The overall underwhelming response to climate change across the globe embodies two streams of behaviour. There exists a resonance between them but they are still relatively distinct categories.
- The political expediency required to cater for, or survive in, short-term democratic tenures in major carbon emissions-heavy economies.
- A failure of imagination.
On the topic of a failure of imagination: the existential threat represented by global environmental energy-system metamorphosis and its quite probable concomitant impending global human-civilisation catastrophe – this is so far outside the comfort zone and relatively sanitised narratives-of-reality of so many people that it does not represent anything at all to them. What is incomprehensible might be considered to be non-existent: if it is outside of reckoning or understanding it may also assume a certain cultural counter-narrative of non-entity or unreality. If a narrative is of such extremity and of such immense existential threat that the truth of it would invalidate the entire system of meaning-making, narrative-generation and culture it has emerged from – it is perhaps unsurprising that non-trivial numbers of people choose to disbelieve its message. Beyond the political and ideological biases of some areas of the economy and mega-business, and beyond some areas of financial influence and lobbying which continue to drive the climate denialism clique – the actual immensity and stark, brutal threat of climate metamorphosis is beyond the imaginations of many.
Existential threats measured at the scale of civilisation-terminating or species-extinguishing tend to have an indefinite or unstable status in popular culture and discourse. Creative narratives developed around asteroid impacts or alien invasion (for instance) perform functions of translation of what may be highly improbable events into the sanitised, intelligible world of human narrative and discourse. Where the events expected are tending towards the highly probable and globally cataclysmic, the culture machines can’t seem to find a good fit in generating an appropriate narrative with which to attempt to bring humanity together to face this vast challenge. It is a difficult thing to generate a cultural, educational or informational product which announces the probable termination of the means of production of the message and with this the termination of all meaning, this creates a logical discontinuity of such gravity that escape velocity tends towards implausibility. Human ingenuity has yet to unravel this particular Gordian knot.
We can easily interpret the tendency towards horror and apocalypse-oriented narratives in popular culture as being some kind of cultural repression. The popularity of TV series such as The Walking Dead is not purely a function of the script or production quality; the role of the horror genre also serves as a sanitising narrative for all that death and destruction which we know is out there in the real world but with which we choose not to consciously engage because it is so genuinely and unremittingly awful. A function of at least some cultural narrative is to translate existential terror into a bite-sized and easily digested metric of intelligibility. It remains fundamentally less challenging to digest a dramatised narrative of human struggle against a fictional global zombie Armageddon than it does to consciously acknowledge the degree of death, carnage and suffering occurring in the actual, unscripted world.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect to see Ridley Scott producing a realistic Climate Catastrophe disaster movie any time soon any more than we can expect to watch the Reality TV depiction of a young refugee family and their struggles to survive their harsh world. Some narratives act a level where the business model which supports their production might be threatened or entirely invalidated by the narrative created. Peter Jackson could probably make a compelling Fortress America trilogy of Trump and his Consequences but the likelihood of obtaining funding for anything other than recycled and regurgitated narratives is beyond the mainstream Hollywood business model. Popular culture – film, television and the internet – is the ideal place to begin raising awareness of climate consequences through big-ticket creative narrative construction, notwithstanding the cultural or political and business barriers which exist. A successful climate change oriented creative endeavour might just be a breakthrough hit and runaway success if done well, thus returning the mandatory capital investment + profit and also succeeding in education and awareness raising.
The threat of global thermonuclear war has been a dangling Damoclean threat for some time now and was arguably itself repressed into the schlock horror movies of the 1950’s and later. It appears to also be a genre without very much effective creative cultural narrative generation – this again appears to embody the axiom of narrative negation where a culture is unwilling or unable to consume the message of its own invalidation or ultimate termination. I still remember being monumentally depressed by the experience of watching The Day After and its portrayal of a post nuclear war America. A much more powerful (but exquisitely bleak) movie was the film translation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the unspecified disaster or apocalypse which led to that desolate world captured post-catastrophe society in a way that was effective but far too disturbing for major or mainstream cultural influence – people don’t generally enjoy the terror of desolation and depression that realistic post-apocalyptic narratives by necessity bring. This is actually a key problem in attempting any kind of mass awareness campaign of climate metamorphosis through popular culture – if an existential threat is so vast and potentially terrifying that the reality is likely to generate extremely unpalatable narratives which few people will be willing to digest, in what other ways can the narrative be displaced into more comfortable or less-threatening stories and iconographies without totally sanitising the core message ?
This dissonance between the urgent requirement to perform mass education parallel to an uplift of global awareness about the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate metamorphosis and the fundamentally unsettling nature of the message represents an enigma of public communication; the negative ambience of the message dramatically limits its large-scale marketability and attractiveness to an audience when it is in competition with so many superficial and reassuring fictions and spectacles. Some truths are too important to ignore but what do we do when the popular imagination fails to acknowledge a truth the message of which is both an existential threat to the public and the consequences of which has the power to all but completely invalidate the swaddling of culture and sanitised narratives we all prefer to live within.
I am a collector, or rather – a librarian, of ironies. Beyond the logical discontinuities represented by the existential threat of climate change constituting a narrative which is itself so threatening that the message may never be successfully delivered where and when it is needed most (in the contemporary globally interdependent and interconnected popular culture), the actual bare physical reality of the situation is staggering. Our evolving technological civilisation has a massive appetite for energy and the production mechanisms of this energy have themselves generated a planetary epoch where the increasing quantities of energy (as heat) accumulating in the environment are becoming an existential threat to that civilisation. Barring some technological breakthrough in which excess heat/energy might be extracted from the atmosphere for some useful purpose, I am not entirely certain that our shared existential narrative will have any happy denouement.