- In Focus:Film and Media Studies in the Anthropocene
The West thinks it is the sole possessor of the clever trick that will allow it to keep on winning indefinitely, whereas it has perhaps already lost everything.—Bruno Latour1
A crisis tends to focus attention on the exigencies of the present moment, and our current environmental crisis is no exception. New warnings about the dangers of a warming world pass across social media and news headlines, providing daily reminders of rising sea levels, desertification, defaunation, extreme weather events, and the social and political instability that comes with them. Collective action must be taken immediately, we say; the time for change is now. But there is still time, we think. The catastrophe may be arriving more quickly, but it remains deferred until some later moment of reckoning. Worse yet, climate change denialism, particularly in the US context, cynically declines to take action because it refuses to acknowledge any underlying problem. How much more difficult is it to imagine and enact long-term solutions to an ongoing crisis when, as of the time of writing this introduction, the term "climate change" remains scrubbed from the official policy documents of the Environmental Protection Agency?2 Like it or not, though, insofar as we imagine that environmental crisis is a problem for the future, we are all in denial. [End Page 142]
We might consider another possibility: the catastrophe is not to come, but instead, it has already happened. The "business as usual" crowd likes to imagine that technology will come to the rescue, that capitalism can be made compatible with a "green" future in which natural resources are not overexploited, even if while we wait, mitigation strategies may be necessary. New York City has proposed erecting seawalls to protect Lower Manhattan from the ocean incursion seen during Hurricane Sandy.3 Miami is engaged in an arms race with rising sea levels, utilizing water pumps and elevated infrastructure to stave off inevitable disaster.4 In Alaska, low-lying towns are being evacuated on account of melting permafrost, producing some of the first US "climate refugees."5 Globally, the problem is worse, especially in locations—Bangladesh, Pacific Island nations, and Syria among them—without the economic resources to defend against changing conditions. Resilience is the environmentalism of wealthy nations. Resilience strategies also deny that the problem of climate change, as Roy Scranton argues, is not technocratic but philosophical: that is, "understanding that this civilization is already dead."6 The difficulty in recognizing that the catastrophe is already behind us is that it requires us to reconcile the geological time scale of Earth with the readily apparent scale of human events. In effect, given the delay between anthropogenic carbon emissions and their impacts on the climate, by the time the consequences of our actions are evident, it is in some sense already too late to correct our course. This temporal gap between past actions and their subsequent effects allows for denial to take hold, but to the degree that we've known all along about our irresponsible stewardship of the planet, denial more closely resembles disavowal, a refusal to recognize the extent to which our footprint extends over Earth.
Cinema and media studies has only just begun to consider its medium anew from the perspective of environmental collapse, focusing on narratives of Armageddon and climate change in a range of multiplex features and ecological documentaries.7 But in [End Page 143] addition to reshaping our understanding of contemporary media, the Anthropocene provides an opportunity to reconceptualize cinema and media history. The concept of anthropogenic climate change does not exactly provide a theory of history, but as Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, it pushes the limits of historical understanding and requires us to think across different time scales.8 Film history occupies only a tiny moment in the planetary perspective of Earth's geological history. However, human interventions have accelerated a typically steady and slow-moving natural history, resulting in a new time scale of ecological change that is recent and fast enough for cinema to capture or imagine it. As the contributors to this In Focus section variously...