Improbably Sentimental Robots; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Babies and Embrace the Apocalypse
A film conversation between Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles
Teresa K. Miller
Our mutual friend just had a baby, and she recently posted a photo of herself looking straight into the camera, simply holding him, proud and genuine with her wife leaning over her shoulder to look at him. “I made this,” she seems to say, and as much as I’m predisposed to scrolling past sappy Facebook posts about kids, this image feels real and irrefutable, the most important thing.
I feel that with her, the awe and pride, even as I shrink away from any possible date that we might ever have children. It’s been two years out for, what, five years now? I see and feel that photo, and then I flash on the women we know who appear to have mixed feelings at best, maybe some form of regret they could never name because also, here is this person you love intensely and hope will always be around, even though other parts of your life that you still desperately want have fallen off and melted, your personal Antarctic ice sheet.
My close friends started having kids at the same time that I ramped up my research and writing about climate change, and there have been moments of intense emotional contradiction, holding their squirming, adorable new people, both congratulating them and wondering what lies in store for the next generation—hoping that we reverse climatic course in this last possible instant and knowing that one important step toward saving the planet is ratcheting down population growth, followed by absolute population, ASAP. Though we grow enough food for more than the current 7 billion humans (if only there were equitable access), the long-term, big-picture ecological carrying capacity of the Earth may only be about 2 billion—and we’re flirting with five times that by midcentury.
Though we grow enough food for more than the current 7 billion humans, the long-term, big-picture ecological carrying capacity of the Earth may only be about 2 billion.
Yet short of our beloved Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, someone needs to be born if we wish for our species to carry on (Do I? I’m less sure of that answer than maybe I “should” be as prescribed by some spiritual/existential superego)—and, hopefully, be the charismatic steward who inspires a sea change in the way humans relate to our finite space and resources.
It’s worth noting that the rampant, havoc-wreaking consumption is powered by a quintessentially Western, imperialist, capitalist engine: There are cultures with knowledge and traditions of living in balance with the land, ways of relating that are under threat by unbounded growth and consumerism—“Democracy!”—exported worldwide. Salvation is not, then, about inventing the solution—solutions abound—but rather speaking over the din of the mall and persuading deep behavior change among a critical mass of its patrons.
Thus, we’ve found ourselves of late not bringing the potential conservationist messiah into the world but watching animated films aimed at fostering such a washable diaper–filling, glass bottle–drinking, homegrown produce–eating wunderkind.
On the one hand, there’s FernGully (1992; subtitled, I now notice, “The Last Rainforest”), which I saw in the theater as an anxious elementary-schooler, hot on the heels of my laminated manila research report manically titled, “HELP SAVE THE WHALES!” You were already of legal drinking age, wearing flannel shirts and listening to Pavement, and, probably to your credit, not interested in 90 minutes of slapstick and gag-worthy musical numbers, a broad-stroke battle of good forest fairy Crysta—rendered as a scattered, lip-biting quasi–porn star with a rag dress slit to her waist, which narrows to such a vanishing point that I presume fairies either don’t eat or don’t have to digest—vs. evil Hexxus, a Grim Reaper made of fossil fuel sludge. Trapped in a tree, he’s released by clearcutting humans bent on monetizing the last remaining old-growth forest. Still learning the difference between art and propaganda at that age, I, for one, was rapt.
Forest fairy Crysta, rendered as a scattered, lip-biting quasi–porn star with a rag dress slit to her waist
Then there’s WALL·E (2008), which borders on miraculous in its emotional depth, physical comedy (it’s a rare movie that makes me laugh out loud multiple times, even on the second watching), and compelling story—despite, or somehow because of, the fact that it is computer-animated and has hardly any dialogue, with long stretches following a robot working alone on a deserted planet or interacting with other robots who do little more than parrot each other’s name. Even with Peter Gabriel’s corny musical sauce dripping off the credits/epilogue (no disrespect—he has a beautiful voice), it’s sweet and inspiring in a way that’s effortless instead of prescriptive. While FernGully uses heavy-handed allegory, WALL·E pursues speculative fiction. I’d enjoy watching this movie with my hypothetical child, whereas to endure Crysta and her strikingly Caucasian humanoid fairy community again—even with the enticement of the late Robin Williams playing a bat escaped from vivisectors—would be a chore.
