Ours is the age of the Anthropocene. It is unavoidable. We humans are the primary geological power on this planet; becoming, as it were, a force of nature. In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan penned, “This is the first moment in the history of our planet when any species, by its own voluntary actions, has become a danger to itself– as well as to vast numbers of others” (Sagan, 304). Some scientists argue that since our arrival on the planetary scene some millennia ago we have precipitated the Sixth Great Extinction (Leakey). Our detonation of nuclear weapons in the middle of the 20th century have laced Earth’s geology with radionuclides like Plutonium-239 that will remain there for millions of years (Waters, et al). Soils are rapidly being leached of their natural fertility and choked of their capacities to continually bring forth yearly harvest (Marx). But perhaps most troubling of all is the anthropogenic disruption of Earth’s climate.
Since the dawn of the industrial age, human development has been powered by carbon. The trapped solar energy within fossil fuels was gathered by ancient forms of algae, bacteria, and plant life. When burned, this energy is released in a way that humans have been able to utilize. With this energy release comes the emission of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is estimated that every year humans release about 21.3 billion tonnes of CO2 into an atmosphere and ecological system that can only, through natural processes, reabsorb half that, which leaves 10 billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 building up every year. That is an enormous sum. Such a surplus is only problematic because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, meaning that each CO2 molecule is able to absorb and reemit heat energy, trapping that energy within the atmosphere (NASA).
To see the positive and negative effects of greenhouse gas concentrations in an atmosphere, one only has to look towards Earth’s two neighboring planets: Venus and Mars. Mars does not have enough greenhouse gases in its atmosphere to retain any heat from the sun, making Mars a frozen desert. Venus, on the other side, has too much atmospheric CO2 making Venus a hellishly oppressive 860 degrees Fahrenheit (Sagan, 279). Earth’s average temperature, however, is tucked nicely in between. But this is soon to change.
Since 1980, the average temperature of Earth has increased by roughly 1.7 degrees Celsius as a result of anthropogenic climate change driven by fossil fuel consumption (NASA). This might not seem like a lot, but to the delicately balanced and intricate web of ecological energies that make the Earth lovely, it is potentially catastrophic. The effects of climate change are far-reaching and intrude upon nearly every aspect of our lives. And it is, perhaps, the greatest threat ever faced by mankind. The irony being that it is a threat created in our own image.
Indeed this is the Anthropocene– quite literally the Age of Man. It is the age of reductionism. Of commodification. Of industry. Of progress. Of greed. Of capital. There is no quick fix. No easy solution. If there were, it would have already happened. And someone would have made a fortune doing it. No, the problem of the Anthropocene is much bigger than that. It is the product of systemic and collective overconsumption– taking more than the Earth is able to replenish. The vast majority of us don’t even know it’s happening or what to do about it. For those that are aware, it is easy to point fingers and to place blame, but as our children’s stories, bibles, and histories have taught us, blame does little to solve a problem. This is especially true when there are so many parties to blame, undoubtedly, including ourselves.
To solve this problem we need to look to new sources. New wine in old bottles will not do. “In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories… (Scranton, 19).” For these new stories, one only has to look to the great storytelling machine of our age– the cinema. Films such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Interstellar, and The Martian all take place in worlds made inhospitable and have very progressive environmental themes. But perhaps from an unlikely source there can still be glimpsed a complex and layered environmental message– for we live in another age as well– the age of comic book movies.
The most recent entry into this blockbuster behemoth of a genre is Wonder Woman and it is this film that I will take as my text. I have a soft spot in my heart for coaxing the complexity from collectively perceived simple lowbrow popcorn movies. And in my heart sits an irrepressible 10 year old who sits in awe as my childhood heroes take to the silver screen. In the book Supergods the question is posed,
“Could the superhero in [her] cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project? (xvii)”
That may be what gives superhero movies their strength– they remain unapologetically optimistic and unashamedly hopeful, continually calling us forward into a future where we humans can be wondrous.
