Poems by J. David Bell

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E-pocalypse? Not!

by J. David Bell

From Canary Spring 2010

J. David Bell looks for toads near Nine Mile Run Stream, which feeds the Lower Monongahela Watershed in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

During a trip to DC to visit family friends, I watched the children’s film Battle for Terra on our host’s lavish home theater set-up (and on crystalline Blu-Ray, a first for me). For those who haven’t heard of it--and that’s probably most of you, since it flopped at the box office--Terra tells the story of a winsome race of aliens whose planet is invaded by the last human survivors of an Earth our species has laid waste. In a particularly insidious form of colonization, the earthlings plan to oxygenate the aliens’ atmosphere--certain death for the Terrans. But thanks to one human dissenter’s friendship with a waiflike Terran revolutionary, the evil scheme is averted, its masterminds slain, and a permanent human colony erected on Terra to house the dissenting pilot’s peace-minded disciples. If you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find much discussion, pro and con, of the film’s ostensibly subversive politics of radical environmentalism, anti-militarism, and civil disobedience. Dissenter that I am, however, I saw the film entirely differently.

Flash back several months. While rooming in Prescott, Arizona to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on conservationist Aldo Leopold, I watched the smash Disney/Pixar hit Wall-E, another film lauded (as well as reviled) for its ostensibly progressive environmental values. In Wall-E, the human race, having literally trashed the planet, departs Earth for a life of interstellar leisure, growing fat and useless on a mammoth cruise-ship space station while wide-eyed robots stay behind to clean up our mess. Eventually, following the chance discovery of a single living plant on the globe’s wasteland surface, humanity returns home, vowing this time to love the land, get down in the dirt, and teach the children the virtues of community gardening. The robot probe that discovers the surviving plant is named, fittingly, Eve: the human race, the film implies, has been given a second chance to populate the planet as stewards, not despoilers, of God’s green bounty.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with both films: the second chance. In both, viewers receive not only the cautionary message, “Don’t screw up!” but the comforting rejoinder: “But if you do, there’s always a way out!” In other words: go ahead and trash the planet--you can always escape to another world with plenty of green space, convertible oxygen, and winsome welcoming party (or, in the case of Wall-E, you can leave, come back home, and find the world you’ve trashed every bit as resilient as Terra). In these apocalypse-lite visions, there are no real consequences to our actions; we get to eat our cake and have it too. That’s hardly a subversive message. On the contrary, it’s the message that got us into this mess in the first place, the message with which consumer culture bombards us hundreds of times daily (not least through the medium of the movies): everything is ours for the taking, no sacrifices need ever be made, our desires (and our resources) are limitless, chew up and spit out as much as possible and let someone else, somewhere in the far distant future, deal with the fallout.

This message isn’t just for the tots, of course. I’m thinking of a film ostensibly for adults, a film ostensibly a somber fable for our time: The Day after Tomorrow, where our wasty ways bring about instant Ice Age. Leaving aside the film’s patent preposterousness, its failure to imagine a true alternative to the problem it identifies is revealed in its conclusion: after the Big Freeze sets in, the chastened citizens of the developed world take refuge in the southern hemisphere, which, against all science and sense, is not only completely unaffected by global climate destabilization but spacious and gracious enough to accommodate the entire population of the North. Ah, those willing Argentines and Bolivians--so warm, so wise in the ways of the world, so, well, winsome! Always another place, another world awaiting us. Whether it’s Venus or Venezuela, we can safely trash the planet and move on.

None of this would be particularly consequential if it were confined to the silver screen. But nothing is ever confined to the silver screen, least of all fantasy. As I’ve argued in my book Framing Monsters, far from representing “escape” from daily reality, fantasy and sci-fi films are inextricably bound to that reality. And so with the trio of Battle for Terra, Wall-E, and The Day after Tomorrow: all capture the contemporary craving (it’s perhaps too early to call it a craze) for the colonization of outer space. The recent discovery of frozen lunar water has boosted the hopes of the moon children, but it’s Mars most space prospectors have their sights set on, I suppose because it seems the most feasible plot to start mining. Or perhaps, as in the movies, logic has nothing to do with it; perhaps the renewed popularity of our red neighbor reflects the fact that Mars has occupied such a resonant place in our cultural imagination for so long, a specially tantalizing place on which to project our deepest hopes and fears. (Remember, Mars seemed feasible to H. G. Wells as the home of interplanetary invaders in War of the Worlds. Why not return the favor now?) According to the website Red Colony, Mars is the perfect “backup plan for humanity” not only because there might be buckets of water there but because there’s definitely “a lot of money” to be made there, big-time spoils for “residential, commercial, and industrial use.” A whole new virgin soil for consumer civilization to conquer! More men, more machines, more movies, and of course more moola! We’d just better hope Wells was wrong, or we’re going to have to deal with a whole new race of Red Skins.

The reference is not spurious. Buried beneath all the garbage, we westerners have long harbored a desire to return to a world before the Fall--and in America, that desire has most often taken the form of imagining ourselves living like Indians, untainted, immaculate, cherishing an authentic relationship to a land unspoiled by western militarism and materialism. “Out there is the true world,” sighs Jake Sully, paraplegic vet deployed to the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster film Avatar; our own planet, whence Jake comes as a cog in the military-industrial machine bent on plundering this primeval paradise, he curses as a “dying world” where “nothing green” grows. And so, in a plot so utterly derivative I kept waiting for Kevin Costner to waltz onstage or for Jake’s willowy, blue-skinned girlfriend to start warbling “Colors of the Wind,” the alienated military man gains a brand-new, undamaged Pandoran body (the “avatar” of the title), joins a tribe of tree-living, tree-loving indigenes, and learns to make literal, neurological contact with a sentient primordial Gaia. Fenimore Cameron’s fantasy has been decried by the right wing for promoting environmental values or even, in one wild-eyed blog, eco-terrorism. But Avatar’s fundamental hypocrisy eclipses any putative environmentalist leanings: not only does Cameron’s film erase the historical fact that whites didn’t start to hanker for the Indians’ love of the land until they’d stolen and raped virtually all the land the Indians loved, but it reinforces the New Age belief that redemption from such historical sins can be earned through further consumption, the stockpiling of more commodified, otherworldly junk (faux dream catchers and sweat lodge ceremonies, Avatars on hi-def and Blu-Ray). Rather than calling for true reform here at home, which might actually cost something, Avatar turns once more outward, seeking salvation from another alien culture whose wisdom and whose world can be snapped up for a song.

In his groundbreaking essay “The Land Ethic,” published just over sixty years ago, Aldo Leopold writes of our half-assed attempts to conserve the land while preserving the prerogatives of consumer society: “Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values.” And again: “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. . . . In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” Which is another way of saying that, short of a revolution in how we envision and live our lives on this planet, all our imaginative efforts to address the environment’s ills will amount to little more than trash.

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