09 May 2011

Collapse P*rn?

The content of the message, all true (and the same a large number of people have been saying for many years), but the way the message is delivered?

Excerpt from Climate Denial, 29 September 2010

'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...

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...

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...'


  1. I haven't seen this movie but I am not happy about the types who spread memes based on "research" that most people switch off and become apathetic if one shocks the little darlings with too much reality.

    To me, it looks like some of the people who spread these ideas may be using them deceitfully to convince realists not to "tell it like it is" so that we tone down the truth and thereby achieve the ends of the propagandists, which are that realists should dilute their message to the point where the majority of people then think that there is no real problem that needs solving ASAP, any more than all the myriad less urgent other problems of life.

    Whenever we alarmists, catastrophists, realists, futurists, doomsters, concerned people or whatever they want to call us lay the truth out in public we must always remember to say that, although these futures look bad, we can avoid them by concerted action.

    This action is dependent on people being told and realising the truth but also at the same time absorbing that we can cope, fix things and succeed as long as too many people don't mishear the message, or get the wool deliberately pulled over their eyes about the message, that we are saying there is no hope, no chance that things will be alright. Things really may even end up better in some respects if we just do what is necessary. That is not only positive and inspiring but also, most importantly, true.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nick, and agreed! Although I think we have to find a way through sugar-coating and glossing stuff over at one extreme, and end-of-the-worldism at the other. You might like this piece by a friend of mine. The comments also make for interesting reading too - some people see it as valuable, hard-headed pragmatism; others as doom-mongering: http://transitionvoice.com/2011/04/inconvenient-truths-about-the-coming-transition/


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