While Wonder Woman’s central theme may not be explicitly environmental, it does provide a solution to the problem of the Anthropocene– love. And not just simple romantic love, but a patient, longsuffering, compassionate kind of love– charity. A love that is not afraid to look at the violence and greed that exists in the human heart, but, in fact, accepts it. To save ourselves from our own manmade existential threat, Wonder Woman posits, we must accept the darkness of human character– our capacity for inflicting horror and strife on one another– but act from the best of human virtues: mercy, compassion, and most of all, love. As Wendell Berry says in his book Life is a Miracle, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love (41).”
Of Amazons, Great Wars, and Lovely Goddesses
The plot of Wonder Woman is a pretty simple origin story. Diana is raised on the paradise island of Themyscira away from the world of man. She is an Amazon, which is a race of warrior women created by Zeus to influence men’s hearts towards love. When a World War I soldier, Steve Trevor, crash lands on the island, Diana is shown that the world is at war and she believes it is her duty to stop it. With Steve Trevor, Diana goes to London and eventually to the trenches of the front lines. Moved by the human suffering around her, she rallies the Allied soldiers and pushes through enemy lines. Diana’s mission is to find Ares, the God of War, who she presumes is responsible for the war and kill him, thereby bringing peace to the world. But it isn’t as simple as she’d hoped as the real villain of the movie turns out to be the general corruptibility of all mankind. Humans are under no divine spell of violence and are warring all on their own. Diana’s heart is nearly broken by this realization. But it is her ability to accept the darkness in mankind that enables her to see their capacity for so much more. In the final battle against Ares it is mercy, compassion, and love that empower Diana to vanquish the God of War and eventually end the war.
As stated above, Wonder Woman is not explicitly an environmental movie. It is about a God of War attempting to influence mankind into destroying themselves. It is about a young, confident, optimistic, and powerful woman coming to a world run by men and accepting the world as it is– ugly, violent, brutal, and dispassionate. But Diana says multiple times in the film, “It’s about what you believe.” She accepts mankind as they are and knows that they are also capable of the most heart wrenching, loving sacrifice. But its central themes– war, what people deserve, compassion, love, and mercy– have a great deal in common with the Anthropocene. For we are waging a kind of war on the Earth and those that suffer the largest consequences of the war are those that do not deserve it. Wonder Woman’s solution to the problem of the Anthropocene sounds simplistic on the outside, but in truth may be the hardest thing to do– extend mercy to those who are most responsible for killing the world, extend compassion to those who do not deserve to suffer the consequences of killing the world, and finally, to accept that we are capable of great evil. But we can choose to transcend that darkness and act from a place of love for all life.
The bulk of this paper will be an analysis of the main cast of characters, the potential environmental ideologies they represent, and how that can be synthesized into an appropriate response to the Anthropocene
Gods of War & Misanthropy
Admittedly, the two villains of the film, German General Erich Ludendorff and Ares, are a little hammy and lack the characterization that is given to Diana and Steve. But what is important to keep in mind is that Ludendorff and Ares aren’t the true villains of the film. They are the only embodied villains, yes, but they are symbols for the inherent corruptibility of mankind– Ludendorff most prominently. And what makes Steve Trevor and Diana heroes is how they respond and eventually defeat this villain. From the outset, Diana is mostly concerned with killing Ares who she believes is the cause of the war by putting mankind under his warring spell. Steve is concerned with stopping General Erich Ludendorff and his newly created mustard gas. Ludendorff represents the prideful evil of mankind whereas Ares represents a more misanthropic vengeful evil. Diana becomes convinced that Ludendorff is Ares in disguise and so her and Steve’s goals temporarily become aligned. But when Diana finally confronts and kills Ludendorff she faces the reality that killing him literally did nothing. It didn’t stop the chemical weapons, the fighting, or the war. He wasn’t Ares. He was just an evil man dead set on winning the war for Germany and dealing in horrific violence in order to do it. The problem Ludendorff represents is that though he is a specific face of proud evil, when he is killed, it results in zero change. It becomes obvious that he is only a cog in a machine, a symbol of a systemic and faceless problem.
