- Environmental Deadpan:New Scales and Sensations of Ecological Fallout
In a late-series episode from Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom, the seasoned anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), interviews a beleaguered scientist from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the latest carbon report. McAvoy asks his guest to update the audience on the prognosis for global climate change. The agent calmly responds that atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached a level that would guarantee—within a few generations and in ways that would affect humans already born—the catastrophic failure of the planet. The camera cuts to the reaction shots of the astonished on-screen production crew and then to a flabbergasted McAvoy. Regaining composure, McAvoy prods the talking head for a silver lining and more hopeful analogies, as people are "about to start their weekends." But the scientist will not offer any ready-made sound bite to soften the blow of exceeded limits and earthly consequences. McAvoy observes that the situation sounds dire, to which the scientist responds, "If your house is burning down, that's dire. If the house has already burned to the ground, it's over." When asked what can be done, [End Page 397] the EPA agent placidly replies that any attempt to prevent the drastic and life-threatening alteration of the planet would have needed to happen twenty years ago. Instead, the world can only brace for rising sea levels that will devastate half the world's population, as well as mass migrations, resistant diseases, unforgiving drought, and other extreme environmental conditions previously unknown to humans. McAvoy and crew look aghast. The tense beat holds. The EPA agent then departs with a cheerily polite, "Thanks for having me."1
This fictional exchange points to some of the challenges and methods of writing environmental history in a moment marked by a growing consensus that humans have altered the planet. Perhaps irrevocably so.2 Degree by degree, discourses unfolding in scientific, political, and cultural arenas signal a broader, if incomplete, acceptance of the problem (or did, prior to recent electoral politics). For example, the EPA website under the Obama administration framed the governmental response to climate change in terms not of prevention but of adaptation. Thus, even though this content was removed in the first hours of the new Trump administration, the environmental scholarship considered here emerged in that former set of understandings.3 Climate change, the website and The Newsroom suggest, is upon us. One element of the Newsroom scene is especially resonant with recent scholarship on the environment: the EPA agent's mode of delivery—a delivery that is utterly deadpan. Heightening this effect, the bureaucrat is portrayed by The Office regular Paul Liebertstein, who in his prior role as the hapless head of HR, Toby Flenderson, tested the outer reaches of deadpan humor. Deadpanning, or modeling a deliberately flat response to circumstances of disproportionate scale, might provide a useful framework for thinking about environmental studies in the age of what some have called the Anthropocene.4 Deadpanning relies on the chasm between scale of the problem and mode of the response.
Four recent works, I suggest, offer up analyses with deadpan elements and do so to powerful effect: Kate Brown's Plutopia, Bob Johnson's Carbon Nation, Andrew Needham's Power Lines, and Julie Sze's Fantasy Islands. These scholars exhibit deliberate restraint while showcasing a sprawling archive of folly, illuminating interwoven scales and sensations of ecological fallout. On the one hand, they amass evidence of the failures of...