Climate-related media reports pile up. And, as still a reader (and clipper) of paper versions of newspapers, I mean this quite literally. The pile gets higher every day as more reports arrive detailing devastating effects of petro-culture emissions across an ever wider series of concerns, from sea level rise, species extinction, and polluted air and water, to drought, hurricanes, forest fires, and more. Visual images in newspapers boggle the mind and YouTube is replete with video after video showing disaster in the making. Melting ice caps and rising water levels caused by carbon released into the air by fossil fuels are but the start of a series of domino-style effects: warming oceans set in motion numerous other changes, each of which in turn impacts yet more ecosystems related to animal and plant life, diverse species, and of course humans, causing catastrophic losses. Hitherto tightly related systems fall into disarray, like a pack of cards1—all as a result of human presence on the planet, which now functions as the “geologic force” Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) alerted us to.2
We know all this. What we don't know is why humans cannot join together as a collective to address the ongoing destruction of the biosphere that is our home. Millions of migrants and refugees fleeing their destroyed lands and communities—the first to suffer the consequences of human actions—testify to what will happen to us all.3 Changing behavior and politics to move toward global collaboration is vital if humans are to be saved. As Alan Weisman showed, the planet will survive after humans are gone.4 The point now is to save ourselves and our nonhuman animal and plant companions before it's too late.
Clearly, reasons for inaction are multiple, ranging from capitalism and greed to deliberate denial, ignorance, and stupidity (especially on the part of some politicians). The vast sums given by oil fuel corporations to organizations denying climate change are part of the story but still do not fully account for people's inaction. What is at stake and requires more attention is the pervasive climate-related psychological conditions that prevent publics from not only fully accepting the disastrous impact of a warming world but also from doing anything about the catastrophe to come.5
The current interest in climate illness offers one response to understanding reluctance on the part of many to engage seriously with the impact of climate change. Scholars theorize that too much unconscious emotion (of varied kinds) may prevent publics from acting to remedy what is happening.6 Theoretically, if publics can understand the negative emotions and psychic conditions that prevent positive action, the United States can confront the resistance to tackling what humans are doing to the biosphere. Indeed, as David Wallace-Wells reminded us, given the situation, panicking may be appropriate.7 Further, as Heather Houser, for one, has argued, creating narratives about humanity's dire condition might be more effective than scientific facts and data, widely available already.8
Images are increasingly key in our screen-dominated culture. Images at once arise in response to historical events, and, as images pervade public media, they also construct what people view as reality; they figure forth a future that builds out from current society but then seems, circularly, to have anticipated a reality that emerges later.9 In other words, in our current mediascape, boundaries between lived experience and imaginary scenarios and stories are increasingly blurred. Humanists, as the ones trained in such issues, thus have a responsibility to distinguish sociopolitical events from fantasy—a task made increasingly difficult in the era of Donald Trump and “fake news.” The situation problematizes further the generic distinction between fiction film and documentary cinema, which I'll touch on below in my deliberately selected films about climate change: First Reformed (2017, written and directed by Paul Schrader), a fiction film dealing with climate illness, and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018, written by Jennifer Baichwal; directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtnysky), a disturbing documentary that tracks human exploitation of the planet's resources for profit and pleasure with disastrous consequences.
In what follows, in addition to discussing each film, I'll consider how far aesthetic strategies may work toward bringing about social change through the potential impact of each film on viewers. What possible reactions might there be to dystopian fantasies? Do dystopian visions move us to action or push us away? Answers may be as varied as people, cultures, and nations, but we can draw upon our own diverse responses to come up with theories. (Parenthetically, someone always suggests empirical studies for questions like this one,10 and some have been undertaken. But even these studies cannot resolve issues definitively. Interview data has its own limitations and problems [e.g., too diverse a range of responses would not tell us much]. Theorizing, in fact, might inspire better empirical studies. But this lies beyond my task here.)
