I have seen the future, and it looks like Mad Max

How a post-apocalyptic action movie can help us ward off ecological disaster.

 

Last Thursday, I emerged from a movie theatre weak-kneed and sweaty-pitted, nerves fried and brain buzzing, simultaneously terrified and exhilarated by the sight of my own car in the parking lot. I had just seen Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s deranged ode to vehicles, explosions, and maybe, just maybe, the importance of environmental advocacy.

Most of the commentary around Mad Max, including some ranting from the delusional “men’s rights” movement, has focused on the film’s feminist leanings. (Max himself plays second fiddle to the movie’s true hero, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who’s seeking to free a group of female sex slaves from their vile master.) But Mad Max is also an environmental flick, one in which humankind has abandoned its collective land ethic. Nuclear waste has ruined the soil, political elites duel over vanishing water supplies, and gangs of angry motorheads ride roughshod in direct violation of law and order. Oops, my bad — I started talking about the present-day Southwest.

So what did I learn from the anarchic hellscape across which Max and his antagonists run their rusty deathtraps? Here are three lessons from this cinematic masterpiece that we can apply right here in the American West:

Not a drop to spare

High Country News readers probably don’t need me to remind them that the West’s gone awful dry. Still, if you think Lake Mead looks bad now, you should see post-apocalyptic Australia, where Fury Road is set. I felt parched just watching the trailer.

Implausible Hollywood dystopia, or California drought? Photo courtesy of USGS.
Implausible Hollywood dystopia, or California drought?
USGS

How can we stave off Max-hood in our own region? We’ll have to get creative. Rainwater harvesting, realistic water prices, improvements in irrigation technology, xeriscaping and other home efficiency measures, and some shrewd deal-making (though let’s not go too crazy with the infrastructure) all belong in the mix. A dose of interagency cooperation wouldn’t hurt, either. Do all that, and we just might be able to avoid turning into a rabble of thirsty psychopaths.

Return of the Dust Bowl

Okay, so Mad Max isn’t explicitly a work of “cli-fi,” the nascent genre in which an anthropogenically altered atmosphere provides the backdrop to a cataclysmic future. (See, e.g., Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “The Tamarisk Hunter,” or, if you’re feeling lower-brow, the anti-geoengineering screed Snowpiercer.) And I’m fairly sure the latest IPCC report doesn’t mention the possibility of brainwashed young men spraying chrome on their faces and sacrificing themselves, Kamikaze-like, for their sadistic overlord. (Maybe it’s in the appendix?)

ScreenShot20150602at4.08.36PM.png
Furiosa (right) and friends stare gravely into a future marked by four degrees of climatic warming.
Warner Brothers

Still, our once-hospitable climate has most definitely run amok in the Mad Max universe. It’s all in there: the drought, the heightened violence, and, most spectacularly, the extreme weather. At one point, Furiosa evades capture by piloting her 18-wheeler into the twirling eye of a towering dust storm, or haboob. Residents of Phoenix, which experienced a 2011 haboob that stretched 6,000 feet high and 100 miles wide, can probably relate. And last winter, epic dusters blew from Colorado to Oklahoma, piling up so many tumbleweeds that one town had to mobilize its snowplows. No, we can’t pin any given storm on global warming, but a growing body of evidence suggests that climate change will only make weather weirder. Anyone up for a carbon tax?

Road rage

You might not know this about Mad Max, but it contains cars. Lots and lots of cars. It’s practically Los Angeles, with slightly angrier drivers. Oil, in Max’s world, has become scarce and more precious than blood, and the tyrant’s henchmen, called War Boys, will kill and die to secure gasoline. The original 1979 film, in fact, was partly inspired by the ‘73 oil crisis, during which American motorists rioted against gas station owners.  

MadMaxCars.JPG
Monday morning on the 405.
Warner Brothers

More than 40 years later, however, Peak Oil remains as distant as ever, thanks to fracking, offshore drilling, and other advances in fossil fuel technology. Oil prices have plummeted in the past year, and driving rates are again on the rise. But even if the pumps aren’t about to run dry, there are plenty of reasons to wean ourselves off cars, from climate change to greasy seabirds to traffic (which, let me tell you, feels pretty darn apocalyptic here in Seattle). The best way to prevent a Max-like catastrophe? Invest in public transit! All those road-raging War Boys wouldn’t be hurling exploding spears at each other if they were playing Minecraft together on a publicly-funded bullet train.

Now that we’re all in the mood for big-screen Western disasters, who’s up for San Andreas?

Ben Goldfarb is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...