Let’s put two and two together. Actually just one book and one movie. The book is “The World Without Us” and the movie is “Twelve Monkeys.” Both speak directly to our COVID times, provoking critical questions about many issues, not least the damage we’ve leveled on each other, the ecosystem and more.
Both imagine that we had been wiped out — or nearly so — by something like a virus. “Say a Homo Sapiens specific virus naturally or diabolically Nano-engineered picks us off but leaves everything else intact,” starts “The World Without Us.” What might happen next? Will our absence restore the ecological balance of the earth? Will forests return, native species reclaim their rightful geography across the globe? Will the air be cleaned, plastics flushed out of the oceans?
“How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressure we heap on it and our fellow organism?” the book continues. That is a good question, less because it is possible or desirable to poof everyone out of existence and more because it is important to stop and reflect at the impact we’ve wrought over the last, say, 200 years.
For the rest of the book the author renders before us a pretty stark picture of a nature exacting revenge on all that we had left behind, namely a world of things built on hubris and sheer excess.
Cheap houses come apart first, pried open by none other than that seemingly harmless and yet terribly destructive water. New York, that great city of culture, suffers a massive breakdown. With no pumps to siphon water out of the subway system, the entire underbelly of the city floods and then collapses, causing the streets above to cave. Buildings soon fold and bang against each other.
Most compelling of all is Central Park returning to its swampy conditions. All those rocks and exotic trees imported from distant places to simulate the effect of a bucolic setting will either wash out or die. The author speaks of one Eric Sanderson, a landscape ecologist and wildlife conservationist, who on a tour of the park is “able to look beyond the half million cubic yards of soil hauled … to fill in what was mostly a swampy bog surrounded by poison oak and sumac.”
Indeed, for Sanderson, the park is so offensive he can’t bear to look at it. He has already removed himself from the picture in favor of a time well into the future, a million or two years from now.
“Twelve Monkeys” doesn’t quite go that far. The virus in the movie hasn’t quite eradicated people but it has sent them underground. Animals now roam the city, not humans. The question is how do you fight a tenacious virus. The scientists are at a loss and in their frustration seek answers in the past, in the origins of the pandemic. They have nowhere else to go but return to the spot where the spread started and stop it from doing so. They think it is 1996 but aren’t sure and so they send one of their volunteers, Cole, played by Bruce Willis, to investigate.
The story is complex and oscillates between two or three time zones in the past. If the book yearns for a time in the future, the movie does the same in reverse. It wishes that we go back in time, seek answers in origins and take control of things that have come to control us. The journey is fraught with difficulty. To take it, one would have to fight the system, of, say, corrupt bosses, cold corporations, the market and so on. No doubt you’ll be labeled crazy and denied promotion, or so drugged by bureaucratic talk you really can’t tell your way around.
In fact, to fight the system you may indeed need to feign derangement. For after all, the mentally ill can be excused saying whatever they want because, well, they are out of it. Which is what the character of Jeff, played by Brad Pitt, in the movie does. He masquerades as a crazy dude but only to allow himself the ability to say some pretty damning but insightful stuff.
In one rant he yells “there is the television. It’s all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Yeah OK, OK, buy a lot of stuff. You’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then. I ask you? What: Mentally ill?”
Both book and movie urge us to revisit the wisdom of living in the moment. It may sound like good therapy but it has destroyed us and the earth, possibly driven us mentally ill. Let’s take up their call and for a change pay attention to the past and future instead of the now. There is something humbling about that.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.