Posted by: bracehare | September 25, 2014

Snowpiercer: Environmentalism as fascism

I recently had the good fortune to be able watch the movie Snowpiercer, which would otherwise have completely flown under my radar due to the bizarre particulars of its distribution.  A sleeper hit summer blockbuster, it hits a lot of notes that you don’t normally hear together, functioning as a sort of surrealist avant-garde action movie.  It’s received a lot of critical praise for its expert direction, well-matched score, solid acting performances, and political themes.  That last bit in particular shouldn’t be terribly surprising.  On its surface, Snowpiercer is thematically equivalent to Bioshock, taking the piss out of capitalism by creating a symbolic equivalent which is absurd to the point of unacceptability, trying to get the viewer to extrapolate this unacceptability to capitalism as it exists in real life.  This interpretation isn’t entirely devoid of merit, but it’s a very superficial reading of the film which misses some important things.

In the movie, the world becomes a frozen wasteland after an attempt to reverse global warming is a bit too efficacious for anyone’s good.  Film critics have taken this to be, more or less unanimously, an arbitrary setup.  This is a major misreading.  Remember that, at the start of the film, CW-7 (the revolutionary cooling substance that leads to the whole mess) is mentioned as having critics.  These critics are named as environmental groups and a number of developing countries, respectively.  Is this really a throwaway line?  Keep in mind, it’s already a given that this is a movie with themes about wealth disparity.  The mention of developing countries as an opponent to the technology would seem to align it with these themes.  If this is truly a throwaway line, then its placement in the movie is sloppy because it constitutes a red herring.  On the contrary, this line is quite important, but understanding why requires a knowledge of international politics.

Within the United States, the debate on global warming mostly seems to be an issue of the scientific community trying to fight against politicians who (whatever the driving motive), represent the interests of big oil and coal, and conservatives who are almost pathologically wary of any state intervention to the point that the conclusion of its unacceptability precedes any reasoning about the invalidity of environmental data.  Globally, however, climate change has a different political fulcrum: who should foot the bill.  The big divide is whether economically developed countries or developing countries should bear the burden of reducing carbon emissions.  Those in developed countries argue that the developing world are the ones who are causing the greatest acceleration of global warming, and so they should bear the bigger responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.  Developing countries, naturally, have the same concerns about damage to industry that we have in the United States, albeit in the context of raising their residents out of conditions of privation rather than simply maintaining an already acquired affluence.  There is a lot of back and forth for many reasons on the subject, but as that link shows, most people in EDCs don’t feel any responsibility for global warming.  Realistically, one would expect that if the problem could be shifted to LDCs, even the staunchest Republican would emphatically climb aboard.

This shirking of responsibility is rooted in a number of fallacies that pass for capitalist thought, in the sort of psuedocapitalist fashion that essentially defines the west (although I suppose a leftist would simply call this “capitalism”, and that’s understandable, and not really worth nitpicking over here).  The west were already polluting this much, for instance.  We got here first.  Taking action against global warming would also almost certainly have a greater absolute effect on the developed world (though a much smaller relative effect), simply because we have more accumulated wealth to lose and a bigger annual GDP to diminish.  Our financial and industrial systems are finely tuned and more or less fully developed.  The political power that is associated with this is not something people are interested in giving up either (crucially, remember that the Kyoto protocol, which pertained to developed countries, was not ratified by the United States)  .  So, tampering with any of this; the engine of capitalism in its present form; is unacceptable.  Of course, in the context of externalities, there can be nothing like property rights.  One can’t have a right to do something that kills people and destroys the property of others.  The logic that we were doing it first, already far from morally well-developed, is a blatant sophistry in this context; a fundamental misapplication of the concept of ownership; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

At any rate, this sets the backdrop for Snowpiercer.  The globe has continued to warm, from which we can conclude that neither the developed world nor the developing world have accepted the onus of reducing carbon emissions.  The developing world, naturally, see more economic benefit to continued development than they see harm in global warming.  However, to the finely tuned economies of the developed world, global warming is now a serious problem.  Thus, unilaterally and against the protests of both the developing world and environmental groups (the people concerned with the actual environment, rather than simply the economic impacts of climate change), the economically advantaged nations of the world inject a poorly tested and poorly understood cooling substance into the atmosphere.

