A movie that is now being launched in the UK called Collapse shows Michael Ruppert chainsmoking his way through visions of social and economic disaster. It is symptomic of the utterly self defeating way that peak oil and climate change are typically communicated
Ruppert is a media generated phenomenon who brings together a cluster of conspiracy theories under one house brand. His endlessly promoted back story- as the LAPD cop who faced dismissal for revealing the CIA supply of drugs- is the stuff of a hundred good-cop movies . His highest profile accusation, that Dick Cheney personally ordered the 9-11 attacks, is downright nuts. It is directly descended from the conspiracy theories that the CIA ordered the shooting of J F and Bobby Kennedy. No big surprise- Ruppert promotes these myths too.
But never mind Ruppert, what is interesting for the Climate Denial blog is the appearance of this film at this time and the way that it presents its case. I have not yet had a chance to see the entire film though have seen long extracts. Here is the trailer – judge for yourself.
I have several observations on this film that relate directly to climate change and the way that these issues are communicated.
The first is that this is not a minor film. The director, Chris Smith has made several excellent progressive documentaries including The Yes Men. Collapse received positive reviews from across the mainstream US media and has a powerful afterlife in the blogosphere and campaign networks.
The second is that it does not speak directly about climate change- its concern is peak oil. Both issues are conflated in the mind of many activists and networks (the Transition Movement most notably). The public as a whole sees them as part of the same world view.
In terms of the documentary form we are clearly in the footsteps of Al Gore who established the box office potential of a feature length lecture by a charismatic (older man) presenter. What is interesting is the way that footage of Ruppert is interwoven with a rolling news format of economic and social collapse. Recent documentaries and disaster movies now frequently use a collage of rapidly edited random footage taken out of context. This slick style aestheticises images of destruction and objectifies the suffering of the people who appear, all too briefly, as bodies being blown up or swept away.
Four years ago an excellent report by the Institute of Public Policy Research identified alarmism in words and images as one of the dominant narratives about climate change. Gill Ereaut wrote:
The sensationalism of alarmism and its connection with the ultimate unreality of the movies also serve to create a sense of distance from the issue. What is more, in this ‘unreal’ and awesome form, alarmism might even become secretly thrilling – effectively a form of ‘climate porn’ rather than a constructive message. Alarmism potentially positions climate change as yet another apocalyptic construction that is perhaps a figment of our cultural imaginations. All of this serves to undermine the ability of this discourse
By this analysis ‘Collapse’ is an 82 minute long apocalypse pornfest that further reinforces the association between the visual aesthetics of disaster and concerns about resource shortages, peak oil, and, by association, climate change.
In terms of public motivation this is very bad news. Repeated research has shown that apocalyptic language and images create a sense of powerlessness and actively undermine peoples’ capacity to act. They can also directly feed a range of associated denial strategies including a short term hedonism and nihilistic cynicism that can be very appealing to young people.
Increasingly- as we are seeing with the political polarisation in the US and Australia- people are not weighing up climate change or other resource issues on the strength of the solid evidence but are choosing between competing worldviews that deliver a package of lifestyle, political and ethical decisions.
On the one side people are presented with a cornucopialist future of endless expansion, built on technical ingenuity and personal freedom. This has now become absorbed into a wider right wing narrative of globalisation, corporatism, minimal government and free markets.
On the other side the apocalyptists promote a future of decline, conflict, corruption, personal guilt, and collapse. This worldview has become deeply associated in the public mind with climate change and peak oil and this movie reinforces it in every way.
So if Ruppert is right he is following the worst possible strategy for raising concern about Peak Oil. By emphasising and reinforcing the existing worldview divides he is following a script that could have been written for him by those opposing action.
That is if he is right. But I think he is wrong. I think that capitalism is, for all the reasons that its defenders use, far more resilient than most apocalyptists believe and has repeatedly shown its capacity to postpone the impacts of resource shortages. What is more, there is overwhelming evidence that even when people do face problems they are far more likely to work together and seek collective solutions than to panic and riot. The images in this film of looting and rioting are rooted in a very American fear of the underclass.
This does not mean that I do not think that we are running into severe problems. There is no doubt that our resource use is insanely short sighted and we are already seeing the first shortages. However I do not agree with the timeline of this film or the wider peak oil community.
And the timeline is everything. The boy who cried wolf was not wrong about the wolves- in fact his flock was eaten by the wolf in the end. But he was wrong about the timeline and he exhausted the capacity of the nearby villagers to listen or trust his judgment.
So every time a film like this comes out and the world does not collapse- as indeed it will not- great harm is done to our interests. In the false dichotomy of competing worldviews, people’s support for the dominant worldview will have been reinforced and future attempts to raise concern will have been damaged.The real issues (climate change, resources depletion,food scarcity) become conflated in peoples minds with the false panics like Y2K which made similar predictions about the collapse of law and order.
Of all resources, the most precious is the willingness of people to listen and change. This too is finite and only changes between generations. We only get one shot at this and we’re really blowing it.
Caspar Henderson, who writes the Grains of Sand blog, just pointed me to the recent book State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook. It quotes a personal ad in the Ecologist from March 1974 from a young man seeking a girlfriend to “share the remaining years of industrial civilisation” and experience the “end catastrophe”. Teddy Goldsmith, founder of the Ecologist, had just published the bestselling A Blueprint for Survival two years later, prophesying that food and essential minerals would run out within a few decades and “the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet” would occur “within the lifetimes of our children”. Source..] Teddy Goldsmith died two years ago and, as far as I am aware, his many children are all fit and well. His book “5000 days to save the planet” is sitting on a shelf behind me . It was published in October 1990, over 7,000 days ago.