Godzilla isn’t going to kill us… But he’s not going to save us either: ‘Godzilla’ as an allegory about nature & man.
For the past few years as I’ve taught my Technology & Global Society class, I’ve done a entire lecture on the importance of science fiction in the development of technological innovation and how humans come to grips with these newfound capabilities. Since humans are in fact defined as social animals, it is our ability to tell stories and use narratives to make sense of the world around us that is one of our central characteristics, and the development and growth of science fiction as a genre since the transformative period of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions illustrates this perfectly. We use sci-fi, in all of its forms, formats and typologies, to showcase present problems in unique ways (ie: the original Star Trek episodes which dealt, ostensibly, with racism, and the spate of recent movies focusing on income inequality through dystopian futures), as well as to help play out potential future scenarios and alternate timelines, so that we can more or less deal with those problems as they present themselves.
Perhaps the biggest and yet more overlooked example of these dual roles is Gojira, or in the Americanized vernacular, Godzilla. I say biggest because we all know Godzilla, and yet, the form of Godzilla that we know is that of tacky B-movies with men in monster suits fighting other men in monster suits. But I was explaining to my class this year that the original Godzilla, the 1954 version released in Japan before the American recut appeared in 1956, was anything but tacky or enjoyable. Indeed, the original Godzilla was terrifying because he was meant to be something that was still very much in the memory of Japanese people: the awesome and horrific force of the atomic bomb.
When you watch Gojira, the camera lingers on scenes of buildings in ruins, and on shots of ‘flash shadows’ of families burned into the walls behind them by Gojira’s ‘atomic breath.’ Indeed, there is almost no respite for the viewer, as this is presented for minutes on end to a viewership that lived amongst those ruins and for whom the photos of flash shadows from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their very memories. In the film, humans are powerless before this monster that they in fact created, and only the most unthinkable weapon is capable of destroying him in the end. In this film, Godzilla is not the monster; we are the monster, for we have unleashed a new and unstoppable force upon the world, with no hope of controlling it and the only endpoint for humanity lying in the use of an even greater force that spells the end of all mankind.
It is in this historical context that I believe the 2014 remake of Godzilla to be one of the most important sci-fi and environmental films of recent years. Not because it’s a good film in its own right (movie critics far more qualified than me can speak to that), but because it presents one very clear and inescapable message: that nature doesn’t care about us.
Let me explain. As an environmental sociologist, I often encounter a lot of environmentalists who talk about the need to ‘save the earth’ and protect natural ecosystems from human activities. While eminent ecologists do believe that we now live in a ‘anthropocene’ period in which humans are exerting an outsized effect on the global ecosystem, we humans still, collectively, do not begin to outweigh the combined mass of ants, let alone bacteria, and birds and mammals and other living organisms on the earth, nor are we in any sort of critical juncture of the food chain or ecosystem functions (ie: the famous passage, attributed to Einstein, about the importance of honeybees and the unimportance of humans to the existence of all life on earth). Over billions of years, natural systems have played out an evolutionary game that we are still wrapping our minds around, and that game will continue far after we’ve gone, whether it’s by nuclear annihilation, climate change, resource depletion, etc. Nature, in its might, majesty and apathy, does not care about the existence of any one species, but instead, in as far as it has a ‘direction’ or ‘goal’, cares only about the continuance of the system.
This is where the new Godzilla comes into the picture. Since it’s been out for a few months now, I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything to say that Godzilla is not fighting humans, but is instead awakened to fight other pre-historic monsters. Godzilla, in the words of the requisite movie scientist (side note: Ken Watanabe was criminally underused in this role and with that dialogue), is an apex predator, and comes out of the ocean to restore the balance by (awesomely) fighting these creatures in the middle of two American cities. Godzilla is considered a target by the US military, which hopes to take him out along with the MUTOs with a nuclear warhead (ignoring the fact that the atomic bomb tests failed to damage him and may have even made him stronger), but during the fights, you realize that Godzilla is not going out of his way to kill humans; if he wanted to, he surely could’ve sunk the carrier battle group that followed him to the American mainland, or laid waste to all of San Francisco with his atomic breath. He does not do that, instead focusing his energy on the creatures, and upon finishing them off, collapses of exhaustion in the middle of the city. The humans on hand think that he is dead, but at the finale of the film, he rises up, unleashes his classic shriek, manuevers around the buildings that remain standing, and swims back out into the ocean.
But one cannot forget that during his fights, Godzilla is almost surely responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. The flood in Honolulu alone as he comes ashore was reminiscent of the tsunamis of years past, and stomping around and crashing into buildings would also have resulted in many people dying. Godzilla is not purposefully trying to kill humans, but he’s not going to save them or go out of his way to avoid killing them either; in this way, Godzilla is nature incarnate, seeking to restore balance to the system, regardless of whichever individual species happens to get in the way.