Against my better judgment, I might invoke the airport bookstore staple and armchair expert on everything and nothing, Malcolm Gladwell, and his discussion of message “stickiness” vis-à-vis Sesame Street vs. Blue’s Clues. Many parents would prefer to watch old-school Big Bird and friends if given the choice, with their puns and historical and pop culture references, but apparently, kids learn the intended lessons better and are more engrossed watching the simplistic, repetitive, single-stranded storyline of Blue’s Clues. For the purpose of staving off Armageddon, then, maybe FernGully and its ilk have a role in indoctrinating the next wave of activists.
The film, and other productions with the same intent—the Weekly Reader issue on the greenhouse effect, the “drought and famine” segment (as my mother liked to call it) at the end of every PBS nature program—actually made me lie awake at night as a little kid, worrying about the impending end of the world. It’s hard to call this fearmongering per se when the perils enumerated are already coming to pass—and the people most deserving of the truth about the planet are those on the verge of inheriting it. These messages are also unquestionably why I entered adulthood already identifying as an environmentalist (and flirting with multiple ulcers).
But how to introduce kids to the havoc they’re maturing into, through no fault of their own, without simply causing them to give up or shut down? And is the notion of saving the world at this point all a hypnotizingly well-animated game of self-delusion anyway?
Skimming The New York Times the other day, I noticed an article suggesting financial questions to ask yourself as an aid to planning, including “How many children would you like to have when you retire?” The implication was that many people would appreciate having multiple children once they’ve earned that elusive free time in old age that our economy affords fewer and fewer, and thus fretting now about the cost of having kids or their time-sucking qualities could be a path to future regret. (In the American financial planning world, it appears that life is for nothing but worrying now about regretting later.)
“How many children would you like to have when you retire?”
Yet we have no way of knowing until we get there whether a future filled with hypothetical grandchildren would find them planting seeds side by side with solar-powered, improbably sentimental Earth-cleaning robots—or inhabiting an increasingly chaotic world of climate refugees and nuclear proliferation. In the latter scenario, might the regret lie in having children rather than remaining childless—in not having soaked up every bittersweet day like a terminal patient and sparing one’s once-possible progeny so many automaton- and nymph-sung platitudes before the grim finale?
There’s a place that is magical and full of rain,
But now it needs help because it is in pain.
Protecting the Earth is a mighty big chore.
We’re spreading awareness like never before!
Getting Gay with Kids is here
To spread the word and bring you cheer,
Let’s save the rainforest, whaddaya say?
Being an activist is totally gay.
—South Park, Ep. 3:1 “Rainforest Shmainforest”
Surely Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s late-nineties GenX cynicism (and casual use of a schoolyard homophobic slur) is a direct response to such treacly bromides as FernGully. The South Park kids don yellow T-shirts and perform the choreographed song above, its marshaled cheer defying anyone to gainsay its sincerity, capturing perfectly the hysterical with-us-or-against-us pathology that infuses every group activity from the Mickey Mouse Club to the D.A.R.E. program, mistaking stridency and bossiness for good fun and an understanding embrace. It’s difficult not to hop on board the smirky hate train, I must say, even though FernGully, especially for its time, was uniquely radical in its child-directed environmental politics. I also recognize my shared disgust as partially informed by a toxic pop-culture brain, the result of the tremendous privilege of temporal capital, squandering hours and days basking in commercial garbage, idle minds saturated with pimped messages that made an entire generation enormously sophisticated at little else than shrugging off the cheap allegory, whether it dresses up a plastic action figure or a genuine plea to save the Earth. The repulsive cultural delivery system created an equally repulsive, glib hepcat of Western culture, posturing as a canny critic rather than what he actually is: a witless, time-wasting, passive consumer.
