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Apocalypse movies need to imagine climate solutions, too

Luckily, science fiction writers are ahead of the curve

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

The Korean sci-fi adventure movie Space Sweepers, which made its debut on Netflix in February, offers a glimpse at a dark future: It’s 2092, and Earth is barely habitable anymore. The air is choked with smog, plant life has all but vanished, and urban skylines have taken on a perpetual orange glow eerily reminiscent of what San Francisco looked like during the peak of last year’s wildfire season.

“Hope,” a narrator intones gravely as the film’s protagonist sits on a public bus crowded with people wearing gas masks, “was extinct.”

Most of the remainder of Space Sweepers is set not on Earth, but in space, where the rich have fled the mess they created and built themselves an orbital Eden (while creating a new mess consisting of millions of tons of space trash). But those opening shots of a toxic Earth epitomize how pop culture tends to imagine humanity responding to the climate crisis and other environmental challenges of today. In a word, catastrophically.

It’s hard to blame filmmakers for taking such a dim view of our future. After all, we now live in a world where hundred-year storms regularly ravage coastlines and wildfires can destroy entire towns in a matter of hours. The United States, the richest and most powerful nation on Earth wasn’t planning on doing a damn thing about it, until a new administration recently recommitted itself to addressing climate change. But with a clean energy revolution sweeping the globe, failure to prevent armageddon shouldn’t be the only climate story blockbuster films and TV shows are telling. Solutions to climate change can be found everywhere in the real world — and through science fiction, there’s an opportunity to make them even bigger and better.

A man in a gas mask gets his eye scanned in Space Sweepers Image: Netflix

History (and empirical research) suggests that stories about the future can sway hearts and minds in profound ways. “Closet science-fiction fan” Winston Churchill was heavily influenced by H.G. Wells, embracing many of the War of the Worlds author’s ideas on social reform (and, more problematically, his affinity for eugenics). Ronald Reagan, another secret science fiction buff, was so impacted by the 1951 first-contact drama The Day the Earth Stood Still that a close advisor believes it prompted him to tell the United Nations that the world would unite quickly in light of an extraterrestrial invasion. The 1983 TV movie The Day After, which depicted the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war, had a similarly powerful effect on both Reagan and the broader American public. The film is credited with helping the U.S. and the Soviet Union broker a treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.

The dangers of nuclear war haven’t gone away (nor, to be fair, has the possibility of an extraterrestrial invasion). But today, many experts see human-caused climate change as the gravest threat facing humanity. With the myriad impacts of a warming climate, from rising seas to worsening storms and more extreme heat waves, manifesting around us every day, public alarm over the climate has risen sharply in recent years. Unsurprisingly, pop culture has started taking a keen interest, too.

Hard science fiction shows like The Expanse are quietly incorporating 21st-century climate disaster into the fabric of the future, from the exploration of a planetary government to the mining of lithium for fusion fuel. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Space Sweepers, meanwhile, place Earth’s impending ecological breakdown front-and-center. Filmmakers are creating monsters that embody climate change, like the Kaiju in Pacific Rim and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, and they’re writing villains who represent our worst responses to it, like Thanos, who’s a full blown eco-fascist. Climate change has even spawned a breed of campy disaster movies, from The Day After Tomorrow to Geostorm and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.

But while these examples are diverse, nearly every box office hit that’s touched on climate change in recent years has overlooked a key part of the conversation: how to solve it. We’ve seen Wonder Woman fight an oil tycoon, but the Justice League hasn’t gotten together to figure out how to bring about a just transition for fossil fuel workers. Star Trek: Discovery’s second season showed us a Golden Gate Bridge covered in solar panels, but despite the show’s penchant for time travel, the crew hasn’t traveled back in time to witness the energy revolution that helped usher in the franchise’s famously utopian future.

Star Trek Discovery: Golden Gate bridge covered in solar panels Image: Paramount Plus

Maybe Hollywood executives worry that carbon taxes, battery storage technology and Green New Deals aren’t sexy enough topics to drive a compelling story with mainstream appeal. If that’s the case, I’d point filmmakers toward Kim Stanley Robinson’s superb new novel The Ministry For the Future, in which humanity solves the climate crisis by restructuring the global economy, with the wonky technical details revealed through a narrative that includes dramatic kidnappings, a James Bond-esque escape through the Swiss Alps, and a killer heatwave that deserves to be a standalone horror movie.

They might also check out Eliot Peper’s recent novel Veil, a fast-paced thriller that explores the promise and peril of one particularly controversial climate solution: dimming the Sun to cool the Earth. Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning biopunk novel The Windup Girl, meanwhile, shows that even an unabashedly dystopian portrait of humanity’s future can include a nuanced exploration of possible solutions to the energy challenges of today — in that case, using human-powered springs to store energy in a post-carbon future. Cities of Light, a recent collection of short stories and essays, explores what a sustainable, Sun-powered future could look like for cities around the country.

Fear and distress can be useful motivators, and pop culture has done a bang-up job showing just how distressing an uninhabitable Earth would be. But seeing solutions to climate change may help us overcome paralyzing eco-anxiety, become more supportive of pro-climate policies, and start to take action in our own lives. And I can’t think of anyone better equipped to show us those solutions than the people already dreaming up worlds so incredible we want them to be real.