The Climate of Ecocinema
Summary and Keywords
Ecocinema involves the human gaze looking at cinema through the lens of the environment, in a manner analogous to the way feminists provided the cinematic lens of gender in the 1970s. However, as with feminism, enormous differences pertain in regard to how the ecocinema lens is mobilized.
In analyzing films from the late 1800s to the early 21st century, ecocinema studies has evolved to include critical lines of inquiry from perspectives of psychology, feminism, socioeconomics, science, and activism. Research frames used in these inquiries include: setting and landscape in films, ecological analyses of mainstream and independent fictional films, posthuman cinematic representations, transnational and regional, and more recently, trauma in speculative dystopian films. Ecocinema critics analyze films of various types, including Hollywood, independent, transnational, documentary, animated, art cinema, and especially climate fiction (“cli-fi”) films.
Ramachandra Guha’s transnational typology of environmental ideologies will provide a useful starting place for the mapping of different perspectives in ecocinema. Guha distinguished utopian wilderness environmentalism, pervasive in the United States, from the agrarian focus typical in India. Meanwhile, most developed nations utilize scientific industrial methods to exploit the environment. Oftentimes, these latter approaches are grounded in growth economies and are thus in conflict with the unrealistic ideals of so-called neo-primitivism (NP). Neo-primitivism involves returning to simple, sustainable lifestyles within or close to the natural world—lifestyles that do no environmental damage. NP is beloved by many, but the consensus is that it is idealistic to consider going back to this way of life. A film such as Avatar (produced and directed by James Cameron in 2009) addresses the complexity of diverse constructions of nature by providing examples of utopian wilderness ideology that compete with, and are opposed to, the destructive scientific industrialism that disregards and dominates nature without compunction. Other films, such as Amazon Sisters (Sweeny, 1992), Elemental (Koch, Roshan, & Vaughan-Lee, 2012), Into the Wild (Blocker, Hildebrand, Kelly, & Penn, 2007), or Grizzly Man (Beggs & Herzog, 2005), act as simultaneous celebrations and critiques of wilderness ideologies and deal with gender and racial identities, and thus they have been a central focus of ecocinema scholarship.
Although films from all genres have historically engaged environmental issues, it was rarely in a way that made a self-conscious or critical statement about the human impact on the natural world from the perspective of ecological concerns—this is the focus of ecocinema. See for example, Birt Acres’s Rough Sea at Dover (1895), the Lumiere Brothers’ Oil Wells of Baku (1896), Thomas Edison’s Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, NYC (1903), and the British South Africa Company’s Rhodesia To-Day (1912). In the early 21st century, the genre that most often engages with the contemporary politics of climate change is the documentary. Documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006), Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006), Into Eternity (Eskilsson & Madsen, 2010), Chasing Ice (Ahrens & Orlowski, 2012), E-Waste Tragedy (Esteve, Popp, Úbeda, & Dannoritzer, 2014), This Changes Everything (Cuarón & Lewis, 2015), among others, critique human damage to the planet and thus position viewers as ethical witnesses. Such works hope to influence the outcome of our shared anthropocentric future.
The analyses of ecocinema are addressed using two distinct methods—the macro and the micro. The macro method studies how films represent the large-scale processes of earth-based climate systems, and its lens evaluates how films represent climate and environmental dilemmas facing humans as a species. The micro-lens provides enhanced analyses that explore how gender, race, and class figure into the cultural work climate fantasies perform. This lens indexes the ways in which various cultures are often disproportionately impacted by climate systems.1 Oftentimes the macro and micro levels are both incorporated in a single film and reveal the intersection between climate and culture, as seen in Taklub (Trap, Castillo & Mendoza, 2015), a film that portrays Super-typhoon Haiyan and its impact on residents in Tacloban, Philippines. As background to mapping the texts, evolving science discourses will be emphasized as evidence for global warming but with the understanding that this evidence relies on modeling. Although our main concern with this cultural work in ecocinema is how climate change impacts across gender, race, and class, the inequalities revealed also speak to the politics of climate change evident in cinematic treatments of the issue.
The Climate of Ecocinema
“Climate” is generally mobilized as a term in three ways: Referring to general weather conditions over a period of time; in regard to a geographic region incurring particular weather patterns; or as prevailing public opinion concerning social trends.2 For instance, the film Hottest Global Year on Record (Climate Matters, 2015) details and explains climate’s first usage—that of the general weather condition of global warming3; the film Monsoon (Fichman, Martin-Gousset, & Gunnarsson, 2014) demonstrates the term’s second meaning by cinematically rendering India’s rainy season (Figure 1).
In regard to the third meaning as “climate of opinion,” it is evident that global warming is a contested arena with climate deniers’ rhetoric slowly giving way to a scientifically based worldwide consensus of climate change, or “climate change populism”—the global social condition where ordinary people embody and act on upon an emerging awareness of the destructive human behaviors that cause climate change.4 In the 21st century, most societies have acknowledged climate change patterns as threats to the earth’s material integrity, with the understanding that anthropocentric climate change has provoked challenging climate times. Following the emerging scientific, political, economic, literary and communications’ discourses that have lately focused on climate change, cinema studies has also taken up this social trend within the subfield of ecocinema.
Ecocinema involves the human gaze looking at cinema through the lens of the environment, in a manner analogous to the way feminists provided the cinematic lens of gender in the 1970s. However, as with feminism, enormous differences remain with regard to how the ecocinema lens is mobilized.
Including ecocritical analyses of films from the late 1800s to the early 21st century, ecocinema studies involves transnational inquiry from perspectives of psychology, philosophy, feminism, socioeconomics, science, and activism. Research frames used in these inquiries include: (1) setting and landscape in films, such as Fish (2007), Harper and Rayner (2010), and LeFebvre (2006); (2) ecological analyses of mainstream and independent fictional films, including Brereton (2016), Ingram (2000), and Murray and Heumann (2009); (3) posthuman cinematic representations such as Alaimo (2010), Mitman (1999a), and Pick and Narroway (2013); (4) transnational and regional analyses including Gustafsson and Kääpä (2013), Lu and Mi (2009), and Nixon (2011); and, (5) more recently, trauma in speculative dystopian films, such as Kaplan (2015) and Narine (2015). Ecocinema critics analyze films of various kinds, including Hollywood, independent film, animation, and transnational, documentary, and art cinema, and especially climate fiction (“cli-fi”) films.
Ramachandra Guha’s transnational typology of environmental ideologies (2000) is one useful starting place for the mapping of different perspectives in ecocinema. Guha distinguished utopian wilderness environmentalism, pervasive in the United States, from the agrarian focus typical in India. Meanwhile, most developed nations utilize scientific industrial methods to exploit the environment, heedless of the resulting irrevocable damage. Oftentimes, these latter approaches are grounded in growth economies and are thus in conflict with the unrealistic (if preferable) ideals of so-called neo-primitivism (NP).
