Talk about prescient. Majestic dreamscapes early in Koyaanisqatsi, the first film in Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, focus on clouds—scudding, drifting, melting, and materializing again, the constant and eternal background of life on this watery planet. Then, with equal majesty, the scene shifts—now it’s the massive, slow-motion explosions of our great coal mines, whole mountainsides disappearing in a second’s desire for more power.
When the film came out in 1983, no one outside of a few scientists had heard of global warming, but in fact those shots provide a primer on the topic: they show, with emotional and indeed scientific precision, exactly how out of balance our life on this earth has become. When you burn coal, you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the CO2 traps more of the sun’s heat in that narrow envelope of atmosphere, and as it warms, it can hold more water vapor. The atmosphere is substantially wetter now than when those images were shot—those clouds, symbols of the primal, don’t work like that any longer. Because it’s hotter, more water on the earth evaporates, and arid places parch; once it’s in the atmosphere, that water will come down, and so we see ever more deluge and flood. Everything is amped up, everything. As NASA scientist James Hansen wrote in 2008, at current levels of carbon dioxide, we can’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” It doesn’t get much starker than that—life out of balance, indeed.
Reggio and his collaborators weren’t the first to show such prescience, of course. If you want someone with truly sensitive antennae, think about old Henry David Thoreau, back in his nineteenth-century Concord cabin. When he walked into town, he’d avoid the main street—to our eye, were we to see them today, the shop signs there would appear as quaint as Colonial Williamsburg, but for Thoreau they were “hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the jeweller’s; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor.” This was long before the cascade of ones and zeros that would transform our lives, of course, but Henry David knew that was coming. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he writes. “But Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” When the news came of the first telegraph cable to connect London and Boston, Thoreau wrote one of those sentences almost too perfect to be true: “Perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” The 137 channels of the modern cable television system have never been more concisely defined. But even Thoreau couldn’t imagine what we’d do in the atmosphere. We were cutting forests so fast that “soon the country would be so bald that every man would have to grow whiskers to hide its nakedness,” but he “thanked God that at least the sky was safe.”
It’s not just that Thoreau couldn’t foresee the greenhouse effect; he also, of course, couldn’t imagine exactly how colossal a world we would build. He fretted about the new train to Worcester—the highway pulsing with traffic would have shocked if not surprised him. There are scales so vast that against their backdrop even words fail. The wordless montages of these three films are like a travelogue through his nightmares, or indeed those of almost any countercultural American of the past century. The sense in The Qatsi Trilogy that our consumer society is acquiring an unstoppable velocity, eating the planet entire, overwhelming individuality—these had already become the commonplaces of our social and ecological criticism, invoked by sociologists and biologists and psychologists and every other manner of intellectual. They never carried the day—progress was always too attractive for that—but they succeeded in making us nervous. Rachel Carson, for instance, managed to get under our skin: Silent Spring rubbed some tarnish onto the gleaming steel skeleton of progress, making us doubt whether modernity was quite all we’d imagined. But still, naively, it was hard for us to conceive that we’d really grown large enough to matter, that our puny species was actually capable of working change on a geologic scale. That scale is precisely what these films convey. And in so doing, they accomplish something important—they relocate dread from the spectacular to the mundane.
Here’s what I mean. The mid-twentieth-century premonition of our doom was the mushroom cloud. From the moment Robert Oppenheimer watched the first atomic test over Alamogordo, New Mexico, smart people understood; Oppenheimer, in fact, said later that he thought immediately of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “We are become death, destroyers of worlds.” But precisely because we could imagine those grand explosions, we have managed (so far, knock wood) to avoid them. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world went to work to ensure that this would not happen again, and somehow, so far, it has worked.
That visualizing power has failed us, though, when it has come to the task of imagining that the explosion of a billion pistons in a billion cylinders every hour of every day might have the same world-crushing effect. And it’s here that the mesmerizing images of The Qatsi Trilogy—maybe especially the CGI multiplication of Naqoyqatsi—carry so much power. They let us see that the small and many can add up to the big and few, that we’re capable en masse of doing just as much damage with our car keys and thermostats as any Dr. Strangelove left to his own hyperpowerful devices. If only we could see . . .
But—and it’s the height of irony—right at the moment when these films began emerging, we stopped looking, shut our eyes. Koyaanisqatsi was made on the strength of the 1970s environmental surge, the period that began with the first Earth Day. But by the time it came out, that period was over—the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had been a conscious choice to shut our eyes. Instead of images like Reggio’s, the pictures that carried the day were the fuzzy-edged ones from “Morning in America,” one of the most successful political commercials of all time. Looking into the abyss was too painful, and so we blinked. That blink has lasted several decades now, and in fact has turned into a transfixed stare. I was out in a canoe recently with a couple of bright young teenage girls, and they spent the entire voyage staring (cliché of clichés) into the tiny screens of their iPhones. As it turns out, the regimentation we needed to fear was less the militarism that undergirds all those scenes of marching armies in Naqoyqatsi and more the self-imposed isolation bred by all that emerging digital power. We moved into an Epoch of Distraction, and at the worst possible moment, just as the forces of ecological destruction gathered almost unstoppable momentum. Just as life on earth became far more unbalanced than ever before.
The evidence of that imbalance is by now arrayed around us, if you have any idea where or how to look. For instance: since this trilogy was begun, we’ve lost about 40 percent of the sea ice in the summer Arctic; the planet looks different from outer space. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but if you put a pH strip in the ocean, it comes out a different color than it would have when Koyaanisqatsi was released; seawater has become 30 percent more acidic as it has absorbed carbon from the atmosphere. Mosquitoes have spread to new terrain, carrying disease with them. Humans are on the move too, trying to escape rising seas and desiccated farms.
For counterbalance, there’s only the fitfully emerging movements of people around the world trying to change these dynamics—an emergence you can sense brewing at the more optimistic junctures in these films. You see it in the Arab Spring, or in the Occupy movement—an almost tidal surge of human beings realizing that they need to become a physical force to have a chance of preventing more damage. I’ve gotten to see a little of this surge firsthand. I helped found 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign, and in the past five years we’ve staged perhaps twenty thousand rallies and demonstrations, in every country on earth save North Korea. CNN has called it “the most widespread political activity in the planet’s history,” and it’s becoming increasingly confrontational. Many of us went to jail last year, for instance, in an attempt to block the proposed Keystone pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. Why? Because that’s the second-largest pool of carbon on earth. If we used all the recoverable oil there, we’d put more carbon in the air than humanity has emitted with everything else it’s ever burned. It’s trouble on precisely the geologic scale that the Qatsi films depict.
But, of course, there are a hundred deposits nearly as large. And we can’t block them one by one. We need to decide—and very fast—whether we’re going to move as a society from the monolithic scale depicted in The Qatsi Trilogy to a human scale. We’re going to need to see if we can prevent the richest firms on the planet from going ahead with their plans, plans on the one hand so quotidian (get us more oil), and on the other so radical (alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere, for God’s sake!). We’re going to find out if human bodies and human wills can stop the onrush Reggio so brilliantly depicts. The power that surges through these images is so vast, it’s hard to imagine, frankly, that we can stand up to it. But we will try—and maybe, with the kind of creativity and insight on display in these films, we’ll summon up the power of the spirit, and weigh it in the balance against these other massive forces.
Bill McKibben wrote the first book on climate change for a general audience, The End of Nature, in 1989. The Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, he is also the founder of the worldwide grassroots climate campaign 350.org.