Ahead of tomorrow’s World Environment Day, David Black looks at how sci-fi has dealt with ecological issues and humanity’s impact on the planet.
Science fiction often has a moral undertone and taking care of the environment is a compelling one. A world on which people have destroyed their homes through arrogance is not an uncommon trope. Mostly these planets are scarred by nuclear wars, killer robots, or armies of zombies. Far rarer it seems is the notion that we might just not heed the warnings of our scientists and look after the place.
The effects of climate change on the planet have obvious story potential. As a result of global warming, Soylent Green (1973) takes place on an Earth hit by scorching temperatures and crop failures. Humanity survives only by consuming processed food supplied by the Soylent Corporation, just don’t ask what it’s made of. The Predator (2018) suggests that the alien hunter’s attacks have become more frequent because they expect us to make our world uninhabitable and they want to hunt us while still can. Based on the evidence of the franchise’s first two films, however, it’s just as possible that the increased regularity of their visits is explained by the rise in temperatures alone.
Snowpiercer (2013) posits that an attempt to avert global warming will create an ice age that will kill nearly everyone on Earth, while The Day After Tomorrow (2004) suggests that if ocean currents are disrupted it will cause an instant and severe drop in temperature. It is far more likely that the ice will melt causing sea levels to rise. The Expanse (2015) treats this somewhat ironically—in space people are fighting over scarce supplies of water while scenes set on Earth show huge barriers holding back a severely elevated sea.
Waterworld (1995) takes this to (and arguably beyond) its logical conclusion and all the landmasses are covered by the seas except for a few mountaintops. While AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) features both, first one then the other. Global warming causes sea levels to rocket and initially only the richer nations survive, but the film’s coda shows an ice age killing off humanity and leaving behind only the robots that they built.
Climate change is cited as a factor in ecological collapse and the step toward the extinction of numerous threatened species. Deforestation is an obvious factor and the protagonist of Silent Running (1972) is a gardener charged with taking care of Earth’s last living trees on a spaceship orbiting Saturn until they are disregarded by those back home. While Interstellar (2014) is set on an Earth where crops are afflicted by a blight that causes a huge global famine, while dust storms have made the atmosphere almost unbeatable.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) is not only a morality tale about the exploitation of wildlife but also draws a direct link between hunting whales and the preservation of our own species. As Spock puts it, “to hunt a species to extinction is not logical.”
Sticking with Star Trek, the franchise has used environmental issues as the basis for a number of episodes. Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us ‘Force Of Nature’ (1993) which suggests that warp drive is having a negative effect on space itself and it’s not difficult to see how road pollution could have inspired this. The Federation takes this very seriously and limits all starships to Warp 5 until later episodes demands otherwise.
While Star Trek: Voyager’s fifth season (1998) features two notable episodes that draw heavily on ecological concerns: ‘Night’ features an alien dumping toxic waste in a populated area, while ‘Thirty Days’ depicts an ocean planetoid that is dissipating due to the effects of industry. In both cases, when Voyager’s crew offers a technological solution to the problem their help is declined simply because it would prove inconvenient.
Doctor Who has returned to the effects of pollution time and time again. ‘The Green Death’ (1973) sees the dumping of toxic waste mutating maggots and massacring miners. The haemovores of ‘The Curse Of Fenric’ (1989) are vampires from an alternative future in which “half a million years of industrial progress” has left the surface of the Earth awash with chemical slime. ‘Orphan 55‘ (2020) arrives at the same conclusion environmental collapse renders Earth almost uninhabitable and humanity has evolved into Dregs, predatory creatures forced to breathe carbon dioxide. Both stories give the impression that these dystopian futures are avoidable if we act now.
While other stories have shown pollution threatens life on Earth, ‘Rose’ (2005) saw the living plastic Nestene Consciousness drawn to our planet to feed on the abundance of smoke and oil, toxins and dioxins in the atmosphere. 15 years later, public awareness of plastic pollution would much greater and ‘Praxeus’ (2020) would feature a similarly motivated alien bacteria exploiting the microplastics present within people to infect them, features a discussion of the effects of plastic in the food chain and uses the banks of Peruvian river strewn with single-use plastics as a location.
Futurama had an environmental episode as an almost annual event but managed a unique take on the subject every time. ‘A Big Pile of Garbage’ (1999) employs pollution to fight pollution and sums up the short-term attitude that kicks the problem down the road pretty well, while ‘The Bird-Bot Of Ice-Catraz’ (2001) takes on the threat that oil spills pose to wildlife, but relishes in a penguin cull. Global warming finally catches up to 31st-century Earth in ‘Crimes Of The Hot’ (2002) and is temporarily fixed in the short term by yet more pollution. Forcing the narrator to forcefully declare that the problem has been solved “once and for all!”
Each time, Futurama unashamedly exploits the environmental dilemma for comic effect. The attitude is exemplified by an exchange in ‘Xmas Story’ (1999). Upon seeing snow, 20th-century defrostee Fry expresses relief that global warming didn’t occur, but his colleague Leela responds “Actually, it did. But thank God nuclear winter canceled it out.” For all its flippancy, Futurama has put its money where its mouth is and the production of later seasons made strides towards carbon neutrality.
Documentary-drama hybrid, The Age of Stupid (2009) shows us an Earth with no rainforests or snow. London is flooded, Sydney is aflame and Las Vegas is engulfed by the desert. Pete Postlethwaite’s archivist character looks after humanity’s historical records and asks “Why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”