Casaubon's Book

Outrunning the Boom

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.



  1. #1 dewey
    January 6, 2011

    Ha! Just last night I was snarling about this exact same convention to the DH, who wants me to watch 2012. My impression from the trailers was that it’s the same ol’ “white male American saves his passive heterosexual family unit from a catastrophe that kills everyone else by driving real fast” meme that I really can’t stand any more repetitions of. I wonder if this is specific to our fossil-fuel culture, or derives from something more innate and primitive. After all, in the environment where we evolved, “run like hell” really was a lifesaving response to the most likely existential threats (i.e., angry lions, rhinos, etc. and the occasional flood or lava flow).

  2. #2 Harry J. Lerwill
    January 6, 2011

    As I started to read, I wanted to scream, “But that’s fiction, it has it’s own rules. It’s a device for creating one of the tensions in the story. It’s not reality.”

    Then I turned on the TV and saw what passes for ‘reality’ there. Scripted, two dimensional, with cuts to commercial to build tension. A person eliminated at the end of the hour, disappearing from the screen never to be seen again. Like a co-worker getting a pink slip, silently slinking off while trying not to show the outward expression of crushed dreams.

    So I go online to my favorite ‘doom’ forums – at least those which have not already left to follow a different set of stars. The first topic I read was “bug out bags.” A perfect example of the sometimes-hidden desire of those waiting for the other shoe to drop. They want to be that action here, to grab the essential bag of goodies, the wife’s hand, both kids, both dogs, both cats, climb into the various vehicles and head to the hills.

    Okay, that’s my doomer fear/fantasy as well. Like all fantasies, it belongs in my head or on the pages of a good book. At least my in-laws run a cattle ranch and are an hour’s drive away. For most, the driving-out-of-collapsing-Dodge fantasy belongs on the same shelf as the meeting-bored-porn-star-twins-in-the-bar or the poodle’s catch-the-car fantasy. They’ll have no clue what to do with it once fantasy meets reality.

  3. #3 Swany
    January 6, 2011

    Typo: abandoing

  4. #4 Mark N.
    January 6, 2011

    Funny thing is that there are, always were, and always will be times when running does have its utility. Just ask the native survivors of the 2004 Indonesia tsunami.

  5. #5 dewey
    January 6, 2011

    Yah, if the hills are at all livable they are already occupied by people whose own exposure to survivalist tropes has got them primed to see urban refugees as “the hordes” to be murdered – er, I mean defended against – without a second thought. Further, the police and National Guard would be turned loose on the population, as in Katrina, menacing particularly those carrying the means of self-defense (or, possibly, lap dogs named Snowball). I do have portable emergency supplies “just in case” my house is wrecked by an earthquake or tornado, but I can think of few other calamities, up to and including plague and nuclear war, in which I’d not probably be safer hiding in my own home, with food and weapons handy, until the panic and rage had settled down somewhat.

  6. #6 Stephen B.
    January 6, 2011

    It’s the American Way to run away to somewhere else. Our whole population is composed of either people who came here to escape some other less desirable place, or of descendants of those people.

    Now, by and large, there is no place to run to anymore, thus the narrative will have to change and that, in turn, will take much time and adjustment.

  7. #7 ChrisBear
    January 6, 2011

    I am a sucker for these movies- much like candy corns, I know I will regret the consumption later, but am drawn to do it nonetheless.

    My take on all action/end-of-the-world movies is that it gives a release. One big effort, and all will be OK. That life is not an ongoing effort, one problem, one solution, after another. When the world ends, you (the hero in the movie) no longer have those same arguments with your spouse/kids, the mortgage is gone, office politics is gone. You act, and Things Get Done. And they stay done. Much more satisfying than, “Well there is dinner, now what do we eat for breakfast?” Which I figure is often said after a major disaster.

    ****SPOILER ALERT****

    2012 was especially disappointing. But the billionaires/military being the ‘benefactors’ who would rebuild the world (by motoring to Africa and ‘helping’ the survivors there) was too much. Maybe it was a bit of subversive humor, because such blatant appeals to our sense of Manifest Destiny could not really be deliberate, right?

    Right? It was a joke. Right?

  8. #8 G. Robison
    January 6, 2011

    One of your best posts ever. Especially at the end. You can write, girl!

  9. #9 Cassandra
    January 6, 2011

    So you’re telling me that Bruce Willis isn’t going to save us? I’m positively crushed.

    Seriously though, I do see your point. I don’t think most people really want a movie that focuses on all the people we KNOW aren’t going to make it.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    January 6, 2011

    How about “Apocalypto”? Or “Run, Lola, Run”? Both those movies were all about running, and in neither was it a white dude doing the running.

