What do the public intellectual Clive Hamilton’s best-selling Earthmasters (a scathing critique of geoengineering) and a run-of-the-mill film, The Colony, (released to absolutely no acclaim in 2013) have in common? I shall explain.
Hamilton’s argument is simple. The 400-year Enlightenment project of progress, which has relied on rational techno-science, having created climate change, now reaches its high point in geo-engineering: the deliberate modification of planetary systems.
Geo-engineering is the Promethean dream of scientists like Ken Caldeira and David Keith to ‘fix’ climate change. Instead of reigning in the reckless subjection of the planet to [a historically and geographically specific subgroup of] humanity’s ends, we enter into that appropriation more fully – to proclaim mastery of the planet. Earthmasters concludes gloomily that when the temperature racks up and climate change threatens not just the livelihoods of the poor, but also the shopping options of the rich, entrenched power will look to all means at its disposal to shore itself up. And that means geoengineering is depressingly likely.
‘The Colony’, meanwhile, is a mediocre post-apocalyptic flick. The northern hemisphere has been turned into something like Greenland. We are shown a claustrophobic world: a tunnel-dwelling group of survivors, barely holding on, their society slowly unravelling. The film serves up the requisite decay, mould, and light-flickering desperation, but its all a bit Budget Motel. Even filming in the defunct NORAD aeropsace defence base in Ontario, Canada, doesn’t really help.
The inhabitants of the Colony eat lots of rabbits. Tragically, the bunny population is declining, which leads to the film’s one decent line:
“You know you’re screwed when even the rabbits won’t fuck”.
They have sketchy communication with other outposts, but their survival is threatened by the common cold: in Arctic Earth, the smallest sniffle is a killer. The real threat, though, is Mason, the hotheaded upstart. He wants to shoot people at the first sign of a runny nose: frogmarched outside, your brains shot out, staining the snow. Other group members hanker for a more civilised response. Anyone with an infection is put into quarantine. But if they don’t get better after a few days, then it’s a “long walk” into the icy wilderness.
What has the Colony to do with geoengineering? Well amid the snow are giant skeletal ruins, funnels pointed skyward – “weather-modification towers” built before the freeze.
The grunts that inhabit the bunker world don’t know what went wrong: “The truth is, one day it started to snow and it never stopped”. These machines started, recorded history stopped; all else, after, is mere survival. This is to my knowledge the first Hollywood film to use geoengineering to frame its disaster.
The film then takes a serious nose-dive, switching genre to survival horror. A badly choreographed fight with a rampaging horde of posthuman mutants, crazed for blood. Yawn.
The stakes in this fight are thus: the Colony’s scientist has a hypothesis that, if the weather modification schemes can be turned back on, she can reverse the global freeze. But only if our manly hero can safely defend her from the rampaging mutant crazies!
No spoilers here. In fact, how about an anti-spoiler: Probably don’t bother watching the film.
So what do Clive Hamilton’s critique of geoengineering, Earthmasters, and The Colony have in common? The answer: Enlightenment techno-science and progress is both the cause of, and the only hope of redemption from, apocalypse.
In The Colony, the weather machines that snuffed out civilisation with a snowy apocalypse turn out, in fact, to be the only way to save life once more. The heroine tells us that We just need to work out how to turn them back on, but in reverse… We have nothing left, in the snowy cold, but a reflexive grasping back at the wonders of science. Of course they don’t really don’t know if it’ll work – the dwindling band of survivors returns to the weather controls more out of hope than self-belief.
Hamilton, too ultimately has nothing to offer but a belief in Enlightenment rationality. This may seem a perverse claim, given that his book indicts the hubris of the geoengineers. But he wants his scientific cake and to eat it. He dislikes the part of climate science that gives us geoengineering; he likes the part that gives us climate scenarios and models of future environmental change (a bit glibly he calls the good scientists the Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety/deliverance, in contrast to the Promethean geo-engineers). But these are two sides of the same project. Hamilton hopes that our rationalism, informed by proper climate science can prevail. Science for Hamilton appears at once as a secular authority to ground his political claims AND as a great evil about to embark on a ridiculous gamble with earth systems. Science, for Hamilton, is to be used for political ends: it cannot be political itself.
That said, Clive Hamilton’s book is the best popular overview of geoengineering you’ll find. The Colony is rubbish. Not so similar after all.