Late Night Movie: Fate of the World
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A sweating man beside a newspaper printing press. Two headline options: WORLD SAVED! — WORLD DOOMED! I saw the film again recently—The Day the Earth Caught Fire. It set me to thinking.
“Within the next few hours, the world will know whether this is the end, or another beginning, the rebirth of man or his final obituary . . .” London is deserted, the Thames dried up, a merciless sun is beating on the windows of the newsroom. A dramatic do-or-die experiment is underway.
“And so the final fire was kindled.” The newspaper man, Pete Stenning, is dictating the story of all stories. “The Earth that was to live forever was blasted by a great wind toward oblivion.”
Flash back to a few weeks earlier. Pete is a star newsman cast into a downward spiral by divorce, despair and drink. A strange brew is engulfing the world: earthquakes, storms, unseasonable blizzards. Has the chaos been caused by American and Russian H-bomb tests? Pete tries to pry the facts from Jeannie Craig, a wise and winsome switchboard operator at the government weather bureau. “The people at the top are cleverer than we are,” she assures him. “They know what they're doing.” After the usual banter, they fall for each other and she clues him in to what’s going on.
Turns out the bomb tests have changed the tilt of the earth. “Monkeying around with nature on this scale,” the paper’s science editor fumes, “who knows what the implications are.” Headlines scream: WORLD TIPS OVER! Then the other shoe drops.
Nuclear testing is a different mechanism for climate change than greenhouse gas, but its unknown dangers made the scenario plausible in 1961 when the movie was released. Coincidentally, this was the era when the real danger of global warming was first becoming clear. In 1956, an American an oceanographer named Roger Revelle suggested that, if steps were not taken, the effects of increased carbon dioxide might present serious problems in the distant year 2000.
What’s become increasingly clear in 2023 is that the problem may well be beyond the ability or the will of mankind to fix. No one wants to admit that the world we know is finished. We would rather think it’s a hoax. But vast changes are now unavoidable. One alternative is a healthier, cleaner, more sustainable planet achieved through worldwide action on a grand scale. We put a man on the moon, for chrissake. The Alternative? We can’t see its face, but its outlines are grim. Societal collapse. Mass migration. Unprecedented death from heat, storms, tidal surges. Then, disease, desperation, and despair.
The sunny outcome, the sustainable world, cannot be achieved unless we acknowledge the aspirations of the world’s poorest billions, force wealthy hoarders to pay for a solution, and change fundamentally the way we ourselves live.
A flash report from Moscow! The Russians now reveal the truth. The bomb tests have not just changed the earth’s tilt. They’ve set the Earth spiraling toward the sun.
“If that’s true,” the science editor comments, “I’d say there’s about four months.”
“Before there’s a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind.”
Conditions deteriorate rapidly, more heat, a severe water shortage. The images in the film bring to mind today’s surreal scenes of wildfires and floods around the world.
An unseen prime minister comes on the wireless to announce that four thermonuclear bombs, “the largest ever devised,” are to be detonated in Siberia. No one knows if it will set the world right again. But it’s certain, the PM declares, that unless something is done “we are a doomed planet.”
Cut to the pressroom. The two versions of the upcoming edition are ready to go out once the results are known. Saved or doomed. The sweltering printers await the verdict
We too may be approaching a time when we’ll need to throw the dice. When only some untested geo-engineering scheme can save us. When we’ll have to find a way not just to cut carbon emissions but to actively and effectively remove greenhouse gases from the air. Sequester carbon. Shield ourselves from sunlight. Rejigger the planet and hope it works.
We’ve now reached the point where the movie began. Pete is dictating, adding a cryptic coda to his story. If man is indeed doomed, “perhaps at the heart of the burning light into which he has thrust his world there is a heart that cares more for him than he has ever cared for himself.” What the devil can he mean by that? How do you talk about the future when there may not be a future?
Our predicament today is approaching a crossroad. Ever hopeful, we’re drawn to WORLD SAVED! They’ll find a way. We’ll muddle through. Surely. But mounting evidence has to make us think.
What would it mean? Human history erased. Religion, philosophy, our imperfect science, our paltry monuments, our treasured principles, our love for one another, all gone or distorted beyond recognition. Barbarism. Perhaps extinction. Humanity following in the wake of the many species we have already condemned to oblivion. What would it mean?
In his last expression of hope, Pete quotes from the eleventh chapter of Ecclesiastes. If there is a future, man “may say once more, Truly, the light is sweet, and what a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the sun.”
Downing a whiskey, the science editor has the last word. “To the luck of the human race.”
[You can watch the film here: https://archive.org/details/TheDayTheEarthCaughtFire1961 ]
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