In movies, nobody ever notices the desert. We see it onscreen, endless wastes stretching off to the horizon, under a searing blue sky, and give it no further thought. Why would we? It’s dry sand. It’s a big blank canvas for actors and directors to paint on.
And when it comes to a [cli-fi] movie like the Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller went ballistic. The characters were so vivid, the story so compelling and the explosions so deafening that the post-apocalyptic desert receded into the background. Who cares about the sand dunes? Fucking war boys are swinging everywhere on massive poles, Charlize Theron is being bad-ass, and there’s a guy over there with a flame-spewing guitar! Hell yeah!
But one of the things that got lost amidst the chaos of Fury Road was that it was a movie about climate change, and about where we as a species are going to end up. You could say the same thing about [the cli-fi movie] The Revenant, Fury Road’s competitor for the Best Picture Oscar. The insane story of Hugh Glass’s road to redemption in the northern American wilderness was as much about climate change as it was about Leonardo DiCaprio gunning for an Oscar. The early 1800s, when the story takes place, was right around the time when humans were really getting going on this whole massively-changing-our-environment-lark, and the movie takes pains to show how we’d begun to alter the world around us.
It’s rare for two vastly-different Best Picture nominees to have such a similar cli-fi message. And if we think of The Revenant as our starting point, and Fury Road as a possible end point, then a few questions arise. How far along are we? Was climate change inevitable given who we are as a species? And most importantly: can we stop it?
Dagomar Degroot is a good person to ask. The Georgetown University professor is a historical climatologist, someone who reconstructs past climate change events. He says that while The Revenant certainly shows the impact we’re having, there’s a good chance we got started long before that time period: “There’s a controversial theory, but it’s increasingly gained a following. The theory says that the depopulation of the Americas by Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century might have been severe enough to trigger reforestation of a huge scale. People stopped controlling the forest environment, and there were more trees, and that might have been able to pull enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the concentrations in the atmosphere to decline by maybe about ten parts per million, which might have set in motion global cooling. So there’s this notion that anthropogenic climate change is actually quite old, and goes back a very long time. Things in the early 19th century were changing in profound ways, but we can’t discount the impact that humanity had on global environments well before that.”
But just because we’ve been doing this for a while doesn’t mean it was inevitable. “If you think that humanity’s impact on climate is centuries-old, or possibly thousands of years old since we started practicing agriculture and pumping more methane into the atmosphere,” Degroot says, “then maybe you can say there’s something inevitable. Here’s this animal with a very big brain that is capable of changing its environment in huge ways. At the same time, there’s nothing inevitable about the extent to which we’re transforming the climate now. It springs from quite a particular and unnecessary combination of forces, starting in the early modern period, the 15th century, and escalating into the 19th century, where we have modern science and new kinds of industry, all this stuff co-evolving in ways which generated the modern world.”
Not that everyone agrees. Take, for example, Kirsty Lewis. She’s the head climate change researcher at the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service. Her take? Once we discovered fossil fuels, this was always going to happen.
“Once you got the Industrial Revolution, and once we discovered coal and fossil fuels and were clever enough to invent engines and need such high energy demands,” says Lewis, “the easiest form of energy is carbon. It’s energy stored from the sun that we have here on Earth. It’s not that people didn’t care what they were doing, it’s that we honestly didn’t know. In some respects, it was inevitable.”
"If we think of The Revenant as our starting point, and Fury Road as a possible end point, then a few questions arise. How far along are we? Was climate change inevitable? And most importantly: can we stop it?"That was then. Now we’re a couple of centuries down the track from the time of The Revenant, and it’s pretty obvious that we’re doing some major things to our planet. (And if you don’t think it’s obvious, please stop reading here and hit your head on the wall a few times. Thanks.) What happens next might not create a desert wasteland filled with screaming war boys, but big changes are coming. It’d be nice to know exactly how far along we are, but that’s the thing about climate change. It’s not predictable. “We know some things quite clearly,” Lewis says, “like the fact that we’ve changed the atmosphere and that that will cause warming of the global average temperature, and we know confidently that the temperature is going up everywhere. That will shift the dynamics of weather systems. It’s more difficult if you want to know exactly what will happen where.”