Neo-primitivism involves returning to simple, sustainable, eco-friendly lifestyles within or close to the natural world. NP is beloved by many, but most see it as idealistic folly to consider going back to this way of life. A film such as Avatar (Cameron, 2009) addresses the complexity of diverse constructions of nature by providing examples of utopian wilderness ideology that compete with, and are opposed to, the destructive scientific industrialism that disregards and dominates nature without compunction (Fig. 2).5
Other films, such as Amazon Sisters (Sweeny, 1992), Elemental (Koch, Roshan, & Vaughan-Lee, 2012), Into the Wild (Blocker, Hildebrand, Kelly, & Penn, 2007), or Grizzly Man (Beggs & Herzog, 2005), act as simultaneous celebrations and critiques of wilderness ideologies, as well as offering perspectives from gender and race.
The Historiography of Ecocinema
Although early film, beginning at the end of the 19th-century, began to engage with environmental issues, it was rarely done from a critical or self-conscious perspective of concern about ecological impact on the planet—the perspective central to our definition of ecocinema. Indeed, films such as Birt Acres’s silent film Rough Sea at Dover (1895), capturing the crashing tide on the English seashore, mainly depict human awe of nature’s power and magnificence. Meanwhile the Lumière Brothers’ film Oil Wells of Baku (1896) disregards the environment in favor of a new black gold economy at Bibi-Eilat, suggesting that industrialization equals human progress. Critics such as Bertrand Tavernier have suggested it “‘may be the first ecological film ever made,’” (Murray & Heumann, 2009, p. 19). The Lumierès’ film was soon followed by Thomas Edison’s Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, NYC (1903) and New York City Dumping Wharf (1903), both serving as early filmic examples of the global social trend toward industrialization that subtended the environment (Fig. 3).6
Twentieth and twenty first century film theory, situated in the period of pre-ecological thinking, focused on technological innovations of the film medium rather than concern about the planet.7 The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (2005) emphasizes technological terms such as “kinetoscope” and “magic lantern” but does not include entries for “environment” or “nature” (although it does make note of “airdomes,” or seasonal outdoor theaters, and “expedition/exploration” films, in line with the tradition of wilderness ideology noted earlier). Similarly, The Oxford Guide to Film Studies (1998) focuses on theory and context, such as the Hollywood “industry.” While the Oxford Guide does provide an approach to world cinemas, such as Eastern European, Australian, African, and Indian cinemas, it does so (as one would expect for its time) through the framework of political nationalisms demarcated by geographic territories, rather than a bioregional approach.
More recently, ecocinema studies has authorized theoretical perspectives that use interdisciplinary methodologies to elucidate how the creation, production, and viewing of films relate to the metanarratives of ecology, the environment, and climate change. Critics also analyze the intentions of ecocinema, which can include promoting activism, entertainment, and education. The field explores film’s technical, historical, and aesthetic components as these relate to ecological perspectives, as well as viewer reception of natural and built environments imaged on the screen.
Ecocinema studies derives from traditional, single-author critical theory fields (such as philosophy, political science, feminism, environmental history and humanities, ecocriticism, and cultural studies) that engaged early concerns for the environment; its lines of influence can be traced from the scientific parable of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), to the literary ecologies of Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (1996), Buell (2001, 2005), Hiltner (2014), Coupe (2000), Heise (2013, 2014), Morton (2013), and Armbruster and Wallace (2001). Ecocinema has also been influenced by the work of environmental historians, such as Merchant (1980) and Cronon (1995), as well as the philosophies of Soper (1995) and Bookchin (2005). Ecofeminist perspectives, such as Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature (1979), Karen Warren’s notion of ecofeminist peace politics (1994), Catriona Sandilands’s ecofeminist democratic theory (1999), Greta Gaard’s conceptualization of posthuman ecofeminism (2015), Val Plumwood’s identity thesis (2002), and Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene kinship concept (2015), have also greatly influenced the ways in which scholars conceptualize ecocinema. This earlier research provided a foundation for ecocinema studies to pivot on the global social turn toward climate change populism.
All film genres provide examples of films that can be interpreted through the ecocinema lens. For example, mainstream fiction films produced by Hollywood, such as Mad Max: Fury Road (Berman & Miller, 2015), The Revenant (Barmettler, Lee, & Iñárritu, 2015), and Interstellar (Thorne & Nolan, 2014) can be interpreted using ecocinema methodologies. International ecocinema films, such as Taklub (Castillo & Mendoza, 2015) detail extreme weather events such as Super-typhoon Haiyan.
Animated ecocinema family films, such as Frozen (Del Vecho, Buck, & Lee, 2013), Adventure Planet (Kijkanjanas & Kemgumnird, 2012) and Pom Poko (Isobe & Takahata, 1994) offer central themes of environmental concern specifically geared toward children (but, as Ursula Heise (2013) has recently noted, “animated film is not a genre just for children” (Public Culture). Posthuman representations in ecocinema include films such as Avatar (Cameron, 2009), independent films such as Grizzly Man (Beggs & Herzog, 2005), and even art cinema films such as Mood Indigo (Castano & Gondry, 2013), which offer ecocinematic perspectives in that they privilege the power of the natural environment.8 Climate fiction, or cli-fi films such as Blade Runner (Fancher & Scott, 1982), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), The Road (Butan & Hillcoat, 2009), Elysium (Baden Powell & Blomkamp, 2013), and Snowpiercer (Kim & Bong, 2014) all use dystopian lenses to problematize climate issues.
Today, the film genre that most often engages with the contemporary politics of climate change is the documentary. Documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006), Chasing Ice (Ahrens & Orlowski, 2012), E-Waste Tragedy (Esteve & Dannoritzer, 2014), Into Eternity (Eskilsson & Madsen, 2010), Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006), The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009), This Changes Everything (Cuarón & Lewis, 2015), Planetary (Apkon & Reid, 2015) and many others, critique human damage to the planet and thus enlist viewers as ethical witnesses. Such works hope to influence the outcome of our shared anthropocentric future.
The rapid evolution of ecocinema criticism can be understood in terms of three thematic waves, whose chronology often overlaps.9 First-wave criticism includes nascent and broad theorizations that preexist the formal articulation and theorization of the field but that do note an emerging consciousness about filmic environments, such as Jhan Hockman’s Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998).10 One strand in this first wave of scholarship highlights the interest in wilderness ideology in the United States. A nascent example that predates the discourse of posthuman ecocinema is Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (1999b).11
Reel Nature delineates the historic trajectory of wildlife films that have both heightened environmental consciousness but alternately contributed to market-based anthropocentrism. Reel Nature focuses on the emergence of US wildlife films by profiling President Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition to Africa—an endeavor that appropriated over 11,000 vertebrate specimens including zebra, rhinoceros, and lions—that culminated in the popular film Roosevelt in Africa (1910). This expedition film created a subsequent trend of racist, speciesist, and neo-colonial African wildlife films, including Trailing African Wild Animals (1923), Simba (1928), Trader Horn (1931), and the adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1925). Reel Nature also highlights how the early-20th-century field of ethology led to animal behavior films such as The Private Life of the Gannett (1934) and the silent color film The Social Behavior of the Laughing Gull (1940). Mitman’s analysis shows how the rapid production of wildlife films historically coincided with state-sponsored environmental projects such as the US National Park Service and The Conservation Foundation, which produced The Living Earth film series (1948) and The Web of Life series (1950).12 Ironically, the emerging conservation consciousness that resulted from these films and conservation movements also provided neoliberal opportunities for private sector business (such as the Walt Disney Company) to construct profit models exploiting nature as a type of leisure land.
