To tackle the climate crisis, we need more fictions that embrace it

When I discovered the Apple TV miniseries Extrapolations in Bon Pote’s great article (in French), I instantly knew I had to see it.

As a cinema fan, I had to find out why this project, which drew in superstars such as John Snow’s Kit Harrington, Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Tahar Rahim, or Marion Cotillard, remained so confidential instead of blowing up like Netflix’s Don’t Look Up did.

As a sustainability professional, I had to see for myself how robust the science behind the titular extrapolations for the 50 years to come was.

And as a regular human burdened with climate anxiety, I wanted to see this vision of our potential future.

The poster for Apple+'s climate-change-centered drama Extrapolations
The poster for Apple+’s climate-change-centered drama Extrapolations

The climate crisis is the biggest story of our time. So why isn’t the entertainment industry acting like it? (LA Times, nov. 2022)

According to the Los Angeles Times (November 2022), the best-known climate stories are: Don’t Look Up (2019), which doesn’t address climate change explicitly, and the Day After Tomorrow (2004), a highly unrealistic disaster movie 1depicting a climate change-caused ice age. The BBC’s 2019 anticipation show Years and Years and the French miniseries L’effondrement(2019) both include climate change and biodiversity collapse as elements of their dystopia, but do not delve into it.

What Extrapolations (2023), brought to us by the co-producer of An Inconvenient Truth, proposes, is rare. It paints a vision of our next 50 years, if we don’t reverse the current trends, and let parameters such as Greenhouse Gas concentration in the atmosphere, species extinct, water level rise, and obviously temperatures – continue rising ?

The cast of Extrapolations
Part of the star cast of Extrapolations (missing are: Tahar Rahim, Forrest Whitaker, Heather Graham, David Schwimmer…)

I am not going to discuss whether the show missed his mark or is a future cult classic. Nor will I discuss why it got so little attention or why Meryll Streep voiced a whale.

What interests me, are the points criticized – I want to talk about the climate change narrative it proposes: what’s missing from it, what it proposes and what’s been bothering the viewers, and why.

Inconsistency, or an attempt to get the full picture ?

This anthology show follows eight loosely connected stories unraveling from 2037’s COP in Israel, all the way to a long overdue trial for ecocide in 2070.

In between, the show follows several characters and tackles many subjects – animal mass extinction, water levels rising, the temptations and pitfalls of geo-engineering. Deadly heat and air pollution, rising physical and mental health issues, adaptation and/or escapism.

It does that in a « slice-of-life » manner, evoking the show Black Mirror – an unflattering comparison for the less self-aware, more literal Extrapolations– which left many viewers unengaged.

World- and character-building issues aside, this highlights a key aspect of narratives around climate change: how multiple its consequences are, how they ricochet across agriculture, politics, health systems.

New Year's Eve in 2068 - Come for the food, stay for the fun
New Year’s Eve in 2068 – Come for the food, stay for the fun

It has been affecting our daily lives and the international equilibriums for a while now, in ways that we don’t necessarily trace back to climate change: famine, water crises, migrations, rising health concerns. I actually appreciated how the narrative explored these many facets of climate change, navigating from the physical problem to its consequences on daily lives, even the most menial. Because the more practical, day-to-day consequences we can connect to the abstract issue of climate change, the less abstract and the more real and compelling it will feel – and exploring those concrete, realistic consequences to come is exactly what I would expect from that kind of narrative.

Extrapolations of privilege won’t do it …

However, one of the main problems pointed out by journalists and viewers is that these slices are from the lives of privileged protagonists. The show focuses on fairly well-off people living in the US, England, or as expats elsewhere. They worry about the loss of big friendly mammals, their rapidly shrinking range of food options, the rise of new health conditions and air pollution, and climate refugees. They do that with the AC on or while they commute in their helicopters. It was seemingly assumed that viewers would relate better to « first world problems » – to their own potential future.

A street oxygen bar in Mumbai, from the "Nightbirds" episode, starring Adarsh Gourav
A street oxygen bar in Mumbai, from the « Nightbirds » episode, starring Adarsh Gourav

The only episode exploring the frontline of climate change, « Nightbirds », is one of the most acclaimed. Set in India, it actually focuses on people whose life are threatened by everyday temperatures and air quality. These are people who are forced to live by night, hooked to oxygen supplies. This episode rolls out like a good thriller, while raising awareness on crop vulnerability, wet-bulb temperature raise, and climate change adaptation. The reception of Nightbirds proves that viewers are responsive to issues affecting those outside of their privilege bubble. Focusing on first world problems and privileged point of view will not do, for a lot of them. This is a positive sign – the communities most affected by climate change (developing countries and poorer populations in general) tend to be marginalized, when their issues require urgent global awareness

Nevertheless, many viewers still reported that the show felt preachy, unrealistic, and depressing. This is telling, because most of the show focuses on the most preserved share of humanity. It shows lifestyle that are still relatively privileged, energy intensive and tech-happy, close to our own. We do not like to see our lifestyle threatened, even in fiction, especially if we are told it might be by our own fault. We might dismiss it as a moralizing exaggeration, because we still can. Those unpleasant, preachy narratives are all the more needed, until we view them as an actual possible future.

The refusal to think our economy and our lifestyle differently makes part of us reluctant to receive a narrative such as Extrapolations. This may explain why Don’t Look Up became so big. It treads a fine line by denouncing denial, greed and inaction in the face of danger, while its impending comet was conveniently free of any human cause.

A narrative that inevitably reproduces blindspots of our system

This is all the more paradoxical because on some level, the show actually shares our blindspots, far from challenging them.

Hologram witness and Artificial Intelligence judges in Extrapolation’s ecocide episode

In fact, unsurprisingly – Apple‘s Extrapolations‘ has a very optimistic view of to technology. Technology is presented – sometimes explicitly – as the solution to stop climate change, with carbon capture. The only problem presented with tech is the big capitalists withholding this solution for their own interests. It will also bring back extinct species, cure cancer, fix water shortages. Tech’s presence in the character’s life only grows stronger as Extrapolations’ timeline advances. Brain implants, eugenics for all, casual helicopter rides are ubiquitous. This reflects our current bet that technology will save us and should remain a growing part of our lives. In fact, many official climate pathways, sectorial or global, rely on technologies that do not yet exist or are not yet functional (see this article from the European Commission, 2022). Meanwhile, the footprint and energy intensity of ICT becomes a growing concern.

Another big shortcoming of Extrapolations is that the main cause for climate change, fossil fuels, are very rarely mentioned. Similarly greed, confort – are abundantly mentioned, but its opposite, sobriety, barely is. Nowadays, for many climate and policy specialists, sobriety is the main ingredient of the solution to the climate crisis.

We need this narrative – and better ones

Overall, Extrapolations attempts to paint a comprehensive and science-based picture of climate change and its consequences. It likely paves the way for other narratives – hopefully more inclusive and solution-oriented.

Imagination, narratives and fictions are strong forces that shape our beliefs and our vision of the world, and the future.

By materializing that our lives will need to change, they can help shake us out of status quo. 
They can extend the scope of our empathy, by including foreign vantage points and problems that don’t affect us first hand.
And when they show us what we have to lose, as well as solutions, ways forward, and alternatives, they put us in motion.

It is crucial that climate change becomes a part of our narrative landscape, at least as fast as it becomes a part of our lives.


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