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Can Hollywood Save the World?

Still from “The Shape of Water.”

The Shape of Water, Dir. Guillermo del Toro, is a tale of a woman establishing solidarity with the non-human whilst enduring the oppression of a corporatist, militaristic society – and then experiencing a profound physiological transcendence. The movie is suffused with post-humanist notions – where ethical concern expands beyond the human to embrace a connection with the multiplicity of the biosphere and where the teleological drive to subsume the earth under human consciousness and thus materially consume it, begins to wither. Theodore Adorno wrote that “Progress begins when it is at an end”. Is it time to begin rolling back half a millennium of Modernity? Hollywood, ever an indicator of the zeitgeist, seems to think so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded del Toro Best Director and Best Picture of 2017 for his self-proclaimed homage to Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dir. Jack Arnold, 1954. It is out of such mythic tales that the Earth’s destiny may be shaped.

Pete Dolack, in China Can’t Save Capitalism from Environmental Destruction, writes that at last October’s 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping proclaimed, “Man and nature form a community of life; we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it…Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us”. Xi was channeling his inner Thoreau, but as Dolack makes clear, his sentiment is meaningless in terms of moderating China’s growing impact on global warming. Nevertheless, his paternalistic nod to nature and, by inference, the threat that humans now present to it, was more than either Trump or Joseph Kennedy III, could manage in this country’s annual showcase of political theater, the State of the Union address and the Democratic response which went by, all 93 minutes of it, without a reference to global warming. Trump’s speech, clocking in at 80 minutes, was just nine minutes short of the insufferably loquacious Bill Clinton who established a record in tendentiousness in 1995. In 2000, Clinton got it partly right, with his final State of the Union, when he spoke of global warming in these terms,

“The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming. The scientists tell us the 1990’s were the hottest decade of the entire millennium. If we fail to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will flood, and economies will be disrupted. That is going to happen, unless we act.

Many people in the United States, some people in this Chamber, and lots of folks around the world still believe you cannot cut greenhouse gas emissions without slowing economic growth. In the industrial age, that may well have been true. But in this digital economy, it is not true anymore. New technologies make it possible to cut harmful emissions and provide even more growth.”

His pro-growth stance entirely undercut his glib good intentions – his reference to new technologies presumably indicated the mechanism by which production and its attendant harmful emissions, was to be off-shored to Asia.

The environment is not a core Republican Party value except where it impacts hunting, mineral extraction, grazing, and now, perhaps, golf courses – all of which have negative impacts on what we used to think of as the great outdoors. The Democrats cleave to a misty eyed, John Muir inflected romanticism with respect to the natural world (enshrined in the ethos of our National Parks) without ever making a credible linkage between its protection and global warming. Yet both China and the United States have national ideologies wrapped in a professed love and respect for nature – while also being the world’s leading emitters of CO2 into the atmosphere. Dolack sketches the compromises, corruption and cronyism that bind China to cheap fossil fuel and with that to a profoundly paradoxical relationship between its environment and its economy – between a now alienated nature and a culture dedicated to its consumption.

In this country, in its long glide path towards post-industrial senescence, the form of that relationship, paradoxical from the start, was created in the middle of the nineteenth century with the widespread adoption of steam powered mills and the railway. After World War II, when it became apparent that the conflict had metastasized technology, a genre of horror movie became popular as a way to exorcise the fears of a run-away advancement in nuclear, ballistic and plain old fossil-fueled engineering. Today, new fears have emerged out of our subversion of the atmosphere.

This country does not lack for jeremiads concerning our climate future. Clinton’s wingman, Al Gore, huffed self-importantly about Earth in Balance, in 1992. More recently, David Wallace-Wells, in last year’s New York Magazine piece, The Uninhabitable Earth, listed a number of worst-case scenarios in an attempt to engage his shrinking, elite, hyper-literate audience of old white people (They Read Long-Form Magazine Pieces Don’t They?) many of whom are warehoused in the tonier neighborhoods of New York City. The New York Times, playing, perhaps, to a similar audience, just produced a three-part supplement to their February 24th issue, ten months in the making, in a collaboration with Nola.com and The Times Picayune titled The Drowning Coast. Louisiana is indeed the emblematic battered shoreline – the soft underbelly of the southern states ripe for its global warming exacerbated ‘disappearance’.

As Wallace-Wells promises, it really is worse than we think, but as more and more Americans (and others) suffer in real time from the weather impacts of our historical legacy of burning fossil fuels, the perception gap, between the bad and the catastrophic, narrows. A Nor’easter, characterized as a Bomb Cyclone, or more accurately as explosive cyclogenesis (terminology that is inching ever-closer to the notion of Weather Terrorism), ravaged the Boston area on March 2nd, leaving seven dead (from fallen trees), millions without electricity and severe flooding from a massive storm surge.  Europe freezes because the polar vortex which hitherto has kept super-chilled air at the North Pole has now swung open like a recalcitrant refrigerator door so the Arctic spoils while canals in Amsterdam ice over and snow falls on Barcelona.  Even Trump’s denialism may be dented when Mar-a-Largo sinks gently into the Atlantic.

We are all deeply complicit in the consumption of the necrotic fuel – not merely in the act of filling the gas tank in our C.U.V., but more insidiously as passive consumers of its impact in off-shored, mostly Asian production. It is in the act of living and consuming in a society founded on the surplus value generated by fossil fuels that renders us complicit: we are nourished by the energy entombed between five and 439 million years ago, hydrocarbons that now inflame our atmosphere and deaden those beings who live within its realm. It is Fossil Capital (Andreas Malm’s inspired conflation) that has ensnared our consciousness, and, through the process of what Althusser called appellation, calls out our name and renders us its subjects.

Like another Best Picture nominee, Get Out, Dir. Jordan Peele, a racially charged horror movie in which white consciousness is seen to be inserted into stolen black bodies, we American consumers are possessed by a succubus, the demon fuel.  We passively accept global warming as we react to weather emergencies with palliative care (in the form of emergency services) rather than attempting to staunch its cause. This is the kind of false consciousness generated when a society is held hostage to Fossil Capital and provides one answer to Gramsci’s question: “why do subaltern classes resign themselves to their fate or even consent to it explicitly?”

It is not only much worse than we think, but we substantiate worst-case scenarios every time we plunge our chip into that card-reader’s orifice or click on-line.  Purchase made, we grind the wheels of commerce that run through China (or an Asian wannabe) and (shortly, via the mammoth infrastructure project, belt and road) we become further instantiated by the zombie fuel.

Adopting renewables may be one part of the solution. But while production ramps up, driven by ever expanding consumer demand, it will likely remain mostly fossil fueled – a fact ensured by the iron law of capitalism that mandates that production be located in abstract, deracinated spaces of the lowest cost and most tractable supplies of both labor and energy.

Can we think through this conundrum in terms of popular culture? Can Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, home to eight million cars and trucks, and the originator, in 1943, of mostly gasoline generated smog, now create memes that speak to our fossil-fueled psychosis?  Alongside of The Shape of Water, another Oscar nominated movie this year, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dir. Matt Reeves, was a tale of a future valorizing the non-human. The telling of such tales is a necessary first step in the re-wiring of human consciousness. At a deeply subliminal level (where transformation might be most effectively achieved) did Oscar night represent a step towards a consummation, to paraphrase Xi Jinping, of the human and the non-human forming a community of life? Did the glitz of Hollywood and its celebrity culture just get coopted by anti-materialism? And did Oscar, in his ninetieth year, finally accept his role as an Olympian god capable of disseminating a regenerative mythos – where fairy tales connect us anew to the mysteries of the biosphere?

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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