August 24, 2009

Nasty, Brutish, Short…and Wet?

Flying jet-skis, melted icecaps, a mutant sailor, and a cartographic tattoo can mean only one thing: it’s time to review Waterworld, the Oscar-nominated cinematic marvel out of 1995. Following a seafaring Kevin Costner with a penchant for underwater respiration, the film envisages a future Earth beset by catastrophic climate change, where dirt is the world’s most valuable commodity and terra firma exists only in myth. But before moving to assess the natural security lessons in the film, qualifications of the scientific and artistic merit are in order.

To start, the science behind Waterworld is dubious at best. Even the most extreme projections for sea level rise fail to predict a future in which all of civilization lies submerged under miles of ocean. Next, of course, there’s the two-pronged issue of acting and dialogue. Alas, substituting the contrived phrase “pure, sweet ‘hydro’” for what could have just as easily been conveyed by the words “drinkable water” doesn’t lend the characters’ interactions an air of post-apocalyptic authenticity; it merely elicits the viewer’s occasional wince. And, being that this is a full service movie reviewing operation, I’d be remiss not to lodge a complaint against director Kevin Reynolds’s approach to dystopian costuming. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the one-eyed villain must really wear a codpiece for the sake of narrative development.

In any case, with the qualifying preamble out of the way, there are a few legitimate natural security themes in Waterworld, at least if one thinks abstractly and creatively.
First, the film underscores an important observation about human-environment interactions. That is, changes to the natural environment result in corresponding changes to human lifestyles. Waterworld narrates a future scenario in the extreme, but history’s record is replete with evidence to verify this axiom. In the past, agriculturalists migrated when droughts set in, and hunters moved when game stocks dwindled. Today, all signs indicate that humans will have to continue to adapt to environmental change, even though contemporary solutions might focus more heavily on technological innovation rather than geographic relocation.
Second, Waterworld shows the persistence of problems of resource scarcity. Even when surrounded by vast expanses of ocean, the denizens of Waterworld’s future have scant access to fresh water for consumption or agriculture. Water is recycled at every possible turn. The obsessive methods of conservation offend modern sensibilities: urine is reprocessed as drinking water, while the bodies of the dead are plopped into the viscous green goo that feeds the few carefully tended floating plants.
Human adaptation and resource dependence are permanent, intertwined features of security, but Waterworld reduces them to ancillary methods of plot conveyance. Then again, perhaps that’s for the best. At least in this case, it’s probably better to stress the “fiction” in science fiction. Leave it to the climatologists, not Kevin Costner, to lecture on the perils of sea level rise.

John Lee is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Researcher at the Center for a New American Security.