On May 21st, 2011, the day the world was predicted to end, it was thundering and lightning outside. My high school friends and I sat in the cafeteria cracking jokes every time someone got up and took too long to get seconds– “Guess they got raptured after all.” Unsurprisingly, the rapture didn’t occur that day, nor did the apocalypse, five months later, as evangelist radio broadcaster Harold Camping had predicted. Instead, it was an ordinary school day: we got up, went to class, talked to friends, did homework.
From the Mayans to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, people have been predicting the end of the world throughout history. Nowadays, the claims are more often than not dismissed, at least in the mainstream, with a wink or a smirk. And yet, after seeing the most recent Superman movie by Zack Snyder, in which alien terraforming razes half of the city of Metropolis, I wondered how inured we really are to the whole idea. In fact, what was disturbing about the images of Superman crashing through crumbling buildings, and the piles of debris lining the streets, was the apathy and the feeling of casualness with which they appeared to be shown—in all these pictures of death and destruction, the element of human suffering seemed to be for the most part, missing.
We talk a lot about the desensitization to violence brought about by an overexposure to violent images. But here, it feels like we’re being overexposed, not just to violence, but also to the apocalypse. There’s the long list of movies even from the past decade– 2012, Apocalypse Now, World War Z, the AMC television series “The Walking Dead.” This is not even a movie about the apocalypse, yet even here we have images of what looks like the end of the world—a complete annihilation of life as we know it—wrapped up and packaged in a mainstream, blockbuster superhero movie. It’s possible I’m making too much out of it. The claim I’m making is not really rational—it’s more like a nagging sensation—this gut feeling in the back of my head, the idea that seeing, in some way or another, has an effect on us.
Environmental scientists, amongst others, have, in the past, been concerned with the effects of seeing. In 2011, Science News magazine published an article comparing the current climate situation with the chlorofluorocarbon pollution of the 1980s. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were found largely in aerosol hairspray cans, refrigerators, and other household products. They were ubiquitous in the 80s, and scientists worried about their impact on the ozone layer of the atmosphere. What was interesting about the article to me was that, despite it’s being in a science magazine, it didn’t appear to be concerned with the science of chlorofluorocarbon pollution, or the science of climate change. It was concerned, rather, with perception of the effects– the visible damages, in each case.
Indeed, the ozone hole provided what the article calls “graphic proof” of catastrophe. The effects of radiation and cancer would occur within that lifetime. The impact was “personal”. And sure enough the political response was unprecedented, with the passing of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect the ozone layer from harmful pollutants like CFCs in 1987.
The article goes on to speculate that the reason climate change hasn’t (or at least, hadn’t in 2011) had such a visceral, immediate public response is due to its lack of visual proof. The effects of local weather don’t always reflect the atmospheric changes occurring on a global scale. We can’t necessarily predict the immediate effects of weather with climate science. Meanwhile, the effects that we can predict are expected to occur over a longer period of time, in the distant future—the worst impacts of tidal waves, and floods occurring in distant lands, far away from our developed world. How can we be expected to respond when the threat doesn’t seem real, or part of our immediate reality? In other words, the problem with climate change seems to be that it’s taken too long to make a spectacle of itself, at least for this audience.
Since that article was published in 2011 we’ve had Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Isaac within the same year. But what really scare me are the tipping points. Populations of mangroves have doubled in size since 1984, supplanting communities of marshland and marsh grasses along the Florida coast. The drastic increase is thought to be due not to an overall increase in temperature but to the warmer winter nights that provide a more tolerant climate for these plants. The point is, it doesn’t take a huge increase in temperature to cause dramatic changes in the environment—just the crossing of a certain threshold. We don’t even know what all of the changes we can expect in the future are—what intricate mechanism in an ecosystem climate change will have the potential to unhinge. But scientists suggest that many of these changes will be, not gradual or subtle, but drastic and immediate. “It’s a little scary”, says researcher Daniel S. Gruner at the end of the article published in the New York Times. “I don’t like to think about it, quite frankly”.
Here, I think, lies the heart of the problem—our problem—with climate change. It’s not that it’s terribly difficult to put together the pieces of the puzzle, or connect the dots. It’s not that the evidence—increasingly extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels, changing habitats–isn’t dramatic or convincing enough. It’s that we simply don’t want to see it. And because there is no gaping hole in the atmosphere, no unified sign from the heavens, we don’t have to. Or, at least, we aren’t being forced to reckon with it on a gut level. At the same time, watching the destruction of Metropolis on the big screen, a destruction so massive that not even Superman can fully save us from it, suggests to me that on some level, even subconsciously, we are reckoning with the possibility of catastrophe. Perhaps the reason we aren’t in the same kind of panic as we were in 1985, the reason that we’ve been dragging our feet is that we sense we’re already in too deep. And acknowledging this reality would destroy the sense of comfort and stability we’ve worked so hard to maintain. That is, it would destroy the world as we know it.
Gillis, Justin. “Spared Winter Freeze, Florida’s Mangroves are Marching North.” New York Times, 30 December 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/science/without-winter-freezes-mangroves-are-marching-north-scientists-say.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0. Accessed 14 January 2014.
Raloff, Janet. “Contrasting the Concerns over Ozone and Climate Loss”. Science News, 8 November 2011. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-public/contrasting-concerns-over-climate-and-ozone-loss. Accessed 14 January 2014.
Shaeffer, Sandy. “Zack Snyder talks Superman’s Dilemma and the Mass Destruction in ‘Man of Steel’.” Screen Rant, September 2013. http://screenrant.com/zack-snyder-interview-man-steel-superman-metropolis-destruction/. Accessed 14 January 2014.