Mistaking stridency and bossiness for good fun and an understanding embrace
This creates the ridiculous scenario in which a mature white American can nearly dispense with the issue as well as its form of communication, no matter the urgency involved, if only because the repetitious gaudiness is so hypnotically and painfully stupid! Never have loving and hating been so intrinsically entwined in the mash-up homages of retro longing (undeservedly glorified by the edgy term “culture jamming”) found in the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim or Everything Is Terrible. But whenever social justice or environmentalism finds its way into this pastiche, one or the other is damned to trivialization and eye rolling.
FernGully supposedly takes place near Australia’s Mt. Warning in the Gondwana Rainforest, located in a massive geological depression formed by volcanic activity, known as a caldera. Rainforests in the American popular imagination are more commonly located in Brazil, and this exclusive focus on the Amazon can make us blind to the fact that even the U.S. has vulnerable rainforests in the Pacific Northwest. It’s easy to assume incorrectly that FernGully is another Amazonian setting, unless children happen to know that Tone Lōc’s character Goanna is an Australian monitor lizard, or that Ock and Rock are cassowaries found only in New South Wales and New Guinea. You were the kind of child who would have done anxious research about this. I’m crying and dying, thinking about the earnest desperation your circa-1992 self applied to the cause of endangered whales.
Never have loving and hating been so intrinsically entwined in the mash-up homages of retro longing.
The fresh retinae of children mainline imagery from television, movies, and of course, more typically these days, monitors linked to the web, especially the bathroom tile–sized screens of smartphones. And if my experience is any indication, that shit will stick for good, even if thirty years pass without reflection upon it; YouTube constantly triggers my dormant memories, thanks (no thanks) to forgotten VHS tapes that recorded UHF programming on local stations, uploaded by strangers who happened to exist in my childhood bandwidth, receiving the same video signals. I remember the fleeting tics of actors hawking mouthwash on commercials that haven’t been broadcast since 1981. Educators and content developers understand the silver halide of child brains, particularly when it comes to imagery. But this would seem to suggest that kids prefer variety rather than the Again! incantation of Teletubbies Skinner-box psychology, superfluously hammering impressions where they’re already permanently formed with one glancing blow. I guess that wonderfully queer Tinky Winky knows better—more Tubby custard, please.
How would we raise our hypothetical children? When do education and discipline shade into indoctrination? If you let your boys wear dresses to school (as we happily would) and support your girls’ dating girls (as we happily would), why not allow them to become morally and politically conservative twits, in the spirit of personal freedom? I am equating these freely embraced impulses and preferences and predispositions and genetic imprints only insofar as they all might be freely embraced impulses and preferences and predispositions and genetic imprints. Can you be a “charismatic steward” to a child, when odds are good they’ll resent you by virtue of your parentage or, even more broadly, your culpable predecession?
Everything I notice in myself that reminds me of my father makes me want to vomit, even when the trait or tendency is potentially valuable—and even though I love my father very much. The nausea has more to do with the unheimlich sense of noticing one’s doppelgänger than actual animosity. Resentment is unjustified, given the continuum of depletion: There is no political or moral line of demarcation, after which a new, innocent generation indignantly inherits the exhausted resources of their progenitors like a single fraudulent, deplorable transaction; the inheritors want nothing to do with this legacy, but they double and treble the externalities of consumption beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Educators and content developers understand the silver halide of child brains, particularly when it comes to imagery.
WALL·E presupposes a natural, essential longing to be on a verdant Earth—that we, as human beings, are spiritually linked to the planet’s green vegetation far beyond our chemical need for oxygen production and carbon reduction. The signal of return—resisted by the space station Axiom’s HAL-like AUTO—is the discovery of one little plant. EVE, whose whiteness and soft edges are inspired by Apple hardware designs, is the gendered super-robot who is less her namesake’s ur-woman and more the returning dove to Noah’s ark, bearing a tiding like the olive branch.
