Where The Real Story Starts

On disaster movies and a disastrous world

I love a disaster movie. If an asteroid is hurtling toward Earth and only an oil driller and his quirky crew of roughnecks can save the world, I am all in. Or if there is an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, and a retired, grizzly astronaut must lead a crew of young guns on a mission to blow the asteroid up to save the world, sign me up. I enjoy movies about earthquakes ravaging a city and climate change wreaking havoc on the world, forcing a few thousand very lucky people into a series of modern-day arks to preserve humanity. Let’s say the planet reverses its polarity and an affable scientist must lead a team to the earth’s core to reset the planet’s internal engine. Sure! Why not? From Greenland to The Core to Armageddon, the more ludicrous and compounded the disaster, the more thrilled I am.

I am of the generation when global warming was actually called global warming rather than the politically neutral and disingenuous climate change. When I first saw The Day After Tomorrow, it felt so implausible. I understood global warming as a real threat, but one that would affect my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I appreciated the movie, not only as entertainment but an exaggerated cautionary tale. In The Day After Tomorrow, there is a polar vortex that basically brings about a new Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere. There is calamity, everywhere. A father, the scientist who tried to warn the politicians about impending doom, must venture through this vortex to rescue his son who is stranded with a few friends and librarians in the New York Public Library. Of course. Like all such movies, the twists and turns are ludicrous but they ratchet up the tension like a motherfucker. When the movie is over, Mexico has opened its borders to the United States in, what the movie implies, is a humbling role reversal.

What happens next? We don’t know. Disaster movies don’t concern themselves with whatever might happen after the worst has passed. They are not interested in the grueling work of rebuilding a society, learning hard lessons, and working to not repeat the same mistakes. And neither are we. Instead, disaster movies are only concerned with survival and holding on to the belief that no matter how dire the challenges we face, humanity will persevere.

For decades, the planet has been telling us it is getting too hot. We have done absolutely nothing to mediate the damage we have, collectively, wrought. We are living in a disaster movie and only some of us seem to know.

As individuals, we ask a lot of each other to address climate change. We can recycle and drive hybrid or electric cars. We can use alternative forms of power like wind or solar. We can eat less meat and avoid airplane travel. We can offset our carbon consumption. We can use public transportation and ride bikes to work and compost our trash and minimize waste. Each of the choices we make to mitigate climate change feels like a drop in the bucket, but we console ourselves, I think, by believing that if there are enough drops in the bucket, we will save the world through the goodness of our intentions and the collective power of our efforts.  

Still, these individual efforts feel futile because we know that until major corporations change how they use fossil fuels, until we wean ourselves from our cultural dependency on fossil fuels, our efforts can only accomplish so much. And then, of course, there is the significant percentage of people in the world who don’t believe global warming is a threat, who through denial, willful ignorance, or immense privilege have insulated themselves from the calamities of a burning planet.

On September 1st, it rained something fierce. Hurricane Ida, finished with Louisiana and Mississippi, decided to pay a visit to the northeastern seaboard. I stared out the window at sheets of rain coming down. At times it felt like we were in a waterfall. I had to take our puppy outside to pee. He refuses to go out in the rain so I take him under the scaffolding across the street, as do most of my neighbors with their own dogs. With a bit of coaxing, Max deigns to relieve himself. After I bundled him in his little raincoat, I grabbed an umbrella and put my shoes on and tucked Max against my chest. I made my way down the stairs and walked through a small but raging river to cross the street where I walked through another small but raging river. Water, everywhere, sluicing through every opening, seemingly never-ending. Max shivered and sniffed and peed and I thought, “This is not normal,” and “This is the third time it has been like this in a month,” and “This is not normal,” but in truth, this is our new normal. These intense weather events will only occur with increasing frequency. The aftermath will worsen and continue to disproportionately affect and displace the most vulnerable populations.

