The Sheep Look Up
By Gray Brechin
07 July, 2010
Arthur C. Clarke and director Peter Hyams proved less than prophetic in the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact, but they gave the audiences of 1984 what they wanted to hear. Cosmonaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) — who in the movie 2001 disappeared into a mysterious black monolith orbiting Jupiter — reappears as a literally starry-eyed apparition on his widow’s TV set between commercials. He tells her that “something wonderful” is about to happen. It does hours later when exponentially proliferating monoliths send Jupiter critical, igniting a second sun in the solar system. Forewarned by Bowman’s specter, Russian and U.S. cosmonauts hightail it out of the Jovian neighborhood on the cusp of a blast of hot plasma. The two nations at home narrowly avert their own thermonuclear Armageddon. In the closing scene, cosmonaut Heywood Floyd (Roy Schneider) rejoins his wife and son for a happy reunion on the beach under double suns.
Like the Hollywood president of 1984, 2010 was a handsome feel-good movie good for the box office. Its special effects were state of the art. There is no hint of poverty in that future, the major characters on the spaceship are largely noble, and although terrestrial politicians are foolish enough to nearly incinerate their own planet, they pull back in wonder at the new star in Earth’s sky as well as the proof of Other Intelligence in the universe. Human technology works.
But what if David Bowman had told his wife that “something terrible” is about to happen? How would she — and ticket buyers — have responded?
As few at the time understood that a second sun would so upset the Earth’s delicate heat balance that it would snuff out life, few also knew that President Reagan’s “morning in America” was its twilight. Although many people at the time feared that the president’s cowboy posturing with the Soviets and his seeming incomprehension of the apocalyptic power at his command might precipitate the catastrophe avoided in 2010, his free market ideology and suave salesmanship set in motion events that would lead to something very like that fate. The year after the movie’s release, the Wall Street Journal quoted a White House source as saying that Reagan’s advisors intended to “starve the beast” of government through tax cuts in order to force it to wither — a reverse New Deal that would, in subsequent years, spectacularly benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
The means to do so rode out of the Golden West along with Reagan himself. California’s Proposition 13 of 1978 radically slashed property taxes while giving a minority the power to veto any future tax increases. Prop. 13 was the opening salvo in the popular tax revolt that spread across the country. Reagan surfed that tsunami into the White House, persuading voters that they could have it all without paying for it as businessmen-run bureaus rooted out waste and inefficiency and conducted government more like the private sector. Something wonderful would happen. It might make little sense on the street, but it was box office magic in the theater of the absurd that was and remains Reaganomics.
The age of limits, Reagan declared, was over — except for the revenues that government needs to provide for the common good. Shortly after moving into the White House Reagan ordered the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed on its roof removed. There would be no more talk about energy conservation from cardigan-wearing losers like Carter. Voters loved it. Stretch limousines with smoked windows appeared and proliferated on U.S. streets as corollaries to the growing legions of beggars watching them pass. McMansions, SUVs, private jets, and prisons inflated while critical public infrastructure decayed and, on occasion, collapsed. The hyper wealthy retreated into an alternate universe of staggering privilege while the public realm grew ever junkier and dispirited. California went broke.
Free trade agreements and deregulation permitted industries to consolidate and move their factories offshore in search of the cheapest labor and nonexistent environmental constraints. Within a few years, the mighty U.S. steel, textile, and garment industries evaporated, and with them trade unions. Their disappearance left entire cities washed up on the Rust Belt with soaring rates of poverty and the drug trade and gunfire that attend it. Increasingly choked of funding, public education began a precipitous slide, but few who mattered noticed as entertainment and seductive new gadgetry more than filled the void that it left. Those who could afford to sent their children to private schools and universities; those who could not went deeply into debt to do so as well in order to compensate for what taxes had once provided for the majority. Legislators and academic administrators threw public universities onto the marketplace where, claimed neoliberal guru Milton Friedman, they belonged along with everything else. There was no alternative, said those at the top; the money had simply run out.
It had not for the military whose budgets engorged on the conviction that the U.S. could should, and, indeed, must police the planet like a frontier sheriff patrolling an unruly mining camp. Reagan’s successors and disciples called that fantasy “full spectrum dominance.” In the twenty-first century, Congress unstintingly funded foreign wars while further slashing taxes. The emaciated “beast” of public services at the core of democratic governance not so much slouched as staggered and gasped toward its terminus, its mangy hide stretched taut over brittle ribs.
Freed of constraining regulation and barriers, the world economy morphed into a hybrid pawn shop and casino, its winners luring suckers into the pool with promises of ever-increasing prosperity. Few alive remembered the year 1929 and what followed. Then, in 2008, the house came down.
Two years later, in the year 2010 as opposed to the movie 2010, no signs of alien intelligence appeared to entice humans to a larger shared purpose near Jupiter or anywhere else, let alone to an understanding of their planet’s fragility and their place in the cosmos. The United States disunited as racial tensions, gun lust, and other unresolved wounds of the first Civil War tore open once again. Commercials went uninterrupted by David Bowman telling us that something wonderful would happen.
But something terrible did. It was, in fact, the culmination of many planetary assaults that had been accelerating in number and ferocity for centuries. Battered and sapped by ever rising human population and consumption, the Earth’s complex life support systems had quietly sickened, grown more threadbare and febrile. Few distracted by entertainment, gadgets, and faith in a sky god noticed the actual emptiness of those skies or the poverty of the oceans. The perpetual noise of machines — of rock, rap, and preachers invoking God and the blessings of wealth — more than covered the growing quiet in the forests and the fields. Pollinating bees mysteriously disappeared, coral reefs everywhere bleached and died. Despite more freakish and violent weather events, energy companies successfully coaxed millions to believe that venal scientists an demonicd liberals had devised the hoax of climate change to steal their liberties and hard-earned money. Some biologists claimed that the Earth was in the throes of a sixth mass extinction comparable to those that ended the Permian and Jurassic ages.