I believe this is a powerful and essential message for modern environmentalism, as the fact that nature always has the last word, and that unintended consequences will always ripple out from our actions, is critical for understanding our place in the larger ecosystem. As we speak, there are people around the world trying to ‘geoengineer’ the planet in response to climate change, such as dumping iron sulfate into the oceans or seeding the atmosphere with molecules to reflect the sun’s heat back out into space. We cannot possibly hope to understand the full effects of such actions because we cannot understand how the dynamic ecosystem will respond to them; we invite rebound effects back onto us through our arrogance and limited knowledge. Nature knows better than us, and while it is not trying to kill us, it won’t save us either. We will kill ourselves, and only we can save ourselves.
These vegetated surfaces don’t just look pretty. They have other benefits as well, including cooling city blocks, reducing loud noises, and improving a building’s energy efficiency.What’s more, a recent modeling study shows that green walls can potentially reduce large amounts of air pollution in what’s called a “street canyon,” or the corridor between tall buildings.
For the study, Thomas Pugh, a biogeochemist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, and his colleagues created a computer model of a green wall with generic vegetation in a Western European city. Then they recorded chemical reactions based on a variety of factors, such as wind speed and building placement.
The simulation revealed a clear pattern: A green wall in a street canyon trapped or absorbed large amounts of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter—both pollutants harmful to people, said Pugh. Compared with reducing emissions from cars, little attention has been focused on how to trap or take up more of the pollutants, added Pugh, whose study was published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
That’s why the green-wall study is “putting forward an alternative solution that might allow [governments] to improve air quality in these problem hot spots,” he said.Compared with reducing emissions from cars, little attention has been focused on how to trap or take up more of the pollutants, added Pugh, whose study was published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
That’s why the green-wall study is “putting forward an alternative solution that might allow [governments] to improve air quality in these problem hot spots,” he said.
"Consequently, under contemporary circumstances, the urban can no longer be viewed as a distinct, relatively bounded site; it has
instead become a generalized, planetary condition in and through which the accumulation of capital, the regulation of political-economic life, the reproduction of everyday social relations and the contestation of the earth and humanity’s possible futures are simultaneously organized and fought out."
"The few studies that look at specific violations have found that people on bikes do roll through stop signs about 15% more than drivers do (at least in Oregon), but also that drivers roll through them almost 80% of the time, suggesting this is more of a human fault than a cyclist one."
"If you build a city that is great for an eight-year-old and for an 80-year-old, then you build a city that is going to be great for everybody. They’re like an indicator species. We need to stop building cities as if everybody in them is 30 years old and athletic."
"The best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans."
Antitrust in the New Gilded Age
We’re in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first gilded age when the nation’s antitrust laws were enacted. Those laws should prevent or bust up concentrations of economic power that not only harm consumers but also undermine our democracy — such as the pending Comcast acquisition of Time-Warner.
In 1890, when Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio urged his congressional colleagues to act against the centralized industrial powers that threatened America, he did not distinguish between economic and political power because they were one and the same. The field of economics was then called “political economy,” and inordinate power could undermine both. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” Sherman thundered, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.”
Shortly thereafter, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed by the Senate 52 to 1, and moved quickly through the House without dissent. President Harrison signed it into law July 2, 1890.
In many respects America is back to the same giant concentrations of wealth and economic power that endangered democracy a century ago. The floodgates of big money have been opened even wider in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in “Citizen’s United vs. FEC” and its recent “McCutcheon" decision.
Seen in this light, Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time-Warner for $45 billion is especially troublesome — and not just because it may be bad for consumers. Comcast is the nation’s biggest provider of cable television and high-speed Internet service; Time Warner is the second biggest.
Last week, Comcast’s executives descended on Washington to persuade regulators and elected officials that the combination will be good for consumers. They say it will allow Comcast to increase its investments in cable and high-speed Internet, and encourage rivals to do so as well.
Opponents argue the combination will give consumers fewer choices, resulting in higher cable and Internet bills. And any company relying on Comcast’s pipes to get its content to consumers (think Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, or any distributor competing with Comcast’s own television network, NBCUniversal) also will have to pay more — charges that will also be passed on to consumers.
I think the opponents have the better argument. Internet service providers in America are already too concentrated, which is why Americans pay more for Internet access than the citizens of almost any other advanced nation.
Some argue that the broadband market already has been carved up into a cartel, so blocking the acquisition would do little to bring down prices. One response would be for the Federal Communications Commission to declare broadband service a public utility and regulate prices.
But Washington should also examine a larger question beyond whether the deal is good or bad for consumers: Is it good for our democracy?
We haven’t needed to ask this question for more than a century because America hasn’t experienced the present concentration of economic wealth and power in more than a century.
But were Senator John Sherman were alive today he’d note that Comcast is already is a huge political player, contributing $1,822,395 so far in the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics — ranking it 18th of all 13,457 corporations and organizations that have donated to campaigns since the cycle began.
Of that total, $1,346,410 has gone individual candidates, including John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid; $323,000 to Leadership PACs; $278,235 to party organizations; and $261,250 to super PACs.
Last year, Comcast also spent $18,810,000 on lobbying, the seventh highest amount of any corporation or organization reporting lobbying expenditures, as required by law.