Later that evening, my wife checked the basement and it had flooded, two or three inches of water, which is to say we were lucky. It has mostly drained away. The floor is drying. The rain has stopped, for now. But many people lost their lives here in New York, and in New Jersey. Countless homes were flooded and damaged, cars stranded in rivers that used to be streets. The subway flooded, The baggage claim at Newark Airport, flooded. Social media was filled with videos of cascading water where it shouldn’t be. And this was merely the damage wrought by the last gasps of the storm, not its initial ferocity.

In the South, Ida wreaked far more havoc, during the hottest, muggiest time of year. Millions of people are without electricity. They wait in line for gas for hours on end. A highway in Mississippi washed away. Though New Orleans didn’t flood, many parts of Louisiana did. This wasn’t the devastation of Hurricane Katrina but that’s not saying much. And this happened during a pandemic that is currently ravaging that same area. Hospitals are straining to care for everyone with COVID-19, and all the typical patients they would expect to treat.

Most of the people who evacuated will return, eventually. The people who stayed, will struggle through the next few weeks as best they can. Damaged will be rebuilt. People will wait for the next hurricane or other disaster to strike. The media will say a few things about global warming as forest fires continue to burn across the West and tornadoes whirl their way through the Midwest and the next hurricane begins to form over the Atlantic Ocean. But it is highly unlikely that anything fundamental will change because half of us don’t believe the threats we face even exist.

If global warming was the only problem we were facing that night be manageable. But it isn’t. From earthquakes to failed wars to inadequate vaccine supplies for most of the world, life these days feels like a constant state of crisis. And beyond natural disasters, there are those that are man-made and just as terrible.

Texas has implemented a law banning abortion after six weeks and that’s not even the worst part of the law. SB8 also deputizes private citizens, in any state, to sue abortion providers and anyone “aiding or abetting” an abortion after six weeks. They are entitled to a bounty of $10,000 or more. Texas Right to Life created a website where people can report suspected abortion providers. Texas lawmakers are so hellbent on controlling (white) women’s fertility they will use any means necessary to secure that control. It seems like the stuff of science fiction, but it is alarmingly real. The potential repercussions are staggering and grotesque and this is just the beginning. Other states are chomping at the bit to enact similar legislation. The Supreme Court in allowing the law to be implemented has implicitly overturned Roe v. Wade and when they hear the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, they will likely overturn Roe v. Wade explicitly.

Women and people with uteruses have long known that any bodily autonomy we have is hard earned and impermanent. But to see the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned, becoming ever more likely, is gutting. Like once understanding global warming as a real but vague and distant threat, I did not want to believe we would see women’s right to abortion access repealed in my lifetime. I am as shocked as I am utterly unsurprised given the encroachments on reproductive freedom conservatives have attempted over the past forty years.

It’s hard to not feel hysterical when thinking about the all the crises the world is dealing with and the inevitable consequences is, as usual, not enough changes. And oftentimes, pundits label people who raise concerns about global warming or women’s rights here and abroad, or the fallout if the wrong person becomes president, as hysterical. And alarmist. And unrealistic. Eventually, the hysterics are proven right, but they are not afforded the satisfaction of saying “I told you so,” because the price paid is far too high.

In feminism, we talk a lot about intersectionality but a lot of the time, it seems like people believe that saying the word is practicing or embodying the principle. At some point, everyone needs to stop stumbling over the word and start understanding how the most dire issues we presently face are all feminist issues and concerns. We can’t simply address one problem at a time as if each problem will wait its turn. Reproductive freedom and equal pay and climate justice and police violence and disability justice and the ever-widening class divide and public health and every other important issue are all interconnected. And unlike in disaster movies, as I’ve written before, no one is coming to save us. We have to be our own heroes, even if we can’t drill in space or fly a helicopter in search of a missing daughter, or drive a limousine through the streets of Los Angeles as they split apart. We have to start concerning ourselves with whatever happens after the disaster, because that’s where the real story starts.