25 December 2016 (Desdemona Despair) – Ten years ago today, Children of Men, the brilliant, dystopian science fiction film, debuted in the United States. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men portrays Britain in the year 2027 as the last bastion of civilization standing against the imminent extinction of the human species. In 2006, Cuarón told the Seattle Times, “the stuff that you see on the screen is nothing but a reference of stuff that has been happening on this planet in the last five years or so.”
So, what happened in the following decade? Was Children of Men a prescient vision of the future?
Yes, in two important ways: the plight of refugees, and the concomitant rise of brutal, authoritarian governance.
Nearly seven years ago, Desdemona blogged about the graphic design elements of the film (Graphics from the near future). The film’s production crew created a London that overflows with refugees, where ubiquitous propaganda videos intone, “the world has collapsed; only Britain soldiers on”. Desperate ultra-nationalism has seized the UK, prefiguring the 2016 Brexit vote and the associated white supremacist politics.
In London 2027, refugees are caged in the streets. An elderly German woman complains to a guard about “die Schwarzen” she’s caged with, not comprehending that her social status is exactly the same as theirs: refugee scum.
Compare with scenes from the refugee crisis in Europe. In 2015, guards in Hungary tossed food to caged refugees like zoo keepers feeding animals.
Elsewhere in Europe, refugees were met with barbed wire and tear gas. In 2016, Turkey threatened to use refugee flows as a weapon against Europe, and the Global Peace Index recorded a “decade long decline in peace”. More than 65 million people were displaced due to war and persecution in 2015, and the largest refugee flows since World War 2 poured into the Northern Hemisphere. They are the vanguard of the hundreds of millions who will be forced to migrate out of the tropics due to abrupt climate change. In 2016, reactionary parties across Europe enjoyed electoral gains on anti-refugee politics, and governments worldwide assaulted freedom of expression.
Children of Men predicts that the official reaction to sudden, immense refugee flows will be bad, and the years since have borne out this pessimism. The Britain of the future has an authoritarian government that routinely tortures citizens. The journalist wife of pot farmer Jaspar (Michael Caine) was tortured into a catatonic state for reporting embarrassing facts about the government. The nation is a police state with ubiquitous surveillance. Refugees are shipped to lawless, open-air prisons.
For a contemporary picture of governance under global warming, we need look no further than another island nation, the Philippines, and the presidency of strongman Rodrigo Duterte. After the islands were pounded by multiple climate disasters, from Typhoon Haiyan to the crippling drought of 2016, which caused food riots, Duterte was elected in a populist wave.
Naturally, Duterte denies climate science and has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Duterte boasted of killing people when he was mayor of Davao City. Now he’s ordered a wave of death squad killings across Manila. Can a nation-wide fascist crackdown be far behind?
In the United States, strongman Donald Trump came to power on a promise to stem refugee flows out of Mexico and Central America. Crowds chanted, “Build the wall” at his campaign rallies, and he promised to round up millions of people and deport them back to the grim conditions that they had fled. Also, Trump has stated that he will bring back waterboarding, “and a hell of a lot worse”, aligning the U.S. with other brutal autocracies in the use of administrative torture.
As the planet warms inexorably, refugee flows out of the tropics will increase in volume. Ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, like the UK Independence Party and National Front in France, are poised to build fences and expel migrants, all the while denying the reality of global warming.
A decade after Children of Men, life is imitating art, much too closely for comfort.