Those convinced that the Earth was less than 7000 years old and Darwin a fraud knew that it had no time for Permian or Jurassic ages let alone extinction events. Many who denied climate change acted to speed it. A shrill chorus of “Drill, baby, drill,” erupted from the far right wing of the political spectrum. The very Democratic president whom that wing loathed responded by opening much of the offshore U.S. to oil exploitation while promising lavish public subsidies to jumpstart a renaissance of nuclear energy. Bold new technology, he assured his countrymen, had made both energy sources safe as banks.
Safe as banks that had just collapsed, perhaps. The petroleum industry had, for decades, made wastelands of the Niger River delta, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Ecuadorian jungles, and more, but as long as the oil kept flowing, few in the developed world cared. And then they had to.
On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded fifty miles off the Louisiana coast, killing eleven workers and injuring many more before dropping into the mile-deep water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite BP’s best (and sometimes worst) efforts at damage control, estimates of the volume of crude and gas erupting from the sea floor continued to climb from a thousand barrels a day to as many as 100,000 and more. Try as it might with dispersants, BP could not hide the horrific effects of its eruption on the surface of the Gulf. Relying upon the very company that had caused the mess to fix it, the president and his Coast Guard commander appeared to work for the oil industry itself. Indeed, such was the logical end game of thirty years of extreme free market ideology. They, and Congress, virtually did. Government in 2010 wasn’t so much being run like a business as by and for business.
The Gulf blowout demonstrated that technology had limits and risks never voiced by its proponents. As BP assured the public that it would clean up its mess and the president promised (“make no mistake about it”) that the Gulf Coast would return to normal, it became clear that no one knew what to do. The president gave his first Oval Office address, invoking the spirit and know-how with which Americans had won World War II and landed men on the moon, then wound up asking for prayer. Americans prayed, but the oil kept coming in with the dying pelicans and porpoises.
That president had, after all, staffed his administration with bright but blinkered technocrats who, as critic Chris Hedges remarked, “mistake the art of manipulation with knowledge.” His Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary — who had earlier brokered a lucrative marriage of BP and the University of California to develop genetically altered biofuels without mentioning the dangers entailed — announced a “dream team” of the nation’s best and brightest scientists and engineers to devise a solution to the gusher, and then fell mute.
If BP and the government could not contain the blowout they could try to control the flow of information about it. Since reporters and the public had little access to that information, reports and rumors spread on the internet that vast clouds of emulsified oil and toxic dispersants were moving below the surface toward the Atlantic Gulf Stream, killing everything that encountered them. A Youtube home video showed oil falling with the rain in New Orleans. Unknown numbers of birds, turtles, and dolphins were dying or being incinerated out of sight and mind., and volatilized petrochemicals were sickening workers and Gulf Coast residents. Oil was gushing from multiple vents in the sea floor. Climatologists predicted a very bad hurricane season that would shut down containment and recovery efforts and drive oil, gas, and dispersants over the continent.
What Chernobyl was to land, the Deepwater Horizon gusher was to the ocean, but unlike Chernobyl, this eruption could not be stanched.
The Gulf blowout reminded me of another movie nearly twice the age of 2010. Stanley Kramer produced On the Beach in 1959 as a cautionary tale of how technology could set in motion forces that humans were incapable of stopping.
The nuclear holocaust narrowly averted at the end of 2010 happens before On the Beach opens. After an exchange of bombs devastates the northern hemisphere, the movie’s cast in Australia can only wait as planetary winds carry lethal radiation to their continent. The Australian government distributes suicide pills to spare them the agony of radiation sickness when the lethal cloud arrives. Each character must decide what to do with what time is left to him or her and to those they love. In the final scenes, newspapers blow through the empty streets of Melbourne as a banner flaps in the radioactive wind proclaiming “There Is Still Time… Brother.”
I was twelve years old when my mother took me to see On the Beach. As we drove away from the theater, she said that she did not like the movie because it left no room for hope. The dread it and others such as Dr. Strangelove implanted, and the skepticism about the wisdom of leaders who could launch such a cataclysm, shaped me as I believe it did the generation of the 60s.
Youth half a century on is maturing in a very different world. Ever more umbilically dependent upon machines and the fossil fuel-derived energy that drives them, they live with a young technocrat in the White House who promised change but who — bereft of any vision of how the earth’s resources could be more equitably distributed and its technology more wisely used — delivered instead the status quo. As the lethal cloud spreads unchecked in the sea, few yet understand that a dead ocean means dead land.
Those in On the Beach knew what was coming as few today do. As the worsening news from the Gulf becomes chronic, it retreats into the inner pages of dying newspapers, displaced from the front page by the World Cup and Tiger Woods’ comeback. That much of life could be ending on Planet Earth would be a bummer for many, and very bad for business. The lights must never go out, wrote Auden at the outbreak of World War II, the music must always play.
That may soon change. There will be no security in high-riding Hummers or in fully loaded automatics. There will be no escape or refuge for the hyper wealthy in their pre-fueled private jets as the life support systems of Planet Earth go down. Sybaritic retreats like Atlantis in the Bahamas could soon submerge under dead and oily water. Each person may soon be forced to decide what to do with what time is left to him or her and to those they love. They might turn back to the words with which biologist Rachel Carson ended the introductory “Fable for Tomorrow” in her 1962 warning Silent Spring: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
Gray Brechin is a resident scholar at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.