The End of the Beginning?

As the climate crisis has escalated over the last decade, there has been a conspicuous absence of films that mirror the predicament we are faced with. Climate philosopher and activist Rupert Read responds to the recently released 'The End We Start From', a mainstream drama that attempts to portray the reality of what may come our way when the floodwaters break. And most of all, what it feels like to live among the ruins of a civilisation we take for granted.
is an Emeritus associate professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He is a former chair of Green House think tank, and a former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson. He is currently co-director of the Climate Majority Project. His book Why Climate Breakdown Matters (Bloomsbury) is out now.
The scene begins with a heavily pregnant woman (Jodie Comer) readying herself for a bath. But the scene is filmed from a  unusual angle: from within the tub. As it fills, the viewer’s ‘eye’ becomes flooded out by the rising waters. This unsettling experience foreshadows what is shortly to come: as her waters break, floodwaters burst into the house, signalling the chaos of an unprecedented climate disaster.

The End We Start From is set in a near-future in which London goes underwater, a vast deluge following close upon a long drought. The imagined flood is of a different order of magnitude from anything we have yet seen; due to extreme prolonged rainfall volumes combined with something like the failure of the Thames flood barrier. It’s is a beautifully-observed, poetic drama, whose contours are shaped by a realistic appraisal of the kind of future that will likely face us all – unless we change course.

And this is why I think this movie matters. Because to date, climate collapse has been almost entirely a submerged topic in mainstream culture. Present only by way of its massive absence. But here it is, finally surfacing, in a poignant and perspicuous form as a mainstream cinematic drama; and so potentially it could have a very different impact from previous literary or documentary attempts to bring attention to the climate-induced risks we increasingly face. 

Nevertheless, we all know that climate is a ‘wicked’ problem to face a challengingly ‘abstract’ and slow-burning collective-action predicament. What is encouraging in this film is how it tries to rise to the challenge, by embodying the predicament and making it visceral. 

There has never previously been a quality, mass-market film that focuses in a believable manner on this challenge – and the kinds of impacts we should fear, and the different possible responses to them. We are awash with disaster-movies, post-apocalyptic scenarios of every stripe; but until now no-one had succeeded in making a film directly enabling an average citizen imaginatively to inhabit our likely climate-impacted future.

Don’t Look up, and The Road were both brilliant; but they worked as metaphors, rather than directly focussing on climate disaster. The Day After Tomorrow was the 2014 Roland Emmerich wannabe-blockbuster that first brought climate to the big screen. But it was just entertainment. While The Age of Stupid, Franny Armstrong’s dramadoc imagining Pete Postlethwaite looking back on our time from 50 years hence and asking why we didn’t prevent climate nemesis when we had the chance, was fine, and memorable, but not mass market.

A critical dimension of how this is different is that, again unlike The Age of Stupid or Don’t Look Up or The Road or Melancholia, this film is not just another dystopia. The film’s production notes stress that it seeks to be hard-headedly realistic about what may be coming, but not dystopian. The End We Start from is more like a ‘thrutopia’. It shows us how we might perhaps get through the tough stuff that is coming down the track at us, in a manner we can be proud of.

How so?

Comer’s character (like everyone else in the film, except for her baby, she has no name; in the credits, she is identified simply as ‘Mother’) credibly succeeds in manifesting a sense of positive possibility for the humans around her and her tiny child, even in the midst of truly awful events. The film does not shy away from the more negative possibilities under the pressure of mass homelessness and food shortages (including an armed raid at a displaced-people’s camp).

Yet the mother through whose eyes we get to see these events, never loses her faith that it is possible for people to pull together under such strains.

Yet the mother through whose eyes we get to see these events, unlike some of the other main characters in the film, never loses her faith that it is possible for people to pull together under such strains, rather than being torn apart, or trying to escape. This is expressed most powerfully in her refusal to get drawn into a seemingly idyllic alternative life in a commune on a Scottish island, far from the madding crowds, among a group of people who have decided quite explicitly to (in the title of another fine recent film focussing on the crises of our times) Leave The World Behind. Instead, she takes herself and her baby back into a devastated London to rebuild their life and home there.

 

The film thus poses thoughtfully the concern that perhaps true community doesn’t mean withdrawal. It means reconnection. Despite everything, Comer’s character turns back to the world. To what end? To stay with the trouble and help build a future in it for her child, along with her neighbours. (Though don’t go to this film expecting to be shown practical stratagems for neighbourhood semi-self-sufficiency; this is poetry, not permaculture!)

So the film’s narrative arc takes the mother and child out from London, to various refugia culminating in the Scottish idyll, but then back to (a permanently-changed) London. This is a quotidian heroine’s journey. A journey of care writ small and large.

In my book Parents for a future: How loving our children can prevent climate collapse, I set out how the true meaning of a parent’s love for their children has to encompass the whole human future on this blue jewel in space. And that  requires you to look after the Earth without which they would not exist. The emotions that wash without let-up through The End We Start From – chiefly fear, grief and love – can all be seen, in the end, to stem from love. We fear for the future of the people and places we love; as we grieve for what/who we loved that has been ripped from us. Fear and grief, I would argue,, are forms of love, through a glass darkly.