Numerous other first wave scholarship addressed how ecology is revealed, manipulated, or omitted in film. The term “ecocinema” was first coined by Scott MacDonald in his now-classic 2004 essay “Toward an Eco-Cinema.” In a recently revised theorization entitled “The Ecocinema Experience” (2013), MacDonald removed the hyphen separating “eco” and “cinema”—a grammatical move that takes the two concepts of ecology and cinema and reimagines them into one unified concept—ecocinema. Macdonald’s narrow approach emphasizes the wilderness ideology of the natural environment but argues for ecocinema as only a collection of filmmaking techniques (seen in his theorization of Zdravič’s film Riverglass: A River Ballet in Four Seasons, 1997) designed to largely heighten and challenge viewers’ aesthetic awareness of the natural world, an approach somewhat akin to neo-primitivism. One outcome of these filmmaking techniques (which include silence, focalization of natural subjects, among others) offers viewers a model of “patience and mindfulness” (Macdonald, 2013, p. 19), or a refined consciousness and “mindset” (p. 20) that may move one to deeply value the environment.
Other examples of first-wave scholarship include early anthologies with diverse aims that address the general notion of landscape in film. Deborah Carmichael’s edited collection The Landscape of Hollywood Westerns: Ecocriticism in an American Film Genre (2006) centers on the geographic American West to question how the environment helps create mythic cinematic nationalisms. Martin Lefebvre’s edited collection Landscape and Film (2006) offers wide-ranging essays that denote the distinctions between place, setting, territory, and landscape in films in diverse global environments. Fish’s edited collection Cinematic Countrysides (2007) pinpoints historic nationalisms and identities in rural imaginaries, and Harper and Rayner’s anthology Cinema and Landscape (2010) offers a nationalistic method of rendering landscapes in films from Russia, Europe, the global south, China and New Zealand. Willoquet-Maricondi’s anthology Framing the World in Ecocriticism: Explorations in Film (2010) addresses activism, material bodies, animation, and art cinema in diverse film genres. Together, this first-wave scholarship was crucial in establishing ecocinema studies as a field of inquiry, although many first-wave anthologies are broadly focused and not necessarily concerned with the impact of humans on the planet.
Second-wave ecocinema scholarship evolved to include the development of three clearly defined subfields: ecological themes in Hollywood mainstream cinema, similar themes in national and international cinema, and the emergence of ecocinema theory. For instance, Ingram’s Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema (2000) utilizes a “critical realist” (p. 72) approach to interrogate how environmental ideologies are revealed in US Hollywood films. He argues that production techniques use landscape cinematography that exploits an “aesthetics of exclusion” (p. 26) in order to create fallacious, pristine natural scenes. Green Screen also attends to discourses of gender, ethnology, the politics of land use in Hollywood films, as well as considering the roles of nonhuman animals. Brereton’s interdisciplinary approach in Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary American Cinema (2005) uses cultural and political theory, history, ecology and feminist theory to examine the ways in which nature films, westerns, car and road films, and science fiction fantasies contribute to utopian greenwashing in popular culture. Murray and Heumann’s Ecology and Pop Film: Cinema on the Edge (2010) interrogates notions of environmental nostalgia, eco-comedy, and eco-terrorism in popular cinema.
Another subfield that developed in second-wave ecocinema criticism was greater attention to nationalist and transnationalist ecocinemas; Lu and Mi’s edited collection Chinese Ecocinema In the Age of Environmental Challenge (2009) conceptualizes ecocinema as a “critical grid” (p. 2) that details discourses of hydro-politics, urban and manufactured landscapes, and historic issues of green sovereignty that are represented in Taiwanese films, New Chinese Cinema, and Hong Kong Ecocinema. Gustafsson and Kääpä’s anthology Transnational Ecocinema: Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation (2013) forgoes traditional ideological ecocinema readings to focus on transnational films’ political power to provide ecological interventions “beyond nations” (p. 5). Kääpä’s Ecology and Contemporary Nordic Cinema: From Nation-building to Ecocosmopolitanism (2014) reveals how nation-building strategies underscore environmental identities in Nordic cinema.
Ivakhiv’s “Green Film Criticism and Its Futures” (2008) was among the first scholarly works to catalogue the growing field of ecocinema research. Rust, Monani, and Cubitt’s Ecocinema Theory and Practice (2013) focuses on emerging ecocinema theorizations that include aesthetic, cognitive, and philosophical perspectives. The text’s focus goes beyond environmental films to both problematize and interrogate ecocinematic readings of avant-garde, horror, and growing ecocinema infrastructures such as environmental film festivals (p. 253).
Third-wave ecocinema studies, meanwhile, include more narrowly focused books and monographs that interpret and calibrate ecocinema through various lenses, including the posthuman, media, ethics, and cognitive modes. Pick and Narroway’s Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human (2013) uses a zoomorphic approach to treat the “filmic environments and microenvironments” (p. 4) of anthropocentrism, animism, and avatars in realist, queer, and science fiction films, among others.
Ecomedia studies, as an outgrowth of ecocinema’s third wave, has clearly emerged as its own field of inquiry, evidenced by the recently implemented Media and the Environment Scholarly Interest Group of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.13 Rust, Monani, and Cubitt’s collection Ecomedia: Key Issues (2016) offers the perspective of visual texts as global, spatial, and conceptual framing devices that help us understand the media flows that communicate information about environments. Arguing that media converges across multiple “platforms, from traditional print to the social media forums of the Internet” (p. 5), the collection interrogates diverse visual texts such as nature photography, cinema, newspaper columns, radio, television, advertising, video games, online media, earth imaging, and broadcast infrastructures. Starosielski and Walker’s Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment (2016) “articulates the enmeshment of media practices (both textual and technological), infrastructures (physical and social), and resources (natural and human)” (p. 3).14
Other third-wave approaches include interpolating how the discourses of ethics and affect are revealed in ecocinematic perspectives. Pat Brereton’s Environmental Ethics and Film (2016) provides core environmental ethics’ readings that include notions of anthropocentrism, lifeboat ethics in the films Captain Phillips (Bush & Greengrass, 2013) and All is Lost (Cohen & Chandor, 2013), Levinasian otherness, animal ethics, deep ecology, and the commons. The text claims that mainstream Hollywood films offer “cautionary allegorical tales” (p. 1) that make visible the need for a stronger environmental ethics, as he finds in the mainstream films The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), Avatar (Cameron, 2009), and the animated film Wall-E (Lasseter & Stanton, 2008).
