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?

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?)

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.  

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. 

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