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Pop Culture And Climate Change

One of the posters advertising the 1961 British sci-fi film "The Day the Earth Caught Fire."
Universal Pictures
One of the posters advertising the 1961 British sci-fi film "The Day the Earth Caught Fire."

Sci-fi has been dealing with the notion of climate change since Jules Verne

Max Brooks' "World War Z" book and Steven Soderbergh's film "Contagion" accurately predicted many aspects of today's current pandemic and even suggested ways to better prepare for such global catastrophes. But since they were works of fiction most people dismissed them as mere entertainment. Here's how pop culture has been considering the notion of climate change for more than a century.

Suggested viewing

TV Shows

“The Twilight Zone: The Midnight Sun” (1961)

“Star Trek” (1966)

“Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Déjà Q” (1990)

“Star Trek: The Next Generation – Force of Nature” (1993)

“South Park: Two Days Before The Day After Tomorrow” (2005)

“Dr. Who: Doomsday” (2006)

Movies

“The Day The Earth Caught Fire” (1961)

“Silent Running” (1972)

“Soylent Green” (1973)

“Wizards” (1977)

“Mad Max” Films (1979-2015)

“Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind” (1984)

“The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)

“Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006)

“The Age of Stupid” (2009, documentary and drama)

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012)

“Snowpiercer” (2013)

“The Colony” (2013)

“Wendy” (2020)

Documentaries

“An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)

“The 11th Hour” (2007)

“Chasing Ice” (2012)

“Merchants of Doubt” (2014)

“Before the Flood” (2016)

“An Inconvenient Sequel” (2017)

Max Brooks' "World War Z" book and Steven Soderbergh's film "Contagion" accurately predicted many aspects of today's current pandemic and even suggested ways to better prepare for such global catastrophes. But since they were works of fiction most people dismissed them as mere entertainment.

Now Brooks has even been interviewed by NPR and The Washington Post about how we might best react to the coronavirus pandemic. So maybe pop culture is not merely an escape from reality, but also a means of providing a different lens on it.

Some literary roots

From the earliest civilizations, you can find myths, fables, and religious tales about a world besieged by apocalyptic events such as floods or fires — sometimes in the form of punishments followed by redemption. Maybe The Bible was just climate fiction or "cli-fi" presented as a morality tale.

Later science fiction could not resist pondering how Earth might become uninhabitable through an act of God, alien invasion, a meteor hitting the planet, or through humankind's own follies. Maybe the extinction of the dinosaurs or the theories about the Ice Age-inspired writers to think about what could wipe out humanity or drastically change our world.

In the 1800s French novelist Jules Verne may have been the first to consider the notion of climate change in a pair of books ("From Earth To The Moon" in 1865 and "Purchase of the North Pole" in 1889) suggesting the tilting of the earth's axis could produce a change in global weather.

Not surprisingly Rod Serling explored the notion of drastic climate change in 1961 for an episode of his "The Twilight Zone" TV series.
CBS
Not surprisingly Rod Serling explored the notion of drastic climate change in 1961 for an episode of his "The Twilight Zone" TV series.

Early film and TV

Storytelling, especially when it takes the visual form of TV or film, offers uniquely engaging ways of presenting hypothetical simulations of possible futures. And though some people may be immune to facts most people are susceptible to a good story especially when it taps into fears and anxieties. Take the 1961 "The Twilight Zone" episode entitled "The Midnight Sun."

Here is part of Rod Serling's introduction:

"One month ago the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually moment by moment, day by day took it closer to the sun and all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are no longer luxuries, they happen to be panicky keys to survival."

The Day the Earth Caught Fire Trailer

Serling’s episode gave us an act of god that changed the world’s climate. But in that same year, the British film "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" suggested climate change was the result of two countries conducting nuclear tests that threw the earth off its axis causing temperatures to rise.

Science reporter Bill Maguire (played by Leo McKern) puts forth the following idea: "Supposing the combined thrust of explosions shifted the tilt of the earth? That would alter the climatic regions. The complete change in the world's weather. A new ice age for some new tropics, a new equator."

