Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Buzzfeed reporter Alison Willmore invites her audience to empathise with the desperation which drives fictional and not so fictional greens who commit atrocities the sake of the planet.
Climate Change Fiction Is Rethinking The Ecoterrorist
We don’t need to be on board with the extreme actions of characters in First Reformed and The Overstory to feel some empathy for the desperation that drives them.
Alison Willmore BuzzFeed News Reporter
Posted on April 28, 2019, at 9:59 a.m. ET
Toward the end of Paul Schrader’s most recent film, First Reformed, the main character straps on an explosive vest with the intention of blowing himself up — along with a church full of other people — driven by an inarticulate but intense desire to strike a blow on behalf of the environment.
The character’s name is Ernst Toller, he’s played by a dyspeptic Ethan Hawke, and he isn’t an ecological radical when the film starts. He’s a minister at a small church in upstate New York that’s more of a historical tourist attraction than a functional place of worship, and when we first meet him, he seems to think about climate change the way a lot of us do, or used to — as inexorably dire but also still distant enough a concept to not cast a shadow over our day-to-day lives.
That changes after he pays a visit to a troubled parishioner named Michael (Philip Ettinger), an activist for whom the effects of global warming are not abstract at all, and who’s in the grip of an existential crisis prompted by his wife Mary’s (Amanda Seyfried) pregnancy. How can it be justifiable, he demands of Ernst, to bring a child into a world you believe is going to crumble within their lifetime? He’s not being dramatic or alarmist. It’s a real question, one he shores up with all the data he’s accrued about sea levels rising and land mass shrinking, which he follows to logical conclusions about catastrophic change and civilization being shaken at its foundations. “The bad times will begin,” as he puts it. “This isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this.”
Ernst is the preacher, but Michael is delivering his own fire-and-brimstone sermon. Their conversation echoes the first chapter of journalist David Wallace-Wells’ best-selling climate change opus The Uninhabitable Earth, which opens with the assurance that our situation “is worse, much worse, than you think,” before pondering the question of children and whether having them signifies optimism or just “willful blindness.”
While Ernst goes into the meeting intending to talk Michael down from his hopelessness, he emerges, instead, infected with dread himself. And that dread begins blossoming, compounded by guilt, when he discovers Michael dead in the woods from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. By the time Ernst puts on that explosive vest, which he took from a box hidden in Michael’s garage, we understand his intentions as both extremist and an attempt at a logical response to an impossible problem: How are we supposed to behave in the face of the possibility that there is no future for us, because of our own choices as a species?
It’s interesting too to think of the young fandom that the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, has accrued, as profiled in New York magazine back in December. They’re kids who found themselves nodding along to his manifesto about how we need “a revolution against the industrial system,” creating “anti-civ” reading lists, and participating in open-air survivalist workshops in preparation for the end of civilization. The subjects of the article prefer the term “ecoextremism” and act cagey about their commitment to violence, but they do feel like real-world relations to all these fictional characters. The same feelings of quiet, constant panic in the face of an inevitable future that come through in this fiction are also bubbling up in our lives, and in these subcultures whose affiliations and actions may be beyond the pale, but whose desperation feels very familiar.Read more: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/alisonwillmore/climate-change-fiction-is-rethinking-the-ecoterrorist
Mocking the church, building audience sympathy for eco-terrorism, and empathising with people who praise the madness of the Unabomber, all in one article.