hoaxes/pyramid schemes, or a modern Cassandra, telling us to get our environmental act together while we tune out with fast food, big cars, and willful ignorance. There is concern in all of this that a wider public ignores such reports and warnings, because of distrust, misunderstanding, or information overload, and without large-scale public pressure to act, those with political authority and policy responsibility will simply keep on keeping on. What is my refusal to eat a hamburger in the face of overwhelming evidence that one person’s ecologically responsible consumer choices are nothing when compared to the much greater but imminently more difficult to tackle power and pollution of a handful of global scale companies? Thus we are left with dire warnings about the impending destruction of the ecological systems which we require to sustain society as currently structured, but very little sense of what that new world might look like.

Well, helpfully, cinema gives us a guide. Well, maybe not a guide, but some often creative imaginings of the world after during and collapse. In a kind of critical/popular geopolitics way, I really enjoy this kind of ‘collapse genre’ and I generally count the onslaught of zombie movies and tv shows within this rather than strictly as horror. But not all cinematic imaginings of the ecological dystopia to come are created equally. Some are quite good, providing insightful social commentary on how we might continue to scratch out a living and maintain something resembling society, while others are simply vehicles for CGI madness and schlocky interpersonal stories between broadly drawn characters. A couple of examples of each will suffice I think, though I also want to think through how we might categorize such popular conceptions of ecological collapse and dystopia, as this reveals how we imagine the mechanisms that drive ecological change, differentiated responsibilities and responses to it, and the possible futures that come after the ‘event’ of environmental collapse. I use the scare quotes there on ‘event’ precisely because this is one potential avenue for considering how we think about climate change and tipping points, namely, is there a specific moment in which change occurs, at a specific place and point in time where the character of such change becomes irreversible? And even if there were a discrete moment that can be pinpointed, would we know it when we see it? According to Hollywood … yes, absolutely. Thus we get movies like The Day After Tomorrow, in which a series of extreme weather events produced by global warming disrupt the thermohaline circulation of the ocean, precipitating an immediate global cooling and new ice age, but in a matter of days rather than years or decades. Most of the northern hemisphere becomes locked in ice, including Jake Gyllenhaal and friends trapped in the New York Public Library until they can be rescued by his climatologist father. Scientifically speaking, such a rapid global climate shift is implausible at best, and overall it’s a mediocre action/disaster film, but it did well at the box office and brought public attention to climate change at a moment in 2004 when George Bush was on the eve of re-election and climate change policy in the US was turning away from collective international action. The world imagined by The Day After Tomorrow is one in which ecological change is spectacular and destructive in absolute ways, and discrete in character, defined by extreme events of such magnitude that they allow for no adaptation or mitigation. This makes for good cinema (kind of, though in this case, not really) but not for a very insightful commentary on our ecological condition or how global society might adapt to it.

If we take the event orientation of ecological change as a point of departure for categorization, there are other, better examples, though many of these imagine a climate change scenario induced not by greenhouse gases steadily building up over time, but by nuclear war. Though the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road doesn’t much touch on it, in the novel, the primary character, an unnamed man who travels the destroyed remains of the eastern US with his son, sees a “long shear of light and then a series of low concussions,” indicating the impact of nuclear missiles. The resulting nuclear winter is a different kind of ecological dystopia than what we would expect from global warming-related climate change, different because it results in mass death, both immediate and over a long duration from the direct effects of nuclear detonations, radiation, and disruption of climate patterns through fallout, but also because the origin of change can be precisely pinpointed at the moment of impact. McCarthy’s novel and the film adaptation both depict a world of grim bare survival, in which society has crumbled as it destroys its ecological basis in one fell swoop, and individuals and families eke out an existence while avoiding roving bands of marauders and cannibals. There are many more religious undertones to The Road than I can discuss or adequately explain (I’m no literary scholar after all) but the collapse of (almost) everything ecological and social is the picture McCarthy paints for us here, and the film adaptation portrays it all in an oppressive grey palette. The familiar world of our built environment has melted, cracked, fallen down, or simply degraded through inattention. Zombie films and shows that focus less on the event of collapse and more on the survival aspect are much the same. The mindless zombies of The Walking Dead, with an insatiable urge to consume humanity, or Game of Thrones‘ army of white walkers controlled by the shadowy Night King, encroaching like a force of nature from the north into Westeros, are good stand-ins for processes such as climate change, though they tend to fall back on the erroneous notion that society and nature are somehow separate from one another. In GoT, they are a force to be defeated if only the warring houses would listen to Jon Snow’s dire warnings and take up the weapons they know they already have at hand. Only a handful see the impending doom and know the ecological and social disaster that awaits. In Walking Dead, humanity must rebuild itself, and slowly adapts to new ecological conditions in the ashes of the old, with nature in the form of walking corpses always posing a continual threat. The greater threat however emerges from the breakdown of social norms and rules, which the heroes struggle to retain and adapt, while the villains take advantage of anarchy and collapse and seek the illegitimate exercise of power. That’s a quick and perhaps erroneous reading, but I stopped watching the show halfway through season 7, and much prefer the graphic novel series which is more grim, more contradictory, and extends farther into a future that demands adaptation to the collapse of technological systems that we take for granted. There’s no accounting for taste though, I suppose.