A fellow journalist scoffs and suggests, "It's all guesswork. It's all science fiction."

To which Maguire says, "So were rockets to the moon and manned satellite."

"Silent Running" (1972) presented the scenario that a space ship held the last of earth's forests because the planet could no longer sustain plant life.
Universal Pictures
"Silent Running" (1972) presented the scenario that a space ship held the last of earth's forests because the planet could no longer sustain plant life.

1970s sci-fi

These works were early harbingers of climate change. It would be another decade before sci-fi films would tackle the issue with more gusto. Douglas Trumbull's 1972’s "Silent Running" had a space ship carrying the last of the earth’s forests. Bruce Dern rails against those that let the environment get so bad that nothing can grow on the planet anymore.

"Look at that little girl’s face, you know what’s she’s never going to see? She is never going to be able to see the simple wonder of a leaf in her hand because there’s not going to be any trees," Dern's character said in the film.

The following year "Soylent Green" famously served up a scenario about drastic climate change leading to food shortages with ghastly consequences. It ends with Charlton Heston exposing the ugly secret that "they are making food out of people. Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle for food. You gotta tell them, soylent green is people!"

There were many films in the 1970s including "A Boy and His Dog," "Damnation Alley," and "Wizards" served up an array of stories in which the earth was ravaged by cataclysmic events and left barren or hostile to life. The growing awareness of environmental issues in the real world and the dangers humans could pose through pollution or other harmful behaviors fed into many of these films.

Then you have a film series like "Mad Max" that began in the '70s and evolved through the decades to focus increasingly on the idea of global warming and drought creating devastation. So in the '80s, Max (played by Mel Gibson) takes us through the bleak, barren landscapes of "Road Warrior" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" where water and fuel are the most sought after commodities, and then in just 2015 Max (now played by Tom Hardy) finds similar terrain and delivers a more forceful ecological message in "Mad Max: Fury Road."

An Inconvenient Truth Trailer

Documentaries and beyond

But it’s not just science fiction that addresses these issues. Documentaries play a crucial role in raising awareness. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" showed that audiences will flock to a well-delivered lecture on the devastating impacts of climate change. That film marked the beginning of a golden age for documentaries exploring the topic of climate change, films such as "Before the Flood," "Chasing Ice," and "The 11th Hour."

But global warming is slow and hard to see that’s why the film "The Day After Tomorrow" (made shortly before Gore's documentary) sped up the process to make it more dramatic. It imagined what could happen in a cataclysmic scenario. It may have been more fiction than fact but images of a tsunami hitting New York City and a frozen Statue of Liberty buried neck-deep in snow stirred imaginations and media interest about what might really happen as a result of climate change.

Science fiction, especially in cinematic form, is great at taking any hypothetical situation and actually visualizing it in a way that you can’t do if you’re constrained by rules of reality or physics.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Trailer

In 2012, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" used a bit of the fantastical to imagine how global warming and rising waters in the bayou could destroy communities. In this film, the melting of the glaciers allows a herd of massive pre-historic creatures to thaw and threaten to consume the inhabitants of the tiny community known as The Bathtub. It is a beautiful allegory that also addresses climate change issues in a refreshing way.

Even animated films like "Ice Age: The Meltdown" took a kid-friendly approach as it made global warming a primary concern for its prehistoric characters who debate if they can deal with the massive flooding by "rapidly evolve into water creatures." The more adult-minded "South Park" cartoon also jumped into the fray to poke fun at Hollywood films such as "The Day After Tomorrow" and to deal with global warming in its own way.

As climate change becomes more of a concern for more people, films, TV and science fiction will delve even more into the fears, anxieties, and concerns we have have to help us explore the issue. In suggesting the worst that can happen, science fiction can deliver a very potent warning. It can also inspire people to come up with solutions.

Pop Culture And Climate Change
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.