My kids are away for the month and my wife is in the hospital, recovering from a recent surgery. So what do I do with my first free Saturday night in, say, ten years? I go see a children’s movie. Having read the rave review by A. O. Scott in the New York Times and heard the similarly glowing review by David Edelstein on Fresh Air, I didn’t think that I could wait until my kids come back from a month of camp and grandparents. Somehow, the idea of a story set on a post ecological-apocalyptic Earth seemed to resonate with my my mood.
The movie was, indeed, terrific. The narrative is very straightforward and sweet. Robot meets robot. Robot falls in love with robot. Robots take off for distant nebula where they undergo a series of trials and tribulations in an effort to save the descendants of humanity and Earth. You know…
It’s the backdrop of the movie that is so stunning. The bleak vision of a dead Earth, strewn with the detritus of a decadent consumer society, where toxic dust storms ravage the deadened landscape and a lone mutant cockroach appears to be the extent of life. And when we meet what has become of humans… In just 25 generations, humans have evolved to become passive, obese, infantile receptacles of mindless consumption. Deriving all nutriment from Big Gulps. Too fat and weak to even walk, they scoot around (seemingly endlessly) on floating sleds, interacting with the world only through the video screens constantly in front of their faces. Hmmm, a distorting mirror for our society that my recent travels up and down American highways suggests is not all that distorting.
And yet, there is hope in the movie. Athletic physiques may be extinct in the 28th century, but not the human spirit. All it takes is a little robot in love to jump start a new communitarian will to power.
About the time I went to see WALL-E, a reference to this article appeared in my inbox. Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, writes a dark essay on the state of our planet. I don’t always agree with Davis, but there is little doubt that he is a provocative and compelling writer who makes you think. In this essay, Davis describes the recent suggestion by the The Geological Society of London that human agency has led to the dawning of the newest geological epoch, The Anthropocene.
The term “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and has been used casually for a number of years now. Recent work, however, has suggested that there might truly be scientific utility to the term. Zalasiewicz and colleagues ask in the Geological Society of America’s publication, GSA Today, Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene? In a recent issue of the journal Ambio, Steffen and colleagues describe the Anthropocene in terms of trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This work suggests that humans have changed the environment to such an extent that it is geologically durable. Future geologists (perhaps from another planet?) could recognize the human ecological footprint in Earth’s stratigraphy. In the words of Zalasiewicz et al.,
Earth has endured changes sufficient to leave a global stratigraphic signature distinct from that of the Holocene or of previous Pleistocene interglacial phases, encompassing novel biotic, sedimentary, and geochemical change. These changes, although likely only in their initial phases, are sufficiently distinct and robustly established for suggestions of a Holocene–Anthropocene boundary in the recent historical past to be geologically reasonable.
The untimely passing of the Holocene may seem an obscure and uninteresting event, but it is troubling when you think that everything that has happened in human civilization has happened in — and because of — the Holocene, a period of warmth and climatic stability otherwise not seen in the recent geological history of Earth. You know, little things like the origin of agriculture, complex societies, writing, the Red Sox. All because of the stability of the Holocene.
So the Anthropocene may bring with it increased climatic volatility and create a potentially more hostile world, less buffered to further perturbations. But just as global warming doesn’t mean that all places on Earth get noticeably warmer, so too, the environmental sequelae of the Anthropocene will not be felt equally by all. Once again, the poor are likely to lose. And if we really manage to bring upon ourselves the environmental apocalypse envisioned in WALL-E?
This question bugged me as I basked in the glow of WALL-E. Are there non-Americans on the Axiom, the space cruise ship that is the home away from home for humanity? Did the Buy N Large Corporation, which seems to have taken over the world when humanity bugs out, see fit to bring poor people from, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia to space? Everyone on Axiom seems pretty American in their accent, gluttony, and shape. But who knows? It emphasizes the likelihood that in the Anthropocene world of potentially increasing climatic instability, differences between those who have and those who don’t will be magnified. As Davis writes,
But global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.
If we foul our home to the point that our only option is to emigrate to space, who will be invited to the party? Let’s hope that we never need to actually answer that question. You see, the ability to transport all of humanity to a space ship to wait out the environmental end-of-days is not really an option. In his book, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, Rockefeller University demographer Joel Cohen writes about the space option for dealing with over-population and resulting ecological collapse. Cohen’s simple calculations show how spectacularly out-of-the-question the space colonization solution is, even if the technology that would allow space colonization existed.
So I guess we had better take care of our home. We’re stuck here. Let’s hope that we can galvanize some of that enduring human spirit that shows itself in WALL-E to change the potentially disastrous path we have set out for ourselves. Davis is clearly right when he rails against the pie-in-the-sky “Spontaneous Decarbonization” that is implicit in most climate change scenarios. Checking global warming will require active, politically difficult, interventions to be undertaken. I’m not exactly overflowing with confidence that we can pull this off, but then again, life can take hold in the most unlikely of places.