  11. #11 Mike
    January 6, 2011

    I hope you only watch movies at home! Talking in the theater is really rude. I did love MST3K, though.
    Of the films you list, I only saw “Day After Tomorrow,” and I thought the outrunning-the-supercold scenes were a hoot. There’s a good example in “Independence Day,” too, when Air Force One outruns an explosion while taking off. But these things are just artistic conventions, like Wyle E. Coyote running in mid-air, or people singing in musicals or operas. As for real life, I think there are a lot of times when “get the heck out of here” is exactly the right response. And also, it must be fundamentally built into our brains, from humanity’s earliest experiences with large predators, falling trees, etc.

  12. #12 Greenpa
    January 6, 2011

    Good stuff. One point:

    “Moreover, we are conditioned by film to believe that the disaster is not real until icons topple…”

    First rate observation; but it’s worse than that. 98% of everyone below the age of 30 is now deeply conditioned, by video games, to believe that disaster is not real – period.

    After you die, you get another life, and try again. Without end.

    I truly see that as a problem, going ahead. It was hard enough for us to learn the hard stuff; like; yes, your best friend can die in a stupid car crash. Die; really dead. I think it’s even harder for the video game generation to “learn” such things. The fantasy world is always available to hide in.

  13. #13 Claire
    January 6, 2011

    I haven’t watched any new movies in the last several years, but your discussion of outrunning the disaster in movies put me in mind of one of my all-time *favorite* examples of this in an older disaster flick. Namely, the part of _Earthquake_ where the passenger plane is landing on one of the LAX runways just as the titular earthquake hits. As the plane rocks violently on the breaking-apart runway and the passengers panic, the pilots realize they must accelerate and take back off – the old touch-and-go landing – if they are to save themselves and the plane. Somehow they manage to pull off the touch-and-go on a runway in the process of breaking up. OK so far – I’ve watched military planes practice touch-and-go at the nearby Air Force base, though not in an earthquake, yet – but the next scene in the movie is a shot of the passenger cabin with everyone cheering and clapping, obviously very happy. Wouldn’t at least some of the people be worried about their houses, family, friends being caught in the quake and not be so inclined to cheer? This kind of unreality is one of the factors which has led me to avoid movies and novels. Nothing seems real in them. Give me a good nonfiction book or documentary any day.

  14. #14 Kerrick
    January 6, 2011

    @StephenB, 6: “Our whole population is composed of either people who came here to escape some other less desirable place, or of descendants of those people.”

    It is also composed of the descendants of slaves and convicts who were brought here by force, of greedy adventurers who came here not to escape but to plunder, and of Native Americans who have been living here since before recorded history. “Our whole population,” contrary to some, does actually include Native Americans and Black Americans.

    If you want to hold that since even the Native Americans came here tens of thousands of years ago from (probably) northern Asia we’re still a population of runaways, the same logic applies everywhere except certain parts of Africa.

  15. #15 Stephen B.
    January 7, 2011

    “If you want to hold that since even the Native Americans came here tens of thousands of years ago from (probably) northern Asia we’re still a population of runaways, the same logic applies everywhere except certain parts of Africa.”

    Yes, that is EXACTLY what I had in mind regarding “Native” Americans and I’m glad, at the last minute, you thought to give me the benefit of the doubt.

  16. #16 Ewan R
    January 7, 2011

    think it’s even harder for the video game generation to “learn” such things. The fantasy world is always available to hide in.

    Erm, yeah, until people they know die, and don’t come back… I’m pretty sure that my video game centric mind had learned to separate reality from fantasy before grandparents and pets started shuffling off this mortal coil.

    Plus having a fantasy world to hide in is hardly a new invention – video game players do however know that their fantasy world is a manufactured non-reality which doesn’t reflect the real world – countless prior (and the current) generations have spent countless Sundays (or Saturdays, or whatever your day of worship is) being told that they do indeed get another life, and that disasters are all part of some great plan etc etc etc – so like, don’t worry about them, eternal happiness yadda yadda yadda.

  17. #17 dewey
    January 7, 2011

    Well, I confess that on occasion when I have screwed up some piece of knitting, say by trying to go back for a dropped stitch and losing a few inches, I have found myself having a frustrated feeling that I should be able to hit Control-Z and take back that bad move! Sometimes I spend so much time working on a computer, where you can correct a disastrous mistake just as fast as you made it, that I start to subconsciously think that’s the way the world is supposed to function.

    Whatever your opinion of religion, religious people (historically the vast majority of humanity) used to grow up in a world of real material things. They understood very well that if you break a tool it stays broken, and if you let an animal be lost it won’t come back to life. Kids these days are so sheltered from risk and responsibility that often the only time they are allowed to do anything challenging is in a video game, where if you screw up the worst that happens is that you have to try again, and not starting from scratch but from a recent gamesave. Video games can be fun, but beyond that, I don’t blame kids in the least for playing them for a sense of accomplishment. Where else are you supposed to find that, if you’re not allowed to go outdoors alone or use “dangerous” tools and your schoolwork is rote drudgery?

