Just a few days before the influence of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus began its remoulding of everyday life in Britain, I chanced upon a television broadcast of a brilliantly executed film that I hadn’t seen for many years, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire.” Although this was first released in 1961, I was struck by an uncanny resonance with broad undercurrents of our present times, and, over the past couple of months or so, since the UK lockdown was imposed, this has consolidated into a pulsating impression of living within the plot of a sci-fi drama. Indeed, the periodicity of our daily flow, with its social distancing and unaccustomed emptiness of places and spaces, normally thronged, imbues a palpable sense of the “unreal”.
“The Day the Earth Caught Fire” depicts a crisis situation in which peoples across the globe try to cope with unparalleled high temperatures, brought upon them by the Americans and Russians simultaneously detonating (“testing”) two super-hydrogen bombs near the poles, which causes an alteration in the Earth's nutation, in concert with a shift in the tilt of its axis by 11 degrees, and, as is revealed later in the film, a change in its solar orbit, which leaves the planet barrelling towards the Sun so that, as one of the plot’s protagonists asserts, they have about four months,"before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind."
Scenes of chaos and social breakdown are embodied in the wanton, antisocial acts of “beatniks”, who are squandering water by pouring it over themselves and each other. Meanwhile, tap water supplies are turned off to people’s homes, in a government declared state-of-emergency. Public showers are installed and drinking water rationing arrangements are introduced, with inevitable punch-ups ensuing, both at the water dispensing hubs, and en route, as the hero battles to the home of his love interest, who is being tormented by an out-of-hand group of teens and 20-somethings. One of her assailants meets his demise by falling down the lift shaft, as a further metaphor for descending civil order.
Documentary “authenticity” is lent to the film by the plot’s setting in the actual offices of the Daily Express – then a credible newspaper – and centred around a group of journalists and their editor, who are trying to “get the truth out”, while the government downplays and downrightly lies about the severity of the situation, finally having to come clean, once the paper breaks the story about what has really happened, and the facts can no longer be concealed.
Clearly, we are in no such exact situation and probably never will be. Yet, the sense of an unsettled and vulnerable civilization, portrayed in the film, is mirrored in the feelings of unease and uncertainty about the future of the world, that are now pervasive almost 60 years later. Back then, the major terror was that nuclear war would break out between the two great superpowers, perhaps “World War III”, and engulf the world in a cataclysmic conflagration.
Although such fears had long been allayed, the recent nuclear sabre rattling, with threats of hypersonic missiles, too fast to be shot down, has fanned their embers once more. That this spectre should reappear is both surprising and distressing, but reflects more profound tensions over securing a sufficient share of various finite and rapidly depleting resources. The lack of any firmly set plans to use them less carelessly than we have done so far, can only aggravate future unrest.
Among the 100 billion tonnes of natural resources that are now consumed annually to feed the demands of a human population that grows relentlessly, both in its number and acquisitiveness, are fifteen billion tonnes of fossil fuels, whose combustion is thought to be the major driver of climate change.The term “changing climate” has been coined, to stress that it is not only the likely consequences of global warming that need concern us, but to encapsulate a whole range of effects, some of them involving the Earth system, as a whole, such as degradation of land, air and water resources, while others are more societal and political, but often linked to resource depletion, although they are all bound together, by mutually interconnecting threads, into a complex web.
Indeed, what are mostly perceived as individual problems, to be solved in their own right, really provide a litany of interrelated signs that the overall system of resource-consumption is failing. To this list, we might add the “culture of fear” that has emerged, from the combined and continual impact of these global troubles on our awareness, especially as spun by an arsenal of media which increasingly and constantly bombards us.
The latter sounds a steady drum beat which initially terrifies, then begins to dull the senses into torpor. Thus, a state of denial of the fundamental issues emerges, and a lack of belief that there is anything we can do to change the impending worst outcomes. It is either salient or ironic, that the much vexed 5G is able to beam out vastly more “information”, even though it may be causing great human harm in the process. This is, therefore, a single example among many, of an experiment in which we all are both participants and subjects, in real time. Thus, although the overall consequences of our collective tinkering with the environment are as yet unknown, it is a reasonable inference that by the time the experimental results are available for scrutiny, our geographical and human landscapes will be so transformed that “going back” is impossible.
In the fictional “The Day the Earth Caught Fire”, an attempt is made to bring the Earth back into a stable orbit by simultaneously detonating several massive nuclear bombs in western Siberia. However, the ending is left ambiguous, with two versions of the newspaper’s front page being prepared, one reading “World Saved” and the other “World Doomed.” The film ends, giving no clue as to which one will be published.
The fate of our present reality is also unclear, but is likely to involve a mixture of salvation and loss, rather than a clear selection of one over the other, due to the complex nature of the Earth system, and that different influences will unfold varyingly across the biosphere. Nonetheless, all projected efforts to limit the rise in mean global temperature (since pre-industrial times) to 1.5 oC, at least by 2050, most likely represent steps in the right direction, albeit that the expansion of various low-carbon technologies may be limited in scale by the availability of critical raw materials.
There is great uncertainty over the likely course of the COVID-19 pandemic, as is true of all complex phenomena, but the current state-of-fear is at a red-alert, probably not previously seen during peacetime, and for most born since 1945, certainly in mainland UK, a complete novelty. The current lockdowns across the globe have changed our outlook immeasurably, to one of living in the moment and within the zone (in permaculture terms, the zone 0 of our closest surroundings, but also the contentiously termed zone 00, the inner landscape, which, to me, means the “core self”: body, mind, self-awareness and spirit).
Thus, some of our attention has been diverted from more trivial distractions such as video games and social media, while the latter have now taken on the importance of communication lifelines, and the “core self(s)" extend beyond individuals to a collective mindset of mutual awareness and care. Accordingly, kinder communities have emerged, and while the forecasts are dire for the economies of nations, and indeed, the entire world, it is breathtaking and inspiring, to see what can, or might, be achieved when the human family unites in all purpose, action and identity.
During the absorbedness of dealing with this virus, and even having vanquished it, the broader indicators of a changing climate yet beckon us to act in solution of the overall “problem”, as cracks in a weakening wall that will tumble if left ignored and unbutressed. While the overall course we choose to take must respect the planetary boundaries, it is important to contemplate what we mean by sustainability – i.e. as taken in the context of the likely duration of a civilization – and how we will maintain our destination once we arrive there?
But, I wonder, who will “we” be by then? A mere statistic of 10 billion – or more than this, or far fewer – or whether however many humans there are will have become a true collective, thinking and acting as being interlinked with all other riders on Spaceship Earth? Will we construe complexity and synchronicity as being implicit to the integrated whole that is Nature, having evolved a worldview that no longer believes in its own exclusion and detachment, with labels such as inanimate and separate, no longer useful, but anachronisms?