But this brings me to one final example. It’s not the greatest film by a long shot, but Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 movie Elysium is a solid imagining of a world in the midst of climate change. Set aside the ‘white savior’ trope (in this case, Matt Damon saving the world), and you get a vision of an earth 150 years into the future, ravaged by the excesses of capital and left to the masses to scratch out a bare life existence in dusty shantytowns and ruined fields. The ultrarich have escaped as much as possible into a space station called Elysium, and orbit the earth, with advanced medical technologies and all the creature comforts they desire. Much as gravity tethers the station to earth, apart from but dependent on the much larger body, the ultrarich still depend on the poor to work in their factories and produce the weapons and robotics that maintain the strict social and geographical hierarchy on which this society depends. This is the new normal – a ruined earth inhabited by billions in poverty while a small elite hover just above, having used their wealth to escape the worst effects of climate collapse while continuing to profit from it, and all doggedly guarded by a rigid system of biological and economic citizenship. I won’t spoil it, but it all comes crashing down through spectacular but individualized violence, rather than through mass collective action and political-economic revolution. That’s Hollywood for you. But I like the film, despite its shortcomings as it hit home for me in a way that other creative media taking climate collapse as their backdrop or motivating force often don’t. It reminds me of a prominent conference of left activists and scholars I attended maybe a decade ago, during which I attended a panel session on climate change and the urgent need for immediate and radical action. One of the panelists declared that without such action, the choice was stark – we change fundamental features of global society by doing away with capitalism, or we all die. Socialism or barbarism, redux, in a way. And this speaker did not mean “we all die!” in any metaphorical sense; they emphasized they meant literally, and soon, we’re all going to die because of climate change. What specific mechanism, I don’t know – drowning? heat stroke? pitchfork and torch? mass starvation?

Many in the audience of tenured radicals nodded their heads, but I thought this was incredibly shortsighted, lacking in visions of a possible future and of understanding of the world around us. What I mean is this: under conditions of capitalist exploitation and globalization, we are indeed in a precarious ecological and social position, but the argument that somehow the effects of climate change affect everyone equally and all paths lead to imminent widespread death is rank catastrophism. It painfully ignores the fact that for almost a billon people living now in absolute poverty (i.e., on less than the equivalent of US$2/per day), the world is already pretty shit, and for hundreds of millions more, the slightest economic shock would lead them over into a similar state. And while I do not want to romanticize abject poverty, these people make do, they scratch out lives, and they deserve better than shrill academic pronouncements that we’ll just all go down together when sea levels rise and the temperatures go up. Elysium and, almost 50 years ago, the classic film Soylent Green — in which the oceans have died, global ecological change makes large scale agriculture impossible, and society devolves into a highly organized and urbanized form of fascistic cannibalism — demonstrate that we have other visions in our back pocket already, ones in which society continues on in hardscrabble form, exploitation hits new levels, and the rich retreat behind whatever walls their wealth can build. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise, and to depoliticize the unevenness of climate change and its likely and potential impacts.

On that note, if any readers have other films, shows, novels, or other forms of media that they think provide insightful or interesting visions of ecological dystopia I’d be happy to see them in the comments. I have left out a lot here that could potentially have been included, but the more the merrier.