Saturday 11 March 2023

The World-Ecology of Climate Change Cinema – Rafe McGregor

Climate Fiction

‘Cli-fi’ is an abbreviation of ‘climate fiction’, which was popularised in the last decade and refers to a category of genre or literary fiction that takes global warming or climate change as its subject. The prototype is probably Jules Verne’s Sans dessus dessous (1889, translated as The Purchase of the North Pole), an uncannily prescient novel involving a conspiracy to change the Earth’s climate to make more fossil fuel available to a corporation. Cli-fi includes novels, novellas and short stories featuring natural as well as anthropogenic climate change and J.G. Ballard’s early contribution, a quartet in which human civilisation was destroyed by all four of the classic elements, deployed both causes: The Wind from Nowhere (1961, air), The Drowned World (1962, water), The Burning World (1964, fire, later published as The Drought), and The Crystal World (1966, earth). Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) is an early example of cinematic cli-fi and although it was a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release, it was regarded with greater respect in the year in which it is set – 2022 – in consequence of its critique of the capitalist mode of production. Ballard’s quartet provides a convenient heuristic for selecting a characteristic sample of the cinematic genre as it emerged at the end of the 20th century: Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld (1995, water), Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004, air), George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, fire), and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021, earth). Climate change is anthropogenic in all four cases, although the cause is implied in Waterworld and complicated in Don’t Look Up.

Cinematic World-Ecologies

Sociologist Jason Moore opens his magnum opus, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015), by defining capitalism as a way of organising nature rather than an economic or social system. He warns against the separation of capitalism or modernity from nature or ecology because the two have been inextricably linked in a relation of life-making since the long sixteenth century. As such, Moore adopts a world-system approach he refers to as capitalist world-ecology. Capitalist world-ecology is not an interaction of world-economy and world-ecology: world-economies just are world-ecologies. He regards human exceptionalism, the view that human beings are independent of the spatiotemporal web of interspecies dependencies, as deeply misguided because human agency has always been a part of nature and his inquiry begins with the co-production of human and nonhuman animal life and the environments that maintain them. Capitalist world-ecology has been converting energy into capital in increasingly innovative and expansive ways since the coincidence of the Dutch agricultural revolution, Central European mining revolution, and Madeiran sugar-slave nexus in 1450. This year marks the beginning of the ‘Capitalocene’ (Age of Capital), in contrast with and in opposition to the ‘Anthropocene’ (Age of Man). The Anthropocene is used to describe the geological epoch during which humanity has had a significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate and is usually dated to either the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) or the First Agricultural Revolution (10000 BCE). In Moore’s assessment, the current epoch is characterised by the impact of capitalist civilisation, which was inaugurated between the two revolutions, rather than by the impact of humanity as a species.

My elemental quartet of climate change cinema are the product of either the Hollywood film industry or Netflix’s streaming service and, as such, inextricably bound up with capitalist world-ecology, both constituting and mediating a market reliant on cheap labour and free nature to hundreds of millions of consumers across the globe. In each of the films, the narrative moves from an unstable inaugural condition to a retrospectively inevitable condition and the transition from inaugural to closural order both represents and evaluates an imagined world-ecology. The quartet and its genre can be subdivided on the basis of whether climate catastrophe is part of the story’s setting (Waterworld and Fury Road), exploring themes of adaptation and recovery, or a diegetic event (The Day After Tomorrow and Don’t Look Up), exploring themes of anticipation and mitigation.

Narrating Climate Change

Both Waterworld and Fury Road establish their respective postapocalyptic settings very quickly and very concisely, the former as a world with nothing but water and the latter as a world where everyday life has become a hunt for water. At exactly a minute into the opening sequence of Waterworld, the Universal Pictures logo disappears and the camera moves to a position above the north pole of the rotating Earth. As it zooms in, the ice cap melts, the sea levels rise, and a brief voiceover explains what the audience is seeing. The whole exposition takes less than forty seconds. The voiceover in Fury Road begins at eighteen seconds into the opening sequence, with Max (played by Tom Hardy) introducing himself and providing all the audience need to know about his world as consisting entirely of ‘fire and blood’. His voiceover, which is interrupted by the contributions of anonymous others, continues for another forty seconds, during which a great deal is explained quickly: the apocalypse was anthropic in cause, the Earth can no longer sustain human life, and the global ecological collapse is mirrored on the personal level by Max’s psychological breakdown.

In contrast, The Day After Tomorrow and Don’t Look Up open in a world that seems almost identical to our own. This signals that the catastrophic event has not yet happened and that either it or its threat will be one of the sequence of events that constitute the plot of the narratives. Both films begin with scientific teams, one on the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica and the other at an observatory at Michigan State University. In The Day After Tomorrow, the ice shelf cracks and breaks away, the significance of which is explained in the following scene when protagonist Professor Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) tells the United Nations Conference on Global Warming in New Delhi that another Ice Age may be imminent. In Don’t Look Up, postgraduate student Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a new comet and she and her supervisor, Professor Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), determine that it will strike the Earth in six months. This immediately sets the plot in motion as the two scientists try to communicate their discovery to those in a position to take action.

