Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Disasterbation turns you blind

Why "disaster porn" films blur our moral vision
Our predicament is crucially different from, say, being ten minutes after the launch of mutually assured nuclear destruction, where human society really has only minutes or hours left and hugging loved ones is almost the only expression of humanity left. Instead, we are in the (in some ways worse) situation of having a disaster (or series of interlocking crises) that will unfold across decades and even centuries and millennia (the effects of our injection of CO2 into the atmosphere will be felt for hundreds of thousands of years, species extinctions are forever and could well lead to ecosystems that are radically different - and for a very long time much simpler). What this means is while some shocks could be quite sudden (as we saw in 2008, banks can (almost) collapse within 24 hours if conditions are right, or rather, wrong), industrial civilisation will not go down in an afternoon (barring global nuclear exchange). Such an outcome is likely to take decades and a whole series of crises.

Many "catastrophe porn" films like 2012 (which I haven't seen) only further corrupt our moral imaginations by asking us to imagine ourselves in pure survival mode, which is a form of ethical laziness, since it is much more likely the real crises will bring moral challenges considerably more complex than "will I resort to cannibalism to stay alive?" (The Road). Neither Mad Max or Star Trek are particularly likely in the coming decades, but I expect something more in the ballpark of (the background scenes of) Children of Men.

In our contemporary situation, there are still plenty of good ends to pursue, even if it is increasingly unlikely that our actions are going to "save" civilisation as we know it. Whether we conceive ourselves as offering societal palliative care or building arks for the coming storm, there are more options than trying to plug the hole in the Titanic as it goes down (to mix three metaphors in as many lines). If we are offering palliative care for industrial society as a terminal patient, then perhaps that patient is a pregnant woman and our care may yet save the baby. That is, the choices we collectively make now will significantly influence the basic conditions under which any future society will exist, including (through the climate, health of biodiversity, soils, oceanic chemistry and so on) the carrying capacity of the planet and its regions. So it may actually now be impossible to keep things going as we've known them for the last few decades (let alone with continued growth) for too much longer, but it is certainly possible for us to bequeath a better or worse world to our children.

The perception of being "too late" will only increase in the next few years and this could well lead to all kinds of hopeless responses (nihilistic hedonism ("eat, drink and be merry..."); populist quick techno-fixes; authoritarian paternalism; scapegoating of outsiders). Our concern is not to say ahead of time what ought to be done (though many of the things that ought to be done now are more or less clear), but to focus on the formation of human beings who will not respond to such perceptions out of fear, guilt or impotence, but from faith, hope and love.
I took the title of this post from this helpful article. Other good posts on a similar theme include this reflection on the motives on doomers from one who has experienced them and this piece on collapse porn.


John said...

This is an interesting issue. It is true that the current situation, even under the worst analysis, is a long way from what you see in the movies.

I haven't seen The Road but I read the book and it seemed to be exploring this issue of how bad things need to get before we resort to simple survival. McCarthy's point, I think, is that if we wish to retain something of what makes us human the answer should be that it's 'never too bad'.

Of course the other unreal thing about the disaster movies is that the disaster is always total and complete. This is hardly ever the case. There will be winners. Perhaps some will be the same people who are currently winning - but probably not. This is really problematic if the only motivation for acting is self interest...

Colin Bell said...

Thanks for this, Byron. Particularly helpful for those of us who are trying to get the word out to others, and help them with their reaction - I'm leading an evening service on this in a few weeks, and it reminded me to ensure I leave space for people to explore how they feel about things during (and perhaps afterwards).

byron smith said...

John - Yes, I haven't read the book of The Road, and even the film, as disaster films go, was actually more interesting (morally) than many. You're right that there is a very fundamental point being made, namely, the idea that survival doesn't being human (ethical action), even in the most dire of situations. Nonetheless, as a guide for the imagination about possible futures, it presents one that is actually massively simplified. Once we've grasped the point that we'll still have to work out what it means to be human in whatever future we face, I'm not sure that it gets us much further than affirmation of the importance of trust and love.

In particular, I guess my beef with survivalist disaster movies is that they generally focus on the individual to the exclusion of any social or political ethics. They frequently portray societal collapse as complete (and often very sudden), neither of which I believe are likely. The effect of doing so may bring some questions in personal ethics into sharp focus, but at the cost of any broader vision (which is where so many of the more difficult issues we are going to have to face will continue to present themselves).

Thanks for your thoughts as a stimulus to expressing myself more clearly.

Colin - Yes, as you know, I think that pastoral handling of emotion in the face of societal threats is an important task for the church.

byron smith said...

I haven't read or seen The Hunger Games, but I found this a useful review from Joe Romm. Sounds like the series largely fits the pattern of avoiding the hard work of asking the ethical questions about the period of decline/collapse and just jumps straight into the post-apocalyptic survivalism.

byron smith said...

Jon Roe: Interesting review of Hunger Games.