“Imagine, Harrison, that Fargo, North Dakota is like Phoenix,” a climate scientist tells actor Harrison Ford in the first episode of Showtime’s nine-part TV docu-mini-series on climate change, The Years of Living Dangerously. This sentence epitomizes what the show has to offer: the most thorough exploration of climate change in American popular culture since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) through the bizarre vehicle of Hollywood celebrities interacting with scientists and regular people.
Produced by James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the series features (in addition to Ford), Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Olivia Munn and many other Hollywood celebrities. In the first episode we join Ford as he travels to Indonesia to understand the role of deforestation and market-driven palm oil monoculture in atmospheric carbon concentration, while Cheadle (along with climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe) heads to a small Texas town hard-hit by drought-caused unemployment to understand the links between religion and belief (or denial) of environmental science. Journalist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, is in Syria, teasing out the relationship between violence, civil war, and anthropogenic resource scarcity.
In terms of attracting viewers, the format of Hollywood celebrities seeking answers makes a lot of sense, but it can also be slightly confusing. Along with most Americans, I’ve watched so many fictional or fictionalized films where these same actors play out bathetic scenes of near-apocalyptic devastation and destruction that I was frequently undergoing a Baudrillard-esque whiplash of pop cultural connotations, from Kindergarten Cop (1990)to Hotel Rwanda (1994) to Batman Begins (2005). As an enraged Ford demands to meet with Indonesia’s forestry minister over the lack of state response to illegal burning, I briefly imagined him ripping the man’s heart out of his chest, as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
That said, The Years of Living Dangerously is to be applauded for its earnest undertaking, and (at least in the first episode) goes far beyond Gore’s slideshow in its exploration of the human dimension of current and future climate change and the sociological and political dimensions of our inaction. Despite the limitations that will no doubt emerge as it unfolds, it will offer much for environmental humanists, and might even be considered one of the first major entrances of energy and environmental humanities issues into American pop cultural awareness. It’s telling that first question that Ford asks of Laura Iraci, NASA climate scientist, is not “What’s happening?” but “How do you feel about what’s happening?”
The first episode is free, and then The Years of Living Dangerously‘s circle of influence will unfortunately be restricted to those who have Showtime. Watch the first episode online while it’s still hot.