As I watched the film, I felt vulnerable. Vulnerable to loss. I and those I love most live in a part of England (East Anglia) vulnerable to flooding. This feeling of vulnerability is good – in that it’s a reminder of what matters  – and also a prompt to seek to build transformative resilience against the coming climate disasters. 

For part of the reason, I think, why it has proven possible at last to make and mass-market a film like this is that awareness is sinking in. I remember vividly experiencing the 40 degrees C heat two summers ago on our tiny holding, and the way it felt like…a movie. It couldn’t quite be believed. That everything that folks like myself had been trying to warn of was actually coming to pass. That we really were (are) at the beginning of a process that will come to saturate our existence, a process of decline and struggle. The threat we face is existential – in the sense beloved of Sartre and Camus and Beauvoir. It makes meaning, in a way that is as welcome (for, as Nietzsche once brilliantly expounded, human beings would always rather have meaning than its absence) as it is unwelcome (in that we are under collective potential sentence of death).

The very, bitter, confirming reality of climate extremity and climate disaster carries within it an uncanny, queasy veneer of felt unreality. Something deep in me, something that is all-too-aware of the likely inadequacy of our flesh in the face of the tests it is going to be put to now, has not infrequently rebelled against even accepting the truth of where we are at. (There might even be a clue here to the mechanism of some climate-denial.)

The vulnerability I feel hardly compares to the apogee of human vulnerability: a baby. And yet the wonderful thing about Comer’s baby is how effortlessly he copes with most of what gets thrown at him and his mother. Because, simply, he has known nothing else. There is a lesson in such natural stoicism, shown by the most vulnerable of all.

Of course, the kind of more-than-disaster experienced by mother and child here is increasingly experienced in real life by people subject to severe climate dislocation – but mainly in countries other than the Anglosphere. Think Bangladesh, or parts of Indonesia. At the very end of this movie, the following words, which you’ll have seen many times before, appear on the screen: ‘The story, characters and events depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to places, buildings, actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.’ Yes – and no. Of course this is fiction – and yet, not only do we witness here a possible future, but it’s here already for many less fortunate than ourselves, who are suffering badly from climate breakdown.

First it came for the low-lying island states, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t live there. Then it came for the ‘poor’ countries of the world, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t live there either. Then it came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me…

Will we let our future unfold in that way? Or will we learn a lesson from the mother and child embodied with tremendous compassion in this film? Will we move to prevent, mitigate and prepare for what will otherwise wash much too much away?

The portents for our future look most grim. The warnings issued by a number of us, from the IPCC reports to the Dark Mountain manifesto, look prophetic. Collapse, rather than merely more and greater disasters, looks to be on the cards. But the point is that we just don’t know. Knowingness is a disease of our civilisation. If those of us who have our eyes firmly on the likelihood of eco-driven societal collapse pretend that we know how the future will unfold, then we are repeating a key trope of the very civilisation we are calling out. What I appreciate about The End We Start From is how it puts the questions, and stages the debates, rather than pretending to have absolute answers.

It is not until the film’s ending that the film’s title actually appears on the screen at all. As Comer’s little boy takes his very first steps, the words ‘The End We Start From’ finally flash up. Thus the opening credits of the film actually become complete only as the film reaches its conclusion. It’s a neat way of implying that new beginnings are sometimes only possible when something major has been allowed to end.

In the film, what came to an end was:the complacent assumption that climate mega-disasters only happen to ‘someone else’, preferably in faraway countries of which we know little.

In the film, what came to an end was the complacent assumption that climate mega-disasters only happen to ‘someone else’, preferably in faraway countries of which we know little. As I write, in early 2024, we are in the early stages of what will likely prove to be the most extreme ‘El Nino’ (literally ‘The Child’) climate-event ever — so far. Prepare this year to see temperature-records broken even more extremely than they were in 2023, worldwide — and for worse storms than ever before. And when I say prepare, I mean that of course quite literally.

But it is worth distinguishing between preparation that is fixated on personal stockpiling on the one hand and preparing that includes cultural and existential deep adaptation on the other. The mother in the movie rejects the ‘safe’ Scottish island community that she has escaped to because its deliberate turning away from – virtual denial of – the outside world doesn’t amount to an adjusted, viable way of being for the connected creatures that we are. One of the best things moreover about undertaking household- level and even community-level prepping is the discovery of how very difficult it is to do, in an actually robust and effective manner. So it returns one to contemplating what is to be done at more systemic levels, recognising and retaining the deep ethical and practical ties we have both within and beyond the hyper-local. And thus one readies for the coming struggle.

Perhaps now, with the ongoing partial reversal (since 2020) of ‘global dimming’ revealing the hidden burden of global overheating coming home to roost, the ‘phoney war’ may finally be coming to an end (most high-level attention to climate, to date, has been little more than shadow-boxing, akin to the period in WW2 between October 1939 and March 1940 when virtually nothing happened militarily between opposing sides). But our climate has been drastically destabilised, and people are going to see it in 2024 as never before. Thus ‘The End We Start From’ can be seen as a harbinger and an opening of floodgates. 

Will we wait until after our great cities have flooded, before we start taking action adequately? Beginning from the end of normalcy recognised in this film and clearly indicated by the recent leap in global temperatures, we badly need to choose a new future together. To make it real in our lives. Whether that means deep adaptation, transformative adaptation, or something else besides.

This film may have come our way only just in time. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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