Ignoring the Tanker on the Beach

After enduring 2021’s trying-too-hard-to-be-funny Hollywood A-list scenery chew that was Don’t Look Up, it was refreshing to watch a new feature film that truly captures our dangerous inertia with much more subtlety and thereby with far greater alarm.  (Did I mention that I didn’t find Don’t Look Up funny? Why didn’t they let Armando Iannucci write it?)

Leave the World Behind, released briefly in cinemas last November before going to Netflix streaming, received, in the main, pretty mediocre reviews. But these came, I feel, from critics who missed the central point of the film and took the whole thing far too literally.

Rather, Leave the World Behind is a multi-layered and almost entirely metaphorical look at our stubborn insistence on ignoring the threats that are bearing down on us. It is a deep dive into denial.

That moment is never better exemplified than early on in the film, when a massive oil tanker charges toward a crowded Long Island shoreline, scattering panicked holiday makers before coming to rest like a massive beached whale.

Our White protagonist family — who had been enjoying a beach weekend — returns to their rented holiday house and tries to rationalize away the dramatic event and simply carry on as normal. Obviously, chorused the critics, no one would do that after such a clear indication that something is very much amiss.

But ignoring the obvious warning signs of that metaphorical beached tanker is exactly what we’ve been doing for decades in response to our three most serious existential threats — the climate crisis, nuclear war and the extreme dangers of nuclear power.

In Leave the World Behind, the threat comes from cyber attacks and our failure to harness technology before it takes over. “I need to think everyone’s going to be OK,” says the White father, perfectly encapsulating the mantra that has resulted in hopes and prayers but little or no action on serious issues, from global threats to gun control.

The film also shows how White entitlement and racism invariably underpins these failures, an important component that is deeply present in White Western society’s runaway carbon emissions and the imposition of nuclear power and nuclear weapons technology on the rest of the world.

Leave the World Behind features a kind of angry Geek Chorus— its Greta Thunberg if you will— in the person of a young Black Gen Z woman, one half of the father and daughter who abruptly appear at what turns out to be their house. At first moody, then ever more exasperated, she pushes back against the denial and futile optimism surrounding her. This is really serious, she insists, not a temporary glitch. And, in a reminder that White privilege and inherent racism evaporate in the face of existential crises, she points out, “Whatever it is, it’s happening to all of us”. Almost no one listens.

There are other reminders of our selfish blindness in Leave the World Behind, including our wanton destruction of other species and their habitat and our loss of community. All of this, to me, adds up to a far more powerful admonition than the two hours and 25 minutes of stating the obvious that Don’t Look Up delivered.

Leave the World Behind also speaks perfectly to us about nuclear power —even though it gets just a glancing mention from our Greek Chorus, who being a mere twenty-something, refers to “Ten Mile Island”. (She is gently corrected.)

Three Mile Island was the warning shot. Chornobyl was the tanker on the beach. But we went home and carried on as normal while the authorities dismissed and downplayed and denied. And then it happened again. At Fukushima. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As we watch countries eagerly embracing new nuclear power programs, and those that already have them expand and extend theirs, we are witnessing that willingness to risk another Chornobyl; over and over again. We’ll just hope that everyone’s going to be OK.

Climate change was a known threat — with a clear cause — for decades. Yet here we are, in crisis mode and probably beyond it.

Our governments are expanding and upgrading their lethal nuclear weapon arsenals and, worse still, talk in terms of “needing” and even “using” them. Deaf to this ominous rhetoric, we continue to ignore the massive tanker on the beach, the proverbial elephant in the room, trusting our governments to do the right thing while remaining in permanent denial about the appalling consequences should they choose not to. Whatever the outcome of their use, it will indeed happen to all of us.

So next time that metaphorical oil tanker hits the shore, don’t keep calm and carry on. And the next time a nuclear power plant melts down, and there WILL be a next time, don’t build another one.

But wouldn’t it be better NOT to wait for that next time? Wouldn’t it be better to do the right thing right away on climate and abolish nuclear power and nuclear weapons while we’re at it?

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.