Let me first read First Reformed as a representation of climate-related illness that I have previously called a Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PreTSS).11 This illness is unlike most other theorized concepts—e.g., Solastalgia,12 Ecosickness,13 or Anthropocene disorder14—because, like Ecophobia,15 it has a specific clinical reference. In my case it links to, but is different from, the familiar Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD involves the sudden irruption of a terrifying past event into a subject's present, when the memory of that event is triggered by the subject's situation. In PreTSS, the subject is terrified of something that has not yet happened; she is running away from something that haunts her from the future. The symptoms, however, may be identical to those of people suffering from PTSD. PreTSS differs from other climate illnesses, then, in being focused on the future rather than the past or present.16
Schrader's film offers a character implicitly suffering from PreTSS—namely a young man, Michael, who is about to be a father. A priest, Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), also succumbs to PreTSS via identification with the young man. Michael is part of an activist climate change group believing that humans and planet Earth are doomed. He is haunted by this idea and, anticipating catastrophic disaster, suffers depression and suicidal thoughts. His deepest terrifying thought is that his child, once living in a desecrated, collapsed biosphere, will look him in the eye and ask why he brought her into such a world. Clearly experiencing PreTSS, and traumatized by imagining a catastrophic future that, despite his activist efforts for humans to change course, is in full throttle, Michael commits suicide. He kills himself basically from a climate-related illness—from, that is, being traumatized by something haunting him from the future, not from a past event irrupting into his actual present.
The rest of the film focuses on Toller, who had earlier tried to help Michael, and Michael's young pregnant wife, Mary. Toller exemplifies the theory that post-traumatic stressors make people vulnerable to PreTSS. Traumatized by having persuaded his son to go to Iraq, where he died, Toller is triggered by the young father-to-be's suicide. He begins to identify with the young man and his anticipation of a catastrophic climate future. Toller is horrified to learn that a local fossil fuel corporate owner is sponsoring an event at another local church. Unable to sleep, Toller watches the polluting factory at night, clearly envisaging its climate impact. Having obtained Michael's unused suicide vest, Toller contemplates using it. His life unravels in especially disturbing ways, including his repressed sexuality and fantasies of sex with Mary.
The brilliantly used cinematic techniques draw the viewer into the pre-traumatic stress each character experiences. Schrader fills his scenes with doom through lighting, rendering a stark, dark environment. Hawke's often monotonous voice-over as the priest conveys a desperate soul. Michael also speaks in a low monotone, as do deeply depressed people. But our allegiance to either male character is unstable, veering from empathy to frustration and unease. Toller irritates, in a way, because he seems unable to take up opportunities offered, such as the friendship of a woman, Esther, with whom he sometimes collaborates at the nearby church. Depression often results in such withdrawn behavior, but it's hard to identify with a person in this situation. Michael is easier to identify with in terms of his PreTSS condition, but suicide always leaves one ambivalent: the waste of a young life weighs hard, as does Michael leaving his pregnant wife to struggle on alone.
In a sense Mary is the one who stands out because she is the victim of circumstances she has not brought about. Mary going to get help from Toller makes sense, but she is totally unaware of his depression or his neediness that he can't satisfy appropriately. While Toller cannot appreciate Esther's love and wish to take care of him, he indulges in wild fantasies about sex with Mary. The characters revolve in a kind of bleak darkness that signifies the dark times they are living in. Things are falling apart, and climate change is a large implied reason for the oncoming collapse.17
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, Baichwal and Burtynsky's third collaboration in their documentary trilogy about climate change [the first two are Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013)], offers a similar mood of despair about the future for humans but in a totally different context and using opposite cinematic techniques. Where the fiction film offers viewers characters with their specific dilemmas linked to a world falling apart around them, Baichwal and Burtynsky take us on a grim tour of diverse sites around the globe where humans are exploiting nature's resources. We see machines tearing up the earth, digging deep into the biosphere, felling forest after forest, while people hunt for, and then extract, all kinds of materials from fossil fuels to precious metals, from marble to bronze and steel. Here there's no human with whom to identify. We see mainly white males manipulating the huge and elaborate equipment geared toward ransacking the earth in ever more egregious ways, or we are shown the hard labor of marginalized peoples pitting their fragile bodies against heavy objects that have to be moved. A voice-over quietly interjects comments from time to time, noting, for example, that what's happening “could be a full-scale catastrophic change. We have no way of going back. We live now in a different world.” Other voices note that humans have moved from being participants in nature to, now, a dominating feature over the oceans, landscapes, culture, and animals. But for the most part viewers are grimly mesmerized by the ever-moving camera taking us from site to site around the world where massive extraction of resources is occurring. One is overwhelmed by the impossibly huge scale on which this exploitation of Earth's resources is taking place.
