This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
I’ve had the great Hollywood epic Terminator 2: Judgment Day on my mind ever since I watched it in a hotel room in New Orleans a few weeks ago with the Superdome visible out the window. In 1991, at the time of its release, T2 was supposedly about a terrible future; now, it seems situated in an oddly comfortable past.
What apocalypses are you nostalgic for? The premise of the movie was that the machines we needed to worry about had not yet been invented, no less put to use: intelligent machines that would rebel against their human masters in 1997, setting off an all-out nuclear war that would get rid of the first 3 billion of us and lead to a campaign of extermination against the remnant of the human race scrabbling in the rubble of what had once been civilization.
By the time the film was released, the news of climate change was already filtering out. Reports like Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature had told us that the machines that could destroy us and our world had, in fact, been invented–a long, long time ago. Almost all of us had been using them almost all the time, from the era of the steam engine and the rise of the British coal economy through the age of railroads and the dawn of petroleum extraction to the birth of the internal-combustion engine and the spread of industrial civilization across the planet. They weren’t “intelligent” and they weren’t in revolt, nor were they led by any one super-machine. It was the cumulative effect of all those devices pumping back into the atmosphere the carbon that plants had so kindly buried in the Earth over the last few hundred million years.
The Superdome is, of course, where thousands of New Orleanians were stranded when Katrina, the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, broke the city’s levees and flooded the place. A maelstrom of institutional failures left people trapped in the scalding cauldron of a drowned city for five days while the world looked on aghast. It was a disaster that had been long foretold, and no one had done much to forestall it. No one had repaired those crummy levees or bothered to create a real evacuation plan for the city–and, unlike the revolt of the machines in T2, the future actually arrived. Like climate change.
For many, it was a foretaste of our new era. It may not be clear what role, if any, climate change played in the generation of that particular hurricane, but it is clear that, in this era, there will be, and indeed already have been, many more such calamities: the deadly freak rainstorms in Sicily, Britain and the Philippines this fall, the increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic in recent years, as well as in the intensity of droughts, floods, heat waves, crop failures and the displacement of populations, as well as the massive melting of glaciers and sea ice in the cold places, rising waters in the coastal ones and oceans going acidic with devastating effects on marine life.