The plot of each of the four films moves through the unstable inaugural condition to a closural order that is unforeseeable but retrospectively inevitable. Each closural order represents a world-ecology that is politically, morally and aesthetically ‘right’ because it is consequent on the responses of the protagonists, antagonists and other characters to the inaugural condition. Don’t Look Up closes with the destruction of the Earth by the comet, which is an inevitable consequence of the power elite’s decision to abort a perfectly feasible plan to destroy the comet in favour of an incredibly high-risk plan to exploit its mineral resources for profit. Fury Road closes with the literal ascension of Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) to power, following the overthrow of a male supremacist hierarchy by a revolution with a firm basis in economics – the communal distribution of the Citadel’s currency, water. The Day After Tomorrow closes with an inversion of power relations that reverses the polarity between the Global North and Global South, establishing a more just (but not obviously more sustainable) world-ecology. Waterworld closes with the Mariner (played by Kevin Costner) delivering a small group of people to Dryland, a Garden of Eden in which humanity can flourish and create a new world-ecology.

The world-ecology represented in the closural order is either represented as desirable (Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow, and Fury Road) or undesirable (Don’t Look Up) and the audience’s desire is enlisted by a complex and manifold combination of narrative form, cinematic style, and thematic content. The desire that drives Waterworld is stimulated relatively late in the narrative as it is only after Helen (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) makes a deal with the Mariner that the audience’s ambition becomes focused on the three of them reaching Dryland. The quest for Dryland is both reflected and complicated in Fury Road, where it takes a circular shape. The audience’s desire is for Max to assist Furiosa to achieve her goals, which change from taking the Five Wives to the Green Place to turning the tables on their pursuers, attacking the Citadel, and transforming its sexist and elitist political economy. The desire that drives The Day After Tomorrow is also stimulated relatively late, at the halfway point when Hall sets off to New York to rescue his son from the climate catastrophe in progress. From the very beginning of Don’t Look Up, the audience desire that the imminent catastrophe Dibiasky and Mindy have discovered be averted, which requires first that the scientists communicate their discovery to the authorities, then that the authorities believe the prediction they have made, and finally that the authorities take preventative action.

Shaping Desire

As already mentioned, Hollywood and Netflix are part of capitalist world-ecology, exploiting both labour and nature to make massive profits with their films, in spite of paying grotesque salaries to selected stars. All four of my quartet sustain this world-ecology by means of their contribution to the global world-system and promote that global world-system by providing audiences of millions of people with distraction, diversion, and dissipation. What I mean is that time spent watching the films is time spent not doing anything about climate catastrophe and perhaps – given how enjoyable they are all – taking a perverse pleasure in the greatest (more accurately, ultimate) mass harm humanity has ever inflicted on itself. The quartet can, once again, be subdivided, into those that are complicit in capitalist world-ecology (Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow) and those that are both complicit in and resistant to capitalist world-ecology (Fury Road and Don’t Look Up).

Waterworld’s driving desire is simply for the status quo, finding that last remaining piece of Earth – Dryland – that has not yet been exploited to ruin and can sustain what is left of humanity (before we inevitably destroy it too). The Day After Tomorrow subsumes the desire for a world-ecology that is not devastated by climate catastrophe into a personal quest – Hall’s rescue of his son (and his son’s rescue of his love interest) – prioritising the individual and the family above the collective and failing to integrate the private with the public. The same two criticisms can be made of Ballard’s original quartet, with The Wind from Nowhere aspiring to the status quo and The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World subsuming the political under the psychological. Fury Road is more successful, establishing a convincing link between more equitable modes of production and more just social structures and Max’s intervention succeeds where the Mariner’s fails – in transforming the existing world-ecology into something better. Don’t Look Up is even more successful, achieving its impact in a different way, with a downbeat rather than uplifting ending. While the Earth is destroyed, it is destroyed by human greed rather than the deus ex machina of the comet.

Changing world-ecology requires a reconstruction of the global economy and indeed Moore predicts that capitalist world-ecology is reaching its own closural order, although he is not optimistic about what the replacement will be. A reconstruction of the global economy will not, however, be achieved by top-down measures alone – if it all. One only needs to recall the very recent memory of resistance to relatively minor impositions like social distancing, mask-wearing and lockdowns to see how reluctant human beings are to give up any freedoms whatsoever, even when there is overwhelming scientific evidence in its favour. If world-ecology is to be changed completely, it must be from the bottom-up, which will require a reconfiguration of human consciousness to desire different things, such as sustainability over consumption. Culture shapes desire and cinematic narratives are a sizeable and significant part of our culture. Climate change cinema thus has an important role to play and films like Don’t Look Up and Fury Road have demonstrated the shape that role might take.—Rafe McGregor

Published online ahead of its appearance in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75, due in June 2023.

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