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The Eternal Engine

By P.J. Podesta

The greatest virtue of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian action film, may be its oddity. At first the movie seems a straightforward sci-fi tale of rebellion against oppressive elites—in this incarnation: aboard a megatrain racing perpetually across the frozen world in the wake of a global warming mitigation experiment gone wrong. The passengers, rigidly divided by class, are the only humans left alive. It is, from one angle, a futurist action flick with the bad dialogue you’d expect. But per David Ehrlich’s review:

The worst of it is crammed into the deceptively dreadful opening act, during which [hero] Chris Evans says things like “control the engine, control the world” ... and “I’m not a leader,” even though he’s obviously a leader because they don’t give cheekbones like that to lackeys. And yet, there’s a bold and risky gambit at play here – while the film never explicitly calls attention to this idea, there’s good reason to believe that the first few chapters of the story are deliberately generic.

The film reveals itself as self-aware—and more than a genre exercise—with the arrival of the remarkably weird Tilda Swinton (Minister Mason, the train conductor’s spokeswoman). In her first appearance, Swinton orates in a thick Yorkshire accent over the cries of a man whose arm is being frozen solid for heaving a shoe at one of the conductor’s henchmen. Brandishing the weapon, she delivers the lines George W. Bush never did: “Passengers! This is not a shoe. This is disorder. This is size 10 chaos. This—see this? This is death.”

The engrossing images and dark humor—both at their apex when a chipper, propagandizing school teacher (Alison Pill) seamlessly becomes a machine-gun-wielding maniac—pull you forward with the revolutionaries to the front of the train, where, per Landon Palmer’s analysis:

Bucking the straightforward rise-of-the-proletariat classical Marxian critique that would place Snowpiercer comfortably among other dystopian sci-fi class narratives like Elysium or any antecedent of 1984, the film’s third-act reveal allows the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) to uncover that violent proletariat revolution is, in fact, a regular and essential part of the train’s carefully maintained ecosystem. Thus, underclass dissent is a device of the powerful, and resistance is something already inscribed to benefit existing hierarchies of power. The outcome of Curtis’ (Chris Evans) revolution was already written before it ever began.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, follows a similar pattern as it takes in climate change, catastrophe, and resistance—albeit in a less formally impressive way than Snowpiercer.

Klein’s intro and opening chapters do what one might expect: e.g., She summarizes stunning projections of the catastrophic climate impact of business-as-usual; reveals the successful efforts of right-wing think tanks to sow climate change denial; indicts Obama’s “all-of-the-above energy” approach; decries the unfettered free market as a planet-and-people destroyer. As I sat listening to the audiobook on a bus from New York to DC, Klein’s earnest calls for change had to compete for my attention with the flashy luxury and sex scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street, which was in plain view on the laptop of the guy sitting across the aisle from me. For audio, instead of Jordan Belfort’s (DiCaprio’s) cunning pitches to investors, I heard the melodramatic reader (given to cringe-worthy accent imitations) deliver prescriptions like:

As hundreds of millions gain access to modern energy for the first time, those who are consuming far more energy than they need would have to consume less. How much less? Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.

Juxtaposed against yesteryear Wall Street’s irresistibly squalid splendor, the calls to behave well seemed about as feckless as a substitute teacher’s vain attempts to tame a raucous class that just wants to have fun.

Klein does better when she turns her eye to the Big Greens next door. After she exposes The Nature Conservancy as an oil driller (on its endangered bird refuge on Galveston Bay, Texas), she describes the evolution of U.S. environmental groups of the 70s (legislatively victorious many times over between 1963 and 1980) from “a rabble of hippies” to “a movement of lawyers, lobbyists, and U.N. summit hoppers.” “Many of these newly professional environmentalists,” she notes, “came to pride themselves on being the ultimate insiders, able to wheel and deal across the political spectrum.” Then came Reagan, who “filled his inner circle with pro-industry scientists who denied the reality of every environmental ill from acid rain to climate change.” And, despite the concurrent rise of the environmental justice movement, Klein points out:

In the 1980s, extreme free market ideology became the discourse of power, the language that elites were speaking to one another…. That meant that for the mainstream green movement, confronting the antigovernment logic of market triumphalism head-on would have meant exiling themselves to the margins. And many of the big-budget green groups—having grown comfortable with their access to power and generous support from large, elite foundations—were unwilling to do that.

The Environmental Defense Fund, in particular, underwent a remarkable transformation. Their motto had been “sue the bastards.” But this “once combative organization that had spent its early years translating Rachel Carson’s ideas into action” morphed into a partner of Walmart (a collaboration accompanied by the Waltons’ $65 million in donations to the Fund between 2009 and 2013) and proponent of a “pro-corporate … low-friction model of social change in which everything had to be a ‘win-win.’”

Klein’s earnest muckraking notwithstanding, one wonders whether her call to action can mobilize the people against the power of the titanic fossil fuel industry and the governments that seem to be at their mercy. At a panel discussion the night before the People’s Climate March (a misnomer: the march was more of a Sunday stroll than a threat to the status quo; organizers helped ensure that the line of marchers halted periodically on 6th Avenue to let traffic through), Klein’s remarks on free trade’s obstruction of climate action came off as bland next to Chris Hedges’ excoriation of the Democratic Party in general and the President[1] in particular:

By the time [Bill] Clinton was finished, the rhetoric of self-professed liberals in the political establishment was nothing more than a public relations game. And that is why there has been complete continuity from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. …

Obama, in return for financial support from the Kingpins of Carbon, has, in fact, cynically undermined international climate treaties (we know this because of the leaks by Snowden and Wikileaks). It’s used the intelligence agencies to spy on those carrying out climate negotiations, to thwart caps on carbon emissions and push through useless, non-binding agreements.