Considering these two film examples, let me return to the question in my title, which asks whether cinema, narrative, and images can persuade audiences and actually change people's actions to mitigate the destruction of the biosphere. Both films are deeply disturbing, and they are intended to be. But what is the impact of a viewer's being so disturbed? I see three main potential kinds of response. First, viewers may be vicariously traumatized by the films and seek to shut out such visions, essentially retreating into denial; second, the films may function as a warning or a wake-up call, prompting a viewer to pay attention and seek to learn more about the probability of the disaster scenarios represented; and finally, best of all, watching the desperate humans involved with the disaster to come (spelled out convincingly by scientists), a viewer may be prompted to join local green organizations, participate in protests against polluting corporations, and vote for candidates taking a progressive stance on the dangers of climate change.18
I deliberately chose two films offering almost diametrically opposite visions for the future, and relying on vastly differing cinematic strategies. Response to the First Reformed, I would argue, relies on each viewer's identification with the young man and his pregnant wife. They are the ones with a bleak future to look forward to: their plight involves bringing a child into a polluted world where capitalists continue to exploit fossil fuel resources with impunity and arrogance as regards their impact on the biosphere. The unsympathetic priest, on the other hand, offers an example of an older adult taking notice too late and with too few personal resources to find a way to contribute effectively. He perhaps affects us by causing irritation and annoyance at his refusal of help and his general narcissism, until he is pulled toward thinking about the environment. He gets there too late, as we might also. The dilemma of the young couple might move us to think more about the catastrophe in the making.
Whereas the fiction film depends on audience identifications and responses to characters in the film, Anthropocene asks something very different from us. There are no characters as such to identify with, as already noted. Instead, we are given visions of often violent intrusions into the planet's resources. Enormous machinery overwhelms us, as in site after site we see humans and machines digging, extracting, and distributing all that the earth has to offer. We witness the squandering of earth's riches. There is very little commentary, and we are left (as in the production team's earlier films) to come to our own conclusions about the world opened up for us, that of extracting and polluting, consuming and destroying. The directors deliberately leave us without details of where the digging is occurring, and they do not provide other information. They rely on viewers' visceral response to the huge scale of the processes we are watching. Particularly disturbing for me is the section of the film where we are taken to a vast expanse of a waste dump. The site is large enough for huge trucks to be driven in so that scavengers can retrieve whatever is good enough to be of use. People wade up to their knees in the filth; tellingly, large ribbons of plastic, which will never disintegrate, flutter everywhere. The filmmakers' strategy is to show, not analyze, but the techniques of the showing (e.g., a musical score that elicits fear, the panning camera constantly moving over the vast sites, the violence of the machinery often deployed in darkened cavernous places, involving smoke and flames) indicates how dangerous and polluting humans' attack on the Earth is.
