The Zone of Alienation: Global Warming & ‘Our Forefathers’ Apocalypse’

Minneapolis: Aged Cadillac on Uptown Street 7/17/11

Says Gary Greenberg in an excellent essay of current books on climate in the September Harper’s.  ‘Incremental, technological rather than moral, and hidden in broad daylight, climate change is not our forefathers’ apocalypse, and as such it requires a new kind of doomsayer.’

A very good sentence, that.  But, I don’t agree – especially after watching the classic ‘Them’ (1954) and meditating on the atomic end-time prophecies that poisoned every aspect of my childhood.

Writes one of the better Wikipedians:

 An apocalypse (Greek: … “lifting of the veil” or “revelation”) is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception….  The Apocalypse of John … is the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament.  By extension, apocalypse can refer to any End Time scenario, or to the end of the world in general.

In ‘Them’, the veil is not so much lifted as suggested. We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’  But the first to emerge in ‘Them’ as a result of the New Mexico atomic bomb tests preceding Hiroshima are mutant desert ants.

(At this point, you’ve decided you’ll never watch a dumb ‘50s sci-fi movie and probably won’t ever again take a review of mine seriously.  All I can say is, ‘You’ve wasted 94 minutes on much, much worse.’  ‘Them’ is no time-killer.)

From 1945 onwards until the Test Ban treaties, we thought about ‘fall out’, the wind-blown, irradiated particles from nuclear weapons tests in deserts and Pacific atolls.  The bikini took its name from the unique shape of the cloud of dust from an atomic bomb explosion on the atoll of that name.

Apart from radiation sickness, no one quite knew what fall out could cause.  Mutant ants eight meters long weren’t an absurd speculation.  So suggests the evidence in the Ukraine government designated Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl reported in Steve Featherstone’s ‘Life in the Zone’ in June’s Harper’s.

The movie’s focal point, an aged US Department of Agriculture myrmecologist played by the fine character actor Edmund Gwenn, says, When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world.  What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.’  Scientists expert on climate, such as NASA’s James E. Hansen or Ohio State’s Lonnie Thompson, probably wouldn’t disavow that line applied to global warming.

Today’s doomsayers are precisely the same class as those of the post-bomb 1950s:  scientists, the educated.

Both atomic and climate doomsayers are very different from their predecessors who’d preached the Four Horsemen of Revelations 6:1-8.  Tradition (though not the Bible) calls them Pestilence, War, Famine and Death.  Of course, atomic infection and climate change can untether the Four Horseman, but those are very different causations from tradition’s.

If ‘Them’ is clear as to the new prophets of doom, it is equally clear that government playing straight with the citizenry is the only means to defeat the byproducts of the atomic age.  (The movie makes no suggestion as to the bombs themselves, but its trailer, astonishingly, does.)

The two heros, played by James Whitmore and James Arness (Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon starting in 1955) are, respectively, a New Mexico deputy sheriff and an FBI agent.  They are by no means conventional for the genre.  Neither gets the girl (whose bodice never rips), and Whitmore dies before the fade out.  (Whitmore gives a master class in how to enliven a scene with very small gestures and movements.)

With the notable exception of confining Fess Parker (soon to redress America’s boys in his Davy Crockett coonskin hat) in a mental institution whilst checking out his story of seeing ant-shaped flying saucers, the government plays fair.

Once sure what they’re up against, the military, scientists and civil authorities announce the threat to the press and the public.  ‘I tell you, gentlemen,’ says the panel chair, ‘science is agreed that unless something is done, and done quickly, man as the dominant species of life on earth will be extinct within a year.

‘Them’ is noX Files.  ‘Trust no one’ is not the message.  To the contrary: trust the government, trust science and trust the men and women who represent them.  And, work together.

‘Them’ and Bill McKibben offer common messages.