We’re All Going to Die #3

Time to opine on The Day After Tomorrow. I agree with Robot_Alarm_Clock that it’s it’s a lousy movie. But it’s a fascinating lousy movie. Spoilers ahead, for those who’ve not yet seen it.

Like Twister, and unlike The Perfect Storm, the climate is the star of this show. The havoc it wreaks on Los Angeles – in yet another Californian suicide fantasy – is a joy to behold. Manhattan also comes in for a memorable whupping. The actors are constantly overshadowed by the Big Chill and, wisely, Dennis Quaid allows himself to be upstaged by the various children, puppies and large weather systems against which he is paired. It is a movie designed for bit parts, and some of the bits are tremendous fun. The President of the United States is played as a dithering idiot with whom you could have beer with as you both freeze to death. The vice president is an evil nay-sayer to climate change who learns humility the hard way. The Royal Family is turned into blue blooded popsicles early on.

Unlike the really great disaster movies – and I’m thinking here of The Towering InfernoThe Day After Tomorrow doesn’t worry too much about character, and doesn’t fuss too much with the thorny question of responsibility. With every great advance in capitalism– as Paul Virilio has noted – comes its concomitant accident. And with every accident, responsibility. Except in this movie. It turns out, sitting in a US cinema surrounded by wastelands of parking lots, that no-one is responsible for climate change, other than the people who don’t believe it is happening. There’s a political fantasy of confession and redemption here. And, yes, the Vice President is redeemed. In his final soliloquy, he admits his past sins – hubris mainly – and he walks into the day after tomorrow. And in the salvation of this mock-Cheyney, we have the key to understanding TDAT. It is, ultimately, a snuff movie for Christian Democrats. It’s a film in which everyone dies, but no one suffers. In that sense, it has its political counterpart on the other end of the U.S. political spectrum in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, a movie in which one man suffers for everyone, but doesn’t really die.

And this is a general feature: Hollywood’s depictions of harm can’t to take chronic suffering, or responsibility, seriously. A fine example of this is to be found in one of the better jokes in the film – one that had the entire cinema giggling silly. As more and more of North America is frozen by the climatic shift, US citizens head south. Overwhelmed by an influx of parasitic, unwashed, and unwelcome immigrants, the Mexicans close the border. It is only the US government’s forgiveness of third world debt that reopens the border.

Now, much has been made of the science behind The Day After Tomorrow, and the consensus is that TDAT is to meteorology as Jurassic Park is to genetics. But the bet in disaster movies is that there’s going to be just enough in the film which you know to be true to purchase your suspension of disbelief. The Mexican border and third world debt jokes summoned roars of laughter from the audience precisely because these two political ideas, unlike the notion of climate change, are based on precisely nothing. The world may freeze tomorrow, but it’ll happen with the Global North owning the Global South.

Only last week, the G-8 met and agreed to continue with its ‘debt relief’ program –the heavily indebted poor countries initiative –HIPC – (pronounced “hip-ick”). By its own standards, HIPC has failed to reduce the debt of its beneficiaries, and has bound qualifying economies yet more firmly to the structural adjustment policies that got them in debt in the first place. In the obtuse words of the IMF last year– “Unless HIPCs improve their primary fiscal positions or grant financing is sustained at current, or possibly higher, levels, debt sustainability in HIPCs may prove elusive in the long term.” Of course they’re going to prove elusive – the multilateral agencies (IMF and World Bank) had no intention of funding HIPC adequately, and third world governments have learned well that their job is to yap for concessions.

Which brings me rather neatly to UNCTAD XI, the 11th convention of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development, which is currently running in Brazil. Last year, Rubens Ricupero, the head of UNCTAD, spat out some of the fiercest challenges to neoliberalism that the UN has dared mouth since the Oil Crisis in the 1970s. In the intervening year, it seems as if someone has had a word in his shell-like. This year, Cde Ricupero will be telling us that, actually, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with globalization – it’s just that, well, we should introduce the kinds of qualified generalized system of preferences that would let the very poorest countries benefit from trade. So that’s all right then. No mention of systemic inequalities or exploitation. No need to fuss about reparations for past shitty policy. And nary a care about contemporary debt relief other than, I predict, a call to widen HIPC so that everyone can join in. Sigh.

TDAT has it right: even without the spectacular cataclysms, the day after tomorrow looks pretty inhospitable for most of us.