Brereton claims that a variety of active and passive “ethical registers” (p. 2) exist in ecocinema, and his is one of the few examples of ecocinema scholarship that highlights under-researched issues of indigeneity, class, age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Brereton’s ecofeminist reading of The Hunger Games (Bissell, Collins, & Ross, 2012) offers one example of how ecocinema can help model ways in which humans can adapt to a more ethical “care for the environment” (p. 87). Brereton notes the distinctions between the districts’ unsustainable urban environments, which rely on manufacturing for humans’ overconsumption of commodities, against Katniss’s adaptation to the wilderness, where the girl engages in sustainable living by reading the trees, finding hydro-resources, and securing food through atypical female hunting. Along with readings that problematize the class-based bias of Hollywood Global South films, Brereton examines class bias in the mainstream film Elysium (Baden & Blomkamp, 2013) to reveal how speculative dystopian film fantasies go beyond planetary concerns by imagining disproportionate access to off-planet health care. Eric C. Otto’s Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism (2012) predates Brereton’s text, but addresses the central issue of environmental ethics: that is, how to transform human behaviors through the witnessing of environmental science fiction in film and literature. E. Ann Kaplan’s Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction is also concerned with the future selves viewers confront on screen and with the pretraumatic impact of witnessing catastrophic environmental collapse in science fiction films.
Ecocinema scholarship has recently trended toward cognitive discourses dealing with how the affective and emotional experience in film viewing may prompt advocacy for the environment through systemic behavior change. Deidre M. Pike’s Enviro-Toons: Green Themes in Animated Cinema and Television (2012) examines how environmental themes shape cultural values. David Whitley’s The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation (2012) addresses how the natural world is revealed in popular mainstream children’s films and argues that these wild nature images can serve to develop critical awareness of (and empathic concern for) nature in young moviegoers. Adrian Ivakhiv’s text Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (2013) claims that “films can expand viewers’ perceptions of ecological ontology” (p. 67). His ecocinematic philosophy presents a process-relational ontology that takes into account how images engage us in material, social, and perceptual ways. Ivakhiv notes that cinema reshapes human perception of the world, “altering our experience of territory (or geomorphy)” in films such as Total Recall, “sociality (anthropomorphy), and livingness (biomorphy)” (p. 26). He suggests that the triangulation of cinema, affect, and nature provide a worlding experience that enables us to more fully articulate climate crises narratives. Using the interdisciplinary fields of ecocriticism, cognitive studies, and cinema studies, Alexa Weik von Mossner’s edited collection Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology, and Film (2014) theorizes how affect and emotion influence human attitudes toward nonhuman animals and environments.15 In this volume, David Ingram defines “‘affect’ to mean a viewer’s automatic, visceral response to a film, whereas ‘emotion’ includes a cognitive element in addition to this bodily feeling” (p. 23). Ingram also highlights how cinematography techniques such as long shots, camera angle, and foregrounding of objects can prompt viewers’ emotional cues in order to amplify environmental awareness.
E. Ann Kaplan’s Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (2015) reveals the cultural shift that has occurred as a result of the global acceptance of climate change; using psychological and feminist perspectives, Kaplan traverses the “theoretical border” (pp. xv) of post-traumatic stress disorder with what she articulates as a “reaction formation to the phenomenon of ‘Pre-traumatic Stress Syndrome’” (pp. xvii).
Climate Trauma argues that many post-9/11 speculative and dystopian climate films, such as Take Shelter (Perot & Nichols, 2011), The Happening (Barber & Shyamalan, 2008), and The Children of Men (Bliss, Bernstein, & Cuarón, 2006), as well as climate change documentaries such as Into Eternity (Eskilsson & Madsen, 2010), Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006), and fantasy films such as Blindness (Fichman & Meirelles, 2008) and The Book of Eli (Downey & Hughes, 2010), are enfolded in a pretrauma film subgenre. This subgenre narrates catastrophic futures that mark the pretrauma condition of viewers “who unconsciously suffer from an immobilizing anticipatory anxiety about the future” (p. xvii). Kaplan uses a feminist lens to discern how dystopian film fantasies such as The Road (Butan & Hillcoat, 2009) provide a hegemonic “memory for the future” (p. 4) that makes women, the poor, and the racialized invisible, in favor of featuring largely white male protagonists in films about climate catastrophes. The value of examining films with Kaplan’s climate trauma lens is that it yields a social collective of ethical witnessing; this can prompt action to reverse our current climate change condition. Anil Narine’s edited collection Eco-Trauma Cinema (2015) also takes up the discourse of trauma in film, through narratives of victims traumatized by ecological catastrophe, as well as social infrastructures that traumatize the environment.
The Ecocinematic Gaze
All films potentially offer viewers the opportunity to be entertained, educated, or inspired to take action. What is most useful about ecocinema is its multiscalar ethical and political influence. This invests the viewer with a conscious ethical witnessing of the ecological environment—a witnessing that has the power to transform behaviors in alignment with ecological democracy.16 Thus, unlike most scholarly approaches that focus only on film aesthetics, techniques, narratives, or viewer reception, ecocinema scholarship is distinct in that its underpinnings embed complex ecocritical analyses of films that can act as global catalysts for worldwide environmental policy change.17
Climate change populism is apparent in contemporary cinema on a variety of scales, including production techniques, cinematography, and narrative. As Ramachandran Guha has noted (2000), “Environmentalism must be viewed as a social program” (p. 3) and cinema, both produced and consumed in socially collective ways, provides an opportunity to analyze how environmentalism is revealed—to different degrees—in contemporary films.
To conclude this essay, three brief case studies will demonstrate how Guha’s social ecology theme is revealed on a macro level in fiction, cli-fi, and documentary films, first from mainstream film examples that offer a generic consideration of the climate challenges facing humans as a species (The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road), to cli-fi films that provoke viewer affect (Snowpiercer, Elysium), to films that offer witness positions to global warming that influence public policy (An Inconvenient Truth, The Island President). These case studies show the ways in which film can be analyzed in a variety of ecocinematic ways, including how films can address the impact of humans on the planet, examine the psychological effects of an increasingly uncertain climate condition on the public at large, deal with the importance of memory and of thinking about future human selves, offer witness positions to current and future climate catastrophes, and provide realistic activist agendas for viewers to consider.
While the case studies below focus on the degrees of environmental awareness in film, special attention will also be paid to a micro evaluation that considers marginalized populations and underserved discourses in ecocinema, such as the ways in which gender, class, and race enter into the cultural work climate fantasies perform, as well as the paradox that, by its very creation, cinema contributes to the world’s carbon footprint through its own toxic materiality.18 Although our main concern with this cultural work in ecocinema is how climate change unequally impacts across gender, race, and class, these inequalities also reveal larger political ideologies of climate change evident in cinematic treatments of the issue. The case studies that follow represent the ways in which various films provide multiscalar lines of influence regarding the environment.
Case Study #1: Dystopian Wilderness Ideologies in Mainstream Fiction Films
Alejandro G. Iñáritu’s The Revenant (Barmettler, Lee, & Iñárritu, 2015) is an epic adventure survival film adapted from Michael Punke’s novel (2002). Similar to other adventure films that embed environmental themes, such as The African Queen (Spiegel, Woolf, & Huston, 1951), Deliverance (Boorman, 1972), and Tracks (Mackie & Curran, 2013), The Revenant punctuates Guha’s notion of utopian neo-primitivism by instead creating a wilderness ideology focused on challenging and extreme weather conditions in the wild, while narrativizing the “connections between colonization, conquest, slavery, resource exploitation, and capital” (Adamson & Slovic, 2009, p. 6).
The film is set in the 1820s bioregions of the Missouri River and the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and it centers on a frontiersman ironically named Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is mauled by a mother bear while on a fur trading expedition. Then he witnesses his son Hawk’s (Forrest Goodluck) murder and subsequently endures extreme climate conditions to seek revenge for his son’s death.
