The ice sheets may be falling apart, but it just doesn’t have the same buzz as a mushroom cloud
There were a couple of stories in the paper the other day that hung together well if you knew how to look at them. First the bad news – according to Francesca Martin of the Guardian: “The American painter and photographer Richard Prince has just sold the rights to a film pitch. The story – which falls somewhere between Lord of the Flies and Lost – follows a group of people who are the last surviving humans on earth.”
Now I must say I’ve no idea who Richard Prince is. For all I know he may be a perfectly harmless gent who coughs up his subs to a worthy charity with due regularity. But it does my blood pressure no favours to hear that he has made even a solitary penny from selling that idea. Christ on a bike, have we not reached the point where the idea of a movie about a post-apocalyptic waste-land belongs to everyone on Earth, like the Bible and the freezing temperature of water?
Surely every two-bit comic artist and B-movie producer is entitled to lay claim to his or her chunk of the wad coming Prince’s way, if the concept of fair use doesn’t apply here. Even the journo’s brief summary suggests that Prince came up with the idea while watching an episode of Lost which brought back vague memories of an essay he had to write on William Golding for Leaving Cert English (or whatever they call it in Amurikea).
After having had to read such disturbing nonsense, it was a relief to be distracted by something a little lighter. Apparently there’s been some class of a disturbance down in Antarctica, that place where Katherine Thomas goes off on adventure holiday outings for RTE so the viewers at home can pretend for a moment that they might follow in her boot-steps instead of going for another sun’n'sand trip in the Med. An ice shelf is on the point of collapsing, which bodes ill tidings for the auld climate – or so say the boffins.
David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey reports that ‘the ice shelf is hanging by a thread … we’ll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be’. Vaughan would be well within his rights to say ‘nah, nah, I told you so’ at this point, having been part of a team which warned in 1993 that the Wilkins shelf (which covers nearly six thousand square miles) could collapse within 30 years. His only error was caution – the time scale was barely half as long as expected.
Reading about this stuff reminded me of a documentary about global warming I saw many years ago while staying at my granny’s house after school one afternoon and looking for an excuse not to do my homework. The programme makers had decided that the best way to shock people into doing something about the problem was to pretend they were making a retrospective look at the disastrous impact of climate change from some time in the mid twenty-first century. If I remember rightly Florida and Bangladesh had disappeared entirely from the map, along with various islands and low-lying countres here, there and everywhere. The programme concluded, of course, with the presenter from the future saying ‘oh, it could all have been so different, if only they’d copped themselves on in time’ or words to that effect.
To the best of my knowledge the last paragraph is the only time anyone has referred to said documentary in the medium of print for at least fifteen years, so I guess that tells you how much of an impact it had. And that takes us back to Richard Prince and his bloody Lost of the Flies pastiche. What’s his scenario for the end of the human race? What bumps them all off?
Thirty or forty years ago, there would have been no doubt as to the culprit – an apocalyptic nuclear war, killing hundreds of millions of people and reducing modern industrial civilisation to a rump of cave-dwellers, subsistence agriculture and desolate urban hell-holes plagued by odd-looking mutant yokes. I was watching The Butcher Boy again over the weekend, a good reminder of the days when young tykes fully expected the world to have ended with a bang and a dust-cloud before they were old enough to use their mickey in action. That anxiety was a big part of the Adrian Mole diaries – you may remember the time when the spotty neurotic tells us that he hopes there won’t be a nuclear war before his GSCEs, because it would be terrible to die as an unqualified virgin.
For anyone born after 1980, who grew up in a post-Gorbachev, post-Cold War era, there’s something completely alien about documents like that – it’s a bit like staring at a gargoyle hacked into stone by a medieval sculptor and wondering what it was like to spend your life fearing you might spend eternity at the mercy of the feckers if you didn’t keep your sinful impulses on a tight leash. For a while there the alien craze of the 1990s seemed to offer a replacement for the threat of super-power conflict. But it could never really match the visceral plausibility of a nuclear armageddon – there may have been geeks and gobdaws whose sleep was haunted by visions of the Borg or those murderous fellas from Independence Day, and many a red-neck may have contemplated the prospect of an extra-terresterial anal probe with a certain guilty excitement, but the rest of us managed not to fret.
Meanwhile there was a perfectly good substitute at our disposal – the prospect of global warming and all the ecologial disasters it would bring in its wake. For as long as I’ve been aware of who was the president of this and the prime minister of that, I’ve also known that the world’s climate was going to be banjaxed sooner or later if we didn’t stop messing with the fossil fuels. So has everyone else. But it’s never quite got under our collective skin the way nuclear war did.
I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Day After Tomorrow, which by all accounts was a load of pants (although I did hear, from someone who watched the movie in a Colombian movie theatre, that the bit where all the rich Northerners flee South and have to cancel the outstanding debts before they are allowed cross the border was greeted with stormy applause and merriment, so it may not have been entirely bad). Apart from a few pop songs, that’s all I can think of from popular culture – balanced by a press release for Dick Cheney’s climate change denial lobby in the form of a novel by Michael Crichton, who should have been hacked to pieces with fossilised raptor talons for his sins. It doesn’t add up to much. It’s certainly no Dr Strangelove.
If the scientists charting the break-up of the Wilkins sheet are right, we may not have any more need of fiction to bring it all home. According to one witness, nature has been kind enough to deliver a cinematic-quality performance: ‘It was awesome. We flew along the main crack and observed the sheer scale of movement from the breakage. Big chunks of ice, the size of small houses, look as though they’ve been thrown around like rubble – it’s like an explosion.’
That was always going to be the trouble – by the time the effects of global warming were so obvious that nobody could deny what was happening any longer, it would already be too late to stop things. At least we have one advantage over the nuclear generation – our horseman of the apocalypse doesn’t have the power to wipe out half the world in a few hours. Even if global warming is well on its way, there’s still a prospect of salvaging something.
You say that, and then you read articles about the race for oil and gas reserves in the Arctic – now that fossil-fuel usage has started to melt the ice caps, there’s a mighty stampede gathering to scoop up all the new reserves of … fossil fuels that will soon become accessible. The sight of the Russians sending a wee submarine down to the Arctic sea-bed to plant a flag for the benefit of all the little fishies is surely an act of self-parodic satirical brilliance on a par with anything Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers could manage. If there’s anything that can bring home to people how bloody certifiable most of our esteemed leaders and statesmen are, it must be that.
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