Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake, a surreal trip to a Middle East with no true North.
Global Warming is (the) Real
Like Earth, cli-fi lives, no matter the mass extinction.
Unlike science and its fiction, our climate and cli-fi are defined by regeneration and reproduction. Cli-fi and cli-sci do not simply chronicle Earth’s exponential collapse like process ghouls. They seek to reroute and remake our bipolarized world from the ravages of mad socioeconomic and technocratic experiments.
With the particular ascendance of climate science, which analyzes Earth systems and processes, humanity has finally, perhaps too late, sifted through the increasingly horrific data of our terrorized present and dystopian future. Under mounting duress and conflict, it should be noted, as insurgents from the oil and gas industry reclaim key government positions during America’s post-Obama comedown.
Indeed, we live in not the Real World, but the real world, one where scientists who study climate and more are taking fire while issuing a call to arms to save as much publicly funded data as possible.
“There is a fine line between being paranoid and being prepared, and scientists are doing their best to be prepared,” Union of Concerned Scientists’ Michael Halpern told the Washington Post, as whitecoats hurriedly copied reams of government data onto independent servers a flurry of guerilla archiving before Obama’s regressive successors took office.
I have lived here before, the days of ice / And of course this is why I’m so concerned / And I come back to find the stars misplaced / And the smell of a world that has burned / The smell of a world that has burned / Well maybe, maybe it’s just a change of climate. — Jimi Hendrix, “Up From the Skies”
Devalued like many before them throughout human history as messengers of defeatism and doom — from Cassandra and Galileo to Michael Mann and Elon Musk — futurists locked in the present have been routinely attacked and sacrificed for telling the truth. These allegedly inconvenient truths — paraphrasing a politician once disempowered against popular will — have been, in turn, propagated as lies and fictions by short-sighted investors in an unsustainable status quo.
Some are naked sellouts propping up zombie industries and artificial solutions, while harboring undisclosed funding from extractivists and other privatizers of the public sector. Others are mere drones and ciphers, once known as voters and citizens, locked into geopolitical game theories well above their heads, as the seas rise.
This catastrophic tension results in climate science standing up and seeking separation from those propagandizing it as fiction, an inevitability most should have seen coming, given that the Western governments they work for are chiefly known as the authors of history’s greatest wars. After all, America’s defense budget alone is greater than the worth of many so-called First World nations.
“We have, for too long as scientists, rested on the assumption that by providing indisputable facts and great data, we are providing enough of an attack to counter the forces against science,” Georgia Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb told a San Francisco crowd attending a climate science protest during the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. “Obviously, that strategy has failed miserably.”
“Nature is infinitely prolific, fecund and, above all, wasteful,” metafictionalist Grant Morrison told me. “S/he appears to enjoy making multiple doomed copies.”]
Like sci-fi rebels stealing maps to the Death Star in the Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One, cli-sci’s guerilla archivists and upstart scientists have read the map of the future, so to speak, and learned that abandoning the toxic capitalization of destruction for cli-fi’s dream of renewable regeneration is far more suitable for a planet seeking to achieve escape velocity from the Anthropocene. They know our sprawling, singular Real cannot truly be expressed through skins as thin as science fiction.
Indeed, cli-sci’s sleep of reason, to paraphrase Goya, produces impossible cli-fi monsters. Shattered lands, clearcut forests, ice shelves the size of nation-states slamming into the sea and slowly swallowing the homes of billions. Mammoth rifts stretching outward for miles and downward hundreds of feet into ice shelves that once stabilized Earth for thousands of years are exponentially fracturing humanity’s future, promising catastrophes which sci-fi often only recycles as spectacle. They may have already melted by the time you read this sentence.
These icy cli-sci nightmares are more movingly chronicled in snubbed cli-fi like Antarctic Edge: 70° South and Chasing Ice, whose Manhattan-sized glaciers calving into the Arctic couldn’t compete with death-drive sci-fi franchises like The Avengers, Batman and Superman, which routinely destroy and reconstruct Manhattan like clockwork. Cli-fi visions of real-time apocalypse reach beyond blockbuster wars on science and sensibility. Cosmos, Into the Inferno, Before the Flood, Merchants of Doubt, When Two Worlds Collide, The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, Gasland, and many more wake-up calls make for spectacular horror, but they’re also seeking to forestall levels of mass extinction unseen on Earth for millions of years.
And it’s not just ice, but fire which also consumes cli-sci. Runaway desertification has already sparked global wars large and small, from Africa and the Middle East all the way to California, the home of Hollywood itself, which will not survive its state’s permadrought without desalinating the Pacific ocean, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack evaporates into memory. Indeed, southern California deserts themselves have been weaponized by the U.S. Border Patrol, which scatters border crossers into lethal terrain, leading to the death of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants. The wastes of Australia and Africa are some of the deadliest sci-fi and cli-fi villains on record, one could argue, after a single viewing of the Mad Max franchise’s parched hyperviolence, but it is climate science which truly shows us what madness lies ahead if we ignore Earth’s screaming data.
