Denial

“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

William Goldman.

 

The above quote is intended to describe the chaotic, unpredictable nature of the film industry, but I think it applies to a great deal more. As in, everything else.  

As a child, I was fairly certain that the adults in the world knew what they were doing. I really did. Growing older, you slowly begin to understand that people don’t change all that much beyond their twenties and thirties, that wisdom doesn’t necessarily accompany age.

Watching the internet dissolve the old boundaries is both fascinating and utterly horrifying. The astounding, almost unfathomable level of incompetence, the dribbling ineptitude openly displayed by our leaders is remarkable – it never fails to astound me.

There is a catastrophe coming, an apocalyptic event that our leaders should have been preparing for, should have been trying to halt. It’s not around the corner, but at our doorstep, and we’ve known about it for a very long time.

This short news article summarizes it nicely, stating that the effect of burning massive amounts of coal is inevitably going to lead to an increase in carbon dioxide, with the subsequent rise in global temperature thought to be “considerable in a few centuries.”

That article was written in 1912.

We’ve gathered a great deal more information about the upcoming calamity since, and aside from a growing sense of underlying anxiety, of impending doom, our solution has been, essentially, to try not to think about it too much.

Those at the top, those with the power to halt the environmental apocalypse, decided to ignore the problem, to actively suppress, smear, and ridicule proposed solutions, even simple efforts to spread awareness.

Our increasingly deadly deadline has been intentionally ignored for decades; humanity is like a student who desperately needs to study for a life-altering exam, but can’t stop indulging in intoxicants for long enough to consider the future. The survival of the entire human race hangs in the balance, but for some reason, the increased stakes make the reality of the situation much more difficult to absorb, and easier to ignore.

It’s been suggested that the narratives we tell ourselves, the stories that put reality into context, are not designed for a calamity of this nature. There is no big, bad antagonist to battle, no single messiah that can come to the rescue of the planet. The problem is practically unnoticeable, the solution requires radical, collective action, and our stories aren’t really structured like that.

We’ve all watched ecologically themed films, from the artful animations of Hayao Miyazaki to the blockbuster spectacle of Avatar. But in those stories, the planet is saved by a single hero, a battle between good and evil. There is no binary battle regarding climate change, no two opposing forces; every single one of us is trapped in an exploitative, wasteful system that is systematically destroying our habitat. It’s simple, and yet, immensely complicated.

Individual efforts to recycle and reduce waste are one way to actively reduce the destruction of the Earth, but amount to mere droplets in a tsunami. It’s not enough. Even those who loudly and proudly preach that lifestyle understand that, and it’s incredibly frustrating to know, despite one’s very best efforts, that one can’t clean the oceans or clear the smog from the skyline single-handedly. There’s an inherent impotence in sustainable living (though it’s infinitely better than nihilism).

The most successful story ever told about climate change is denial.

And sometimes, the stories involving denial manage to acknowledge the reality of climate change, but warp the message. I once took the time to look into the “chemtrail” conspiracy theory, and it was rather remarkable.

The theory states that “the elites” are controlling us from above, changing Earth’s atmosphere using airplanes, spraying chemicals into the air which shorten our lifespans, poison our minds, and … change the climate. This convoluted theory would be amusing if it wasn’t so frustratingly close to the truth – the wealthy are indeed causing all of these symptoms, indirectly, through pollution.

The difference lies in the intent.

In reality, the men responsible for climate change are not cackling villains, but shortsighted profiteers. Their intention is not to make our lives awful – that’s merely a side-effect. They’re not even our enemies – most of us would likely behave in the exact same way, if we were in such a privileged position. It is the system itself that is incentivizing this self-destructive behaviour, and that is much less appealing than the concept of an insidious cabal of elites, controlling the world from the sky.

There is no superhero film in which the superhero seeks to change the world; instead, they protect the status quo, from supervillains who seek to drastically alter the way we operate.

Until we work out a way to properly communicate the problem, a narrative in which people can get excited, inspired to solve the issue, many are going to continue to choose denial; even when the evidence is staring at them in the face.

Because it’s not about evidence – it never has been. That article from more than a century ago proves that, as does the continued assurance from climate scientists that we have a major problem. It’s the fact that the solution feels abstract, at best, and deeply uncomfortable at worst.

Fighting a bloody battle against an evil force is infinitely more palatable than restructuring our entire society. War might be hell, but it never changes. And that familiarity, that simplicity, is oddly comforting.

We’re going to have to figure out a way to tell this particular tale, to take inspiration from the conspiracy theorists and climate-deniers, and come up with a story that people want to believe, and act upon.

And as cynical as this article might sound, I’m confident that we can, and will, do it. We might know nothing, our leaders might be hideously incompetent, but somehow, we always manage to stumble upon solutions.

Twisting complete disasters into compelling narratives is something that humanity has always excelled at – Hollywood does it now, and the holy books have always done it. We can do it with climate change.

But it’s going to be a close call.

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