Here is where a tight comparison to the problem of the Anthropocene can be drawn. There is no singular bad guy when it comes to climate change. There is no grand evil villain that is the clandestine hand waging the war on Earth. In his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton writes,
“While the typical collective human response to threat is to identify an enemy, pick sides, and mobilize to fight, global warming offers no apprehensible foe… One climate activist has argued that just 90 companies are responsible for almost two-thirds of all the historical greenhouse gas emissions, which conveniently absolves billions of automobile drivers, airline passengers, meat eaters, and cellphone users of responsibility. The enemy isn’t out there somewhere– the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive. (85)”
The problem, as Ares says to Diana, is that we are all the problem. Having Wonder Woman play against the backdrop of World War I was a genius decision by the fim’s writers. Originally Wonder Woman’s origins come from World War II. But for Wonder Woman’s story, that would have undercut its overall message. WWII was, in some ways, a genuine war against a specific bad guy. You could defeat your enemy by lopping off its head. But with WWI, the reasons for war weren’t so black and white. It was a war of pride, of nationalism, of imperialism. It’s hard to say that the Germans and their allies were genuinely evil especially when the most horrific of weapons, chemical warfare, was being used by both sides (Meyer). America, China, and India are the world’s highest emitters of CO2 and the leading drivers of Climate Change (NASA). But as Roy Scranton said above, that doesn’t make any of those countries inherently evil. They are as much victims of a systemic problem as any other country.
Newly developed weapons like the machine gun, rifles, and poison gases enabled us to kill in a much less personal way, completely detaching us from the violent ends. Machine guns and rifles could kill tens of thousands from hundreds of yards away. A soldier may never have seen the faces of those he mowed down. Gases were indiscriminate killers that were effective whether or not you were guilty or innocent, soldier or civilian, adult or child. The rate of technological change outpaced the strategies used to fight war creating a war where 11 million soldiers and 7 million civilians were killed ( Meyer). Similarly, the consumer culture that has created the Anthropocene has detached people from the violence they are inflicting upon the Earth and each other. The true cost of our convenient lives is hidden from us in global supply chains, grocery stores, and gas stations. Electricity only magically appears when you flip a switch because hundreds of miles away a mountain top is being removed for coal. Rising seas are inundating farmlands and making islands disappear but that is thousands of miles away from the car that emits CO2 as kids are driven to soccer practice.
The lives of good people are dealing violence to the world. We are all complicit and we are all so detached from that violence that we don’t even realize it happens. We are the true unintentional villains of this War for the Anthropocene. But it is our reaction to this realization that will shape the future to come.
Do Nothing, Or Something
Steve Trevor plays the crucial role of being the human that shows Diana mankind is more than its capacity for corruption. At the core of Steve’s character, he knows that he is complicit in the system of violence. Right from the outset when he washes up on the shores of Themyscira, he is wearing a German uniform. Under the influence of the Lasso of Truth he admits he’s a spy and that his job is to lie and steal information in hopes of ending the war. By his own admission he is a liar, murderer, and coward. But although he is complicit, he never once pretends that he isn’t horrified by what he’s seen. This is what drives him throughout the movie: to stop the use of chemical weapons, to stop Ludendorff, and to stop the war. In response to the problem of evil, Steve tells Diana, “you can either do nothing, or something. And I’ve already tried nothing.”
