Tonight marks the debut of the widely-anticipated (by some, at least) third installment of SyFy’s Sharknado franchise. Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! has already gotten mixed reviews from a few news outlets who pre-screened it. It remains to be seen what the wider world thinks of it – especially social media, where the film’s fan base originally launched it into fame. Regardless of what the critics say, there will doubtlessly be hundreds of thousands of eyes glued to the television tonight, anxious for another round of carnage. But beyond campy thrills, can Sharknado actually tell us something about how we perceive our relationship with the environment?
The question is less absurd than it seems. The original Sharknado film explicitly linked the arrival of shark storms with a climate change-fueled hurricane in California. And while no one in their right mind is suggesting that climate change is going to lead to physics-defying shark tornadoes, Sharknado is a representation of climate change that is somewhat mainstream.
No one is saying that people look to Sharknado for their scientific information about climate change. That being said, understanding the stories we tell ourselves as a society is important. Media scholars know that the way the media depicts people, places and events can exert a subtle influence on how we think about them. For this reason, it’s worth examining the messages present in our fictional narratives about climate change.
First, let’s take a step back. Climate change hasn’t had the best run in popular culture. Despite our appetite for increasingly apocalyptic disaster films, in general pop culture has avoided tying extreme weather to climate change (although there are notable exceptions). Climate change has been getting some attention in other forms of pop culture (“cli-fi,” or climate fiction, is a growing genre of literature), too. However, at the moment the most prominent fictional depictions of climate change come from low-budget disaster films. Although they are hardly scientific treatises on the very real dangers of climate change, many of these films distinctly mention climate change in connection with increased natural disasters.
For my dissertation, I examined over a hundred disaster films for themes of climate change and extreme weather. If it’s a low-budget disaster film, I’ve probably seen it. From this database of films, I focused in on approximately two dozen films that explicitly deal with the topics of climate change and weather-related disasters.
What I found was that these films overwhelmingly show human beings dominating nature. Indeed, the film that doesn’t end with the heroes “defeating” nature – whether through geoengineering or conventional military technology – is the exception that proves the rule.
There are a variety of reasons why filmmakers do this. They have to follow a plotline that leads to resolution for their audience, and very few audiences want to sign up for a story that ends with millions of people displaced and mass famine. This is understandable. But within these plotlines are very distinct messages about the relationship between people and nature. Specifically, these types of stories tend to reinforce what environmental sociologists call the human exemptionalist paradigm. In a nutshell, the human exemptionalist paradigm argues that people can use technology and ingenuity to solve environmental problems before they become catastrophic.
Films that reinforce the human exemptionalist paradigm aren’t necessarily a problem. But when so many of our fictional representations of climate change rely on this worldview to resolve their crises, this can limit how we think about the issue. To be clear, political gridlock at the national and international level is certainly a larger threat to effectively dealing with climate change than fictional films. But the media and fiction shape our viewpoints and provide some of the scripts we use to make sense of the world. So when we only see climate change-related disasters solved through military force and violence against nature, it reinforces the idea that climate change may be a serious threat but one ultimately that we can overcome with sufficient technological savvy.
How Fin and April solve the next “shark storm” outbreak tonight will not likely have a radical impact on the trajectory of the climate movement. That being said, it’s still worthwhile turning a critical eye to the stories we are telling ourselves about climate change, and considering how these stories are shaping our thinking about technology, people and the environment.