Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Living in the highest grossing disaster movie of all time

Humans love stories where a hero overcomes a threat to mankind. The theme of overcoming a monster goes back at least as far as Beowulf (who strangled a monster that kept eating the king's best warriors) and appears in our modern mythology in the Bond series and many other popular films.

In fact, seven of the ten highest grossing films are about defeating a threat to all people: Avatar, Star Wars, Jurassic world, the Avengers (twice), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Iron Man 3. In all, we spent a cool $12 billion on these films.

The details vary, but the basic plot is that a threat to a large group of people, if not all the inhabitants of the planet, emerges, and a hero comes forward to deal with the threat, at risk to himself (the saviour is nearly always a man), and overcomes it, usually, if not always, by violent means. The threat may be from another planet (Independence Day, The Alien), but in the Bond series, the threat is often a super-rich sociopath. It is interesting that in Avatar, the threat is from a private corporation, a mining company, and in Star Wars, it is a trading federation that offers the threat to freedom.

So we enjoy watching universal existential threats happen to other people, and we like to see a hero come forward and defeat the monstrous threat. Overcoming the Monster is the first of the seven basic plots in Christopher Booker's classification, the other themes being Rags to Riches, the Quest, Journey and Return, Comedy, Tragedy (where a character flaw leads to death), and Rebirth (where a character flaw is understood and overcome).

Of course, there is nothing wrong with our drinking up these myths. We are humans, that is what humans do. It is pleasant to watch the suffering and danger of other people, and to experience the relief when the threat is overcome. But does this process actually help us to deal with the real drama that is unfolding in our lives? Or does it hinder us? Or is it just neutral?

In our real world, a threat as big as any of the threats portrayed in the movies is unfolding. It is developing more slowly than a film script, but in the long run, the disaster scenario is equal to the magnitude of the most disastrous disaster movie ever conceived.

Let's transform our current situation into an imaginary film script, because that's the kind of thing we understand. It opens with a flood scene. A lone scientist is monitoring flooding events, and is noticing that the frequency of flood events is increasing. She takes her data to a scientific conference, where her findings are laughed out of court. However, another scientist, who has been studying droughts, comes alongside with his own, similar data. A third, who has been studying heat-waves, joins their company. They try to communicate their findings, unsuccessfully, until astronauts in an orbiting space station detect anomalous infra red waves coming from the vicinity of the moon. The source of the warming energy beams is located on the surface of the moon. Further investigation reveals an alien base on the moon that is directing energy at Earth. World leaders gather and decide to destroy the source, but all human weapons, including nuclear, are disabled before they reach the target. The warming continues; crops fail, massive migration movements take place, wars break out. An expedition is organised consisting of a group of courageous diplomats and people of action. Contact is made with the aliens, who turn our to be impeccably well-mannered, highly intelligent and technically sophisticated. They also speak very good English.  They are apologetic about the the disruption to Earth weather, but they had calculated that we would have made the diplomatic overtures at a far earlier time. Turns out that they are marketing managers for an intergalactic solar energy and numismatic corporation, and they hope that we will wish to buy their product. It transpires that their energy prices are in fact distinctly lower than our carbon-based energy technologies, due to vagaries of intergalactic currency exchange mechanisms, so a deal is struck. The aliens reverse the energy imbalances that their beams have brought about, give us some effective general advice about sustainability, and zip off home.

It's a script, no better and no worse than some of the scripts in the top 10 highest grossing films. Would it help? No, because our problem is not caused by aliens, it is caused by ourselves. Violence does not work, and there is no hero that can deal with global warming, because it is caused by our appetite for wasteful consumption of carbon-based energy. There are corporations involved, of course, but although an increasing number of well-informed people are learning to dislike them, the vast majority of us still buy their products, for many reasons, chiefly habit and convenience. We face a slow awakening from sleep. It is true that we are moving forward, but progress is far too slow, not least because our information systems and political parties are dominated by the fossil corporations who feed lies and disinformation to distort public opinion.

So we are actually living in a real disaster movie, one of our own making, where we are the population at risk, we are the dupes, with a fifth column in our midst. We are also the potential heroes. It is clearly a species of Overcoming the Monster plot. It is not a Rags to Riches plot, rather the reverse. There is no Quest or Journey involved, because all the action is taking place at home. It is certainly not a Comedy. It could easily turn out to be a Tragedy. All we can do is hope that the Rebirth theme will kick in, and as a result of experience, probably an accumulation of adverse experience. We must hope that we can learn to deploy reason, science and logic instead of passively absorbing entertaining fantasies. We must learn to change our ways and live within the boundaries that our planetary environment lovingly sets for us.

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