Human Extinction Porn

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Greenland, streaming on Amazon Prime, returns viewers to a well-established trope: the human extinction event depicted in such graphic detail as to verge on pornographic representation for the most perverse appetites. The film stars Gerard Butler and Morrena Baccarin and depicts the Garrity family’s desperate scramble for survival as a terrific interstellar asteroid hurtles towards Earth. The sublime event is preceded by a series of smaller asteroids that strike Earth with calamitous consequences. The Garrity family, themselves perilously close to divorce, are unexpectedly summoned to a civic evacuation mission and begin their hazardous journey towards bunkers in Greenland.


Greenland sits comfortably within the expanding genre of end-of-the-world extinction porn movies, most notably Armageddon, Don’t Look Up, The Day Before Yesterday, Deep Impact, Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, How it Ends, in addition to more art house examples like Lars van Trier’s Melancholia. A series of well recognised tropes repeat; the pornography of Tampa being wiped out in Greenland recalls Seattle’s annihilation in How it Ends, Los Angeles torn apart by tornados in the Day After Tomorrow, New York beset by a giant tidal wave in Deep Impact, and Paris turned into a crater in Armageddon. Other cliched storylines include how troubled families achieve resolution during their desperate plights to survive, whilst the excessive masculinity of the paterfamilias – usually the original source of woe – now finds his redemption via heroic feats of brute violence that rescue stricken families.


These movies, in other words, are near identical. This need hardly surprise us because it’s obvious that when Hollywood discovers a sellable formula, it milks that formula to death. But in the repetition of these tropes, and their continued ability to resonate with new audiences, something of the clíched image rings true with contemporary life. Indeed the possibility that any moment now breaking news might abruptly report to us that the end is nigh, that the spectacle of our own lives becoming annihilated is imminent, is terrifyingly all-too plausible.


But what is most peculiar about these movies is the fact that audiences find the spectacle of their own annihilation entertaining. Even more perverse is the idea that we might identify with the catastrophe itself, notjust those trying to survive. For example, In the Day After Tomorrow, the camera briefly puts the subject perspective on top of a tidal wave as it ploughs towards Manhattan, as though the spectacle is now to be the pleasure of destruction rather than the horror of annihilation. Near identical scenes appear in How it Ends while in Deep Impact, the audience is tantalized by the anticipation of New York’s destruction as audiences realise that our species is now a plaything for forces we no longer control. But more importantly, by adopting a subject position as though we are top of a tidal wave headed towards the shoreline, we are encouraged to accept our fate without forgoing our desire to ‘enjoy the ride’. As Steve Buscmei’s ‘Rockhound’ in Armageddon exclaims, ‘‘Guess what guys, it’s time to embrace the horror. Look, we got front row tickets to the end of the earth!’’ The movies portray the disturbing idea that part of our psyche might actually desire and enjoy the idea of our violent termination. Given our historic moment of climate emergency, this idea requires further investigation.


Freud famously theorised that people have a death drive that coincides with a contradictory will towards self-preservation. Because we repress any aspect of ourselves that is repulsive (we look at mirrors at certain angles in order to see our good sides, etc.), those repulsive desires are pushed to our unconsciousness and away from self-awareness. Freud claimed that unconscious drives bubble up through contradictory behavior that derails us; like a person striding purposefully but with untied shoelaces.


Consider enlightened leaders like Richard Branson, George Soros and Elon Musk as they address the epic challenge of reversing ecological devastation. If it is true that they are sincere and authentic, it is nonetheless clear that their innovations are wholly inadequate to slow, let alone reverse, our trajectory towards oblivion. Yet their actions help sustain the reassuring illusion that we are moving in the right direction and that more radical structural change is not necessary.


Could it be that these leaders of sustainability are tripped up by their own unconscious desire for self-destruction? Are they constructing a symbolic world of green consumerism in which their own enterprise –though clearly destroying the planet – might instead be enjoyed as sustainable; a fantasy of partial solutions that keeps reality at bay?


The British psychoanalyst, Edward Glover presented a fascinating observation in the aftermath of the Second World War; that campaigning pacifists often end up passionately advocating for war. His observation reveals the ambivalence between a desire for war and a desire for peace which Glover explained is psychologically endemic, like how ‘‘a child has laboriously and joyfully built a house of bricks, he will frequently scatter it with one sweep of his fist’’. Glover warned that pacifists engage a complex group of mixed impulses that co-exist at an unconscious and repressed state. The problem, Glover argued, was that the pacifist movement attracts people struggling with these impulses and hence, ‘‘to put it crudely, so long as the humblest civil servant is an unconscious sadist… the country is not safe.” Might the same conundrum apply for the leaders of sustainability?


Another intriguing question posed by the movies is why they depict troubled relationships and disintegrating marriages? Might this reflect a general narcissist malaise within Western culture; that we have all become too alienated even from our own families and can only be jolted out of it by catastrophe? Might our only hope for redemption and reconnection be found in how we respond to the event of our own brutal annihilation? Indeed Greenland repeats the cliché found in several end-of-the-world movies by concluding with a promise of a new utopian possibility for life on earth; as though nature has intervened to end human excess and allow renewal for only those that experienced redemption through survival.


Might these ideas explain why we see so much action directed towards pretending to save the earth but actually ensuring that the impending disaster will not be prevented? Might it be that the very people who promise to be our saviour are the ones unconsciously sabotaging the possibility of successfully addressing the problem? Edward Glover’s advice is relevant: “And if he (a medical psychologist) was compelled to crystallise in one formulation, the experience of applied individual psychology, to suggest in a phrase what panacea psychology has to offer a war-ridden species, it would probably take the form of a new sixth commandment: Know thine own (unconscious) sadism”.