It is a trope repeated to the point of cliché. Act 1 of the disaster movie, the under-rested and over-caffeinated scientist discovers the first signs of the incoming cataclysm and rushes off to alert the government. As we in the audience have come to expect, the government does not take the threat seriously until the disaster is at the world’s doorstep — or, more accurately, until the disaster has invited itself in, made itself at home, and put its muddy feet up on the ottoman. Warnings go unheeded; Cassandra shares her prophecy in vain. So it goes.
As if to prove that old adage, “life imitates art,” this trope impressed itself upon me this past weekend. I am typing this up on Monday, August 30th. My father and I have spent the last few days on the road: we began in Whitehorse, drove south through the traditional territory of many Indigenous and First Nations peoples, including the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Teslin Tlingit Council, Kaska of Liard First Nation, Lower Post First Nation, and the Tsawwassen First Nation, and will part ways when I hop a flight tomorrow back to K’jipuktuk/Halifax.
Mid-day on Sunday, we listened to “What on Earth with Laura Lynch” on CBC Radio. On this episode, Lynch interviewed Dr. Shelley Boulianne, a Sociology professor at MacEwan University. Boulianne shared the findings of a study she conducted analyzing social media chatter during the 2019 Canadian federal election. While climate change was a leading priority for many Canadian voters that year, Boulianne found that only about 6% of the Facebook posts made by the political party leaders running in that election directly addressed climate change. Furthermore, these posts, despite making up such a small percent of the total, garnered an above average amount of engagement from Facebook users. Boulianne’s findings suggest that the candidates that year (some of whom are running again in this year’s election) were incredibly out of sync with their electorate regarding the significance of climate change.
Later that day, our drive took us past Lytton, the small town destroyed by fire on June 30th. We knew we were getting close when the surroundings began to change from yellow grass, blue-tinted sagebrush, and green pine to streaks of fire-scarred black. In the worst ravaged areas, the hillside looked thoroughly bleak and apocalyptic. What is left of the town of Lytton is down the hill off the main highway, and access to it is restricted by large fences and security. I was thankful the road wasn’t to take us through the town proper, as to drive directly through it would have felt a little too voyeuristic. But we did drive by a fenced-in lot of burnt-out car frames, which looked like the charred remains of large beasts of burden.
The immediate cause of the fire that took Lytton and left over two hundred people without homes is not yet known, but the increased severity of summer heat waves due to climate change make fires like this far more likely, far more frequent, and far more damaging. Under this year’s unprecedented heat dome, Lytton recorded the highest recorded temperature in Canadian history only the day before the fire forced its residents to flee. In the words of one resident, Lytton is the “canary in the coal mine.”
The politicians don’t listen; the disaster comes calling. We as a species are standing at the dividing line between Act 1 and Act 2 of the disaster film, between the tired scientist discovering the first signs of the disaster-to-come and the fully fledged coming-to-fruition of the disaster. I don’t make the comparison flippantly. If you’ve followed my blogs this far, you will know that I take literature and film very seriously as mediums through which human beings conceptualize, grapple with, and devise solutions to real-world issues.
It is all the more frustrating, then, to see the real world playing out like the least creative or innovative disaster film. Climate change is once again high on the list of voter priorities, while at least one Canadian political party still cannot come to an agreement regarding its existence and others show haphazard commitment to reducing emissions. We need real, meaningful action and we need it now, because the effects of climate change are “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” We’ve seen this film too many times before just to allow it to play out in real life.