Earth Uninhabitable

By Jørgen Brynhildsvoll.

The song "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from the 1964 musical “Hello Dolly“ is playing cheerfully to beautiful clips of galaxies, planets and stars. Then, the view pans onto a dust tinted Earth and zoomes in – through a carpet of space junk, then through the dense smog covering a city. What looks like skyscrapers from afar is rather heaps of garbage neatly stocked. We see scenes from a world too hostile to remain a human habitat. The juxtaposition of the merry song to the ruins of civilization is striking. What’s even more striking, is that this is not some scaremongering campaign from the environmental movement, but rather the opening of an animated movie for children – the 2008 sci-fi “WALL-E”.

In “Wall-E”, Pixar criticizes the consumerist and corporatist ideals largely associated with their parent company and the movie’s distributor, Walt Disney Pictures. The movie depicts the final stage of the Anthropocene: An uninhabitable earth. Photo: Pixar / Walt Disney Pictures

Throughout all of the 20th century, dystopian literature and pop culture has criticized their contemporary societies by portraying societal collapse, global catastrophes, the loss of human values and terrible regimes. By painting a picture of a world the reader or spectator really doesn’t want to live in, the creators force them to reflect on political or ecological matters. Dystopian writing and entertainment can roughly be said to have three main modes: The political, the technological and the ecological. The political dystopia concerns itself with various forms of totalitarianism. The technological shows problematic aspects of human innovations and inventions. The ecological shows the anthropocenic apocalypse: A world that is no longer inhabitable. These three modes of dystopia intertwine more often than not.

The dystopia of the early 20th century was mainly of the political mode, addressing totalitarianism. Already in 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote the novel “We”, where people are named with alphanumberic codes. Men have odd numbers and consonants, women have even numbers and vowels. The “One State” has watchers that see all, without the inhabitants knowing if and when they are being watched. This is the structure of the panopticon. A panopticon is an architectonic model for prisons, proposed in the late 18th century by the founder of modern utalitarianism, Jeremy Bantham. This circular prison building has a darkened observation tower in its center, so that the guards can see inmates in their backlit cells without them knowing about it. The fear-inducing concept is perhaps one of the most striking examples of how architecture and design can affect people psychologically: It is a shift of power induced by structure alone. Michel Foucoult, discussing his social theory of panopticism, wrote “without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind.‘” [1]

Architectural section and plan of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison, illustrated by Willey Reveley in 1791. Photo: Public domain

It is perhaps not hard to understand why the panopticon, or the ideas related to the structure, became a common trope for later dystopian works. Most notably in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, where Big Brother is a state leader (or more likely the constructed image of one) who sees everything. This is perhaps the most famous depiction of a dictatorship in literary history. Free thought has been abolished by the Party – “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.”[2] The icon of Big Brother has been applied in criticism of surveillance, the violation of privacy and the attack on individuality by both the state and corporations. The fact that “Big Brother” became a figure of speech, and that orwellian and orwellism subsequently became group terms for ideas referencing the totalitarian scenarios in the book, is evidence of how potent dystopia can be as an engine of criticism.

Oslo Prison at Grønland, Botsfengselet, is one of Europe’s few remaining panopticon prisons. The aerial is from 1951. Photo: Oslo byarkiv

Technology is where dystopia intersects with science-fiction, although these genres are often mistaken as one and the same. Topics such as artificial intelligence and the singularity, the technologically altered man and earth abandonment are common motifs in sci-fi dystopia. The technological mode of dystopia deals with innovations and inventions that puts either humanity or our human values at risk – from the movie classic “Blade Runner” (1982), based on Philip K. Dick’s novel «Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?» (1968) to current successful techno dystopias such as “Ex Machina” (2014), the Netflix anthology series “Black Mirror” or even the 2017 “Blade Runner” sequel. Are we still humans if we can fuse our bodies with computers, or do we become something else? The homo deus theory of popular science writer Yuval Noah Harari is quite comparable to that of the Anthropocene. The advocates for the latter say that there are overwhelming evidence that mankind has altered the geological qualities of the earth so much that we have to recognize the Anthropocene as the new current epoch in geological science. Harari, on the other hand, claims that we have altered our own bodies so much that we no longer can be considered Homo sapiens, but rather Homo deus – the human god. Maybe by having an all-knowing computer in our pockets, we are no longer the same species as before. Or perhaps it started with spectacles and contact lenses. Harari ends his most recent book in a manner that aligns well with technological dystopia: “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?” [3]

Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2014) is one of the most critically acclaimed technological dystopias in recent years, addressing humans in relation to artificial intelligence.

“Wall-E” is a very different dystopian movie, and a particularly interesting one. Partly because it has children as its main audience, and also because it pictures the ultimate failure of society – namely an Earth with no life. This is the ecological mode of dystopia. While political concerns were important in early 20th century dystopic works, this sub-genre has grown along with the realization that the climate change is the most severe and imminent global threat. In the movie industry, it started perhaps with “Mad Max” (1979), portraying a post-apocalyptic Australia where society has collapsed and oil is the most important currency. The script authors wrote the movie “based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.” [4] Many modern apocalyptic books and movies show a world climate few would like to dwell in, like “Elysium” (2013) and “Ready Player One” (2018). But few are as conclusively grim as “WALL-E.”

“WALL-E” is a movie for children that between the lines tells us that millions of people have died. The survivors, obviously the wealthy, live in spaceships with no destination, in an automated life of docile and endless consumerism. The surprise, of course, is that the distributor of this massively consumerist and environmentally critical movie is one of the strongest capitalist forces in the movie industry, Walt Disney Pictures. “By critiquing consumerism so overtly, WALL-E also critiques Disney aesthetic and production values throughout much of the film,” [5] wrote Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann in an essay on the movie.

While fine art may be a potent scene for ecocriticism, it does not necessarily reach key audience groups that need to be convinced that climate change is our time’s biggest peril. Such as the youngest generations, who will inherit the struggle: The consumption of visual arts in Norway has declined the past 20 years amongst all age groups, except people of ages 67 and higher. The decline is especially prominent among youths: In the year 2000, 40 % of adolescents in the age 16 to 24 reported to have seen an exhibition of visual arts or crafts the last 12 months. In 2016, the percentage was 27 [6]. Also, studies show that people of conservative political beliefs are less likely to accept man-made climate change as a reality [7]. It is easy to think that the average Trump voter does not frequent art galleries. Hopefully, books and movies of the ecological dystopian mode can convince the next generation and the climate sceptics of the matter at hand. Seeing abandoned, dust-covered cityscapes in “WALL-E”, the scenario feels scary not in the typical sci-fi way – where everything still seems to be matters of the distant future – but precisely because it feels so plausible and imminent. This is after all the ultimate paradox of the Anthropocene: We alter earth to make it more habitable for humans. In the end it no longer is.


  1. Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by A. Sheridan, 195-228. Vintage Books, 1995.

  2. Orwell, George. “Nineteen Eighty Four”. Secker & Warburg, 1949.

  3. Harari, Yuval Noah (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Random House. p. 462.

  4. Mad Max screenwriter James McCausland, The Courier-Mail, 2006.

  5. Murray, Robin L. & Heumann, Joseph K. “WALL-E: from environmental adaptation to sentimental nostalgia” in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No. 51, spring 2009.

  6. SSB. “Norsk kulturbarometer”, Besøk på utstilling av billedkunst eller kunsthåndverk, siste 12 måneder, etter befolkningsgruppe, statistikkvariabel og år. See figure 1.

  7. Kliegman, Julie. “Jerry Brown says 'virtually no Republican' in Washington accepts climate change science” in Politifact. May 18th, 2014.