Subsequently, we have the entire movie.  An eccentric savant builds a perpetual motion engine powered train, equipped to travel in circles indefinitely, on which the poor can remain poor and the wealthy can remain wealthy, and everyone else can remain in between; provided that the system is carefully managed.  This has been viewed as principally a metaphor about class immobility.  It certainly is this, but it’s about something more specific as well.  The train, with its perfect engine, travels in circles.  This is essentially similar to a consumer capitalist system in which GDP grows steadily and efficiently, but economic activity no longer has any meaning.  It exists for its own sake.  People buy the new iPhone because that is what people in that station of life do, not because it actually has any new features of consequence (in fact, it might even be larger, more fragile, and in general represent a step back).  More crucially, the train, with its massively disparate classes, is a carefully managed ecosystem.  As the film unsubtly informs us, the train is the world.

Snowpiercer is then fundamentally not about class warfare in a generic sense, but about the use of environmentalist narratives by elites to perpetuate class warfare.  The actual environmentalists of the world are all presumably dead.  They died protesting.  Wilfred, meanwhile, as an obvious child of elites himself, absurdly built a self-sufficient train as a microcosm of the world, as it existed at the time of the freeze.  The train exists to preserve the status quo.  Those who run it are shepherds, concurrently, of the environment and the status quo.  This requires the nightmarish dystopia of the train, where the herd of humanity has to be perpetually culled, artificially.  The release of CW-7 into the atmosphere was also undertaken to preserve the status quo.   It was the solution to the dual problems of solving global warming and keeping all the hierarchies of the world static.  To those in charge, it’s both or nothing.

What this movie says, then, is that choosing both leads to unacceptable and nightmarish consequences.  People have expressed a lot of contempt for the metaphor of the train, pointing out how senseless it is.  The senselessness is the point.  They say, “why didn’t they just live in a bunker?”  The text at the beginning of the movie tells us that all life went extinct, and the people on the train are all that’s left.  Of course, at the end of the movie we see a polar bear.  The text lead-in at the beginning of the movie is therefore undermined as the authorial word-of-god it would normally be.  There probably are people in bunkers.  Were those 7 people who froze to death just running off to nowhere in particular?  If the materials exist to insulate against cold on a moving train, why would they not exist for a stationary building?  The point, remember, isn’t that the train is literally the world as it must, necessarily, exist.  It’s that to people like Wilfred and the other people in the front of the train, anything besides the utter, depraved insanity on display in the film is an inconceivable, unacceptable option for the world to be.  This pernicious view trickles down to those in the rear of the train as well.  Only Namgoong Minsu, a man who played a lesser role in building the train, is able to see that the train is an artificial system.  Note that the two principal architects of the train, Wilfred and Gilliam, are both fully invested  (note also the way Gilliam’s selflessness and capacity for sacrifice are exploited and turned to evil purposes.  It is not a good heart that saves anyone, it’s the sense and the conviction to say no to something senseless and live with the consequences.)

Ultimately then, when the decision is made to blow the entrance door, and (as other reviews have astutely pointed out) pursue a third way, this is principally an argument for something akin to anarcho-primitivism.  Remember as well that the film is peppered with references to tribal life.  Yona’s mother is Inuit.  The skills which will be used to survive in this brave new world are traditional hunter-gatherer skills, which Namgoong has attempted to instill in her.  The overarching theme of the movie isn’t about left vs right, or labor vs capital then, and attempting to forcibly, singularly impose this view on the film is naive and leads to some real lapses of critical analysis.  This film is about the appropriation of environmental narratives by elites to serve their own ends, and the fundamental falsity and danger of this sort of totalitarianism.  As seen with Gilliam, it can be spun as altruism, and as seen with Wilfred, it can also be spun as the kind of twisted faux-meritocracy that is a ubiquitous aspect of the ideologies of the privileged in the world today (with ever increasing enthusiasm).

The point is this, though: a train traveling in circles where half the people engage in pointless profligacy and the other half languish in their own filth, packed on top of each other, eating cockroaches, is how a totalitarian would solve the problem of an ecosystem in need of careful balance.  It is a totalitarian’s approach to environmentalism.  Contrast with two children wandering a largely barren world, who may or may not be immediately eaten by a polar bear.  Is this better than the train?  Well, let’s put it this way: if they do get eaten by that polar bear, that will probably be the least terrible thing to happen to them that day.  Either way, for however long they remain alive after they exit the train, they are free, uniquely and finally, and the film here requires no political slant, no heavy interpretation, in order to make this point.

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