Comcast is also one of the nation’s biggest revolving doors. Of its 107 lobbyists, 86 worked in government before lobbying for Comcast. Its in-house lobbyists include several former chiefs of staff to Senate and House Democrats and Republicans as well as a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.
Nor is Time-Warner a slouch when it comes to political donations, lobbyists, and revolving doors. It also ranks near the top.
When any large corporation wields this degree of political influence it drowns out the voices of the rest of us, including small businesses. The danger is greater when such power is wielded by media giants because they can potentially control the marketplace of ideas on which a democracy is based.
When two such media giants merge, the threat is extreme. If film-makers, television producers, directors, and news organizations have to rely on Comcast to get their content to the public, Comcast is able to exercise a stranglehold on what Americans see and hear.
Remember, this is occurring in America’s new gilded age — similar to the first one in which a young Teddy Roosevelt castigated the “malefactors of great wealth, who were “equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil.”
It’s that same equal carelessness toward average Americans and toward our democracy that ought to be of primary concern to us now. Big money that engulfs government makes government incapable of protecting the rest of us against the further depredations of big money.
After becoming President in 1901, Roosevelt used the Sherman Act against forty-five giant companies, including the giant Northern Securities Company that threatened to dominate transportation in the Northwest. William Howard Taft continued to use it, busting up the Standard Oil Trust in 1911.
In this new gilded age, we should remind ourselves of a central guiding purpose of America’s original antitrust law, and use it no less boldly.
This will get better.
You can take that in multiple ways: this blog will get better.. Life will get better.. The world will get better..
But I’m mostly talking about this blog. Still in dissertation mode, but Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile is quickly making me realize that academia is the worst possible career path for somebody who loves writing *and* curiosity. His book is also unlocking a lot of ideas in my head that I want to talk about at length, but that I know would never have an audience in academic circles (it may not have an audience here, but at least I’ll know they’re out there). So I promise to get back to this on a regular basis. And I’ll close with the words of the best Twitter account out there:
“Castles of sand. Piles of shit. Towers of ivory.”
Because why not let the two largest cable broadband operators merge together and have even more monopoly power over internet access for tens of millions of people?
Comcast has announced it’s intention to purchase Time Warner Cable for $45 billion, in a move that most people think is about adding TV customers for upcoming fights against the major networks over carriage and retransmission fees. The true goal, though, is to consolidate the broadband pipes that provide internet access to some 30 million households that are currently subscribed to both companies. The companies say that they have no current geographic overlap, therefore the government should not have a reason to deny the merger since there’s no reduction in competition, but that’s neglecting the fact thatthere is no competition to begin with. These companies have monopoly power over broadband internet and not only do they refuse to invest in network improvements, but they also want to dismantle net neutrality, the core underlying principle behind the internet. Even more troubling is the fact that when confronted with municipal broadband projects that canprovide gigabit service to residents for cheaper than cable companies provide broadband even a fraction of that speed, Comcast and other telecom/cable companies try to have such projects banned entirely (they already have in Texas, and are currently trying to in Kansas where Google has already rolled out it’s Fiber service on the Missouri side of Kansas City).
Lackies for the telecom industry regularly speak out about how great American internet service is, such as this letter to the New York Times that says “about 85 percent of United States homes are served by networks capable of 100 megabits per second.” That means nothing. Just because the network is “capable” of 100 megabits doesn’t mean that the customers are getting that because a) that’s often the most expensive plan and when bundled with TV and/or phone, that’s a hefty monthly bill for anybody outside the top 5%, and b) there are often overage limits, data caps and other limits to the speed and total data that one can access through the network. These lackies simply can’t allow themselves to fess up to the one inescapable truth we know about internet access (thanks to the fact that because of the internet we can exchange such truths!): other countries have faster and cheaper broadband access for more of their citizens. And how do they do that? Through the idea that government plays a direct and incontrovertible role in regulating internet access for the public good.
As John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney point out in their stunning article ‘The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism' (an article that McChesney then expanded intothis book), the internet is a perfect example of the Lauderdale Paradox in which public goods are sacrificed for private riches. Months ago I explained how this paradox relates to water and the battle over whether access to such an essential human right should be privatized. In our current age the internet should be considered a quintessential public good due to its role in facilitating and easing knowledge transfer, communication, and commerce among people in a more equitable manner than ever before seen in history. Knowing that being ‘internet literate’ is fundamentally crucial to doing well in school, and getting a job, and expressing your creative output, and getting to know like-minded people, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything in our power to maximize the number of people who are able to access the internet and for the minimal necessary cost to individuals and society? That’s the heart of the Lauderdale Paradox, and it’s unspoken secret of the internet age: the very thing that was born out of public efforts (scientists and academics who built the internet, funded by the government) is being torn asunder by the profit motive of immensely wealthy companies. So when you wonder why internet quality is going down while the prices are going up, while the exact opposite is the case in many other industrialized nations around the world, it’s because in the minds of these CEOs and the politicians who ‘regulate’ them,America isn’t a country, it’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay ‘em.
"Cities are technological artifacts, the largest technology we make. Their impact is out of proportion to the number of humans living in them."