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Dystopian Evolution: Imagining an Envirogeddon
July 7, 2008 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Dystopian storytelling is pillar of Western narrative tradition, but this decade has seen a significant shift in the way our apocalypse is told. Orthodox tales of government tyranny are giving way to visions of humans running helpless in the wake of environmental meltdown. From the plausible to the fantastic, most of this fiction remains hauntingly real while the non-fiction can get downright scary. In 2008, the 20th anniversary of climatologist James Hansen's landmark speech before Congress, popular art is beginning to reflect an increasingly bleak public sentiment on the future, playing out some of our worst nightmares. It may be that these writers and directors are wishing for the end of the world, but even so, they are certainly giving voice to the creeping feeling that indeed, we might not make it.
posted by dead_ (21 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
You forgot Wall-E...
posted by jkaczor at 1:34 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


In Nancy Kress's "sleepless" series, the ultra-rich are gene-modding themselves and their children so that they can survive any future environmental catastrophe.
posted by nomisxid at 1:39 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I really prefer "ecopocalypse" to "envirogeddon."
posted by gerryblog at 1:40 PM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


Science Fiction has always been about portraying mankind's collective fears and follies. It used to be about sinister aliens, which really was about the unknown space and The Cold War. Catastrophe movies were really about how fragile our societies are when confronted with forces greater than ourselves. Then it was about zombies, which was about consumerism and mad medicine.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:56 PM on July 7, 2008


Then it was about zombies,

In the end, it usually is.

which was about consumerism and mad medicine.

One of the earliest took on racism and Cold War politics.

"...giving way to visions of humans running helpless in the wake of environmental meltdown."


Which pretty much describes the Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, both of which are more than 20 years old. I feel like people are just rediscovering this type of movie or something, but I'm pretty sure you can find big examples of these have been around the whole time.
posted by quin at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2008


What's interesting to me is tyhe kinda whimsical take on end-of-the-world scenarios becoming popular in inie rock. I guess it goes back to REM's "end of the world as we know it," but Andrew Bird, Bright Eyes, Islands, the Dismemberment Plan, etc have done some really great armageddon-themed stuff. I guess the interesting thing for me is the ambivalence towards it. Welcoming the apocalypse has been the province of the far right since colonial times. A little weird to see the hard-left taking up the ideal under the mantle of post-humanism.
posted by es_de_bah at 2:14 PM on July 7, 2008


or should that be "on the mantle?"
I guess there's no harm in mixing metaphors when discussing mixed-metaphors.
posted by es_de_bah at 2:16 PM on July 7, 2008


...an increasingly bleak public sentiment on the future...

Don't tell me, let me guess: the above was written by someone who wasn't alive during the darkest years of the Cold War, when we all feared we would be incinerated by a nuclear holocaust at any time.
posted by Class Goat at 2:30 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Brazil had a happy ending, didn't it?
posted by KokuRyu at 2:33 PM on July 7, 2008


Don't tell me, let me guess: the above was written by someone who wasn't alive during the darkest years of the Cold War, when we all feared we would be incinerated by a nuclear holocaust at any time.

Quite honestly, the planet is in more immediate danger from a limited nuclear between Pakistan and India that it is from climate change.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:35 PM on July 7, 2008


> I feel like people are just rediscovering this type of movie or something,

I think it's the economy going in the toilet and the rising price of consumer goods that's at least partially to blame/credit. Many of the themes at issue can also be found in movies of the 1970s, when there was a lot of similar fear coming to the surface.

If I was a Hollywood director, I'd be mining the vault like crazy for stuff that did well in the 70s but that's just unfamiliar enough that it won't seem too familiar to a new generation. The time is ripe for some remakes.

> the creeping feeling that indeed, we might not make it.

More seriously though, that "creeping feeling" has some merit behind it. We won't make it, at least not in the same way we've been going. It's abundantly clear that our current lifestyles in the West are unsustainable, both economically and environmentally (especially the latter), and there's no way we can even continue to live them, much less bring the rest of the world into the fold. The big question is whether we'll be able to make all the necessary changes 'under the hood,' without major personal sacrifices, or if more radical change on a more intimate level will be required.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:42 PM on July 7, 2008


One of the classic novels of environmental catastrophe is John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, first published in 1973. I reread it a few months ago, and some of it is chillingly accurate - especially the portrait of a cocky, far-right, incompetent President whose response to any problem is a jingoistic slogan.
posted by wadefranklin at 4:32 PM on July 7, 2008


Here's a short passage (a fragment of a news report) from The Sheep Look Up. 'Prexy' is the name of the president.

"...described as quote disastrous unquote by airlines, travel agencies and tour operators. Hotel bookings are down by an average 40, in some cases 60, per cent. Commenting on the report prior to departing for Disneyland, where he is slated to deliver a major speech on education, Prexy said, quote, Well, you don't have to go abroad to know our way of life is the best in the world. End quote. A warning that food hoarding might be made a federal offense was today issued by the Department of Agriculture, after another day of rioting in many major cities over sharp price increases. Hijacking of vegetable trucks..."
posted by wadefranklin at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


yah, there's a definite re-run of the 70s (USA) going on here - e.g., John Brunner's brilliant The Sheep Look Up (1972), or Kate Wilhelm's amazing Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) ...

hell, Soylent Green (1973) was about a future about overpopulation & the pollution & environmental disaster it would wreak upon the planet.

More seriously though, that "creeping feeling" has some merit behind it. We won't make it, at least not in the same way we've been going.

word.
posted by jammy at 4:50 PM on July 7, 2008


three more things:

wadefranklin, I owe you a beer. the preview button is there for a purpose.

dead_, interesting post. thanks!

"about a future about overpopulation & the pollution &..."

yeah, I know, it's already run on & it just keeps on running. long day, I tells ya.
posted by jammy at 4:58 PM on July 7, 2008


hell, Soylent Green (1973) was about a future about overpopulation & the pollution & environmental disaster it would wreak upon the planet.

The book Make Room, Make Room on which the movie Soylent Green is based is soul crushingly depressing. It's like Harrison decided to make a short story in which every single page is bleaker than the one before it.

I don't know why the movie opted to do the "Soylent Green is people' thing", it's not in the book and kind of dumb when you realize how powerful a story it could have been on the big screen.
posted by quin at 5:21 PM on July 7, 2008


Oh, we'll make it, we just won't be driving an SUV to get there.
posted by gimonca at 7:22 PM on July 7, 2008


From the plausible to the fantastic

I haven't read Oryx and Crake yet, but Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was horrifyingly plausible back when it was written, and is no less so today.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:56 AM on July 8, 2008


Overpopulation. Nuff said. Environmental catastrophy will fix it.. it's been too long since a major war and we are not socially evolved enough to halt our own growth, so it's gonna be halted for us by the practicalities of our limited space. Perhaps we will survive the re-adjustment, but sure as hell our society won't.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:45 AM on July 8, 2008


wishing for the end of the world,

That's the one thing that bothers me about Kunstler, whom I otherwise find incisive, funny, credible and utterly depressing. He really wants the whole edifice to come crashing down. But whatI like about him is that he ties the environmental, economic and resource crises together in a pretty compelling way.

Have definitely noticed this trend. The Road, anyone?
posted by stargell at 11:41 AM on July 8, 2008


Nehemiah Scudder.
posted by orthogonality at 7:51 PM on July 8, 2008


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