Is climate anxiety the new nuclear anxiety?

Daniel Walker

For as long as the planet Earth has had a past and a present, its inhabitants have fretted and fussed over its future – or, more specifically, the possibility that it might not have one. The media hyper-saturation and never-ending stream of content that is part and parcel of life in 2019 does little to quell our apocalyptic anxiety: not only is the world ending, but it’s ending in a bunch of different ways at once, all of which you can read about while you’re waiting in line at Lower or sitting on the crapper. And of all our present existential threats, none looms larger over our cultural landscape and our thoughts and minds than the threat posed to civilization by incipient and inevitable climate change.

Our mass climate anxiety has a parallel in the other major existential threat of the postmodern age: nuclear annihilation. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the cultural artifacts of the mid-to-late 20th century knows that, back in the day, nuclear paranoia was a big deal. Our collective imagination was ruled by superheroes blessed and burdened by chance encounters with toxic waste and radioactive animals, mad scientists who tried to play God and unwittingly brought about humanity’s end, and so on.

From a modern perspective, the nuke-centric pop culture of the 20th century – henceforth referred to as “nukecore,” because I think it sounds cool – is valuable as a collective historical document demonstrating how earlier generations dealt with apocalypse anxiety and channeled their fears into popular art. 

Take, for instance, the case of Godzilla. As a monstrous lizard born of humanity’s irresponsibility with nuclear weapons, who rises from the sea to destroy a thriving metropolis and crush humanity underfoot, Godzilla is the perfect emblem of 20th-century-era nuclear anxiety. And he’s also one of the most recognizable cultural figures of all time, which proves that mass thanatophobia truly knows no borders.     

But Godzilla’s relevance has continued well into the era of climate anxiety: the 2016 film “Shin Godzilla” depicts a typical Godzilla attack from the perspective of the scared and bewildered bureaucrats trying to keep a modernized nation alive and kicking in the wake of unprecedented disaster. The film draws on Japan’s response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which in turn led to the explosion of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In updating the classic cautionary tale of Godzilla to accommodate our latter-day concerns about climate disaster, and our distrust of the institutions that are meant to save us from ourselves, “Shin Godzilla” offers a perfect example of how the apocalypse of yesterday and the apocalypse of today aren’t so different.