Yet remarkably, while explicitly a Pentateuch story, there is no God presence in the story at all and, therefore, no covenant between a father and his children. Humans and human designs have implemented destruction as well as the promise of restoration; disaster and recovery have been entirely matters of expansion and contraction. In between, a dynastic period of “set it and forget it” has led to the infantilization and obesity of human survivors, as if the abandonment of Earth is, most tragically and significantly, the loss of the REI wilderness recreation cult, leading also to a disabled aesthetic discernment that can only delight in changing primary colors. Stars and swimming pools represent unmediated phenomenology that, once recognized and appreciated, can redeem us as more Promethean individuals, something more than who we were when the signifier indicated nothing but its own digital projection. Let’s say that the stars are macrocosmic firing synapses generated by uncatalyzed atomic desire and the swimming pools are sites of amniotic physical exertion solely for the sake of pleasure in the body’s motion.
A disabled aesthetic discernment that can only delight in changing primary colors
I knew about the Olympic rainforest because I grew up hiking through it, you evil Californian transplant. But now you’re playing my favorite game circa the aforementioned whale treatise: “Let’s say…” Let’s say we’re orphans and this flowerbed is a deserted island and any time we see a car pass by it’s a ship, but we don’t know if it’s filled with pirates or people who are coming to save us. (Flash to you DJing college radio in Iowa City, getting ready to grow your hair biblically long and live in a Burmese monastery in India.)
In this case, I realize, my reflections on the actual end of the world as we know it, insofar as it would be the end of our knowing the world—not just as individuals taking, as you say, our inevitable “long dirt nap,” but as a species—sound to some as if I’m playing “Let’s Say We’re Entering the End Times and We Have to Return to a Higher Plane of Existence by Boarding the UFO I’m Sure Is Trailing That Comet.” Here, have some Kool-Aid.
Except we already have sunny-day flooding of major thoroughfares on the East Coast because of sea-level rise, and whole island nations are losing their potable water and disappearing into the sea, the final step in post-colonial exploitation being total erasure. Though we do, as you note, find ourselves stuck in and always amplifying our predecessors’ plastic-wrapped, smog-spewing rut, I would argue that resentment is still justified—one up-and-coming generation or one sinking nation toward the complacent other. Still, lest we fall into a spiral of “They started it!” as we sip our plastic-bottled water and eat our imported bananas while driving to the airport to fly where the bananas came from for a little air-conditioned weekend jaunt (something common among many in the relatively affluent world, not just the super-rich, yet it’s killing us), more important is the moral imperative to act—to be, at the risk of making you throw up in your smirking mouth, part of the solution.
“Let’s Say We’re Entering the End Times and We Have to Return to a Higher Plane of Existence by Boarding the UFO I’m Sure Is Trailing That Comet.”
Or not. If we believe that it’s theoretically possible to reverse course but there’s no real hope in the practical sense of overcoming the inherent inertia of human nature, and if we do not believe in an afterlife or spiritual benefit to self-deprivation or doomed stewardship in this life—if we believe that the world without us will put holes in our roofs and concrete in short order and go on living, provided the untended and precarious refinery pipelines don’t explode—then maybe we should stop worrying and go out in a personal and species blaze of thoughtless, pleasure-seeking anti-glory. Yes, I’ll take a plastic bag. Make it a double. Make it an imported beefsteak. Make it a Humvee and a broad-spectrum herbicide–soaked golf course. A private jet.
