As you can probably imagine, Eric sometimes has more than a bit to put up with being married to me. One of the things that bothers him the most is that I’m absolutely no fun at movies. If you remember the show MST3K, I’m them – all the time. And just because the movie is supposed to be high art, well, that never did stop me.
Early in our marriage we realized that we were both happier if we limited our joint film time to one of two categories – truly great movies, which we both enjoy, or ones bad enough that Eric doesn’t mind pitching in on the commentary. There are, of course, far more of the latter category, and while we rarely have time to sit and watch much of anything, we do occasionally indulge in a movie night.
My absolute favorite convention of film, despite its utter ubiquity, is the “outrunning the explosion” deus ex machina convention. Our hero(ine) who in any rational world would now be maimed, dead and entirely out of the public exploits in any film other than “critical care from the patient’s point of view” manages to suspend the laws of physics long enough to run faster than a bomb in just about every thriller or disaster film on the planet.
The ordinary outrunnings of the boom are hardly even worthy of comment, but I do like the variants composed by various filmmakers. Consider “outrunning the temperature extremes” in _Day After Tomorrow_, “outrunning the laser beam” in various space operas, “outrunning the meteorites” (_Deep Impact_ and _Armageddon_) and my newest fave, “outrunning the yellowstone mega-caldera” in _2012_ (which is particularly awesome because it is followed by “outrunning the caldera ash cloud” which apparently can be done, as the cloud overspreads Washington DC, by remaining comfortably in Las Vegas, where it is sunny and beautiful.)
The convention is almost unworthy of comment, precisely because it is so ubiquitous, along with the convention that knocking people on the head always knocks them unconscious but never gets our hero(ine) up on murder charges for causing accidental death, and the fact that heroic children in movies never need to eat, never whine and never need to go the bathroom. The only reason I do mention it here is that we do accept this as ubiquitous – we know it is ridiculous, of course, but we also implicitly are so accustomed to this association of “disaster, suspension of the laws of physics and running super-fast” that on some level, it permeates our consciousness. The thing is, the ubiquitous does matter, even when we ostensibly understand it is false.
That’s troubling because the answer to the disasters we are actually already undergoing is precisely the opposite from what film tells us. First of all, the laws of physics, instead of being conveniently suspended whenever they are really, really unpleasant, are in fact, fundamental and defining. That is, when something is not sustainable, it turns out that it doesn’t go on forever. That is, if you know something really can’t scale, it usually turns out that it doesn’t. If one understands something to imply that material, physical limitations are actually closing in on one, it turns out they actually are. The laws of physics *don’t* go on holiday when we very much would like them to. This may seem obvious, and yet for many millions of people, there is an implicit assumption that these laws don’t apply to them. Moreover, many people who intellectually understand that they do, choose not to grasp the real implications all the way to the bottom.
The second thing to learn (by contrary example) from movies is that the answer does not come in running. Now we know that the future is likely to contain many people who had no choice but to leave places they wanted to stay due to climate change and energy depletion – the UN estimates of refugees come in the billions. To the extent, however, that there is a solution to the multi-pronged ecological disaster we’re undergoing, however it is this – don’t run, stop and stay. The refugees themselves will eventually have to find a place – or one will have to be made for them.
In disaster films, our hero (it is usually a guy, and generally literally or metaphorically Bruce Willis) has insider knowledge – he calls it to the minute that the disaster is occurring, and unlike the rest of the bit players who die in the background due to whatever the disaster is, he races away to the only safe spot, usually saving some adorable moppet and beautiful women and coming to understand (through intervention of attractive female and adorable moppet) what is truly important as well. It turns out it is home and family and kids, apple pie and cuteness, but he could only learn this just at the climactic, disastrous moment and through the external crisis journey that by implication implies that this character, who entirely lacks an interiority, must be taking some kind of inner journey as well.
Consider the reality – our carbon problem is very simple – we can’t burn all the carbon we do have, and we don’t have enough to be able to build our way out of burning it. We have to use less. What are the obvious ways of using less? Well, among others, to stop running, to stay home, to get out of the vehicles.
Nor can we run away from it. Climate change will not come equitably to every place, but it will come everywhere. Energy depletion too will come unevenly, but it will come, and so do the financial consequences of both. The ways to mitigate are the exact opposite of running away to discover what you should have known already – they are to appreciate what you have here, and to slow down further.
Slow down long enough to plant more trees which mitigate climate change, lower temperatures and respire water. Slow down long enough to know the people around you, rather than relying on a single, heroic gesture, build heroism on the ordinary acts of human generosity that are the foundation of community. Slow down enough to know that there really is nothing herioc about abandoing the great masses to their fate while you and the priveleged few who accompany you escape by virtue of your heroism – that unlike in the movies, people dying around you are not stock characters who rise again, but lives for which you bear some responsibility.
Moreover, we are conditioned by film to believe that the disaster is not real until icons topple – our association with disaster is the head of the statue of liberty, the falling monument, the waves washing away the city. Sometimes it does happen that way – the people in the New Orleans superdome, the collapsing World Trade Towers do look a lot like an action movie. But disasters are slow as well, sometimes imperceptibly slow. The disaster is when the birth of young birds and the cycle of the food source they grow on no longer coincide, when the ordinary costs of food, gas and housing rise beyond access for ordinary people, when the waters are unfishable and jobs to buy food not forthcoming. They are measured in real income declines, expiring unemployment, foreclosures, tropical disease, species extinction and the loss not of the vast monument, but the ordinary anchors of our world.
The impulse to run, when confronted with the disaster, is real – but for the most part, it isn’t the answer. If our places will remain habitable by us, if our world has a future it is because we stay – stay to build the sea wall, stay to plant the trees, stay home and out of our cars, stay to talk to the neighbors, stay to mend and repair rather than buy new, stay to share and protect. In some way, we know that we cannot truly outrun the boom, but it has not yet fully penetrated that running is the wrong answer for most of us, that they serve best who stand and wait – and dig while they wait.