Both films can trigger deep fears about the future for humans and the planet. In my case, Baichwal and Burtynsky's images (especially the vast waste dump already noted) still haunt me as encapsulating powerfully the tragic exploitation of less developed nations by the West, the desperate plight of peoples in those nations, and Western over-consumption's dire costs. Wallace-Wells thinks we ought to be panicking. He would not consider Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome a condition that needs to be “cured.” His book The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (2018) aims to give a portrait of suffering that he hopes is “horrifying.” It is also, he says, entirely elective. If we allow global warming to proceed, and so punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment—collectively walking down a path of suicide.19 However, if we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path and endure. Jonathan Lear offers a potentially useful way forward in his concept of “radical hope,”20 which he borrows from Indigenous Americans. By “radical hope,” Lear means the ability to adapt after a catastrophe, such as the traumatic loss of land, livelihood, and culture that Indigenous Americans have suffered. We would do well to bear his fragile slice of hope in mind.
We have the means to mitigate disaster. Now humans need the will to collaborate globally to bring this about.
Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern argue that “a third and terrifying problem involves cascading effects. One reason the harms of climate change are so hard to fathom is that they will not occur in isolation …. they may produce an unfolding sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.” Oreskes and Stern, “Climate Change's Unknown Costs” (editorial), New York Times, October 25, 2019, 27.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 197–222.
See Emily Raboteau, “Lessons in Survival: Climate, Race, and Resilience,” New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019, 13–15.
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007).
Cognitive scientists, such as Daniel Kahneman, take a different direction, which in no way works against the climate illness approaches, and indeed, might be included along with them. Kahneman's research shows first that the main influence on opinion is one's local group, and second that the human brain is just not equipped to deal realistically with threats that are not immediate. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For a summary of these lines of thought, see George Marshall, Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
The scholars involved come from diverse disciplines, ranging from literature to philosophy to the social sciences, and include neuroscience as well. This interdisciplinarity is an important aspect of the work on climate illness.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). As will become clear, this humanities way of thinking about narratives has come under severe attack from, among others, Timothy Clark. The debate is important, but I have yet to be persuaded that stories do not potentially influence behavior. See Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
Both Slavoj Žižek and Richard Grusin have discussed this phenomenon in different ways. See Žižek, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010) and Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
As Adrian Ivakhiv argues, humanists have been slow to undertake in-depth empirical studies of audience response to dystopian visions so as to address the issue of producing behavioral or ideological change. He goes on to assert that bringing together interest in visuality with the factual basis in documentary films would enable humanists to think about how film shapes public opinion. See Ivakhiv, “Green Film Criticism and Its Futures,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 15, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 1–28.
E. Ann Kaplan, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). In this book I examine the film Take Shelter (2011, written and directed by Jeff Nichols) as a case study of Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. See also my essay “Is Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome a Real Mental Illness?” in American Imago, 77, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 81–104.
See Glenn Albrecht, “Solastagia and the Creation of New Ways of Living,” in Nature and Culture: Rethinking Lost Connections, ed. Sarah Pilgrim and Jules N. Pretty (London: Earthscan, 2010): 217–34.
See Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
See Simon H. Estok, The Ecophobia Hypothesis (New York: Routledge, 2018).
For an in depth investigation of PreTSS as a clinical concept, see my essay, “Is Climate-Related Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome a Real Condition?” in American Imago 77, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 81–104.
Feminists have correctly entered the debate to show that women disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change as they raise families in toxic environments, as documented in Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth (2015, directed by Jane Caputi). In Climate Trauma, I noted the predominance of white male heroes in dystopian films; now it seems to be largely white male scholars who envision end-of-the-world apocalyptic scenarios. As regards cinema, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, directed by George Miller) is a rare counter-example in terms of its brave female heroine. Greta Thunberg's emergence to international attention is so inspiring and moving precisely because she's young and female.
This latter outcome is becoming more likely as pressure on the biosphere increases, and as scientists grow more certain that global warming (with its extreme climate experiences) is happening even more rapidly than earlier assumed. See Somini Sengupta, “Today's Weather: Stifling to Frigid,” New York Times, January 30, 2019, A1 and 16.
See Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, 220. Wallace-Wells echoes my own thoughts as expressed in my afterword in Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).