And why not extend that frenzy of material possessions to living beings, the ultimate 21st century accessory and focus of all projected anxiety: children. Even if that means sticking them with the final, massive, interest-accrued bill. Even if that means your legacy only lasts long enough for you to die and feel good about having kids, missing the deterioration of their children and grandchildren—just as we pat ourselves on the back for putting all that superfluous plastic packaging in the recycle bin, only to have it shipped overseas and incinerated, spreading the bounty of cancer and birth defects.
It doesn’t take much for me to go to a dark place, does it? Yet you find me outside, working in my own personal carbon-sequestering garden, sheet mulching with every last box and piece of packing paper from our move, picking up one leaf at a time to make way for germinating red clover and wildflowers where the previous residents’ fertilizer-addled lawn used to be. I’m convinced there is no greater act of faith than planting a seed. I always worry that I’m not making it a welcoming enough home—and am still stunned each time such a small, long-dormant speck unfolds into a new living entity. WALL·E’s one tiny plant is, in fact, a kind of miracle, an outer-space echo of the bunchgrass that resists all human striving for sterile order and grows defiantly in the freeway median cracks. May it outlive us all.
In FernGully, planting a single seed instantly redeems the loggers’ greed and destruction by beautifying and covering Hexxus’s gnarled new prison with a lush carpet of flowers, but WALL·E recognizes that returning to the soil does not erase our past transgressions—reforestation will unfold beside concrete and landfill. This broken landscape makes cultivation that much more sanguine, an act that might—for those with typically functioning biological clocks—extend to creating and raising a child. Surely someone so small and inherently innocent could grow up without becoming jaded, apathetic, self-centered, driven by consumerism? It’s theoretically possible, isn’t it, even if the sun is setting on the Anthropocene and a species-transcending savior—or our concrete knowledge of the problem or our will to survive—hasn’t saved us yet?
An outer-space echo of the bunchgrass that resists all human striving for sterile order
I’m glad you brought up the magical element in FernGully that WALL·E thankfully dispenses with, because the deus ex machina of magic in film is often another way of saying, “There will be intercession and providence with or without our participation; don’t despair.” That kind of trust in the supernatural order that privileges human existence—whether it manifests as an Abrahamic God or mere serendipity—leads to the worst kind of indifference, and that’s why I found the OT flood story in WALL·E a little puzzling and counterproductive until I realized the Father is absent. In a world without human narratives, there is no Father, no stern taskmaster or perfected spiritual model or psychotic sadist demanding child sacrifice or loving nurturer. There is only the exploding human species consuming the Earth and the complacency that externalized costs afford the consumer who then has the luxury to ignore his legacy unto death. In many ways, the last word on our presence is still what Agent Smith told Morpheus in The Matrix (a movie that then proceeds to ignore its own blunt diagnosis by turning to a kitschy, half-baked religion of the One).
Perhaps my irrational fear of ghosts has a sophisticated justification through analogy: The supernatural is just a sign of that dreaded human complacency, capitulation to a narrative that excuses human responsibility. I’m terrified of the emblem from a story that corresponds to nothing but an urge to do nothing. We should all be afraid of ghosts!
“There will be intercession and providence with or without our participation; don’t despair.”
WALL·E, on the other hand, does resort to the magical anthropomorphic machine that acts in our interest when we cannot. It’s obscene to suggest that machines can love each other, for example, and yet it’s fun, even touching, to observe this story unfold in WALL·E; frankly, I don’t know what to do with it. The faux-majestic startup chime that signals WALL·E’s fully charged solar battery is aural product placement baldly servicing fans of the Mac cult. Between this consumer sop and the twee human characterizations of robots, technology is warm and fuzzy at the same time that its production has led to ziggurats of compressed trash and worldwide aeolian soil erosion. The best you can say about it is that it never turns to God.
