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Climate Change Dystopia

Scientific reports about climate change tell us major challenges are not only likely but will happen sooner than we thought.   Meanwhile, apocalyptic books and movies are all the rage.  In this segment, we explore the current popularity of the dystopian genre. 

David Fair (DF)  Futurist fiction has always been popular and, lately, dystopian books and movies seem to hold a particular fascination.  Are people looking at the bleak futures in this genre as pure fiction? Or, may they view it as potential reality?  And, might that possibility be part of its popularity?  In present day reality, Barbara Lucas set out in search of answers. 

(Clip from Snowpiercer movie trailer:  “This is your destiny.”)

Georgia Gintowt:  What is your name and how is it spelled?

Barbara Lucas:  It all started when we were interviewing Akash Shah, a nuclear physics doctoral student at the University of Michigan, about attitudes on climate change.  He said in his generation…

Akash Shah:  I feel there is a dangerous amount of apathy.  It's frustrating to combat that, and quite frankly, I don't know how to combat that. 

Gintowt:  Can I make a comment? 

BL:  That’s my assistant, Georgia Gintowt.

Gintowt:   There seems to be almost a glamorization of this end of the world dystopia in the media.  So not only is there apathy around it, but it’s kind of like this culture of like, “Wow, wouldn’t that be like so cool, like, if the world was like that and we would have to survive more.  And use our survival instincts more.”  So, it is just interesting how those are paired together.  I don’t know, I just thought of that.

BL:  I turned to Akash…

BL:  Have you heard of that—people being kind of “into” the dystopia?

Gintowt:  Like all the shows that are out and stuff, you know what I mean?

Shah:  Yes, in the few online communities that I frequent, this is sort of glamorized.

BL:  What could be appealing about the end of civilization as we know it?  Granted, I don’t follow the dystopian genre.  Curious, I went to Youtube.  Turns out it’s overflowing with apocalyptic trailers: harsh landscapes created by rising waters, as in the Hunger Games…

(Audio from The Hunger Games trailer)

BL:  Waterworld…

Audio from Water World trailer:  “The icecaps have melted, and the earth lies beneath a watery grave.”

BL:  …or Beasts of the Southern Wild.

(Beasts of the Southern Wild:  “Everything south of the levy is going under.”)

BL:  Climate engineering gone wrong, as in Snowpiercer.

(Snowpiercer:  This is your world)

BL:  Desert wastelands, like in Mad Max.

(Mad Max:  “My world is fire, and blood.”)

BL:  And storms.  Lots and lots of storms.

(Beasts of the Southern Wild:  “The storm is coming!”)

BL:  …as in “The Day After Tomorrow.”

(The Day after Tomorrow:  “Mexican officials closed the border in the light of so many U.S. refugees fleeing south in the wake of the approaching storm…”)

BL: I suggested Georgia try interviewing some people, for their take.  So she talked to various college students and recent grads in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area.  Here she is with Natalie Spratt.

Gintowt:  Do you enjoy media and entertainment that is centered around dystopian worlds and apocalypses?

Natalie Spratt:  I love it.  I love it so much!  Some of my favorite books are dystopian-type books.  I like to play videogames that involve apocalyptic wastelands… I mean, I enjoy consuming the media.  I’m really into that sort of thing for sure.

BL:  Well, the appeal is real.  But are they looking at the upheavals as fantasy, or potential reality?

Gintowt:  Do you see the world condition improving or declining within the next 20 to 50 years?

Spratt:  Honestly, I think it’s going to decline.  I think that in order for it to improve, basically every human needs to change the way that they live, and I don’t see that happening.  And the warning signs that the earth is trying to give us have already started, and people are not paying attention to them.  I mean, climate change is real and it’s happening all around us.

(The Day After Tomorrow:  “What is this nonsense?  It’s not nonsense!  This storm is going to get worse!”)

BL:  Evan Butterwick and Daniel Kemp are not exactly optimistic, either.

Evan Butterwick: The population is a huge problem.  Just the wastes of materials, alongside the fact that we create things that can damage the ecosystem, is just a building problem.

(Snowpiercer:  “The population must be kept in balance.”)

Daniel Kemp:  It seems like it will lead to a lot of in-fighting and scarcity and issues along that nature, wherein there’s going to be fights over natural resources.

(Sounds of battle from “The Hunger Games” trailer.)

