Publisher’s View: Earth

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Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Venkman: Exactly.

Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

Ghostbusters (1984)

A scene in which scientists warn politicians, and the public, of impending doom is an oft-used film trope, deployed in comedies and dramas alike.  It’s sufficiently familiar that audiences eagerly anticipate the appearance of the dour-pretentious-sexy-soon-to-be-dead-or-a-hero expert; upon the requisite sighting we settle into our reclining seats more comfortably, knowing that the special effects extravaganza will be satisfyingly delivered shortly after the most severe warning has been duly uttered.  Part of the thrill, apparently, is knowing that things are about to go utterly, terribly, wrong.  And doing nothing to stop it.

An important element in our embrace of scientist-predicted tragedies is how much we loath the messenger, those smug know-it-alls in their white smocks who, when kids, sat reading a book during recess rather than joining the rest of us in a healthy game of dodgeball. Who do they think they are, God? Or, alternatively, how much we love them, identifying with their I-told-you-so-but-you-didn’t-listen-so-frag-off self-righteousness.  Or maybe they’re just hot, or come with an irresistibly adorable dog-spouse-kid.  In any event, we, the audience, walk away from the screen unscathed, though perhaps feeling slightly ill from eating too much “buttered” popcorn and sour gummy worms, a tragedy we’re similarly powerless to avoid.

This underlying psychology is one of the factors at play in America’s, and the world’s, collective shoulder shrug in the face of what now appears to be certain, cataclysmic, climate disequilibrium.  Old Testament-style wrath is being flung across the globe, in the form of hurricanes, scorching heat waves, fire storms, and the abrupt disappearance of insects, frogs, and common sense. Pass the popcorn.

Our cinematic-patterned attitudes are bolstered by an even more powerful force, economics.  Fossil fuel use is the marrow in our financial bones, the sticky liquid that makes money dance.   The vast majority of our transportation modes – including our most cherished one, private vehicles – are animated by a combustion process that pushes out climate-altering emissions.  So too are many compelling things that require energy to thrive:  water pumping, food processing, Internet serving, air conditioning, lighting, that film projector.  Even in California, the wealthy home of zero waste and emissions policies, our solar panels provide a modest shield against the multi-headed fossil fuel beast.

You don’t need to be Jeff Goldblum, or his real-life counterpart, to know what’s next. It’s already happening:  migrants fleeing regions destabilized, in part, by climate-induced resource shortages; periodic tornado-style fires fostered by an abundance of heat-dried vegetation; steady species dislocation and extinction; farmlands stressed by too much rain or too little, threatening our food system. 

We’re in the part of the movie when “I told you so” is playing on the scientist’s lips.  Our choices have narrowed.  We, all of us, can throw ourselves into an all-hands-on-deck effort to stop burning fossil fuels, and radically change the way we manage forests, grass- and farmlands.  Those know-it-all scientists can quickly develop a carbon sucking machine, Ghostbuster-style, that hopefully doesn’t create some other, even worse, side effect.  We can batten down the hatches in preparation for the storms; hardening our borders and fast-building renewable- or nuclear-powered desalination plants in anticipation of the coming water wars, among other things.  Or, we can call our fate inevitable, and hope that the movie will end soon, the lights will go on, and we’ll walk into the ever more fierce sunlight unscathed.  Except, this is not a movie.