But love and God are both human constructs that will always keep machines from achieving true AI functionality, namely because both constructs remain mystifications that contain our despair and rationalize our destructiveness. A machine, by virtue of being a machine, will never supply mysteries to supplant despair. We simultaneously act irrationally, expect technology to save us, and yearn absurdly for a robot that will behave like we do—that is to say, in a way that can anticipate another human being’s irrationality through complete identification. What makes us distinctively human—and therefore amounts to the final crucible of comprehensive AI—is the desire to keep the self and his clan comfortably alive at the cost of everything else; God help us indeed if AI becomes a reality! For these reasons, the love story of WALL·E and EVE is just as abominable as it is amusing.
I’m terrified of the emblem from a story that corresponds to nothing but an urge to do nothing. We should all be afraid of ghosts!
Pixar has made its fortune indulging in the projection of human silliness, anxiety, and madness upon the technological and natural worlds, but by interchanging these two vastly different orders, they ignore the consequences of this confusion. It functions more salubriously when a clownfish becomes a human character; we instinctively form a protective interest in the Other realized as ourselves, a process toward which animation and cartoonish exaggeration provide us a shortcut. Jane Goodall can more authentically bond with a chimpanzee after sixty years of intimate study and companionship, but shortcuts are necessary when time and access are limited. Animation creates an ersatz bond that nonetheless drives advocacy. The most effective animal rights organizations insist on endowing creatures with total personhood, entailing all human rights; by this reasoning, confusing a fish for a human is precisely what we should be doing.
But when this same cloying humanoid animates the fetishized object—the toy, the car, the robot—we treat human technology like beloved offspring rather than manmade machines that cannot be reproduced without destroying the Earth. Even with certain species, when we alter their course of natural reproduction, migration, and orientation toward other ecosystems—like the Nile perch in Lake Victoria—we do so for the sake of human consumption at the expense of the balance struck by the genius of evolutionary time. We had absolutely nothing to do with creating a clownfish; at best, we can attempt to preserve rather than destroy it. But we compound the chemicals that create the unnatural plastics that choke the oceans and form the features of our dolls; we extract the crude oil that carbonizes our planet and fuels our vehicles; and we litter the developing world with the toxic metals discarded from our computers. To suggest through the trompe l’œil technology of animation that technological objects have independent lives denies the truth that late capitalism is indifferent to human lives, let alone the planet and its other inhabitants.
Donna Haraway, adopting the neologism “Chthulucene” (in order to correct the Euro- and anthropocentric implications of “Anthropocene” as well as combat our actual, current, insidious “Capitalocene”), requests in her newest book Staying with the Trouble that we avoid privileging the pronatal form of kinship—that we look to alternate bonds with existing life that may not be a matter of blood lineage, but should be embraced with as much self-preserving intensity as we currently lavish on our biological children; on our so-called communities that more often demonize outsiders than inculcate the golden rule; and on the faith-based systems of redemption that unjustifiably excuse human rapacity. By acknowledging the universal mode of capital that has wrought the consumptive nature of this epoch, we can a) stop clutching the Eurocentric Industrial Revolution narrative that informs “Anthropocene”; b) finally admit that the acquisition of capital, particularly in this late stage, benefits, statistically speaking, no one and nothing; and c) move toward forms of kinship and distribution that create—not patronizing administrative stewards—but rather vast families forged beyond selfish blood, clan, or ethnic bonds.
To suggest that technological objects have independent lives denies the truth that late capitalism is indifferent to human lives.
In this beautifully swampy utopian vision, there is no lack of familial authenticity in the choices to adopt children rather than “have” them; to forego child-rearing and instead cultivate native gardens enriched by edible plants; or to form broader families with superficial Others, whether human or not. These motley “tentacular” ties deliver us, at least in theory, from mutually assured destruction and fill the world with monstrous, loving attachments: As Haraway writes in her introduction, “Chthonic ones are monsters in the best sense.” Finally, this vision does not endow the inorganic object produced by human manufacturers under a late capitalist system with any real value, let alone the unctuous emotions of a living being.
