Melancholia: The psychology of climate change awareness

The movie Melancholia is far from the usual disaster film with its urgent teams of people hunched over computers and racing against time to stop impending doom, that can be stopped by one man alone! 

Everyone busy and shouting, competent and efficacious. In this movie, we see no teams of scientists and engineers working closely with governments to sensibly and rapidly stop an impending calamity, as an unprecedented event draws close: a rogue planet that might collide with Earth.

In our reality too, there is similarly no racing to beat the clock on the possible calamity of a destabilized climate. The warnings of scientists are ignored. Lobbies prevent us from hearing and acting. We are in a dreamlike not-knowing.

We know that not enough is being done. And ever closer creeps the possible apocalypse that we could have prevented. Most of the time we don’t talk to each other about the future very different world we have created by burning up fossil fuels in a kind of mad last minute party over the last two centuries. Yet the effects are creeping up on us. It is a surreal situation.

Just as the planet Melancholia is moving inexorably closer to the earth, through space, a similar unprecedented calamity is moving inexorably closer to us, through time.

In both cases there is a dreamlike slowness to the impending doom, and an essential uncertainty. We’ve never been through anything like this kind of climate destabilization before. Maybe we’ll make it. Maybe it won’t be that bad. But maybe it will be. At least for us.

Massive changes have taken place in Earth’s climate before. Cyanobacteria first flooded the planet with killer oxygen billions of years ago, before any of the oxygen-breathing lifeforms preceding us had evolved. But cyanobacteria were not sentient. In the same way, there are rogue planets, and celestial bodies have collided before. But this movie brings home the reality of sentient beings facing earth-shattering loss.

After an interlude of gloomy and grim Wagner (from Tristan and Isolde) with an underlying disquieting rumble (the sound is that of an approaching earthquake) the movie begins as an apparently happy bride (and her hapless groom) are casually late for a ridiculously elaborate wedding party at a vast and isolated mansion — the setting for the entire movie.

She keeps everyone waiting till well into the night, and while her relatives are at the end of their tether with her, the bride is seemingly unconcerned about them, apparently then willing to keep everyone waiting even longer while she first goes and pets her favorite horse in the stables.

Gradually we realize that she is mentally unhinged by very severe depression. Perhaps by her more accelerated awareness of what is about to happen to the world, though that is only subtly suggested at first. Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) is unable to keep up her front of interest in the niceties of daily life (like smiling at your wedding, being polite to your boss) in the face of an impending doom that no one mentions. Not that she brings it up, either, exactly. To begin with, it is all very oblique.

For example, her mother is disgusted by the ridiculously over-the-top late night wedding party in the vast mansion set in an 18-hole golf course (“you don’t need all this!”) that suggests our own fossil-fueled “party” of the last two centuries. But when Justine cries out “I’m frightened,” her mother callously brushes it aside.

Her father does too. She begs him to stay (so they can be together when the world ends?) but he simply leaves a cheery note about getting a ride home with others.

The movie rings true in demonstrating the central bizarro fact of modern life, that we face the possible end of civilization in the lifetimes of our loved ones (or their loved ones) yet there is little we can do to alter the trajectory. We don’t talk about it to each other. We don’t bother those we love, we want to protect them from knowing.

The Kiefer Sutherland character is a good example. The very rich husband of her sister, he pretends (or is convinced by official pretense) that all will be fine, that the possible calamity will not happen. His dependent wife, in equal denial, almost demands this assurance of him. He won’t let her look at the Internet where she sees that it is perhaps not as he says. She in turn willingly turns away from independent assessment, but demands that he reassure her that Melancholia is going to pass by Earth safely.

When he goes missing, after — she suspects — he has understood that it won’t, she searches through the empty mansion, shrieking “John! John!” in a tone that is much more accusatory than alarmed. It was his responsibility to lie.

He has killed himself, rather than tell the truth to his loved ones, that he has deceived them — or was wrong. As if he is responsible. Both he and his wife appear to understand that if he was wrong, his wife is right to blame him. His character signifies the titans of the fossil industry, who lie about climate risks. They too have loved ones. Do they have to lie about their own culpability to protect their loved ones from the truth? Is this partly behind the hysteria of their climate denial?

And then there is the name itself. Melancholia. The Kubler-Ross five stages of grief (melancholia in the middle ages meant depression) also apply to accepting the larger “death” of civilization due to climate change.

The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most of us reading at cleantech sites are in the bargaining stage. We hope that by writing and talking up every positive piece of news about the switch to renewable energy that our civilization must make, that we can make it, can prevent the worst from happening — the most practical response, in this case, since it can.

Accepting grief is like giving up. And most of us, like the characters in the movie, forget or put aside this knowledge at times, as though in a dream, and at other times confront the real grief. Justine began the movie in deep depression, having given up, but transitions into a grim acceptance by the end.

Her sister, using denial to stave off grief, obsessed over all the trivial details of the extravagant late night wedding party with doomsday looming. Later she moves on to the bargaining stage. She can face the idea of the end of our world only if the universe will survive the loss of the human race. She demands reassurance that there are other planets with sentient life to succeed us. Justine (acceptance) blankly says she’s sure there’s not. “There’s only us.”

The thought of the end of the only sentient life in the universe is too much for her. She unsuccessfully tries to get to the village to at least share the last moments with more people. After the cars won’t start, she takes a golf cart. When it runs out in the middle of nowhere, carrying her eight year old son as if he is a baby, she staggers back home across their ridiculous 18 hole golf course. Only as the end inexorably approaches, does she truly grieve.

Climate changes will happen slowly, over decades and centuries, gradually jolting more of us into awareness as calamity closes in, just like in this movie.

* Susan Kraemer, EarthTechling