The Day After Tomorrow

Over Memorial Day weekend, with my family elsewhere, I drove to a multiplex to catch Roland Emmerich’s global warming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. This was the film for which Bush administration officials briefly forbid NASA scientists to field press queries, lest perhaps the administration find itself in cold storage. It’s kind of touching, really, that the Bush folks retain such faith in the power of Hollywood to perturb. Emmerich, you may remember, was the director who made Independence Day, released back in the summer of 1996. In it, space aliens, who couldn’t even take a punch, nonetheless managed to zap into oblivion much of New York and Los Angeles as well as all of the White House before being defeated and driven out of the solar system. Eight years later — enough time by Emmerich’s cinematic calendar for the Northern Hemisphere to have been frozen solid several hundred times over – he’s produced a new summer film in which New York, Los Angeles, and the White House are obliterated by something you can’t punch at all.


I happen to remember Independence Day quite vividly because I took my son and daughter to see it and, driving elsewhere afterwards, launched into one of those long-winded critiques (the WASP runs the show in the film, the Jew is brainy, the black is physical, and the women… well, the women…) that can drive a kid, out for a little entertainment, bonkers. I was nattering on about the underlying structure of the movie when my son, then eleven, turned on me and said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Oh yeah, Dad, and the rest of the movie was really realistic, too! Aliens arrive in spaceships and destroy the Earth.”


Of course he was right. You can’t spend too much time analyzing films like these, even ones about something that might actually arrive. The Day After Tomorrow, which grabbed a cool $86 million over the four-day weekend, skating in just behind Shrek 2, combines ridiculous science, dead-on-arrival acting, and lame writing into a tsunami of fatuousness. For those of you who managed to leave Planet Earth for the weekend, the best summary of the movie I’ve found was written by David Edelstein (The Ice Age Cometh) for Slate:


The Day After Tomorrow has one of the most absurd and implausible plot turns I’ve seen in a movie, ever. Global warming melts the polar ice caps, which makes the oceans rise and disrupts the Gulf Stream. There are lethal hailstones in Tokyo and ravaging tornadoes in L.A.; and after New York City is flooded by seawater, the temperature plunges at a rate of 10 degrees per second, so that people are transformed into ice statues where they stand. Tens of millions are dead and the upper United States has become uninhabitable. Now here’s the implausible part. The vice president — closely modeled on Dick Cheney — who has pooh-poohed all evidence of global warming, goes on TV and says, ‘I was wrong.’”


I won’t destroy a second of suspense if I tell you that the Northern Hemisphere is turned into a snowball within a few cataclysmic Hollywood days, and an ice chunk by movie’s end — but couldn’t Emmerich have left the ice-cubed Statue of Liberty to Planet of the Apes where it should remain forever a symbol of a previous notion of man-made Armageddon? (Oh, and speaking of Lady Liberty, in a pure Gulf-Stream-of-consciousness aside, let me quote a Tomdispatch reader from Quebec: “I couldn’t help but be knocked over by the irony of Bush’s promised bigger and better, state-of-the-art prison to be built in Iraq. How is the average Iraqi expected to react to this news? The French gave America the Statue of Liberty to celebrate America‘s freedom. And America is giving Iraq a new jail to celebrate its liberation?”)


The Day After Tomorrow is one of those lame movies where, when zoo keepers, knee deep in water, notice that the wolves are missing from their cages, you don’t doubt for a second they’ll later appear to menace our young heroes. (Given the film’s subject, the villains had to have fur coats.) As it turns out, this latest cinematic Armageddon ends on a bizarrely happy, not to say triumphant note. Perhaps the alien currents were driven back to outer space and I didn’t even notice.


But here was the thing — call it the miracle of the movies, which sometimes have a way of smash-mouthing through every sophisticated defense you’ve built up over a long life: The very fatuousness of the film set against a final vision of our planet from space locked in a new ice-age, gave me the total creeps. I drove off into a foggy night in an old clunker of a stick-shift car with lousy lights, all alone, and just a little unsure of my way through the ill-lit haze. I didn’t think then about Al Gore’s Moveon.org send-off for the film, or about the hyped-up dispute over its scientific accuracy, or about its inability to offer even the simplest explanation of global warming itself, or about the endless media babble over whether this film would fill the sails of the environmental movement or sink it beneath the waves; I just felt a chill. The pure willies. For that uncertain drive home in a car burning gas, and so sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to join the thickening blanket of pollution circling and warming our planet, I was haunted by a sense of the fragility of Earth and of human life itself.


Unfortunately, a few chills isn’t nearly enough when it comes to even the ice-age version of global warming. As a start, the very phrase “global warming” is so harmless sounding, like a nice electric blanket on a cold night. Maybe a little of Emmerich’s Hollywood should be dumped into the language immediately — something like, say, “global inferno.” As Bill McKibben, writing for Grist magazine commented recently (The Big Picture):


“It’s always been hard to get people to take global warming seriously because it happens too slowly. Not slowly in geological terms — by century’s end, according to the consensus scientific prediction, we’ll have made the planet warmer than it’s been in tens of millions of years. But slowly in NBC Nightly News terms. From day to day, it’s hard to discern the catastrophe, so we don’t get around to really worrying.”