  18. #18 Ewan R
    January 7, 2011

    Whatever your opinion of religion, religious people (historically the vast majority of humanity) used to grow up in a world of real material things. They understood very well that if you break a tool it stays broken, and if you let an animal be lost it won’t come back to life.

    And that if you dance in a specific manner after sacrificing a goat it’ll rain. And that after disaster strikes the best thing to do is pray (and not in the redefining the word manner that Sharon has espoused on the blog which I think is far better termed as “actually doing something real”). And that if you don’t sit on the same chair as a menstruating woman, wear mixed fibres and don’t sleep with anyone of the same sex then you won’t be swept away in a giant flood etc etc etc (I know, he said he wouldn’t do it again – but given that he created the world twice in as many chapters I ain’t trusting him).

    People have lived with an available fantasy world and been able to appreciate that disaster can occur for generations – neither computer games nor religion have vastly altered this fact, I’d argue however that video games have done less so than religion.

    (as a side note Greenpa must be utterly oblivious to the fallout series of games – they teach not only that disaster can occur but that if it does you’d better prepare your bunker dwelling descendants to battle supermutants on Capitol Hill (and if that ain’t reality then I don’t want no part of it) – or indeed of the recent WoW release which commercials suggest (sadly I don’t get to play any more) indoctrinates millions into the belief that a catastrophic world altering disaster can occur and have vast consequences (I’m guessing these include better phat lewts and extra experience levels – again, just as in the real world))

  19. #19 vertalio
    January 7, 2011

    In the same vein…
    I’m always amazed when I enter a parking garage and drive away without an attempt on my life. That never ever happens in Hollywood.

  20. #20 NM
    January 7, 2011

    “they serve best who stand and wait – and dig while they wait.”
    Yes, oh yes.
    But it is nice to enjoy a bit of absurdist humor while we dig, and so, although thinking about resources used to make movies induces a great deal of wincing, I did love 2012, for the screamingly funny escapist fantasy that it was. As I recall, practically every scene defied the laws of physics. My favorites were outrunning the Yellowstone explosion, driving rapidly along city streets while — a steady two feet behind the car!– the asphalt collapsed into chasm, and, best of all, having a jet take off without a runway, out of a collapsing ravine, in an explosion. While being flown by someone who had never flown a jet before. Definitely the sort of movie you watch with friends, for the fun of making sarcastic remarks and laughing yourself silly.

  21. #21 Brad K.
    January 9, 2011

    So – would Atomic Train be ‘outrunning the boom’? I mean, the train did wreck, the blast did happen, but there were some few survivors.

    I had to laugh, after reading your article, at one of my traditional Christmas flicks, “Long Kiss Goodnight” (Geena Davis). After the blast, the bridge disintegrates, and the following cars trying to stop Our Heroes come raining down all around. Pretty classic, I guess. (Geena didn’t look as professional in “Earth Girls Are Easy” – silly science fiction with Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans based on the Julie Brown song of that name from her _Trapped in the body of a White Girl_ album – but Earth Girls is a bit more fun.)

    And I do think there have been a few movies of disaster and adapting. The early “Fun with Dick and Jane” with Jane Fonda show the loss of income, and learning to make ends meet (though I don’t recommend robbing anyone, even banks).

    In fact, there may be a point where it gets fuzzy. Does the story follow some of the survivors, or is the story about outrunning the boom? Following the survivors of tragedy would get boring, if everyone expected to survive and thrive. For the most part, the important lessons aren’t what the non-survivors learned, allowing for ‘survive’ to mean more than just be present, smiling, at the end of the picture. I mean, in the end, no one actually gets out alive. Finding meaning, helping another, teaching a child, these are ways that our values and lessons – a part of ourselves – continue to survive.

    Blessed be!

  22. #22 Glenn S
    January 10, 2011

    I would agree with one of the other posters that sometimes it really does make sense to run.

    “Running” doesn’t have to mean _literally_ running. Think controlled migration. We’re already seeing signs of the abandonment of exurbs. And what about the rust belt and the depopulation of Detroit? We’re still a highly mobile society and it’s not realistic to expect people to hunker down out of some allegiance to “community” (which doesn’t even exist anymore anyway).

    I mean, Sharon was one step away from moving herself not long ago, albeit staying in the same general area.

    I would argue that the first sign that the public “gets it” will be migratory patterns. Areas that begin to be seen as too expensive to live in because it’s too energy-dependent, or dependent on dwindling fresh-water or electricity or whatever else, will see a population-drain.

    They may not be doomers, but they pay attention to their mounting bills, rationing restrictions, whether they can find jobs, and how safe they feel in their homes.

    Do I wish people would stay put for a while? Yes, if for no other reason than to become rooted in place long enough for things like food forests to make sense. But sometimes you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

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