The Climate Pessimism of Blade Runner 2049
It is fitting that we are entering the year 2019, in an age of climate change skepticism, or the complete denial of climate change, in the same year that the original Blade Runner was set. In that cinematic universe, aside from the mild badassery that the denoted bounty hunters that the film(s) title reference, each film reflects pessimistically of the future world that they portray.
In Blade Runner (2019), the fictional Los Angeles portrayed is covered in a landscape of mega-industrial and manufacturing factories, dense smog and orange smoke, and an almost persistent rain. Corporations like the infamous Tyrell Corp. are virtually free to do as they please, in regards to the environment; with the backdrop of the infamous bio-engineered humans, replicants, also being banned from Earth. Of course, in the world of Blade Runner, albeit with the flare of retro-futurism, technology has advanced so much that off-world colonization is a common reality. In fact, it is so much of a reality, that the top economic percent of citizens flee Earth in search of better lives, uncorrupted by a polluted climate and other earthly regulations.
What I find most pressing about the portrayal of the climate, envisioned by Ridley Scott, is the attempt at adaptability to a worsening climate. While the elites flee Earth, the lower class live on the streets, deeply impoverished, clothed with winter attire, and often wearing some kind of breathing apparatus or gas mask to combat the thick smog found within the city limits. This lifestyle is frighteningly accurate of the real world. Just in the greater Los Angeles, smog permeates the air, not nearly as bad now as in the 1960’s or 80’s, but still very poor; homeless populations are disproportionately affected by rising and falling temperatures and bad weather conditions; and now there has been long standing migrations from poor conditions to more temperate climates, which in turn negatively effect economic conditions. The reason why someone like Scott was so in tune with this attitude, was because he was viewing this issue through the lens of the 1980’s. The consequences of the industrial revolution and the wide use of fossil fuels had just started to become understood to its fullest extent.
This brings us to today, and consequently the year 2049. In Blade Runner 2049, the state of things are much worse. It is either always raining or sometimes snowing in the Los Angeles area. When was the last time it in snowed in L.A.? There is no sign of animal life, and if there is, it’s been artificially manufactured. Smog is so bad in the city limits that companies project their holographic advertisements onto the smoke itself. The only tree in the entire film has been dead for at least 30 years. Wood itself has become a precious commodity, which is in turn hoarded by the wealthiest person on the planet, Niander Wallace, who uses wood extensively throughout the interior of his headquarters at Wallace Corp. Las Vegas, in this cinematic universe, has been decimated by a nuclear dirty bomb and is almost completely inhospitable. But the most striking feature of this film is its infamous sea wall along the L.A. Pacific coast. Because of rising sea levels, a giant wall is built along the coast to push back devastating, persistent flooding. In BL 2049, the sea wall of course comes to represent the replicant resistance against the common order, but its inclusion in the film still resonates deeply with how our attempts to combat climate change continue to run into roadblocks.
The director of BL 2049, Denis Villeneuve, envisioned a harsh world with an equally harsh climate. Yes, perhaps in his vision of the future, we can all enjoy wearing long leather dusters, brood through the dark, wet, and dank streets of an overpopulated city, surrounded by thick, neon-lit fog, doubly surrounded by advertisements everywhere we look; and while that seeps with the cinematic, it isn’t exactly the most sustainable lifestyle. Herein lies my main point: the genius of science fiction writers of the past and present always lean toward a predictive perspective. Even such campy television programs like the original running of Star Trek predicted technological advancements like mobile phones and video calling. If you want any other major predictions just look to the likes of Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, and George Orwell. I suspect that most of the great science fiction writers weren’t all pessimists in regards to technology, but most of them were certainly warning us of the potential dangers.
When it comes to our climate, however, none of them quite hit the mark in such a modern style like Villeneuve. The through-line of his film, in regards to the world he built upon, is that of adaptation. Now, one could argue that it isn’t necessarily a pessimistic outlook of our future 30 years from now, considering how the theme of hope is always in the undercurrent in is films. But all one has to do is look to the real world today; the state of the climate is dismal at best. California is either consistently on fire or in a deep drought; hurricane season seems to bring two or three devastating storms every year, all seemingly record breaking of the previous year; winters are becoming warmer, which leads to worsening storms in the northern hemisphere; Greenland is slowly but surely losing its ancient layers of permafrost; sea levels are steadily rising; and more and more people are migrating to the Pacific northwest, drastically altering those economies. It all comes in the wake of Europe’s continued use of coal and oil, Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, and Republican members of congress avidly skeptical of climate science.
It isn’t all bad, however. Renewable energy resources are becoming more affordable and common place, China is beginning to slow its use of fossil fuels, electric car companies like Tesla are trying to produce a high volume of vehicles with moderate levels of affordability, all while trying to integrate self-sufficiency into their energy models. And nuclear power is going steady, with new innovations every few years. The problem that I see though, is that fossil fuels will likely never go away. A tremendous amount of fuel is needed for space travel and airline travel, developing nations find coal and oil especially necessary for energy, and the fact that no one can truly agree on how to solve issues of a warming climate supply my argument with greater evidence.
Whether or not humanity does something to solve the problem of rapid climate change isn’t certain. What is, is our historical nature of overcoming and adaptation. Humans are resilient animals, much more so than some of our mammalian cousins. If we weren’t that way, then we probably wouldn’t be here today, at least not in our current condition. If we weren’t as resilient, we may have been confined to the plains of Africa. So in my mind, if we do not do anything about our worsening climate, we will just have to adapt.