Which, despite open rebellion from more and more scientists, is exactly what humanity is doing. It is no accident that scientists and politicians alike are still today parroting absurdities like, “Global warming is real,” in the halls of power and the press. They, like us, have lost contact with what were once called the better angels of our nature, while unleashing the walking dead on Earth. Our collective unwillingness to separate the catastrophic Real from hyperrealities manufactured to conceal our mutual horrors has literally led to scientists debating striking the term incontrovertible from the public record.
Flying across what climate science can teach us as our planet mutates, “Global Warming is (the) Real” dismantles the moral and material absolutism and terrorism of disaster capitalism. Divested and disinterested in technocracy’s mutually assured destructions, this chapter instead envisions our shared experience of achieving the once-thought impossible.
The Legend of Korra, cli-fi avatar. “I am certainly proud to add Korra to the pantheon, which is perpetually sorely lacking in multifaceted female characters who aren’t sidekicks, subordinates or mere trophies for male characters,” her creators told me.]
Mother Tongue, Glacial Eye
Like climate science, climate fiction aims to re-enchant and reorient terrorized Earthlings.
Through cultural influentials like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, Frank Herbert’s desertified Dune series, Hayao Miyazaki’s earthy animation, and its elemental descendants like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra; from the environmental and reproductive stressors of most of Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin’s literature, and toward Alfonso Cuaron’s empathic cinema, including Children of Men, Gravity and The Revenant; cli-fi anchors human evolution to Earth itself, not just the stars.
Recoding convention and tradition, cli-fi also reclaims sci-fi’s monstrous relations. Most specifically, Mary Shelley’s touchstone novella, Frankenstein, which shares oppositional kinship with the death drives of Wells’ foundational War of the Worlds. Cli-fi is deeply informed by Shelley’s productive, persevering labor over Frankenstein, written during The Little Ice Age, a period of dramatic environmental destabilization. Frankenstein‘s cli-fi origin story ends with its antihero, Mad Science’s discarded abomination, set adrift in solitude on a European glacier, the same melting glacier deconstructed in Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid.
Cli-fi is characterized by such circuits and circularities. Its mother tongue speaks to the roots of our shared planetary language and myth, in search of dreams and strategies for surviving an exponential unraveling. Some, like the Bible, are still taken for literal scripture: “Ye Shall Rebuild the Old Wastes” commands the Good Book in Hugh Harman’s antiwar cli-fi classic, Peace On Earth, a rewilding prophecy about the epic failure on men and machines which we may hopefully, finally heed, as our own real-time analogue phases between realism and fantasy.
Others, such as native spaces and resources in the crosshairs of perpetual war, from way before slavery to long after Standing Rock, are callously capitalized as the world burns. Like yin needs yang, this turburlent feedback between interconnection and intertextuality is expressed as cli-fi’s first principle.
“Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness,” Herman Melville’s metafictional masterpiece Moby-Dick memorably sermonized, expressing this principle well. “But I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!”
Anchored by the gravity of the first principle that everything is connected, cli-fi’s macrocosmic prism captures Earth in the throes of terraformation, as it phases between these extinctions and reconstructions.
Where cli-sci breaks down the catastrophic disruption the once-balanced thermohaline currents of Earth’s oceans, cli-fi screens numb, dumb disaster capitalist blockbusters like Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, as well patient, contemplative object lessons like Remi Chaye’s Long Way North. Both express Earth’s dizzying, dazzling transformations using what John Muir called the “glacial eye,” as they focus on the inexorable power of the North Pole.
Unlike Day After Tomorrow but like Long Way North, Tomm Moore’s stunning Song of the Sea is a shining light in cli-fi’s increasing orbit, deeply invested in mythic environmental interconnection. “Folklore and superstitions serve functions beyond entertainment,” Moore told me. “They bind people to the landscape, and that is being lost.”
After experiencing the gruesome aftermath of seal slaughter with his daughter, Song of the Sea quickly grew out of “an organic process,” Moore said. “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture. In Ireland, during the Celtic Tiger years, we were losing touch.”
Witnessed with Muir’s glacial eye, these meditative, metafictional explorations of our planet and its sheer power challenge viewers to sit still long enough to realize that it is also they who are pulled toward, and apart, by Earth’s poles, which have themselves begun to migrate, thanks to global warming. Their quests and expeditions to achieve resolution and salvation are ours as well, as Earth overheats beyond contemporary understanding to deliver catastrophe and revelation.
Muir’s glacial eye chills us out enough to comprehend that Song of the Sea, Long Way North, Day After Tomorrow, and further cli-fi expressions are defiant in our real-time destabilization. While they are created for an attention-deficient marketplace whose comprehension of current events are sadly constrained by the usual corporate complaints, cli-fi, introspective and macrocosmic, makes the time to take its time. Its glacial eyes are locked onto the Real World as things falls apart, quoting William Butler Yeats’ mythic “The Second Coming” — and as we, hopefully, come together.