“The noonday panic fear in which nature suddenly appeared to humans as an all-encompassing power has found its counterpart in the panic which is ready to break out at any moment today: human beings expect the world… to be set ablaze by a universal power which they themselves are and over which they are powerless.”

- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Concept of Enlightenment,” 1947



        Has the era of the Climate Change Narrative Film finally arrived?
        The Climate Change Documentary has a long history: the kaleidoscopic musical elegy Koyaanisqatsi in 1982, the 2006 art-house blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth, and beyond. Sure, there were references to climate change in narrative films. “This whole Ice Age thing’s getting old,” an animated sloth lisps at the end of 2002’s Ice Age. “You know what I could go for? Global warming!” But strangely, after Roland Emmerich’s grand CGI guignol The Day After Tomorrow in 2004: general radio silence.

        This is somewhat surprising. Climate change is a potent mixture of fire and flood, after all. Perhaps studio executives think climate change is simultaneously too banal and too terrible to touch. Or maybe, if you water your Beverly Hills or Pacific Palisades lawn enough, you can effectively ignore the fact that Los Angeles is being choked by the worst drought in one hundred years.

        In truth, climate change forces us all to abandon familiar narrative forms. In her famous essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” about how the traumatic aftermath of the atomic bomb was sublimated into the 1950s disaster flick, Susan Sontag notes that midcentury disaster films invite “a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view.” In these narratives, “mad” scientists create social and ecological disasters that must be swiftly cleaned up by technicians and bureaucrats. Climate change cannot abide by this narrative pattern because the technocratic, bureaucratic, coordinated action of the Anthropocene—the age in which human activity is the dominant actant on the global environment—is the problem, not the solution. The banality of evil manifests every time we fill up our low-efficiency vehicles or turn on our lights or trade bitcoin. There’s little narrative tension in this fact, and little room for narrative closure. As a result, most films seem incapable of imagining the simultaneously overwhelming and unvisualizable truth of our contemporary predicament.

        At least until now.

        Climate change is the obvious target of Adam McKay’s controversial, celebrity-studded laugh-to-keep-from-crying Netflix fable Don’t Look Up. But climate change also seeps into two films released during the summer of 2021, if less in narrative invocation than in vibe. Pig, the directorial debut of Michael Sarnoski, begins with the bearded, wordless Nicolas Cage as Robin: a former chef who lives a peaceful life ambling around the wet, green Oregon woodlands. He makes his living sourcing truffles to Amir, a Gen-Z would-be yuppie, but this task is a small compromise for Ron Swanson-esque tranquility—a peace that abruptly ends when Robin is attacked in the middle of the night and beaten to a pulp, and his beloved truffle pig is stolen. In his quest to get the pig back, he wanders the haute cuisine scene of Portland like Marley’s ghost, trying to find the thief and reminding his fellow compatriots of their culinary sins with his spectral presence.

        The film treats the Portland food scene with a mix of realism and satire. It is most effective when it portrays spheres of high-end contemporary dining as antiseptic, Marie Kondoed zones of late capital where nature is evoked as simulacra. Through Robin’s perspective, we see the hypocrisy built into an industry that tries to evoke nature by ruthlessly controlling it. When a naïve chef sputters about the “innovative” quality of his kitchen, which produces small plates designed to evoke “the meeting of land and sea,” we recall a monologue Robin delivered earlier about the horrors that await the Pacific Northwest after the inevitable Big One arrives: first earthquake destruction, then a massive tsunami. When the land actually meets the sea, Pig suggests, we’re all done for. 

        Pig ultimately transcends mere critique through Robin’s elegiac mood, worn on his bruised and oozing face. Robin lives in a state of sincere mourning. He strives to save his pig because it has been his closest companion since his wife’s death. Like the Portland chefs, he too strives to wrest control over the nature that threatens to destroy. And so Robin—like so many of us in the age of climate change—earnestly strives toward control and some sort of belated communion with nature, only to recognize that these impulses contradict each other. Through Robin we, too, recognize how we beat on, boats against the current, trying to conquer and control the natural world we long to love.



        Our futile attempts to conquer nature—and our fundamental misunderstanding of nature’s power—is the primary theme of another summer film that exemplifies a climate change mood: David Lowery’s The Green Knight, an adaptation of the anonymous 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

        The film’s modified title tips its hat toward its ecological interests. In the original poem, Sir Gawain is a true Medieval protagonist: embodying the heroic mix of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Christian virtue that reached its popular apex in the Middle Ages. This virtue gives him a degree of moral consistency in a world governed by natural contingency. It keeps him morally centered. But just as Lowery decenters Gawain from his title, so he also shifts his emphasis away from Gawain’s “centered” qualities toward the film’s titular Green Knight: a muscular Ent-like figure who symbolizes and exemplifies the power and brutality of nature. The Green Knight seems to color the whole film like wet moss, dooming characters to their natural demise. (The thematic implication of the color green is explained in a heavy-handed monologue delivered by a royal seductress. “Green,” she tells Gawain, “is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin. Your bones. Your virtue.”)