As Timothy Morton has noted, “Wilderness can only exist as a reserve of unexploited capital, and one can never really enter into the wilderness, or it will cease to be wild” (2007, p. 113). The film’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, embeds The Revenant with images of nature that serve to highlight both the human awe and the exploitation of wilderness environments. For example, in an initial post-title tracking shot, Lubezki foregrounds the wilderness by tracking a river flowing through a forest. As the viewers omnisciently follow the sunlit river current in and around the base of arboreal trees, the audience first hears footsteps, and then a rifle muzzle is slowly revealed poking out from screen right coding; as the audience views the lower torso of a man holding the rifle, the awe of nature’s wilderness is lost, giving way to a hegemonic man-at-arms who pollutes the natural landscape. Subsequent scenes portray the then- growing industrialization of trapper camps, where animal bodies are cut and skinned, dried, and stretched in preparation for sale.
The narrative begins with an establishing shot of Glass’s heteronormative yet ethnically diverse family that includes his Pawnee wife (named only as “wife” in the credits and played by Grace Dove) and his racialized son, Hawk. Initial shots (demonstrating neo-primitivism) focus on the happy family enjoying a windy day on the plains near a large tree. Subsequent cross-cutting shots show that imperialist fur trappers have burned the family’s hut and corrupted what Justin Cheng (2015) has noted as history’s “once-edenic paradise.”
The film’s narrative foregrounds the specific historical inequities of gender, race, and class that occurred as a result of industrial capitalism. Warren (1994) has termed these types of inequities “the logic of domination,” which demonstrates the “domination between those humans in subdominant or subordinate positions, particularly women, and the domination of nonhuman nature” (p. 1).19 Glass’s son Hawk is dehumanized as a “dog,” and the Caucasian Glass advises his indigenous offspring to “be invisible, son. If you want to survive, keep your mouth shut. They don’t hear your voice. They just see the color of your face.”
Other narrative threads focus on the colonists (following the “logic of domination”) who exploit Native Americans; in one scene, French trappers listen to a Pawnee negotiating the trade of pelts for horses and rifles. In trying to negotiate, the Pawnee explains, “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything. The Land. The Animals,” and the viewer acts as witness to the inequities of colonialism.
The logic of domination also operates in the film’s masculinist gender discourses that align women with nature. The Revenant, like most other ecocinema films, omits females from leading roles, and its few female characters are all either oppressed or dangerous—for instance, “wife” is only portrayed in nostalgic utopian dreamscapes as a wife, or set as a mother of nature with images birds emerging from her body. Another female character plays a Pawnee daughter (Melaw Nakehk’o) who is kidnapped and raped by colonists. The film’s gender and ethnic stereotypes can be critically interpreted through ecocriticism’s roots, as Gaard reminds us, that derive from classic “feminist literary” critiques, seen, for example, in Annette Kolodny’s reading of “heterosexualized metaphors, in The Lay of the Land: Early explorers, colonists, missionaries and scholars described the land as ‘virgin’ and its exploitation as ‘rape.’”20 The Revenant can be read through other ecofeminist lenses, such as Catriona Sandilands, who, in The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy (1999) reveals the dual oppressions embedded in the “social constructs” of concepts such as “nature” and “women” (p. 72) that are devalued and marginalized within the film’s dominant, androcentric institutions.
Sandilands’s notion of a dual oppression of both nature and females is revealed in The Revenant. Instead of showing a narrative agency for disenfranchised groups, The Revenant’s stereotypical colonial storyline sees indigenous environments exploited, women kidnapped and raped, and the “whitestream” male character Hugh Glass as a moral hero who resolves rights and social injustices.21
In The Revenant’s speciesist narrative, the only other female lead figure besides “Wife” is the vilified mother bear who provides the story’s initial thrust; in one of the film’s most violent encounters, the bear attempts to protect her cubs by mauling Glass. Thus, in posthuman fashion, the film’s central theme genders and animalizes female others as environmental hazards that threaten human survival.
The extended seven-minute mauling scene, shot with both live action and CGI blending, focuses on the power dynamics between humans and nonhumans. It begins with Glass walking alone in a magnificent woodland setting that provokes viewer awe at the vastness of nature. Here, man is simply a small speck enfolded within the force of nature’s tall trees. In the initial assault, Glass trains his rifle on two cubs, and the mother bear attacks him from behind, pummeling Glass to the ground, biting, shaking, scratching, and dragging him through the loamy forest (Fig. 4).
Once the bear disables Glass, she stops her attack, briefly covering him with her body, and departs. She returns momentarily, sustains Glass’s direct rifle shot and attacks him again, this time choking Glass and biting his clothes off; after she disables him a second time, the bear sniffs Glass’s face and licks his cheek and lips in what could be queerly read as Mother Nature’s assault on man.22 In his last attempt to gain power over the bear, Glass stabs her with a knife, and the two topple down a ravine, where the mother bear’s soft and heavy carcass presses on Glass’s body, submerging the man under the power of dangerous Mother Nature.
As Glass struggles to survive, he witnesses Hawk’s murder at the hands of Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy) and is subsequently buried alive and abandoned in a shallow grave. Moved to seek revenge for the death of his son, the hero’s endurance is foregrounded through the use of close-ups that show the wounded Glass struggling to climb out of his earthly grave. In a cinematic moment of convergence between human and nonhuman animal, Glass dons the bearskin of the mother bear who injured him, blurring the boundaries between man and nonhuman animal, and he becomes the animalized hunter who will stalk his son’s killer.
Other scenes in The Revenant destabilize the wilderness ideologies of neo-primitivism by imaging extreme climate challenges: Glass falls into a frozen river and must dry himself out on the frozen tundra. He sets fish traps in the sub-zero river, and when he is successful, eats live fish; starving for food, he gorges on raw bison carcass meat, and he even makes a friend who saves his life by setting up a heated straw sweat lodge for Glass after he falls ill. Seeking to survive during a blizzard, Glass discovers a fresh horse carcass, slits open its belly, strips naked, and shelters inside it. In an extreme close up, his head pokes out of the horse’s slit belly, and viewers are presented with a heterosexualized shot that metaphorically imagines a mythological Centaur born from a horse. These and other climate challenges in the film dispel the idealism of neo-primitivism.
The Revenant’s production costs exceeded $135 million, and to date it has grossed over $533 million. Iñáritu has noted that “there was no one day or scene or molecule of this film that literally didn’t cost a lot (McKnight, Cinema Blend).” Iñáritu’s description of his costly method of filmmaking in remote wilderness areas alternately focuses on the majesty of wilderness and also its extreme challenges. The crew shot on location in Alberta and Argentina for nine months under mostly sub-zero conditions using only limited time windows of natural light each day for most of the long tracking shot scenes. Temperatures reached –25 to –40, but since the film was set in the autumn, actors were forced to go without gloves or hats (McKnight). In general terms, film productions such as these incur enormous costs, and exponentially increase global carbon footprints, in order to meet the entertainment needs of capitalist consumer culture.