Spratt:  Realistically I think that my vision of the future is just that what we take for granted now and what we have around us that’s comfortable is going to be taken away. And we won’t be able to…  it'll be too late to fix it, once we realize we’ve created this problem.

(Sounds of weapons in battle from “Mad Max” trailer.)

BL:  Indeed, scientists’ predictions of late have been dire…  What about an environmental psychologist’s perspective on the popularity of the dystopian genre?  Dr. Raymond DeYoung is a professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

(Door knock, greetings exchanged)

BL:  DeYoung reminds us that humans have always faced big changes, throughout history. And a fascination for the future that causes us to explore potential options, may be natural. 

Raymond DeYoung: They may be trying to get themselves familiarized with what’s coming.  They may have decided this transition is inevitable, how we deal with it is not clear, so let’s try to think of some alternatives.

(Waterworlds trailer: “Those who survive, have adapted to a new world.”)

Spratt:  I think it’s really popular in our generation because we know that we’ve created this big mess of a problem now, and we are particularly curious about what that means for the future.

BL:  Georgia has a theory.  She feels that for some, there’s more to the popularity than just curiosity:  a longing for meaning and purpose, brought on by our increasingly technological, screen-oriented existence.  Here she is with Joe Johnstal. 

Gintowt:  Like, I'm wondering what you think the impact about this accessibility to this cyberspace world, or whatever, has on the way we relate to the world and the way that we feel about our own life and our own purpose, as humans.

Joe Johnstal: Yeah, I feel like it's super addictive and it's designed to be that way. And I think it gives us, like, stimulation that fulfills us in a way that nature could be.

BL:  He says he sometimes feels the one thing that would snap him out of it, is…

Johnstal: …if I were, like, thrown into this wilderness survival situation, and just kind of had life be hard, and just really require my full, like, physical and mental and spiritual effort just to, like, stay alive.

(The Hunger Games:  “We could do it, you know—take off, live in the woods.  They’d catch us. Maybe not.  We wouldn’t make it five miles.”)

Spratt:  We’re disconnected from nature, we’re disconnected from the food we’re putting in our bodies, we’re disconnected from the clothes we put on our backs.

Kemp: There is no real fight or flight anymore, there’s no, I guess, base human nature. It just seems like… everything we do is defined by corporations, and it just doesn’t seem like we get that base human level instinct.

(Beasts of the Southern Wild:  “Ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise… you all better learn how to survive now!”)

(The Day After Tomorrow:  “Try to wait it out.  I will come for you.  Do you understand me? I will come for you!”)

DeYoung: I think that what they may see in those stories is that the actors, the protagonists, are being called on to do things that matter, and that’s what resonates in them.  They see that there is a way of living which, what I do matters, what I do can make a difference.

(The Day After Tomorrow:  “What can I do?  Save as many as you can.”)

BL:   OK, extreme challenges do draw you in, and certainly can sharpen the focus on what really matters.  But do we need to imagine a world run amok with technology, or technology utterly wiped out, in order to get that clarity?  

DeYoung: I don't agree with the Hollywood motif of it being either growth or collapse…  I think there's a middle space between those two that Hollywood doesn't talk about.  …I’m actually hopeful that climate change will be an opportunity for people, or it'll force people, to begin to make a transition that they haven't been willing to do on their own.

BL: For the folks Georgia interviewed, the idea of a dystopian future does not feel entirely fictional.  But as bleak as that sounds, I see now she’s right, their thoughts are not all negative.  There’s also a vein of positive empowerment.  An acknowledgment that, for better or worse, we are the authors of this story.  How it turns out, is up to us.

(Music from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” trailer.) 

BL:  Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News. 


“The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift,” by Raymond DeYoung and Tom Princen, MIT Press, 2012.

“Transitioning to a new normal: How ecopsychology can help society prepare for the harder times ahead.” Ecopsychology, 5, 237-239. By Raymond DeYoung, 2013.

“Cli-Fi writers imagine unchecked climate change,” by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic, October 30, 2018.

“How dystopia hammers home the reality of climate change,” by Megan Quibbel, April 20, The Guardian, 2015.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” trailer on Youtube “Mad Max” trailer on Youtube “Waterworld” trailer on Youtube “The Day After Tomorrow” trailer on Youtube “Snowpiercer” trailer on Youtube

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Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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