The truly character defining moment for Steve is when he stops Diana from killing Ludendorff at a gala, insisting that they have a mission, which is to destroy the chemical bombs. He insists that they can’t save everyone. This precipitates the gas bombing of the village they had just liberated. Diana looks at him and sees for the first time that even he is not free from the fallibility of mankind. But the best thing about Steve’s character is that, when Diana tells him he’s part of the problem, he knows she’s right. He is a product of the war. After Diana has killed Ludendorff and she’s left in confusion as everyone in the airfield is still fighting, Steve says that he wishes ending the war were as easy as killing one man. But it’s more complex than that. Maybe she’s right, they are all to blame– even himself. This is an echo again of Roy Scranton, “The problem [of the Anthropocene] is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us (68).” Steve knows that his way of relating to the world cannot save the world. It is what caused the war in the first place. Only Diana, who relates to the world in a whole new way can save the world. She has true power and has a real chance of changing things. His final words to Diana are, “I can save today. You can save the world. I love you.” This is when he commandeers the bomber plane loaded to the brim with chemical bombs and detonates it. Steve’s response to the problem posed by Ludendorff was to do something. But in the end he knew that to bring about real change and save the world, he was not enough. Earlier in the film he makes a reference to not knowing what life outside of war is like. He is a product of war and as such doesn’t know how to function outside of it. So in order for the world to be saved, it couldn’t be him, it would have to be Diana. His way of life would have to die.
This is also the central idea in Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. “Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology (23).” In the case of the Anthropocene, Scranton’s argument is that our current type of capitalistic consumer based civilization is already dead and doesn’t have the capacity to save the world and so we must learn to die as a civilization. And the sooner we can do this that, the sooner we can begin preparing ourselves for the world that comes next.
A Wondrous Woman
Perhaps the best part of Diana becoming Wonder Woman is that she is everything the world needs; impossibly brave in the face of fear, unashamedly optimistic in the face of travesty, and unembarrassed to stand for what’s right. Diana is like a breath of fresh air after watching DC’s other two silver screen caped heroes brood and belabor their dark heroics. When Steve crashes in the sea, Diana doesn’t hesitate to save him. When WWI threatens the world and Ares has returned, she doesn’t think twice before leaving her paradise island to free the world of Ares once and for all. And when faced with the grim realities of the outside world, Diana doesn’t lose hope that mankind can become more than they are.
From the outset, Diana’s main response to the problem of evil represented by Ludendorff and the Great War is to assume that it is all Ares doing. Even if a little naive, it is still hopeful in that she doesn’t see mankind as inherently corrupted. The first thing she sees in them is their potential to be more, not their capacity to be less. If only Ares’ spell could be broken, humanity could be as wondrous as she. And it is with this zeal that Diana strides courageously across No Man’s Land, fights through trenches, and inspires those around her to become more. She is compassionate to all she comes across and even seems able to heal the broken spirits of soldiers around her.
But her myopic assumption that Ares is disguised as Ludendorff blinds her to the real Ares hidden right under her nose. Her false perception that mankind is all good is painfully ripped off when she dramatically kills Ludendorff and nothing happens; the real Ares revealing to her mankind’s capacity for darkness and ugliness. The filmmakers did a fantastic job at displaying Diana’s heartbreak as she realizes that even her beloved Steve Trevor isn’t immune to this corruptibility. Her own innocence betrayed her.
Ares summons Dr. Maru, the chemical scientist responsible for millions of deaths, and tells Diana that she least of all humans deserves to live. Diana is a hairsbreadth away from killing the doctor when Steve’s final words echo back to her ear– “I love you.” In an instant, Diana chooses mercy towards the doctor telling Ares that even though humans are everything he says they are, she believes they are capable of so much more. Now fully powered by her compassion and love for humanity she effortlessly dispatches Ares.
Diana’s response to the problem that both Ares and Ludendorff represent is to love mankind not despite our darkness but because of our capacity for goodness. As a response to the Anthropocene, love just might work. And as I said before, this isn’t simple love. It is hard, longsuffering, forgiving, patient love. Wendell Berry writes, “how intimately related, how nearly synonymous, are the terms “love” and “know,” how likely impossible it is to know authentically or well what one does not love, and how certainly impossible it is to love what one does not know (116).” Indeed, Diana may not have been capable of fully loving mankind until she came to terms with our capacity for evil. It was only through her experience of leaving Themyscira, fighting alongside broken soldiers, and liberating oppressed people that her eyes are opened to the full spectrum of human character. This enables her to truly know and love mankind.
