Nothing’s older than a fear of the apocalypse. Popular stories about the apocalypse date back until at least The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem featuring a world-ending flood and a vengeful god, written around 2100 BC.
But how have our visions of the end of the world changed through popular media like movies, and what can that tell us about staving it off?
Scientists at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability — including director Peter Kareiva and undergraduate researcher Valerie Carranza — surveyed disaster blockbusters released between 1956 and 2016 to get an idea. These films didn’t feature God-ordained destruction, and they had diverse malefactors, including alien invasions, genetically-engineered viruses, evil AI, global war, and “technology run amok.” But their survey found that only 10 of the films — or 17 percent — dealt with environmental catastrophe.
The most common villain was corporate greed, with four of the 10 (The China Syndrome, Silkwood, Erin Brokovich, and The Lorax) featuring “corporations knowingly polluting the environment or shirking environmental precautions for the sake of profit.” The other six disaster films, they write, are about a future in which the Earth has become unlivable because of “a myopic society that could not take action to avert environmental catastrophe.” The catastrophes in these films are generally understood by the characters, but not properly avoided.
Never, they argue, was the most likely real-life culprit solely to blame for the end of the world: ignorance about the ecological risk factors that could cause global catastrophes. “In Hollywood, environmental disasters are the consequence of human failings, and not the consequence of ignorance or major gaps in scientific understanding.” Crucially, none of those films predicate their possible futures on real environmental science or understanding of ecology.
Who cares? They’re just movies! But pop culture representations of disaster are important, they argue, because they can prime people to look in the wrong places for “existential threats.” Human beings have contributed mightily to climate change, but familiar corporate evildoers aren’t as dangerous as mass ignorance.
According to Kareiva:
“We do not want to imply that economic systems or human selfishness are unimportant. There is no question that great harm has been and is being done by what we can only call criminal behavior — either violating existing environmental regulations or lobbying against the passage of regulations even though scientific evidence of harm is compelling. We acknowledge the presence of such behavior, but argue that an engaged public and effective government can mitigate these threats in time to avert global disasters. In contrast, no amount of public engagement or effective governance can mitigate threats that are unknown or underestimated.”
The paper uses Johan Rockström’s nine planetary boundaries — a framework introduced in 2009 to identify environmental limits that “if crossed, could have disastrous consequences for humanity” — to identify urgent existential threats to the planet. (Thus far, four of the nine have already been crossed.)
The researchers identify climate change, global freshwater cycle changes, and ocean acidification as the most potentially catastrophic, as they involve “substantial lag times between system change and experiencing the consequences of that change.”
They use, for example, the destruction that Hurricane Sandy wrought on New York City in 2012. Changes in mean annual temperature and rainfall are not particularly interesting to the average person, or even to the average local government, and only become so when they lead to extreme events — like a hurricane ripping through a city with ill-prepared infrastructure.
“The highly disruptive flooding of New York City associated with Hurricane Sandy represented a flood height that occurred once every 500 years in the 18th century,” they write, “and that occurs now once every 25 years, but is expected to occur once every 5 years by 2050.” This tremendous change in the frequency of extreme floods “has profound implications for the measures New York City should take to protect its infrastructure and its population,” but because it happens so intermittently, the “elevated risk … will go unnoticed by most people.”
While blockbusters are most concerned with corporate greed, over-exploitation of resources, or the unintended consequences of technological innovations, “those are mistakes humans have made repeatedly and will continue to make, but our responses are often sufficient to correct the problem.” What should worry us, the researchers write, is our “ecological ignorance” — the disastrous events that we don’t plan for because we don’t bother to see them coming.