As the dust slowly settled after World War II, an even heavier cloud began to gather over the world. The United States emerged as a clear victor, having developed and used the first atomic weapons while suffering little destruction on its home turf. The U.S. rise to a superpower was primarily built on its ability to destroy anything and everything in a moment’s notice. In a short time, however, that ability was matched by the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere, cities were rebuilt, trials were held, and monuments were erected to the fallen. Humanity not only survived, but by many accounts, truly began to prosper after the second world war. Technological innovation exploded. Space exploration, computing technology, and medical advances all boosted the health and economies of the nations of the industrialized capitalist world for the most part.
Equality, however, would take a while longer to gain renewed attention in the post-war U.S. As a country, the U.S. did not live up to the ideals of what it had supposedly fought for in the war. The political focus was on external threats to freedom, even while internal checks against equality continued to hold strong. Like the Athenians who built a wall around their city to protect it from outside threats only to suffer an outbreak of plague from within, the U.S. would eventually realize its own internal outbreak of people demanding equal access to opportunity.
A half a century later, we are now facing a different power that is a by-product of our supposed success. Not only are we afraid to acknowledge its existence, for fear of staining our identity, but we are also unable to develop a strategy for dealing with it because tied to our notion of success is the fantasy of continual progress. For the United States, we can’t truly address climate change because the elements causing climate change are what keep our economic engine running.
Just as ordinary Germans could do nothing, even if they had desired, to deter the Nazi Party once they rose to power, we cannot do anything to drastically change the momentum of a highly carbon dependent society. Collectively, we have the ability to act, but we are hindered by, among other things, control of the media by a handful of companies and a lack of organization. But, most importantly, we lack the impetus that would necessitate our willingness to create and maintain fundamental changes to our everyday lives. These sorts of changes, in time, will be forced upon us instead. Is there anything that would force us to act?
But devastation of such proportions not only destroys the very mechanisms capable of measuring its scale, it annihilates the ability to imagine it. It must therefore be reduced to a more manageable size and more conventional nature, so that the mind can take it in rather than totally blot it out. Paradoxically, those who want to keep the memory of atrocity and those who wish to deny it are both engaged in a similar attempt to force the event into an acceptable imaginary mold. If their goals are radically opposed to each other, their means are much less so: for both denial and remembrance begin by diminishing the event. Denial starts off by casting doubt on the minutiae of destruction, undermining thereby our acceptance of the whole; reconstruction similarly begins from the details, because the scale of the enormity is so vast that it denies its own existence and vanishes from the mind. Having created a reality beyond its wildest fantasies, humanity cannot imagine what it created. In this context human agency remains tenuous, the disaster being ascribed either to insane genius or to anonymous forces. Language, too, disintegrates; hence the resort, either to medieval imagery of hell and metaphysical speculation or to radical skepticism about reality and a perception of the world as text—complex and elusive but purged of the inarticulate screams of the millions, inscribed into every word pronounced since the Holocaust.
(Bartov, p. 124)
To be clear, this is not a comparison between World War II (or war in general) and climate change. World War II was not a singular event with a set of repercussions that lasted until the next major event happened. It is part of a continuum of a human-caused destruction cycle. Since the Industrial Revolution (although the mythology extends much earlier), we’ve pushed forward along a path of continual progress, not stopping whenever an event casts doubt on our linear path of progress. How individual humans understand and react to challenges and crises falls short of our collective ability to engage the lessons of the past in ways that do not disintegrate into mere forms of entertainment. We like to look back and think we knew what we were doing in the mythology of stories and films.
Not only is there is a lag time between the human ability to understand when a situation becomes critical, but there is also a failure to comprehend what needs to happen next. The scale of the problem becomes so large that it is impossible for most individuals to react, so they continue to act as they have before, accumulating these acts in a large-scale process that perpetuates the problem. War provides an excellent look into human behavior during a crisis because it is a time-constrained event containing multitudes of human action and/or inaction. War, in this sense, is the same type of event as climate change, only on a different time scale. The reasons for war are the same as the reasons for climate change. The easiest way to keep producing is to destroy something else.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
To put it another way, we cannot see the big picture (the play) because we are too busy acting in it. The stage and set are complex and striking. We catch flashes of it from time to time but are usually too focused on our bit part to take it all in. We feel that if we, as an individual, stop to take a look, the whole play will be ruined. We’ve been told that the show must go on regardless of what else happens. It’s all about maintaining the play.
The solution isn’t that we need to create a different play or rearrange the set design. It may then seem the only way to solve the problem is to become the audience. If we can sit down and try to imagine what we have created, maybe we can move beyond the crisis. Retreating to the seats and staring at a blank stage might allow us to realize that the stage is the source of our power. The play merely maintains the illusion of power.
The play demands continual repetition; the stage continual maintenance. If, as actors, however small time we may be, we retreat to the audience, it may be not as a passive act of resistance but as a restructuring of how we understand the problem. To relate it back to war, and as many anti-war writers have pointed out, war would simply not exist without soldiers willing to fight. But can we make the same grandiose claim for global warming, that it would not exist without people willing to contribute to it?
There are already a handful of critics in the audience who are pointing out the increasing dangers to life on the planet caused by a changing climate. For the most part, they are still a quiet voice, drowned out by the exciting news reports of the latest elements of the play: floods, wild fires, droughts, tornadoes, extreme storms, and scorching heat. Special effects trump information every time.
If war and climate change are along the same continuum of human-caused destruction tools, we should be able to unpack their components in a way that clarifies how they are similar or different as part of the human-caused destructive cycle. War is a battle between competing nations or groups involving soldiers from each side using weapons to defeat the other. A winner is usually the side that kills/destroys more than the other.
Like war, climate change will undoubtedly kill and destroy some more than others. Although there won’t always be clear divisions regarding nationality among the people most affected (with some notable exceptions such as island nations), the poorer nations will have the most difficult time. Just as the poor make up the vast numbers of soldiers who die in war, they will also be the ones who die due to climate change. And as we have seen with the various climate meetings and talks, most recently in Durban, nations are competing against one another to preserve their positions without conceding much of their national interest in economic advantage. The winner will be the ones who can physically survive by whatever means necessary, using their resources to stave off (adapt to) the effects of climate change.
Having moved from World War II to the war on the world, too, the enemy will be everywhere. The world will become a stage in which the unfolding play becomes so tragic, we will keep our acting our parts out of fear alone. Prior to climate change, this notion of keeping up appearances in the face of fear was a way of life in the Cold War. The fear of annihilation during the Cold War kept us adhering to the ideas behind its insanity. Unlike climate change, however, the ability to imagine the ultimate end of the destructive powers of nuclear war was just what Hollywood was capable of doing. The imagining of this most horrific creation became merely another form of entertainment, entertainment that kept us in our seats, even as we gasped in horror.
But, as audience members, how do we avoid remaining passive spectators of the ongoing destruction wrought by climate change? Is there any image that can shake us out of our seats? Unfortunately, no blockbuster film or no endlessly rerun video of a natural disaster will have any effect on our readiness to take action. Since the effects of climate change happen in slow-motion compared to the destruction of war, it’s much easier to remain comfortable. We can no longer even profess to the illusion that we would do what was necessary to ensure our survival.
Did the doom and gloom films during the Cold War provide any sort of stimulus for people to change their behavior, or did they provide an outlet for our fears? I tend to think the latter but will explore that idea more over the next few weeks. Compared to the number of films about nuclear annihilation, there have been very few about climate change destruction.