Panelist Kshama Sawant wasn't going to take that sitting down. She explained to the crowd (in a display of charismatic humility): “If you don’t mind, I’m going to stand. Whenever I’m thinking about politics I get really passionate and it’s hard for me to sit down.” And suddenly she was stealing the show with a conviction that made her venerable co-panelists (including Bill McKibben and Bernie Sanders, sitting on either side of her) seem like simple bystanders:

Take Exxon Mobil, … which spends millions promoting its green credentials. Yet in a recent letter, they assured their shareholders they will sell all of the oil and gas they have found, and all that they will find in the foreseeable future. This is the reality of international capitalism. This is the product of the gigantic casino of speculation created by those highway robbers on Wall Street and the rapacious oil vultures. In this system, the market is God, and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit.

In This Changes Everything, Klein’s praise for myriad legal and extra-legal efforts to counter the fossil fuel industry—from the “re-municipalization” of Hamburg’s energy grid to the Ogoni people’s banishment of Shell from their territory in the Niger Delta—makes it clear that she’s in the camp of Hedges, Sawant, and others advocating strong action. Her litany of examples of environmental devastation and subjugation of the poor (the account of the wholesale destruction of Nauru—formerly “Pleasant Island”—is especially moving), frames climate change as one (major) result of unfettered global capitalism. Which means that for her, “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews,” and “winning will certainly take the convergence of diverse constituencies on a scale previously unknown.” One imagines a coalition of everyone but the “one percent” encircling the U.S. Capitol until legislators decide to pass sweeping campaign finance reform.

In her final call to arms—which, she makes clear, is not an actual call to arms—Klein writes: “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.” She refers to the Arab Spring, Europe’s “squares movement,” Occupy Wall Street, and the student movements in Chile and Quebec as “upwellings” that came as a surprise, especially to those most active in these movements. “No one knows when the next such effervescent moment will open, or whether it will be precipitated by an economic crisis, another natural disaster, or some kind of political scandal.”

Such a moment will inevitably arrive, but to reach the level of mass mobilization required to change the economic status quo—the point at which activism “becomes an entirely normal activity throughout society”—it seems a great many of us will first need to confront… Wilford.

At the end of Snowpiercer, after he has fought his way to the front of the train, Curtis is shocked to hear from overlord Wilford that his own mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) was in on the grand-planned scam-revolution, and that he himself has been groomed to be the next conductor-king. The train must go on, Wilford explains. Life depends on it. However harsh the disparity aboard may seem, “everyone has their preordained position.”

Curtis is reeling. After 18 years of dreaming of unseating Wilford, he suddenly finds himself entranced by the beauty of the (inexplicably) “eternal engine.” For a moment, it seems that Curtis will accept the invitation to take Wilford’s place.

His quandary evokes the reality of hegemony that Klein never quite captures. The enchantments of the ruthless insiders rely not just on “might makes right” but also on the alluring idea that those at the top were always supposed to be there.

For Curtis, breaking this spell requires a second perspective on the system, not from the meta level but a cog’s-eye view. Just after Wilford seems to have won him over, Curtis’s comrade Yona (Ah-sung Ko) discovers that Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis), a boy who was disappeared near the beginning of the film, has been placed in the gears of the train as a substitute for a missing component. Wilford explains: “The engine lasts forever, but not so all of its parts. That piece of equipment went extinct recently. We needed a replacement. Thank goodness the tail section manufactures a steady supply of kids.”

Curtis snaps out of his hegemania. He knocks out Wilford, pulls Timmy out of the engine, and hands a match to Yona so she can light a bomb to blow a hole in the side of the train as a means of escape. The blast causes an avalanche outside, which spectacularly derails the train, killing perhaps everyone but Yona and Timmy. They emerge from the wreckage to discover a polar bear in the distance, meaning that life outside the train is possible.

The beauty of Bong’s final sequence—and again, the oddity for an action movie—is that Curtis’s choice to stop the train and hand over the match seems at once undeniable and debatable. Once Curtis witnesses Timmy, enslaved in the engine, his only option is to rescue him, come what may. On the other hand, stopping the train—not to mention blowing a hole in the side of it—puts the lives of everyone aboard at risk, given that the world outside has been frozen for so long, and for so long the passengers have believed that the train is their only protection. While it’s dangerous to take this dichotomy as representative of our real-world options—massive destruction and freedom from an oppressive system or business as usual—Curtis’s calculus is instructive for those who would mobilize: if you ever start to wonder whether the system is all that bad after all, consider the fate of the cog.

Snowpiercer seems to be saying it’s a myth that “there is no alternative.” You can survive without the machine. Shut it down; take it from there. And Bong’s honest glimpse at the dark allure of a dog-eat-dog system makes the ultimate act of rebellion seem even bolder and wiser.


1 Obama’s November climate deal with China was largely hailed as a breakthrough. But as Paul Krugman apologized in his praise of the deal: “I know, I know. The language is a little vague, and the target levels of emissions are much higher than environmental experts want. Indeed, even if the deal were to work exactly as stated, the planet would experience a highly damaging rise in temperatures.”

From January, 2015

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