Tuesday, September 29, 2009

E-pocalypse? Not!

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."--Winston Churchill, 12 November 1936, as quoted in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

This past weekend, during a trip to DC to visit family friends, I watched the children’s film Battle for Terra on our host’s lavish home theater set-up (and on crystalline Blu-Ray, a first for me). For those who haven’t heard of it—and that’s probably most of you, since it bombed at the box office—Terra tells the story of a winsome race of aliens whose planet is invaded by the last human survivors of an Earth our species has laid waste. In a particularly insidious form of colonization, the earthlings plan to oxygenate the aliens’ atmosphere—certain death for the Terrans. But thanks to one human dissenter’s friendship with an especially winsome Terran revolutionary, the evil scheme is averted, its masterminds slain, and a permanent human colony erected on Terra to house the dissenting pilot’s peace-minded followers. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find much discussion—pro and con—of the film’s ostensibly subversive politics of radical environmentalism, anti-militarism, and civil disobedience. Dissenter that I am, however, I saw the film entirely differently.

Flash back several months. While staying in Prescott, Arizona to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on conservationist Aldo Leopold, I watched the smash Disney/Pixar hit Wall-E, another film lauded (and reviled) for its ostensibly progressive values. In Wall-E, the human race, having literally trashed the planet, departs Earth for a life of interstellar leisure, growing fat and useless on a mammoth cruise-ship space station while winsome robots stay behind to clean up our mess. Eventually, after the chance discovery of a single living plant on the globe’s wasteland surface, humanity returns home, vowing this time to cherish the land, get down in the dirt, and teach the children the virtues of community gardening. The robot probe that discovers the surviving plant is named, fittingly, Eve; the human race, the film suggests, has been given a second chance to act as stewards, not despoilers, of God’s green bounty.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with both films: the second chance. In both, viewers receive not only the cautionary message, “Don’t screw up!” but the comforting rejoinder: “But if you do, there’s always a fallback!” In other words: go ahead and trash the planet—you can still escape to another world with plenty of green space, convertible oxygen, and winsome welcoming party (or, in the case of Wall-E, you can leave, come back home, and find the world you’ve trashed every bit as resilient as Terra). In these apocalypse-lite visions, there are no real consequences for our actions; we get to eat our cake and have it too. That’s hardly a subversive message. On the contrary, it’s the same message that got us into this mess in the first place, the same message with which our consumer culture bombards us hundreds of times daily (not least through the medium of the movies): everything is ours for the taking, no sacrifices must ever be made, our needs (and our resources) are limitless, take in and spit out as much as possible and let someone else, somewhere in the far distant future, deal with the fallout.

This message isn’t just for the tots, of course. I’m thinking of a film ostensibly for adults, a film ostensibly a somber fable for our time: The Day after Tomorrow, where our wasty ways lead to instant Ice Age. Leaving aside the film’s patent preposterousness, its failure to imagine a true alternative to the problems it identifies is revealed in its conclusion: after the Big Freeze sets in, the chastened citizens of the developed world are forced to take refuge in the southern hemisphere, which, against all science and logic, is not only completely unaffected by global climate destabilization but spacious and gracious enough to accommodate the entire population of the North. Ah, those winsome Argentines and Bolivians—so welcoming, so wise in the ways of the earth, so, well, winsome! Always another place, another world awaiting us. Whether it’s Mars or Mexico, we can safely trash the planet and move on.

In his pathbreaking essay “The Land Ethic,” published sixty years ago, Leopold writes of our half-assed attempts to conserve the land while preserving the prerogatives of consumer society: “Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values.” And again: “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” Which is another way of saying that, short of a revolution in how we envision and live our lives on Earth, all our imaginative efforts to address the environment’s ills will amount to little more than trash.

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