How Movies On Science Helps Climate Change

As Someone Who Consumes What I’m Told Is An Excessive Amount Of Popular Culture, I Can Rattle Off Entire Genres Of Movies

How Movies On Science Helps Climate Change

from dystopian science fiction to horror movies to serious dramas—that reaffirm the idea that where humans go, ecological devastation inevitably follows.

Idon’t know when I first learned that the story of humanity was one of profound wrongness. But the idea that the world was broken because of our presence was always there, a constant cadence with which to orient my life, as seemingly natural as the four seasons that ordered my years and the cycle of the sun that ordered my days.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, whose theology of original sin means that humans are born with a built-in desire to disobey God ever since Eve, allegedly, took a bite of that damn apple. Since her and Adam’s punishment was to be kicked out of the Garden, it’s not a stretch to say that I also grew up with a belief that humans have an innate tendency to destroy their environment.

Growing up in New York City, secular classes taught to state standards imparted a similar message of humanity’s inherent shortcomings. A critical undercurrent of history and science classes, for example, is the idea of perpetual progress. That progress, we are taught, has always come at the cost of the environment—from smog-filled skies to landscapes devoid of birds, as chronicled in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And, of course, the idea of progress itself implies that there is something wrong with the present and with our place in it.

I am not the only person who has gotten this message. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, scientist, author, and lecturer, writes in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass that in her survey of roughly two hundred third-year ecology students, almost all said that they thought that humans and nature were a bad mix. These were, she pointed out, people who had chosen to devote their lives to environmental protection. “I was stunned,” she wrote. “How is it possible that in twenty years of education that they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people and the environment?”

When I share this quote with a friend, she points out that it is ahistorical to frame people and nature as always in opposition with each other. There are societies that live within their ecological boundaries. The mountainous nation of Bhutan, for example, absorbs more carbon than it emits. But good luck finding those stories in the tales that dominate much of U.S. culture.

Movies like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Waterworld, and The Hunger Games—all of which, to be clear, I enjoyed—posit not only that humans could decimate the planet but that we will. Arguably my favorite dystopian movie, the 1986 Solarbabies, which features a glowing alien orb and kids roller-skating through the desert, is based on the idea that a global corporation would happily lock up every drop of water to turn the planet into a giant desert, and by proxy enslave humans, out of a desire for world domination. Reflect on that for a moment: The Moviescentral conceit is that lots of people think turning Earth into a hellscape is preferable to sharing resources.

James Cameron’s popular movie Avatar features a planet where intelligent beings live in concert with their environment until humans, once again, show up to destroy it. The short-lived television show Terra Nova deals with an overly polluted, overpopulated Earth by sending humans back in to when dinosaurs roamed—before humans had a chance to spoil the place. The youth-oriented television network the CW has a show called The 100 in which the Earth is “simmering in radiation” as a result of a nuclear war. In the series opener, the surviving humans orbit the now-hazardous planet on spaceships. Space also features prominently in WALL-E, an animated Moviesby Pixar that is ostensibly a story for children. It features not just a polluted Earth but an atmosphere so physically littered with trash that humans have opted to live on sterile space stations. Even Star Trek, which many hold up as a positive vision of humanity’s future, assumes that in order for us to live in equilibrium with our environment, we must first let key species, including whales, go extinct; fight a third world war; have a wiser, more advanced alien species intervene in our development; and create an off-planet resource base.

No big deal.

A still from the 1995 Movies ‘Waterworld’.

Mary Evans—Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

So disabused are we of the notion that humans en masse can have anything approaching the good life, that some of the most terrifying pieces of fiction aren’t ones in which the opening scenes are filled with horrors out of Dante’s Inferno but rather ones in which the setting is bucolic. In the television show The Good Place, demons torment the show’s protagonists by wielding a slightly twisted version of heaven. From Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” to Jordan Peele’s Movies Get Out, idyllic settings are increasingly a signal to the audience to prepare for some underlying wickedness. Of course, these are “only” stories. But stories are powerful.

A 2017 study in the journal Nature Communications found that among hunter-gatherer societies, those with better storytellers are more cooperative. It’s our ability to cooperate that anthropologists say has allowed humans to survive even the harshest environmental conditions and to fend off predators that could take us out individually. In fact, our brains are wired for story, which is why most of us can retain stories far longer than we can retain a series of facts stated plainly. The stories that we tell about ourselves and our place in the world are the raw materials from which we build our existence. Or, to borrow from the storyteller Kurt Vonnegut, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.”

Simon Lake, who helped pioneer the modern submarine, admits he was influenced by the idea of undersea exploration after reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Physicist Leo Szilard, who helped develop the atomic bomb, was motivated in part by the H. G. Wells novel The World Set Free. The Star Trek communicator was the inspiration behind the cellphone.

Increasingly, the idea that the Earth will become unlivable due to human actions has created a push for us to move to a new frontier. It’s unclear if tech billionaires are taking cues from WALL-E, but some, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are investing heavily in space exploration, their efforts predicated on the idea that humans need to move into space to survive as a species.

“We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” Bezos told CBS Evening News in 2019, envisioning a world where we put big factories in space and zone the Earth as residential.

That humans would head out to space in order to mine it, by the way, is the framing of the television show The Expanse, which was saved from cancellation by Amazon, of which Bezos is founder and CEO. Like me, Bezos is on record as being a fan of the show.

Not everyone agrees with his must-go-to-space story, however.

“Fun fact: space wants you dead. Mars wants you dead. Titan wants you dead. Space will fucking kill you,” tweeted Shannon Stirone, a science writer whose work has appeared in and The Atlantic.

“Earth is Easy Mode,” tweeted Mika McKinnon, a Canadian field geophysicist and science communicator, in agreement. “If we can’t maintain habitability here, we’re utterly fucked trying to pull off longterm survival anywhere else.”

And yet billions of dollars are being allocated to this effort. What does it say that spinning a story about humans moving into a radioactive vacuum resonates more strongly with many people than our chances of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces Blue Moon, a lunar landing vehicle for the Moon, during an event in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2 19.

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