Ironically, Fury Road is the perfect example. With climate change in full swing, you’d expect the production team to have their pick of deserts to film in, but they had the opposite problem. The desert they chose, in Broken Hill, Australia, suddenly wasn’t a desert anymore.
“The heavens opened,” says Fury Road’s production designer Colin Gibson. He’s up for an Oscar himself, as well he should be, and talks with the dry, weathered delivery of someone who worked very, very hard to make a movie happen. “That same climate change delivered water into the Lake Eyre basin, which trickled down to our location. Suddenly, what was a huge empty [desert] became a beautiful, floral botanical garden, with pelicans flapping everywhere and camels in flagrante delicto.”
Fury Road had to shift its filming location to Namibia - which delighted Gibson, as it had been his original choice. It would be nice if Broken Hill becoming the least Mad Max-like environment around changed the focus of the movie, but Gibson says the theme of climate change was always on the cards.
“George [Miller]’s original brief was that he wanted dead flat, absolutely nothing, not a blade of grass,” says Gibson. “We immediately worked off that, also trying to add a sense of epic scale, because the whole point of civilization going down the toilet was that our fingernail grasp on our own survival was extraordinarily tenuous. As anyone who has spent a fair bit of time out in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere, nothing makes you more aware of the smallness of you in terms of geological time and space than a desert.”
Deserts on the scale of Fury Road are probably more fiction than fact, but desertification is coming. We just don’t know where it’ll happen. “There is now very compelling science that links global warming to desertification. We’re seeing it in the world right now,” says Dagomar Degroot. “We have enormous amounts of drying in the southwestern US, and we have droughts that have incited conflicts in Syria and Iran and Iraq. We’re seeing a bit of foreshadowing now about what a warmer world could look like, and it doesn’t look that different in some important ways from Fury Road.
“At the same time, it’s important not to go too far, and it’s important to recognize that global warming is going to be regionally specific. Some places may actually get more rainfall, and some species will benefit from a warmer climate while others suffer. Some civilizations, at least in the short run, are going to benefit while others suffer. The real story is a little bit more complicated, but Mad Max does offer a very useful foreshadowing of what global warming might look like in some parts of the world.”
Which brings us to really scary question: can we stop it?
There exist reams and reams of literature on this topic. A million theories, each more outlandish than the last. Slowly, we’re starting to realize that we’ve done something very, very stupid, and we might be in for a long ride. “The notion that we’re doing things now that will actually impact our grandchildren is difficult to conceptualize,” Degroot says. “It’s difficult for people to really rally around that. At the same time, there are some positive signs. Renewable industries are doing exceptionally well, and greenhouse gas emissions are declining in the US and in many European countries. So there is some cause for cautious optimism, it’s just that I don’t think it’s going to be enough.”
"Deserts on the scale of Fury Road are probably more fiction than fact, but desertification is coming. We just don’t know where it’ll happen."To survive in the wild, DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass has to eat raw bison liver. We might like to think we’re more civilized, in better command of our destiny, when in reality we’re just sticking our fingers in our ears and pretending the natural world doesn’t affect us. Fury Road and The Revenant say different, and they’re linked in more than just their depiction of climate change. They both deal with the consequences of madness - of human beings diving head-first off the crazy cliff.
“I don’t think we’ve got anywhere near as much of a handle on it as we like to think,” says Colin Gibson. “It’s a rollercoaster, and we will go up and down, and I’m not without hope that will come up with ways to deal with it. But those ways will make us a different sort of animal.”
The Revenant is nominated for 12 Oscars including Best Picture, Directing (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Actor in a Leading Role (Leonardo DiCaprio), Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Hardy), Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), and Production Design
Mad Max: Fury Road is nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture, Directing (George Miller), Production Design (Colin Gibson), and Visual Effects
Rob Boffard is a novelist. His latest book, ZERO-G, is out now. robboffard.com
Dagomar Degroot is a professor of environmental history at Georgetown University bridging the humanities and sciences to investigate how people confront changes in the natural world. dagomardegroot.com
Colin Gibson is a production designer and art director best known for his work on the Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road
Kirsty Lewis leads the research into climate change and security for the Met Office UK, and the delivery of advice on the impacts of climate change to government, particularly in relation to defence and security.
LINK: -- http://moviepilot.com/posts/3787867