Diana’s final line in the movie is, “I believe in love. And only love can save the world.” The solution to the Anthropocene cannot be a mexican stand-off of blaming one another. We all have to lay down our arms, forgive one another, bring compassionate aid to those in need, and begin repairing our world through love. But what does solving the world’s problems through love look like? Surely the Anthropocene won’t be solved by blowing kisses or giving hugs (to trees or otherwise). No, the Anthropocene requires a much more profound love of both Earth and people to begin healing this world. It requires us to enlarge the boundaries of our communities to include the poor and sick of the world and even to the Earth beneath our feet.
In the classic book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold lays down a new way of relating to the Earth in a chapter entitled The Land Ethic. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land (239).” Human beings, he argues, are creatures dependent on many many interlocking layers of an energy pyramid. As we ignorantly chop away at that pyramid we endanger the very foundation upon which our civilization is built. An economic ethic is not enough because nearly 95% of the creatures in the energy pyramid are of no economic value. And interacting with the land for purely economic reasons has landed us in the Anthropocene. “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in (251).” It will not be dollar signs that solve the problem of the Anthropocene, though they certainly will be part of it, but learning to love the land and ascribe it value independent of any perceived use it may have. We must regard ourselves and the land as members of the same community. This community forces mankind out from the center of all things and places him in direct, but not superior, relation to all things.
But such a view is not palatable by all. Anthropocentrism is a hard worldview to shake, but luckily, there are many profound environmental ethics that work within it. One of the most accessible comes recently from Pope Francis. Even for those whom religious rhetoric fails, the Pope’s Encyclical on the environment remains a strong moral voice that speaks directly to the heart of an anthropocentric world. Pope Francis argues that the climate is a common good shared by all and the benefits of a healthy climate are the basic rights of every human being. The poor of the Earth suffer most readily by the effects of Climate Change. Whereas the first world has wealth to lessen the impact of environmental degradation, the poor are left to be buffeted by rising seas, intensified storms, and ever drying deserts. It is the suffering of those who share little blame for the Anthropocene that should move the hearts of humanity towards compassion. The Pope argues that the wealthiest among us should shoulder much of the burden of healing this world as it cannot be born by the poor and was caused by the “throwaway” commodified culture of the rich (Francis). Pope Francis cuts right through economic arguments and gets right at the moral reality of the Anthropocene. This world is a gift and how we treat it, and each other, is a direct reflection of our moral character. The sick and poor suffer needlessly in this world because of the excessive consumption of the wealthy. And it is only through mutual love, community, compassion, and mercy that mankind can heal the problem of the Anthropocene. This is the love that is embodied by Diana of Themyscira– lovingly brave in the face of oppression, intensely compassionate in the face of suffering, and morally strong in the face of great adversity.
I return again to the wise Carl Sagan as I conclude. In the book Pale Blue Dot Sagan envisions the future of humanity as we slowly leave Earth in search of new worlds. First to the Moon, then to Mars, then maybe to one of the Moons of Saturn. But eventually, as we follow the siren song of the stellar frontier, he writes, “It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses,…more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent (329).” It was Sagan’s belief, also, that humanity is capable of great evil and great goodness, but that in order to become a truly interstellar civilization, we would inevitably transcend our violent natures and become something much greater.
“To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time… This would be work worthy of the name ‘human.’ It would be fascinating and lovely (Berry, 19).” The Anthropocene is a beautiful problem. It is so big, so ugly, so painful, and so intimidatingly horrific, that it will require us to be bigger, braver, more compassionate, and more loving– it will take the best of everything we can be to rise above it. But I believe love is what will enable us to do it. It requires us to have love for the Earth. Love of community. Love of neighbor. And love of ourselves. After all, we can either do nothing, or something. And we’ve already tried nothing.
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