I’ve written about global warming on and off for the last two years and always I end up quoting pieces about the peripheries of our world where the day after tomorrow is already today. Here are a couple of headlines just like others of recent years but from the latest batch of pieces: “Rising Seas Are Giving Pacific Islanders a Sinking Feeling” (LA Times, 5/30/04: “‘Nobody remembers such tides before. The sea is actually moving inland,’ said Simpson Abraham, head of Kosrae’s Resources Development Authority. Some offshore islets have vanished, he said.”); “Fast Arctic thaw portends global warming” (Reuters, UK, 5/24/04: “The icy Hudson Bay in Canada could be uninhabitable for polar bears within just 20 years.”) And I’ve cited many, increasingly alarming sentences that tend to read like this: “Concentrations of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil fuels burned in everything from automobiles to electricity plants, reached record levels in the atmosphere last winter, a Hawaii observatory reported in March.”


But if you really want to get the chills, or break into a sweat, check this out from a piece by William Kowinski (Getting Warmer…) in the 5/30/04 Sunday Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle. “While 72 percent of Americans said they were concerned about it in 2000, only 58 percent say so now, and only 15 percent believe it has anything to do with fossil fuel consumption.” Since no specific poll is cited, I have no idea how accurate this is, but on this subject I do sense denial so strong that it might be easier if global warming were a set of Hollywood special effects bearing down on us. Otherwise, it’s hard to get your brain around the time-scale of the phenomenon — or perhaps the problem is that when you do, what sets in, along with those chills, is a sense of complete impotence, especially in an era in which futurelessness envelops us like a straitjacket.


Since the arrival of the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, it’s become ever harder, I suspect, to imagine building a future for one’s children and grandchildren — and it’s harder yet for young people in a new century whose distant reaches are already filled with the gloomiest of prognostications. When I was a boy, nuclear weapons were the only human-made danger that threatened to make us extinct or annihilate our planet — and that was plenty. Now, nuclear weapons have to queue up somewhere at the rear of a jostling menagerie of apocalyptic candidates. They have, in fact, more or less disappeared into the ominous catch-all phrase “weapons of mass destruction.”


The Bush administration fits such a world to a tee. When you think about it, futurelessness is its MO. We’ve probably never had an administration more willing — no, eager — to mortgage the future to the present. Perhaps soaring oil prices will prove the first tsunami that breaks through the consciousness of SUV America. I don’t know. What I do know is that this administration has managed to focus all our fears on “terrorism” — a phenomenon that is scary indeed, with the potential to cause ever greater magnitudes of mayhem. But, in truth, whatever destruction small bands of terrorists can cause doesn’t begin to compare with the “terrorism” global warming, that other human-made weapon of mass destruction, threatens us with. Imagine what our world might be like if the Department of Homeland Security were really intent on protecting our future safety and security from the gravest dangers on our planet.


Renato Redentor Constantino, a newspaper columnist in the Philippines, spends part of his busy, committed life working on the issue of climate change in China for the environmental group Greenpeace. A Filipino working in China for Greenpeace on global warming and writing for an American blog. Now, isn’t that one of the more hopeful descriptions of “globalization” around? He offers his vision of “the day after tomorrow,” emailed in from the front lines of climate change. But most important, he reminds us that we — as individuals, as a society, as a planet — are capable of doing something about global warming other than wringing our hands or looking fixedly down at our feet.


I’m convinced that, though Americans are hardly likely to sacrifice lifestyle for the sake of global warming any time soon, we might still be capable of offering a great fix. Just imagine if we had sunk the money (and ingenuity) that went into our Gulf Wars into a vast R & D project focused on renewable energy sources — as well as into the kinds of national energy conservation programs that could immediately cut down significantly on our reliance on foreign oil. Unfortunately, all we can do, until the Bush administration departs, is imagine — and work to toss the bums out. (If, by the way, you want to read up on the “basics” of global warming or its potential consequences, or simply think a little about steps an individual might take with it in mind, check out the website of the National Resources Defense Council, an organization which does a great job of dogging the Bush assault on the environment.)


Constantino offers the following as an introduction to his life and thoughts on the subject of global warming:


“Working with Greenpeace in China continues to be an immensely moving experience. Climate change impacts in China are multiplied many times over because of the size of China‘s population. The attempts of individuals, groups, and some officials in the Chinese government to steer China towards a more sustainable path despite the enormity of the challenge they face has been inspiring.


“The consequences of the blind pursuit of economic growth have brought China to a painful impasse. There is growing recognition within the Chinese government of this fact, echoed most acutely by Pan Yue, the deputy director of the powerful State Environmental Protection Administration, who said recently, ‘If [China] continues on this path of traditional industrial civilization, then there is no chance that we will have sustainable development. Because China‘s populace, resources, and environment have already reached the limits of its capacity to cope, sustainable development and new sources of energy are the only road we can take.’


“I am part of a small group in China that believes that a renewable, sustainable future for China is a concrete possibility. We remain realistic; we demand the impossible.”


And he adds: “The US represents only 4% of the global population and yet today it is producing a quarter of global climate-change inducing C02 emissions. The more wars it fights to slake the thirst of its petrol-addicted society, the greater the danger to everyone else on the planet. ‘If China were to live like Americans,’ says Liang Congjie, an environmentalist from China, ‘we would need the resources of four worlds do so.’”



[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

Leave a comment