In a speech delivered to the Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday, President Obama displayed a dramatic shift in rhetoric on an issue he has defined as one of the biggest of our era: climate change. Recognizing that many Americans remain skeptical of the environmental impacts of global warming, he instead argued for action on the grounds of national security.
In a report accompanying the speech, the White House said climate change was an “accelerant of instability around the world,” largely due to water and food shortages that could escalate tensions in already-destabilized areas. Pundits are framing Obama’s speech as an effort to accomplish something of value on the issue in his remaining two years in office and, perhaps, force the 2016 presidential candidates to reckon with the issue more seriously.
If he is successful, he will owe a little something to the movies. Currently in theaters, Mad Max: Fury Road echoes precisely the same themes that form the basis of Obama’s new initiative. It’s not the first Hollywood film to contain climate change themes (The Day After Tomorrow, The Lorax, Interstellar), but it might be the most effective. The dystopian Western tells a gripping, pulse-pounding story, but it also gets much right about the global issues surrounding climate change that most films have neither the ambition nor the insight to match.
It is no surprise that such a film comes from writer-director George Miller, who has long been an environmental activist (his Oscar-winning animated sequel Happy Feet Two also contained a climate change agenda). In Fury Road, he has created a film that envisions a near-future world ravaged by drought and extreme weather events. From the beginning of production, Miller instructed his crew to imagine that “all the worst-case scenarios you read in the news have come to pass.” This ethos is not just a matter of the set design or cinematography; the entire story—even the franchise itself—is built on it.
Miller’s iconic hero Max Rockatansky was created more than three decades ago. Things were bad in Max’s world back then, but they have only gotten worse. The original Mad Max was set after an unnamed energy crisis had spurred a near-total breakdown of civilization, with special police officers like Max hanging around trying to maintain justice. In those films, the most precious commodity—the one worth fighting over—was oil, and, for Miller, it was an artistic choice that clearly reflected the real-life energy crises of the 1970s, when a perceived shortage of petroleum led to a drastic increase in gasoline prices and laid bare America’s tenuous relationship with powers in the Middle East.
In Fury Road, the situation has devolved considerably. The world—or at least the corner of it that we see in the film—seems to be run by one man, a cult leader named Immortan Joe, who maintains power by controlling the new most precious commodity: water. He extracts it from the bowels of the earth in huge quantities, but only doles it out to his followers sporadically, keeping them desperate, submissive, and entirely dependent on him for their survival. It’s an exaggerated depiction of tyranny, but the idea is not far from the truth. Miller’s focus on water—as opposed to oil—accurately reflects how environmental issues have developed since the first Mad Max.
Experts agree that if the onslaught of climate change continues unabated, water will be a highly-prized commodity. “The twenty-first-century projections make the [previous] mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” says Jason Smerdon, a Columbia University climate scientist.
Still, we don’t have to project into the future to see the impact of climate change on our water supply. “[I]t doesn’t really require much exposition for the audience to buy a degraded world, because we already see evidence of it happening all around us,” Miller said. He’s right, and evidence can be seen all around the globe. Obama noted in his speech Wednesday that “severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram.” Meanwhile, California is in the midst of a four-year mega-drought that has led the state to try out rationing policies, and officials in Sao Paolo, Brazil are scrambling to come up with a solution to the city’s water crisis that may leave the city absolutely dry in just a few months. As policy experts work to come up with a solution, city officials are bracing for riots due to unrest. Conflict between states is also a distinct possibility, as many national security experts have predicted an era of “water wars.”
Does this mean we are headed towards the brutal, apocalyptic scenario depicted in Fury Road, in which the person who holds the water holds the power? Well, maybe. In addition to its well-researched take on climate change, Fury Road’s specific take on violence is also rooted in real-life geopolitical dynamics. Climate change merely sets the stage for the film’s action-packed scenario, but Miller’s true stroke of genius is connecting extreme weather to perhaps the next most significant global threat: religious fundamentalism.
Consider the character of Immortan Joe. He is a cult leader who in many ways seems to be a stand-in for Osama bin Laden, or any other leader of radical Islam. He has several wives—their escape ignites the film’s plot—as well as a cadre of young boys he has brainwashed into believing his myths. These boy soldiers dedicate their lives to him, having swallowed the lie that if they die defending him they will receive an eternity in paradise. They call this paradise “Valhalla,” a reference to the mythical land inhabited by Vikings who died in combat, but in our current geo-political context Miller it is hard not to associate this with Al Qaeda and global jihadism.
By building a post-apocalyptic world using contemporary symbols of both climate change and religious fundamentalism, Miller is creating a correlative link between the two for the viewer, but is there evidence to back up his assertion? There may be no demonstrative link between climate change and mega-droughts that will lead to a spike in terrorism, but conventional wisdom indicates that desperate global conditions create a fertile ground for all forms of fundamentalism. For example, consider the popularity of jihadist schools, as depicted in the terrific new documentary Among the Believers, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. The filmmakers received unprecedented access to a jihadist school in Pakistan, at which children are indoctrinated into radical Islam as soon as they learn to read. Viewers would naturally question why any parent would send their child to such a school, but the film has an answer: For many impoverished Muslims, it is the only school available to them. With virtually no education system in place, terrorism fills the void left by a lack of economic development.
This concept is demonstrated with scary accuracy in Fury Road. Immortan Joe keeps the adults in line by rationing water, but he hordes the children to be his soldiers. He steals them as babies from their families, indoctrinates them, and feeds them myths about the paradise that awaits them if they die fighting his war, but the desperate global conditions brought on by climate change is what gives him his power. In this way, the film displays a nuanced understanding of the root causes of global catastrophe that most of our political leaders have yet to learn. To his credit, Obama is trying to lead the way. With the success of Fury Road among such a wide swath of the American public, I’m sure he hopes the message trickles down.
Noah Gittell is a film critic and essayist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Washington City Paper, Esquire, LA Review of Books, and others.