I found Roy Scranton’s work, improbably, through the tentacular network of Facebook—not while looking for new voices on climate change but because before he was an author, he apparently deployed to Iraq with the husband of a childhood friend. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, he writes of the scientists, military experts, and others warning of the apocalypse—and dispels any self-deprecating analogies to the Hale-Bopp cult:
This chorus of Cassandras predicts a radically changing global climate causing widespread upheaval, and their visions of doom are backed by an overwhelming preponderance of hard data. Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation. It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.
If the Anthropocene is conceived as the age of humans—without regard to generation or culture—singling out the species as a whole for reshaping the Earth on a geologic timescale, then I can see how that construct draws on a Eurocentric perspective in addition to compressing vast differences between Indigenous groups and colonizers. But there are other, simultaneous dynamics at play that do not fit that dichotomy. Climate justice is not about clear-cut fault vs. pure innocence—China and India, for instance, are currently two of the most populous and polluting nations in the world, but more of total accumulated atmospheric CO2 is attributable to industrialization in Europe and the U.S. because they’ve been emitting for longer. A truth of the planetary crisis is that we are all in it together—there are no borders in the atmosphere or the oceans, so we will succeed or fail as a species. Thus, an ethical solution to climate change might look like Europe and the U.S. devoting significant funds to help India and other nations leapfrog long-term dependence on fossil fuels and go straight to truly renewable energy. (And a solution seems to require all of us, cultural traditions aside, to go vegan.)
I see the potential of Haraway’s Chthulucene (leave it to an academic to define all of humanity with a word that few could pronounce or spell) less as a correction to any inaccuracy in the term “Anthropocene” and more as an aspirational vision for how we might relate to one another on a sinking ship. In a fundamental way, we face a disconnect between theories and faceless demographic statistics, on the one hand, and individuals on the other. Since we began this conversation, my best friend since the age of 2 had her first child—a little boy who is the closest I’ll ever have to a nephew. My hands looked massive encircling his less-than-six-pound frame as he slept on my chest for more than an hour and we marveled over how he came into the world. All discussion of drastically cutting population aside, of course I was immediately in love and so, so glad to meet him. He is part of the family I have created for myself in the spirit of Haraway’s framework.
A solution seems to require all of us, cultural traditions aside, to go vegan.
Also since we began this discussion, more names have been added to the litany of unarmed black men murdered by the broken, reactive, systemically racist police state. Even as I see the way that we, as a species, are destroying this rare life-hosting mass of rock hurtling through space, I want every individual person to get home to his family, not just alive but also unharmed and unharassed. I want to live in a society characterized by peace, equality, and justice, even as I wonder whether human civilization—an abstract sum that is hard to conceive of fully—would be better off disappearing as soon as possible, to allow other species the opportunity to persist. When my father was killed, there was no comfort in knowing that we were all going to die—and perhaps die off anyway. More than a decade later, there is still a palpable abyss just beneath the surface of my experience, and I don’t wish that feeling on anyone, even as I wonder whether humans as a group can be redeemed.
The question is not whether humans are on a crash course with misery and extinction but how we as individuals relate to our membership in a species and chart a path for ourselves between now and our personal demise—and to what extent we’ll shape our choices based on our knowledge of what is likely in store for Homo sapiens as a whole. Is there value in focusing one’s life on leaving a legacy—whether of activism, literature, or family—if there might not be humans left in a few generations, or if they remain but society as we know it has crumbled? Is there such a thing as value when we’re gone? In the absence of a Father or an independent, self-perpetuating AI, there is no entity outside ourselves to guide us or judge our response.
Is there such a thing as value when we’re gone?
 Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
 Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015.
Screenshots—taken from FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and WALL·E (2008)—are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary. This conversation is the fifth in an occasional series on films with environmental and food justice themes. Previous installments have tackled the meat industry, dams, gleaning, and the globalized food system.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building.
Gregory Giles is founder of the once and future freak-pop band 20 Minute Loop, whose LP Songs Praising the Mutant Race will be released in late 2016.