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“Melancholia” and Climate Change – How the World Ends


Melancholia , the 2011 movie by Lars von Trier, unfolds as the rogue planet Melancholia, now approaching Earth, spells the doom of our own world.

A reviewer on an environmental site takes the inescapability of Melancholia as a metaphor for what’s happening as climate change overtakes the Earth.

Very different from the usual action-filled disaster movie that has everyone rushing around and a few heroes saving the world at the last minute, the movie Melancholia explores the lives of a dysfunctional family at their sprawling country retreat – an oversized mansion with its own lake, stables and golf course.

At the start of the story, dozens of them are gathered for a family wedding party, full of empty joviality and papered-over hostility – all but the bride, Justine, who is deep into clinical depression and unable to cope with all the false bonhomie.

As the planet Melancholia grows closer, however, Justine emerges more and more as the only functional person in the family.

Denial is easier – at least until reality can no longer be ignored.

On the website EarthTechling (a mostly green-tech blog), this week, Susan Kraemer interprets the approach of Melancholia as representing climate change. Like the rogue planet, it is creeping up on all of us. The effects will be devastating – not exactly like being hit by a giant planet, but, along with our own greed and stupidity, already enough to have launched us into a massive extinction of species and the end of the world as we’ve known it for much of human civilization.

And just as most of us choose to carry on our lives in the illusion that climate change isn’t really happening, so the people in the movie live in a world of unreality – about themselves, each other, their own feelings, and now, helplessly, about the impending end of their world.

The one exception is Justine, the bride, who cannot begin to cope with the empty, illusory lives of the members of her new family, but who, as the story progresses, finds herself the only one who is able to deal with the reality of what is overtaking the family and the world, and, as such, the only source of strength for those around her.

Kraemer sees us all relating to climate change in much the same way that the family relates to the arrival of planet Melancholia.

The warnings of scientists are ignored. Lobbies prevent us from hearing and acting. We are in a dreamlike not-knowing.

We know that not enough is being done. And ever closer creeps the possible apocalypse that we could have prevented. Most of the time we don’t talk to each other about the future very different world we have created by burning up fossil fuels in a kind of mad last minute party over the last two centuries. Yet the effects are creeping up on us. It is a surreal situation.

Just as the planet Melancholia is moving inexorably closer to the earth, through space, a similar unprecedented calamity is moving inexorably closer to us, through time.

In both cases there is a dreamlike slowness to the impending doom, and an essential uncertainty. We’ve never been through anything like this kind of climate destabilization before. Maybe we’ll make it. Maybe it won’t be that bad. But maybe it will be. At least for us.

Psychologists would probably classify Justine’s condition as “depressive realism” – a state of being depressed not because you’re the one who’s nuts, but because you see the world as it truly is and you don’t have the ability or energy to paper it over with pretenses and happy-crappy distractions.

Only when the people around Justine can no longer escape from the reality of their own mortality – in this case their very imminent mortality – can she emerge as the one who is truly sane.

Kraemer looks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief to see how the people in the movie cope with the oncoming catastrophe as they move, step by step, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression before reaching a level of acceptance of the inevitability of death.

Kraemer sees most of us, too, as being stuck in that first stage – denial – as climate change overtakes us. Others, like those who frequent her own site, EarthTechling, are perhaps in the “bargaining” phase:

We hope that by writing and talking up every positive piece of news about the switch to renewable energy that our civilization must make, that we can make it, can prevent the worst from happening — the most practical response, in this case, since it can.

Accepting grief is like giving up. And most of us, like the characters in the movie, forget or put aside this knowledge at times, as though in a dream, and at other times confront the real grief. Justine began the movie in deep depression, having given up, but transitions into a grim acceptance by the end.

The characters in the movie know that the end is coming, but they don’t know how to cope with it. Denial is easier – at least until reality can no longer be ignored.

Climate change, too, is creeping up on us. The initial earth changes are already apparent, but much more is to come. And while, yes, there are things we can do to mitigate and adapt to what’s happening, we are already at a tipping point and denial still rules supreme.

Climate changes will happen slowly, over decades and centuries, gradually jolting more of us into awareness as calamity closes in, just like in this movie.

Kraemer doesn’t appear to believe we’re any more capable of dealing with what’s happening than is the family in the movie. Whether the attempts that some of us are making to deal with climate amount to anything more than bargaining with the inevitable is open to argument. But, like Justine, Kraemer herself seems, for better or worse, to be reaching a point of acceptance.