With the notable possible exemption of the braying nekkid emperor in DC, ostensibly nobody actually wants the end of the world. Yet we feverishly snort fictional apocalypses up our narrative noses, twitching and sniffing between bumps like “Y’all got any more of that Armageddon?” They don’t even have to be Mad Max: Fury Road-level brillz to sate our dopesick hunger. For example, The Walking Dead remains violently beloved despite never being, you know, “good.”
The fascination with our collective destruction is undoubtedly owed to the paralyzing reality of our individual mortality. In the back of our monkey brains, a sign illuminated by our sentience flashes “You gon’ die!” every second or so. That it weaves its way into our creative endeavors is less a choice and more a foregone conclusion. However, unlike when Grok and Grog made dookie-based Paleolithic paintings contemplating caveperson carnage, they weren’t actually on their way to killing Earth.
That is to say, wholly inadvertently, our use of postapocalyptic fiction has dulled and continues to dull our reactions to the very real planet murder we’re currently in the middle of carrying out.
Wow! The End of the World Is Just Like on the TV!
To be clear, I’m not blaming Hollywood for our impending extinction. Blaming fiction for causing real-world harms is so impossibly stupid, only the NRA would have the bullshit bumpstocks to try it. What I’m suggesting is that our use of global catastrophe as escapist spectacle has softened our intellectual response to the practical consequences of climate change. Reality now feels too much like fantasy, so we reject reality.
From the day Mary Shelley invented modern science-fiction to win a bet all the way to the present, the genre has wagged its cautionary finger. In a cunning and clever twist seemingly pulled from a Black Mirror episode, and not a stupid and obvious twist seemingly pulled from a Black Mirror episode, scientifically provable and increasingly inevitable consequences now too closely mimic what we were raised to believe was impossible storytelling.
Conservative politicians—or as they’re known in their fictional depictions, “The Bad Guys”—press on this bruise. They mock and ridicule science-based predictions by contextualizing them alongside what were previously elaborate fantasies. As the legitimate warnings sounded by scientists grow direr and darker than an immediate post-breakup Insta post, vile representatives decry hyperbole and are aided by pointing to our wealth of postapocalyptic fiction. “You can’t really believe that, can you?” They ask, preparing for a quality mustache twirl.
Sit Down, John Wick: Climate Change Is a Bigger Bogeyman
Speaking to the New York Times about the difficulty of making quality climate change narrative fiction, filmmaker and actor Fisher Stevens noted “It’s really tough. It’s not a very sexy subject.” And if anyone knows about “not sexy,” it’s Fisher Stevens.
Unlike other dubious claims, making documentaries about climate change actually was invented by Al Gore. But the biggest documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 9/11, made less money in its whole run than Minions made its opening weekend. The only way in which the American culture psyche is actually deeply penetrated—you’re welcome for that whole sentence, Mr. Freud—is via big-budget blockbuster. BoxOfficeMojo.com tracks the genre of “Global Warming.” There are only nine movies listed, and the second-highest-grossing is Waterworld. God damn you, Costner, you finally really did it!
Andrew Hoffman literally wrote the book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change, on what I’m badly barfing out in a few hundred words here. In speaking with the New York Times, he pointed out that “Typically, if you really want to mobilize people to act, you don’t scare the hell out of them and convince them that the situation is hopeless.” He also said that we need “more movies, more TV, more music” that uses climate science as a spine on which to hang narratives in order to “touch people’s hearts.” He’s not wrong, even if a climate change pop song sounds like the worst thing in a world that already has “Despacito.”
If our fiction were to skew less exploitive and more optimistic, if our narratives were to inch ever-so-slightly more didactic than exaggerated, at the very least we’d reduce the ammunition provided to people we know love to shoot shit. If nothing else, critical consumption can at least strip the sheen off the spectacle. Hulu recently dropped a great and gritty show, Hard Sun, which is innovatively pre-apocalyptic. Above all else, what we need to do is recontextualize where we sit: reality is now mid-apocalyptic.