By: Kaitlyn Tiffany of The Verge
Nothing’s older than a fear of the apocalypse. Popular stories about the apocalypse date back until at least The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem featuring a world-ending flood and a vengeful god, written around 2100 BC.
But how have our visions of the end of the world changed through popular media like movies, and what can that tell us about staving it off?
Scientists at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability — including director Peter Kareiva and undergraduate researcher Valerie Carranza — surveyed disaster blockbusters released between 1956 and 2016 to get an idea. These films didn’t feature God-ordained destruction, and they had diverse malefactors, including alien invasions, genetically-engineered viruses, evil AI, global war, and “technology run amok.” But their survey found that only 10 of the films — or 17 percent — dealt with environmental catastrophe.
The most common villain was corporate greed, with four of the 10 (The China Syndrome, Silkwood, Erin Brokovich, and The Lorax) featuring “corporations knowingly polluting the environment or shirking environmental precautions for the sake of profit.” The other six disaster films, they write, are about a future in which the Earth has become unlivable because of “a myopic society that could not take action to avert environmental catastrophe.” The catastrophes in these films are generally understood by the characters, but not properly avoided.
Never, they argue, was the most likely real-life culprit solely to blame for the end of the world: ignorance about the ecological risk factors that could cause global catastrophes. “In Hollywood, environmental disasters are the consequence of human failings, and not the consequence of ignorance or major gaps in scientific understanding.” Crucially, none of those films predicate their possible futures on real environmental science or understanding of ecology.