Maybe nothing captures the gestalt of sustainability better than a well articulated combination of beauty and hopelessness. And no other form does this combination better justice than graphic novels. And no other form turns graphic novels into pablum, like a Block Buster. That is why the ‘just ok’ movie Snowpiercer is a perfect movie when it comes to sustainability.
Snowpiercer (2013, Director Bong Joon-ho) is based on the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s 2031 and we are told that prior to the start of the movie, climate change was a significant enough threat to mankind that scientists created CW-7 a geoengineered solution to global warming. What could go wrong? More locally, we can look to our own attempts to course correct with tiny mirrors designed to reflect sunlight, radically increasing plankton growth to increase Co2 uptake, or pumping emissions underground – all bad enough ideas for the United Nations Covenant on Climate Change to release this statement in 2016:
Countries should resist the urge to experiment with large scale planetary geoengineering until it’s clear what the consequences of meddling with the oceans or atmosphere may be.
But good sci-fi is better when it does’t listen to scientists, so the remaining humans climb aboard a very long train run by an autocrat named Wilford (Ed Harris).
The train is organized into social classes. The tail of the train is the working class, middle class gets indoctrinated into Wilford’s ideology in the middle of the train, and the front of the train go to raves and eat locally farmed sushi. There’s not much more to read into this other than it is exactly like air travel today: First, Business and Economy. Not very fictional. It’s actually too easy to read with a marxist sense…so i’ll fight the obvious class parallels with the exception of where it overlaps with sustainability. For example, the impact of climate change on the rich at the front of the train is nearly nonexistent. They are content in their windowless (they have scenes projected on the walls for them) world to consume any and everything as they did before CW-7. The middle class feel it, but are kept educated enough to keep quiet – someone else has it worse after all. It’s the poor at the back of the train that feel the greatest effect – as we know the dirtiest places on our planet today are also the poorest. The rich in Flint don’t worry about water quality.
We are shown a world that has been frozen solid in a flash of climate change mitigation backfire. The survivors climb aboard a train that must grow its own food and control its own population. It’s a kind of reboot fantasy-prison (It contains the consequences of I told you so for an environmentalist), and of course it is about power. Wilford says, “we must always strive for balance, food, water air…population must be kept in balance.” The new earth-train contains an entire ecosystem capable of producing fish, some rare beef, vegetables, fruit and oxygen for just the right number of people – no more. So Wilford orchestrates little uprisings from the back of the train to justify mass killings. He “stirs the pot,” as he calls it.
There’s a great scene where the real protagonist of the story – not the Chris Evans distraction hero – who fights his way predictably up from the lower class – Kang-ho Song tells his daughter (a “train baby” since she has never known the outside – aren’t we all train babies these days?) Yona about dirt and how he used to walk on it. She’s amazed at the feel of dirt – as any train baby would be. Spoiler: The concept of footprint is going to come back to us at the end. There is a newness in the dirt to the child – a representation of the future without the train. It’s a movie that we are told is about Revolution and how Revolution is often manufactured and part of the system that requires Revolution to maintain its control. It’s positively Zizekian in that way.
But from a sustainability perspective, it connects class in a perfect manner. The rich will continue to consume, the middle class will be fed sustainability as a kind of opium for the masses, and the poor will shovel coal. Zizek will exclaim, “wake up and smell the apocalypse” as he refers to “touchy feely” environmentalism as a stand-in for the Chris Evans’ kind of Revolt in Snowpiercer – it’s all part of the same system.
From an interview with Liz Else in the New Scientist, Zizek unpacks his thinking: “The fear is that this bad ecology will become a new opiate of the people. And I’m against the ecologists’ anti-technology stance, the one that says, ‘we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings.’ I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being….But I think the problem runs deeper in many ways. For example, such extreme genetic engineering will create substantially different organisms: we’ll find ourselves in a terrain full of unknowns. These dangers are made worse by the absence of public control, so profiteering industrialists can tinker with the building blocks of life without any democratic oversight.” Zizek is talking, of course, about CW-7.
At the end of Snowpiercer, after the staged Revolution becomes a real (literal) train wreck, survivors climb out into the cold, breathing real air, making real footsteps in real snow. And what should appear as a glimpse of hope for the world order ? A healthy polar bear.
And the whole thing turns into a fucking Coke commercial.