If Only the Earth Would Stand Still
Possible solutions to current global environmental problems remain, at least in first-world economies, mostly all talk. At least we’re talking, but it’s high time we moved well beyond talk and addressed the serious crisis that’s unfolding all around us. One web-site that denies global warming declares that people just don’t care about it, not really. Perhaps it’s not as bad as all that—and conferences and papers like mine are merely hysterical rituals of chicken-little –like minds. I hope so, for all of our sakes. But what I believe is that the situation is bad, very bad, and we’re so inclined to self-delusion, cognitive denial and ego-rationalizations that we cannot handle the evidence that scientific researchers of all disciplines continue to gather about the state of the human habitat.
As a way into the current ideological discourse about the myriad problems that plague us, I want to tell you about a recent film, at once a speculative warning, a mechanism of ideological consensulization and a pretty bad piece of movie making. But even bad films, like bad dreams, have something to tell us about what’s on our minds.
As a film the remake, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a failure. The narrative is saddled with an earlier sensibility—when the world was larger and there were no cell-phones or internet, or spy-satellites, or Google earth, and we were all just waiting for the Cold War to become a nuclear holocaust.
In the original film from 1951 Klaatu and Gort visit earth on a mission to warn Earth: either live peacefully without nuclear weapons or be destroyed! In the 2008 remake, nuclear holocaust has taken a back seat to environmental holocaust. And in this version our not so friendly space alien is humanoid in the shape of Keanu Reeves. The remake retains the limited scope of the first version—the attempt to communicate with all nations turns into a very local affair and our space visitor ends up hanging out with two other rather ordinary human characters. The end result keeps special effects shots to a minimum. This may have worked in 1951 but in our brave new world of digital movie making this cautionary tale leaves one feeling a little gypped in terms of the sci-fi we’ve come to expect on screen these days.
Still, the film for all its limitations can be understood as a kind of dream our culture—or someone in Hollywood–is having, and it’s a dream about human extinction.
In this latest version of the story Klaatu is an alien intelligence in human form born of human DNA. He is, the film establishes, fully human yet alien at the same time. The point here is to establish that the alien is new to the human body and doesn’t “get” being in it, and this he states from the outset that it will take some time adjusting to his new material condition. He is, though, fully human, and when he finally “gets” what it means to be human—to love, to feel connection to others, to fear their loss—we’re supposed to “get” it too, and his change of heart should be ours. This, Klaatu realizes, is what it means to be human, but just what “this” refers to is where the film’s ideological agenda unspools. “I feel it now,” Klaatu declares near the end of the film just as the human race is being swallowed by a swarming storm of mighty metallic grasshoppers unleashed only moments before by Klaatu himself. This plague of locust he unleashes feeds on the material world eating all the steel and concrete in their way.
Klaatu initially has determined that the human race is guilty of crimes against the planet. In the film we learn that life-supporting planets are rare and that Earth is in serious trouble. Keannu plays Klaatu like a latter-day Neo from the Matrix, and the parallels don’t end there. In the Matrix Agent Smith informs us that the human race is “a cancer on this planet” and in The Day the Earth Stood Still, we’re still the cancer but now Keaanu as Klaatu—rather than Agent Smith—is the cure.
“You’re killing the earth,” declares Klaatu, and the film explains that it is the Earth—and, gasp, not humans!—that is special, and in order to save the planet and its biosphere humanity must be removed, for it is a cancer, and Klatuu and his robot Gort have come to do some radical surgery in a last-ditch attempt to save the diseased and dying blue gem.
But then, suddenly, as the film winds down and the plague of locusts swarm, and feed, and grow, Klaatu finally “feels” what it means to be human—his body and his mind catch up to one another and he understands that humans—not just the earth—are special. He’s heard from humans that we can change, but now he understands why they believe it, and what drives them. And so fulfilling his role as a kind of figuration of the Christ, Klaatu decides to sacrifice himself, or at least his human body, to turn off the savage swarm of judgment day and save humanity. Now, as in the original, and as in the Matrix, humanity gets a second chance and the message of the film is a familiar one: the rest is up to us.
But will we change? Can we change?
