Melancholia: The Psychology Of Climate Change Awareness

The movie Melancholia is far from the usual disaster movie with its urgent teams of people hunched over computers and racing against time to stop impending doom, that can be stopped by one man alone! Everyone busy and shouting, competent and efficacious. In this movie, we see no teams of scientists and engineers working closely with governments to sensibly and rapidly stop an impending calamity, as an unprecedented event draws close: a rogue planet that might collide with Earth.

In our reality too, there is similarly no racing to beat the clock on the possible calamity of a destabilized climate. The warnings of scientists are ignored. Lobbies prevent us from hearing and acting. We are in a dreamlike not-knowing.


image via Wikimedia Commons

We know that not enough is being done. And ever closer creeps the possible apocalypse that we could have prevented. Most of the time we don’t talk to each other about the future very different world we have created by burning up fossil fuels in a kind of mad last minute party over the last two centuries. Yet the effects are creeping up on us. It is a surreal situation.

Just as the planet Melancholia is moving inexorably closer to the earth, through space, a similar unprecedented calamity is moving inexorably closer to us, through time.

In both cases there is a dreamlike slowness to the impending doom, and an essential uncertainty. We’ve never been through anything like this kind of climate destabilization before. Maybe we’ll make it. Maybe it won’t be that bad. But maybe it will be. At least for us.

Massive changes have taken place in Earth’s climate before. Cyanobacteria first flooded the planet with killer oxygen billions of years ago, before any of the oxygen-breathing lifeforms preceding us had evolved. But cyanobacteria were not sentient. In the same way, there are rogue planets, and celestial bodies have collided before. But this movie brings home the reality of sentient beings facing earth-shattering loss.

After an interlude of gloomy and grim Wagner (from Tristan and Isolde) with an underlying disquieting rumble (the sound is that of an approaching earthquake) the movie begins as an apparently happy bride (and her hapless groom) are casually late for a ridiculously elaborate wedding party at a vast and isolated mansion — the setting for the entire movie.

Susan Kraemer enjoys writing to publicize the many great solutions for climate change that we can find if we just put our minds to it. She covers renewable policy and clean energy for CleanTechnica and GreenProphet and green building at HomeDesignFind. She recently moved home to Waiheke Island where her writing is now powered by the 80% renewable electricity that powers New Zealand.

1 Comment

  • Reply September 24, 2016


    I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. At first I interpreted the film as only a metaphor for individual death (and coping mechanisms), but on a second viewing I see the climate change analogy as quite apropos. My only point of disagreement is that with potential methane firestorms and hydrogen sulfide released by the oceans, “centuries” before our end may be far too optimistic.

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