As a mainstream fictional film, The Revenant offers viewers an entertaining adventure narrative that utilizes the wilderness to demonstrate masculinist endurance in extreme climate situations. Juxtaposing examples of the sustainable living practices of indigenous Pawnees against the capitalist endeavors of colonists seeking to industrialize nature through the commerce of animal pelts, the film presents a gendered view of man’s relationship with nature, one that falls short of liberating viewers from entrenched hegemonic discourses that stereotype women as bound to nature. And although the film recognizes what Adamson and Slovic have called “ethnic and national particularities,” (p. 6) the narrative presents a largely ethnocentric story.23
Other films in league with The Revenant include ones that, unlike Iñáritu’s, present a strong feminist agenda (albeit with only a latent concern for climate change); for instance, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (Berman & Miller, 2015), a sequel in the Mad Max series that began in 1979, is a road film that also foregrounds feminist resolutions to dystopian environmental discourses. Another example is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (Thorne & Nolan, 2014), where female scientist Murph (played alternately by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn) is a NASA quantum scientist who discovers the gravity equation that saves the world from the dying earth.
Mad Max: Fury Road can be considered a post-apocalyptic feminist western. The lead character in the film, Mad Max, is usurped by Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), who plays a cyborg woman with prosthetic arm and who has risen to the level of chief driver of an armored tanker truck in charge of leading a convoy through a desert wasteland to an oil refinery in Gastown. The film’s speculative narrative focuses on the socially violent responses to the lack of hydro and fuel resources, a theme that marks the failure of scientific conservationism.
Since Mad Max: Fury Road’s setting takes place in the speculative apocalyptic desert, the characters face insurmountable environmental challenges. And unlike the rudimentary colonial technology of guns and knives used to dominate the wilderness in The Revenant, Miller’s film leaves behind wilderness ideologies to utilize a dizzying array of high-tech car and motorcycle vehicles (as well as special production rigs, such as drones for GPS positioning, the “Edge Arm” crane mounted on vehicles to capture high speeds, and even unmanned vehicles). Film sequences include almost 2000 VFX shots overseen by three teams in three locales (Marshall, 2016). Although the film’s production cost exceeded $150,000,000. Miller, envisioning the narrative’s apocalyptic future, ironically insisted that “everything that is shown in the movie, from costumes to car, had to be able to be made from reclaimed objects that would be around after an apocalypse” (Chacksfield, 2015).
Miller’s telling comment emphasizes the film’s artistic agenda to provide realistic, post-Apocalyptic prop remnants but also shows an unawareness of the film’s own contribution to climate change, through its manufacture of excessive e-waste devices. For instance, it is possible that Miller’s “Edge Arm” (as well as millions of other e-waste devices created for film production), once discarded, end up in Global South (particularly African) dump sites, which Cosima Dannoritzer has noted (E-Waste Tragedy, 2012) receive “50 million tons of e-waste every single year,” sorted and burned by youngsters breathing the expelled cancer-causing toxic smoke. Increasing numbers of ecocinema scholars, such as Hunter Vaughan, are training their critical lenses on the ecological ramifications of the film industry.24
Like The Revenant’s gendered discourses, Mad Max: Fury Road also provides a masculinist alignment of women with nature, but the film pivots the narrative with feminist responses to social injustices. In the film, rogue Imperator Furiosa not only leads the armored truck convey (thus enjoining female responsibility for fossil fuel economies), but Furiosa also, with the help of older Vulvalini matriarchs, rescues a harem of five female wives who are forced to be reproductive breeders to provide an heir to the CEO Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) (Fig. 5).
As Greta Gaard has noted (2015), women are disproportionately affected by climate change as a result of “inequities produced through gendered social roles” (p. 23), and the film’s convergence of reproducing females within a sterile desert wasteland invests viewers with cautionary concern for gender equality in the future.
Both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road address the impact of humans on the planet, as well as the psychological responses to extreme climate conditions. While the environmental subtexts of neo-primitivism and conservation of resources are present in the films to provide viewers with a greater cultural currency of environmentalism, these mainstream fiction films are products of the entertainment industry. While The Revenant destabilizes the nostalgia for neo-primitivism, only Mad Max: Fury Road offers viewers a latent view of a future human self as witness to future climate catastrophes, perhaps influencing activist responses to climate change.25
Case Study #2: The Affective Thrill of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) Films
Climate change populism has led to an emerging genre of climate fiction, or “cli-fi” films, that leave behind wilderness ideologies in order to address the dangerous impact of global warming on the planet, usually through affective modes of fear.26 Early cli-fi films, such as Soylent Green (Seltzer & Fleischer, 1973), Waterworld (Herzberg & Reynolds, 1995), The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004), The Road (Butan & Hillcoat, 2009), and The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010), all portray how humanity grapples with extreme weather events, such as droughts, ice ages, and extreme storms (Fig. 6).
As Michael Svoboda (2016) has recently noted, the three basic plots in cli-fi films include:
(1) scientists or storm-chasers test their knowledge of extreme weather as they compete to gather more data; (2) a scientist with a problematic reputation warns a community about an impending extreme weather event but is ignored or even mocked until a devastating storm strikes the community; or (3) with little warning an everyman faces the challenge of safely guiding his family and friends through an extreme weather event. (p. 46)
Unsurprisingly, the majority of first- and second-wave cli-fi films (which, in 2016, number almost seventy, according to Svoboda) are mostly in English and offer dramatic and thrilling special effects that promote affective responses in viewers.27 A less common trope in cli-fi films is specific attention to how climate change disproportionately impacts gender, race, and class. Snowpiercer (Kim & Bong, 2014) and Elysium (Baden Powell & Blomkamp, 2013), are examples of speculative, postapocalyptic cli-fi films that take up gender, race, and class discourses and give credence to the social justice question Guha (2000) asked in the last chapter of Environmentalism: A Global History: “One World or Two?”28
In Snowpiercer, humanity attempts to curb global warming by spraying a sun block in the atmosphere that produces an ice age. Only two classes of people survive, the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor, and they occupy the lone globe-trotting train named Snowpiercer. The narrative focuses on class divisions that detail the vast oppressions that the racialized poor must grapple with in the face of climate change while they sit at the back of the cold, dirty train, while the rich rest in first-class cars complete with man-made solariums, hair salons, wood-paneled dining cars, and orchestral concerts (Fig. 7).
Snowpiercer’s specific type of state-based class regulation also appears in the film Elysium, set in the year 2159, when Earth, a wasteland, is “diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated” with the poor; the rich, on the other hand, continue to overconsume and “preserve their way of life” by moving off-planet to a manufactured space station that resembles a lush suburban country club setting.
Elysium’s speculative narrative articulates the cleavage of class groups who must struggle with the reality of food and hydro shortages as a result of climate change. The film’s discourse takes up what Guha (2000) first noted as the “environmentalism of the poor,” (p. 105), which he defines as “a concern for the environment with an often more visible concern for social justice.” Elysium speculates on the future of climate change by visioning Earth as a Third World planet, devoid of resources, under complete military control, with interstellar climate refugees fleeing planetary borders for survival (Fig. 8).