In the film Klaatu is won-over by an argument made by a scientist played by John Cleese. This scientist defends humanity and its future by arguing that it is precisely these “precipices” of survival that drive the evolutionary process, and our current crisis will finally register on our collective consciousness and so motivate us to change, to evolve. But what the cause of our problems is the film remains silent, and so the solutions are reduced to an emotional platitude: “we can change!”
Evolutionary crisis, the film blithely implies, will force change upon us and then the indomitable human spirit will step up and respond. We’ll be okay! It will all work out. Have another soda, have some more popcorn. Drive safely on your way home!
But this is nothing short of lulling us to sleep in the name of waking us up. The film’s ideological narrative casts the viewer back onto familiar and reassuring assumptions: first, that humans are, in short, special. The film challenges but then ultimately endorses our unshakable belief in biological exceptionalism.
I’ll admit that in a way we are special—if only because we’ve come to dominate the planet as no other species has—7 billion, going on 9 billion by 2050 and still on track to make 12 billion by the turn of the twenty-first century. Why there are so many people on the planet today is debatable. That population growth continues to expand exponentially is an obviousness that has become almost invisible. Yet it remains the greatest, most pressing symptom of our dysfunctional relationship to the ourselves and our environment.
And The Day the Earth Stood Still tries to address this in its own way by quietly suggesting that pollution is such a problem because there are so many people polluting the planet. Yet in the end the film draws away from this conclusion and represses the uncomfortable reality of over population in the name of “hope” and “change.” As if talking about things is the same as changing them. It’s a start, but it’s not an end.
I am no believer in a determined fate that leads us to Armageddon or judgment day. There may be a Malthusian catastrophe this century, or a truly devastating pandemic, or a catastrophic war over water, but any and all of these fates will be of our own making, yet I believe that they are not inevitable. The best we’re being offered right now is the chance to make a few adjustments to our way of life so that things can go on as they are but this is a dubious proposition.
My argument is that our problem is not just our “carbon footprint.” It’s the human foot print—nearly seven billion and still trending upwards at an alarming, exponential rate. Even if we do manage to cut green house gas missions substantially—say, by 80% by 2050–the population by then will have grown by nearly 25%, from today’s numbers. In other words, even the most draconian cuts will not, in the end, be enough to account for the billions more consumers who will join the planet between now and 2050.
What will these people eat? Drink? Let alone drive? Consider that, according to the UN’s 2007 report, Global Environment Outlook known as GEO-4, on average human demand for natural resources currently equals 21.9 hectares per person while the report states that the carrying capacity of the planet is only 15.7 hectares per person. This is one way of saying what Klaatu says in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Our footprint is too big, and there’s just too many feet.
Even now we can pull back from the precipice the film assures us, if we want to. Klaatu realizes that humans are special—they love, they suffer, they sacrifice—and so he shuts down the genocide machinery he brought with him. He shuts it down because he has realized the great obfuscating, ideologically conservative truth that reassures and benumbs: in spite of everything he has come to know about human civilization, he chooses to forget the facts and instead the film retreats to the greatest of romantic myths in order to offer humanity a stay of execution. Humans are special. Especially American ones.
And this is where the film can’t help but reveal its conservative agenda.Apparently through terrible, unimaginable crisis we’ll grow, we’ll change and we’ll survive. I hope so, but what that crisis might look like, and how we move from this world to a smaller, more sustainable one remains a riddle shrouded in a mystery.
The biggest challenge to wholesale political, cultural and societal change in the near term are deeply ingrained notions of “private property” and unconscious practices that are rationalized by a latent, though potent, Social Darwinism. A just and sustainable world will only come when our cultural discourse moves beyond “a form of society which was founded on the pseudo self-interest of selfishness.” We must reject, he says, those social and economic practices that appeal “solely to the anti-social and brutal side of human nature” (Edward Bellamy).
In short, Greed does not work. Greed is not good. Sorry, Gordon.
We need a new vision–we need a new story. And I suspect this story will include the need for great sacrifice for all, everywhere. The symptoms of our greed and our arrogance—pollution, population, climate change and human misery–are already too great to ignore. We may already be in the midst of an evolutionary crisis that will make clear that it is in our self-interest as human beings to end plutocracy and re-direct our concerted efforts towards global environmental justice. A new vision must include the radical transformation of civilization’s “market ideologies” of unending “growth” and “profit” into a sustainable way of life based upon universal rights of birth and the inherent right to dignity of all sentient life.