I’d just watched the new Tom Cruise sci-fi about alien machines who invade the planet to suck up Earth’s resources. The movie has a happy ending, though: the alien mother ship is destroyed and Tom gets back to his rustic cabin, his family, nature.
Like in most sci-fi’s, the planet is fought for and saved, and what drives the hero(ine) — what’s actually being fought for — are human relationships, memories, love, and, ja, our love for the planet itself: the wilderness, rivers, and homey cabins by the water. Bugger the plasma screens, shopping malls, and brand-name clothing — what the heroine wants to save are the simpler things in life; the essence of human life — that’s why Tom flies the nuclear bomb into oblivion.
Movie done, I’m riding down the elevator. Below me are three floors of mall. Flashing lights. Glossy exteriors. Mannequins. Queues for “large popcorn and Coke, R18.50”, “buy two for R82”, “30% off today”, noise-cancelling headphones, and cheap takeaways. A kid sits at the Wimpy eating chips and playing iPad. Dad’s the same. Mom shovels the last of her burger and Coke Light. Vacant. Bored.
I’m still on the elevator, taking it all in, and as I hit bottom, I’ve just one question. Is this it? Is this the “progress” we’ve been hearing about, the good part, the good life, the point that all our innovation and scientific advancement has brought us to? Is this what’s supposed to justify the polluted rivers, the forests we tear down, the planet we are screwing up. Is this our happy ending?
Because we are — fucking it up, I mean. Tucked in suburban bliss perhaps we don’t see what it really takes to fuel our little bubbles. Maybe we choose not to. Rainforests ripped up for plantations so we can have oil for popcorn. Rivers running red with dyes used to colour the clothes we wear once, twice, a few times, then replace in next season’s colours. In China, the production house for our consumerist lifestyles, 70% of rivers and lakes are polluted, 20% are too toxic for human contact. Closer to home, virtually an entire province has been dug up and mined to supply the coal power for our hair straighteners, gadgets, and TVs. South Africa’s per capita carbon emissions are more than double the global average (and about 50% higher than the EU average).
Look around. Really. The marble tops, the wood finishes, the glass skyscrapers, our beautiful cars — it’s costing the planet. And the kicker? We think these things are beautiful. We chop down indigenous forest, mine the savannah, and pave over wetlands so we can walk through the Woolies looking at all the pretty things, most of which will be out of date next year.
Honestly what could be more beautiful than a mossy forest, than a mountain stream, than sea spray blowing off the back of a wave? Yet we’re trading them in for popcorn and Coke. And it’s not like we’re doing it for something truly worthwhile or enriching. Perhaps if we were losing a wetland to save a village of sick children, or to fight a global pandemic … only we’re not. We’re tearing down paradise so we can have something to nibble on at the movies, we’re pulping rainforests so we have cardboard for takeaway meals, we’re trashing the planet because, hey … we get a little bored sometimes and we need to spend our money on something.
In the movie Tom had to destroy the alien machines to reclaim and save the planet. Swap cosmic machines for our consumerist lifestyles, and the story stays much the same: they are the single biggest threat to our planet, and they are winning the battle for our home. So the question is, at what point are we willing to overthrow them to save what really matters?