The film’s initial scene metaphorically sets up the central problem of climate change: how first world countries must ethically address the resource needs of developing ones in the coming climate times. A rogue paramilitary shuttle is set up to evacuate the sick, infirm, and disabled on the drought-ridden Earth, where they will be clandestinely transported to Elysium to covertly access private health care. The film’s militaristic (and Caucasian) character, Defense Secretary Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), is first portrayed hosting a cocktail party at an enormous Elysian mansion. Demonstrating the affluence of Elysium, Delacourt advises one guest to “take a look at the garden,” while speaking French to another. These symbols of Elysium’s high culture operate in stark contrast to the dusty poor occupying the crumbling, rent lands of Earth. Delacourt defends Elysium against indigenous species’ invasions by using military force to shoot down the rogue shuttle. Earth immigrants who illegally land are arrested under the illegal immigration act. The film’s ethical center is the character Max, who, as an everyday factory worker, overrides a computer software program to authorize entry of the Earth population as Elysian citizens. As Brereton (2016) has correctly noted, this idealistic “eureka” (p. 97) moment of flipping the switch to solve the global geospatial problem of climate change is not realistic, but Max’s character does develop a “transformative ethical mindset” (p. 98) to help those who are marginalized, leading viewers to consider their own ethical subject positions as everyday environmentalists responsible for communities within and beyond their own national boundaries.
Case Study #3: The Political Value of Documentary Films on Climate Change
Former US Vice President Al Gore, in a recent Wired interview (2016), reasoned the following:
When the printing press was the dominant medium, as it was when the United States was founded and the Constitution was written, individuals could enter the virtual public square and use ideas and the best available evidence as a source of political power. When television displaced print as the principal source of information, the architecture of that new information ecosystem changed radically. Instead of having low entry barriers, people encountered gatekeepers. Money came to dominate policymaking. The third information ecosystem of the modern era, which is Internet-based and includes social media, once again features extremely low entry barriers for individuals and favors a meritocracy of ideas. When members of Congress, who used to be beholden to special interests, are confronted by individuals and small groups who can crowdsource fund-raising for candidates, that begins to restore the kind of representative democracy that our founders dreamed of (Lapowsky, 2016).
Gore’s comments reflect the evolving communication channels in human history and suggest that in the 21st century, the documentary film medium can provide both critical perspectives to environmental public policy, as well as influence the efforts of grassroots environmental education and advocacy.29
In the current digital age of information, education, and entertainment overload, documentaries about climate change have been the most powerful films to provide education on humans’ responsibility for climate change, helping to influence the current movement of climate change populism.30 Unlike films specifically designed to entertain (such as The Revenant, or Elysium), or ones that offer education about the environment (such as Pom Poko), the critical commentaries inherent in the documentary genre are specifically geared to position film consumers and policymakers as ethical witnesses in order to inspire activism and thus, influence climate change policies. Films such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) and its sequel An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Guggenheim, 2017) have helped to launch the current momentum of climate change populism by presenting science-based evidence (such as Antarctic ice core data, ocean salinization, and CO2 levels) for global warming as a man-made event.31 Gore’s films profile the current contributors to climate change, as well as envisioning the future realities for cities like Beijing, Calcutta, Los Angeles, and the hundreds of millions of climate refugees that will result from global warming.32 Policy, business, educational, and thought leaders from across the globe have been influenced by the apocalyptic predictions in An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel.33
There is also growing canon of non-Western documentaries focused on climate change, including the Chinese film Qióngdǐng zhī xià (Under the Dome, Jing, 2015), and the Macedonian film After the Rain: Climate Testimonials (Marcoux-Fortier, Kiio, Basu, Miller, & Winther, 2013), which focuses on the under-researched theme of women and climate change. Hands On: Women, Climate, Change (International Association of Women in Radio & Television, Marcoux-Fortier, Kiio, Basu, Miller, & Winther, 2014) is another recent film that focuses on women from four continents who respond to the disproportionate effects of climate change.34
In a similar vein to Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, John Shenk’s The Island President (Else & Shenk, 2011) details the of advocacy efforts of Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the 1,200-island nation, the Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, with a population of around 300,000 people. The film’s establishing shot opens with the Copenhagen 2009 meeting, where then President Nasheen stated to the media: “the Maldives is just 1.5 meters above sea level. And because of climate change and sea rise, a number of our islands are eroding. And it’s not something in the future, it is something that we are facing right now.” Nasheed’s concern was evidenced by the 2004 tsunami that hit the Maldives, causing 100 deaths and reducing the nation’s GDP by 50% in one hour. In speaking about global warming and sea level rise in coastal countries such as the Netherlands and Nigeria, the Maldives Climate Coordinator, Aminath Shauna, said that “none of these countries will lose their entire national identity. We will.”
Seeking to influence global policy on climate change, The Island President documents Nasheed’s use of scientific rationalism that predicts a two-meter sea-level rise in the Maldives by 2100—an environmental event that would completely submerge the entire nation. Scenes depict Nasheed engaging in various public policy campaigns to make the Maldives carbon neutral in one decade, as well as collaborating with other Global South leaders, including India, China, and Brazil, to develop strategies in advance of the Copenhagen climate talks. In one compelling film short made for the UN Climate Campaign, President Nasheen stands in the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean and states, “If we do not act now, my island nation will be submerged by the rising sea.” This type of urgent message shows the island president as a future witness to the damage of global warming. His public policy urges First World nations to address the disproportionate effects of climate change in developing countries in order to promote global ecological democracy. To that end, President Nasheen held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 off the Maldives island of Gifushi to influence First World countries to reduce carbon emissions. Envisioning the future for the nation, the president and his cabinet donned scuba gear and were filmed underwater signing a document calling for global reductions in carbon emissions (Fig. 9).
This type of ethical witnessing opportunity in documentary film provides viewers with dramatic speculative images of future selves severely impacted by global warming, thus prompting viewers with a moral imperative to act (Fig. 10).
The above case studies show how ecocinema scholarship can use the human filmic gaze to address climate and environmental challenges in fiction, cli-fi, and documentary films designed to entertain, educate, and oftentimes, to promote climate change action.
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(2.) See the Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology and meanings of the word “climate.”
(3.) According to Patel’s recent New York Times article, “How 2016 became Earth’s hottest year on record,” scientific evidence now indicates that 2016 was the hottest year on record. Patel notes that “of the 17 hottest years ever recorded, 16 have now occurred since 2000.”
(4.) Climate change populism is a recent condition emerging from global media coverage highlighting scientific global warming research, as well as the climate justice movement’s foundational 1999 article by Bruno, Karliner and Brotsky entitled “Greenhouse gangsters vs. climate justice.” Climate change populism has since developed into an international political movement of activists, lawmakers, and ordinary citizens, who pressure governments and industry to eradicate global warming caused by the fossil fuel industry. For a detailed description of how climate change populism relates to ecocinema, see Christman Lavin’s “The emergence of climate change populism in ecocinema” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrqI8FMbgX4.
(5.) See Adamson’s succinct discussion (2012) of Avatar in “Indigenous literatures, multinaturalism, and Avatar: The emergence of indigenous cosmopolitics.”
(6.) See Murray and Heuman’s first chapter “Ecology and Spectacle in Oil Wells of Baku: Close View: The First Eco-Disaster Film?” that also detail numerous other early films.
