Academic journal article Extrapolation

Nationalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Climate Change in the Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Crichton

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Nationalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Climate Change in the Novels of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Crichton

Article excerpt

In the first decade of the new millennium, public debates about global climate change have taken place more and more often in the context of the global "war on terror," U.S. economic integrity, and America's reputation as a secure, sovereign world leader. In 1994, Robert D. Kaplan, writing for The Atlantic, called the environment "the national security issue of the early 21st century, [...] the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate" (para. 30). More recently, Michael Ziser and Julie Sze have observed that climate change inspires a new form of "environmental nationalism" designed to confront "the threat to the twentieth-century pattern of American dominance on the world stage" (392).

Far from being discarded as archaic, environmental tropes born at the end of the nineteenth century, when the United States began to project its power beyond its borders in earnest, are being retooled to address a reversal of fortune in which the United States finds itself with shrinking influence and relevance. (392)

As Ziser and Sze point out, this new environmental nationalism not only serves a "geopolitical agenda that aims to preserve U.S. economic and political power," but also redeploys the iconography of rugged American individualism, "the go-it-alone, tough-as-nails mythology that informed the masculine and colonialist aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century environmentalism" (387, 390), as a way to combat an intensifying anxiety over the U.S.'s waning political influence. As David Orr suggests, environmentalism in post-9/11 America is inevitably colored by a "hyped-up nationalism magnified by the exigencies of terrorism" (18).

Perhaps even more unsettling are instances when climate change is recast as an "opportunity" to restore America to its former glory. Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How It Can Renew America, for example, sketches a weirdly patriotic nationalist fantasy in which America recuperates its lost confidence - the result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 - and heroically saves the world from global climate change. "[T]he convergence of hot, flat, and crowded," Friedman writes, "has created a challenge so daunting that it is impossible to imagine a meaningful solution without America really stepping up" (6).

But this challenge is actually an opportunity for America. If we take it on, it will revive America at home, reconnect America abroad, and retool America for tomorrow. America is always at its most powerful and most influential when it is combining innovation and inspiration, wealth-building and dignitybuilding, the quest for big profits, and the tackling of big problems. (6)

Enthusiastic to the point of jingoism, Friedman's plea for an American-led green revolution panders to American readers by appealing to nationalistic sentiment. "Green is not simply a new form of generating electric power," he extols, "It is a new form of generating national power - period" (23, original italicized). A green America, Friedman contends, "will have its identity back, not to mention its self-confidence, because it will again be leading the world on the most important strategic mission and values issue of the day" (24-25, emphasis added). Framing the issue in terms of an epic struggle in which Americans are either "losers or heroes" (6), Friedman relies on militaristic rhetoric ("national power," "strategic mission") to link environmental crisis to national identity, and even more notably, to a national masculinity that has been threatened and exposed, made vulnerable by the events of 9/11: "We have not gone dark yet, but since 9/11 we have been afraid, and when you are afraid you're not yourself" (10).

The rhetoric of nationalism and masculine reconstitution can also be found in popular cinema. In Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004), for example, climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) attempts to save his teenage son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), from a sudden "ice age" that encroaches on New York City. …

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