(7.) See Stam’s excellent introductory chapter.
(8.) Posthumanism is an ecocritical concept that repositions a human transcorporeality with earth beings, and challenges the Linnaeus-based anthropocentric taxonomies, which are based on speciesism. Also see Adamson’s analysis of Avatar, where she notes the transhuman quality of the film’s Na’vi characters, who are “10-foot-tall blue-skinned humanoids” (p. 143).
(9.) Our framing of ecocinema into three waves does not assume a historic chronology of scholarship; rather than a teleological progression, our genealogical analysis uncovers repeating and distinct patterns in the scholarship that occurred as the field developed. There are continuing differences in the way the field has been analyzed; for instance, Rust has recently argued that we are only in the second wave of ecocinema criticism.
(11.) Other first-wave scholarship that details wilderness ideologies in film include Bousé’s Wildlife films and Burt’s Animals in film.
(12.) Yellowstone National Park was established as the first US national park in 1872. The US National Park Service was founded in 1916 and includes 411 areas with over 84 million acres. See the National Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/index.htm.
(13.) Other venues for ecomedia scholarship have included the 2017 Modern Language Association meeting in Philadelphia, where a roundtable chaired by LeMenager included Adamson, Boyles, Carruth, Gerhardt, Hartman, Hsy, and Iheka, who all presented case studies of ecomedia projects.
(14.) For additional resources on ecomedia, see Bozak’s The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources (2012), Maxwell and Miller’s Greening the Media (2012), and Maxwell, Raundalen and Lager Vestberg’s edited collection Media and the Ecological Crisis (2015).
(15.) See Weik von Mossner’s essay “Eco-cinema and gender.”
(16.) This approach is based, in part, on cognitive ecology, a field that studies what Mettke-Hofmann describes as “neural processes which are used to interpret the environment and include perceptions, learning, memory, and decision making which regulate behavioral responses.”
(17.) These ecocritical ways includes cinematographic methods, narratives, production, etc.
(18.) For instance, film e-waste has emerged as a global polluter, as authors such as Helen Hughes have noted in Greening the media.
(19.) For a more detailed analysis of the “logic of domination,” see Warren’s “Introduction” in Ecological feminism.
(20.) In her talk at the 2015 ASLE Biennial Conference, Gaard made reference to Kolodny’s critique that deconstructs “heterosexualized metaphors.”
(21.) Gamber used the term “whitestream” to denote the “cultural erasure of Indian people and communities by legal constrictions for centuries” in his essay “Our Nations and All Our Relations: Environmental Ethics in William S. Yellow Robe Jr.’s The council (p. 112). As he notes, the term “whitestream” was originally used by sociologist Claude Denis in We are not you: First nations and Canadian modernity to explain the homogeneity of social groups.
(22.) Interestingly, Gaard proposed (at the 2015 ASLE) the queer feminist perspective of “ecosexuality,” a term used to denote the polemic transformation of Western culture’s conceptualization of sexuality and environment. Using Sandilands’s interlinking of the “‘naturalization of heterosexuality with the heterosexualization of nature as together influencing Western culture’s erotophobia,’” Gaard’s queer feminist perspective provides a conceptualization that allows the erotization of “people’s material connections with earthOthers.” In The Revenant’s mauling scene, however, a queer reading opens the possibility for a role reversal, or, for the Mother Bear “earthOther” to eroticize a connection with a person. Thus, Mother Nature, usually depicted as gentle and benign, instead becomes a powerful, dangerous, and sexual force.
(23.) For a more detailed summary of ethnicity and ecocriticism, see, for instance, Adamson’s American Indian literature, environmental justice, and ecocriticism: The middle place (2001), Outka’s Race and nature from transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (2008), and Heise’s “Globality, difference, and the international turn in ecocriticism” (2013).
(24.) For instance, see Vaughan’s article, “500,000 kilowatts of stardust: An ecomaterialist reframing of Singin’ in the Rain,” which examines the Hollywood film industry from an environmental studies perspective. Also see his forthcoming Hollywood’s dirtiest secret: The hidden environmental costs of film culture (Columbia University Press, 2018).
(25.) These films are in league with Deepwater horizon (2016), whose spectacular action sequences made visible the 2010 historical malfunction of the deepest oil well in history. The film fantasy’s loose alignment with historical events minimized the death of 11 crewmen, the subsequent leaking of three million barrels of crude oil and 400 pounds of gas into the Gulf of Mexico, and the killing or injuring of millions of wildlife species and their ecosystem habitats. Ironically, the 1-hour-47-minute film begins with a bird strike on a helicopter ferrying workers to the offshore oil rig, and later the disaster narrative arcs with a first casualty—a dying sea bird writhing in crude oil. See The National Wildlife Federation’s “Five years and counting: Gulf wildlife in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster” at http://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/water/2015/Gulf-Wildlife-In-the-Aftermath-of-the-Deepwater-Horizon-Disaster_Five-Years-and-Counting.pdf.
(26.) For a detailed articulation of the cli-fi film genre, see Svoboda’s “Cli-fi on the screens: Patterns in the representations of climate change in fictional films.”
(27.) For an in-depth analysis of how modes of affect operate in cli-fi films, see Kaplan’s Climate trauma: Foreseeing the future in dystopian film and fiction. Kaplan’s analysis foregrounds issues of gender, class, and race, while detailing how the affective register of “pretraumatic stress” is visualized in climate change imaginaries.
(28.) See Gaard’s “From ‘cli-fi’ to critical ecofeminism” for succinct feminist readings of both Snowpiercer and Elysium.
(29.) Interestingly, in America’s pre-election days of 2016, Gore noted that the Internet’s initial promise enabled a meritocratic US “representative democracy” inclusive of underserved and marginalized groups. More recently, in the US’s current post-election moment, it is clear that moneyed conservative statecraft exploited the Internet’s “low entry barriers” to elect a so-called neo-fascist oligarchy, headed by a Presidential Tweeter-in-Chief… .
(30.) For instance, Sinha-Roy (2017) has noted that Al Gore’s documentary An inconvenient sequel: Truth to power serves as “the centerpiece of Sundance’s first-ever ‘New Climate’ segment showcasing films and hosting discussions about issues ranging from water to coral reefs.”
(31.) Other recent documentaries that represent climate change populism include A climate of change (2014), Before the flood (2016), Blackfish (2013), Chasing coral (2017), Cowspiracy: The sustainability secret (2014), Gasland (2010), Greedy lying bastards (2012), How to let go of the world and love all Things climate can’t change (2016), Merchants of doubt (2014), Planetary (2015), Plastic China (2016), Plastic paradise: The great Pacific garbage patch (2014), Rancher, farmer, fisherman (2017), Standing on sacred ground: Eight cultures, one fight (2014), The anthropologist (2016), The hole story (2011), This changes everything (2015), Trophy (2017), Water & power: A California heist (2017).
(32.) For instance, The United Nations University convened The Indigenous Voices on Climate Change Film Festival held at the National Museum of Denmark (2009). See the website https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/cop15-filmfestival.
(33.) For instance, see Shermer’s article “The flipping Point: How the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip.” Scientificamerican.com/article/the-flipping-point/