        The film begins as the Green Knight arrives at King Arthur’s Round Table on Christmas. He invites a worthy opponent to “play a game”: to strike the Knight, under the condition that this blow will be returned in the Knight’s Green Chapel “one year and Yuletide hence.” Gawain takes on the challenge, chops off the Knight’s head, and watches in horror as the Knight retrieves the head from the floor and places it back on his neck. So begins Gawain’s slow dirge toward inevitable defeat by this natural wonder.

        In the poem, Gawain’s journey chisels him into a gleaming form of Christian chivalry, despite a minor setback into the lesser realm of worldly selfishness. But in the film, Gawain is not yet a knight. He is an existential wanderer––less a vision of chivalry than a naïf who doubts that he could even be chivalric in the first place. (“I fear I am not meant for greatness,” he admits to his secret prostitute girlfriend.) He ultimately wonders why he would even try to sacrifice himself in a world that will kill him in any event. This narrative change leads viewers to reconsider the honorific quality of self-sacrifice in a world defined by natural power. If “all you hold dear will succumb to” the green will of nature, what is the point of voluntarily giving up your life to its inexorable, leafy boughs?

        The Green Knight asks this question most pointedly in a narrative twist lifted from The Last Temptation of the Christ, in which Christ imagines what it would be like to leave the cross to live a full human life instead. As Gawain is about to finally lay down his neck before the Green Knight in the Green Chapel, he too imagines what his life would be like if he were to escape and return to Camelot. This counterfactual plays out in an extended sequence, which stress tests the assumption that relinquishing chivalric duty would be far less valuable than fulfilling its stringent demands. But what Gawain imagines is not reassuring. He imagines a life in which he will be knighted, yes, but must inevitably part from his secret girlfriend, with whom he has a child but whom he may never marry due to her lack of honor. He then sees a failing empire in which the conquesters of the Round Table are ultimately conquered by other powers. He sees a world in which his improved status will amplify his existential malaise.

    This narrative investigation is enthralling because it honors the questions of sacrifice that rest at the heart of the original myth. But it is also thrilling because, through this pivot, this film ultimately questions mythic presumptions that do not necessarily present themselves as myths; what Plato called muthos—fictions that tell lies about ethical value—that lie deep in the heart of the very Western psyche that generated poems like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The film presents the Arthurian world as diminished due to the conceptual abstractions of “mediocrity” and “greatness,” “unworthiness” and “valor,” “selfish interest” and “chivalry,” that govern its ethical imagination. 

        In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings argues that indigenous peoples and their worldly habitats were not simply conquered and exploited by a disease called “racism.” Jennings argues that “racism” is, at its base, the result of mental abstractions from embodied experience in the natural world: artificial, conceptual divisions between “saved” and “heathen,” “honorable” and “dishonorable,” “white” and “black.” And while these precise values may not be held by our culture, The Green Knight knows full well that tensions between abstract human value and potential flourishing are far from dated problems.

        These tensions bond the medieval imagination with our current predicament. And they link fourteenth century views of nature to the present realities of climate change. 


        The kind of helplessness Gawain feels in finally confronting the Green Knight was one of the primary motivators for the intellectual and scientific movement of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking was crafted to emancipate humanity from medieval fealty to nature, to abolish the myth of human dependency on its timeless order. But as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously argue, this ideal of emancipation, through which humanity can fully command nature by action, is itself a fantasy. The Enlightenment mentality depends on a mythic conception of human control abstracted from the particular realities of natural dependency. Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis thereby blurs any clean lines between “myth” and “enlightenment,” “premodern” and “modern,” and instead finds the roots of the Enlightenment in the longstanding desire for human beings to separate themselves from their habitats in order to classify and objectify: to fully understand, control, and dominate the world from imagined positions of superiority. Enlightenment depends on the wish that the world may be a mere means for human ends. 

        Even before modernity, the world was rendered abstract through the “disenchanting” qualities of human mythmaking. Although myths may capture the strangeness of our world, they may also make the world legible for human beings—the first step toward the kind of manipulation exercised by sorcerers who populate mythic stories. Adorno and Horkheimer write: “with the spirit-world and its peculiarities they extended their esoteric knowledge and their power. The sacred essence was transferred to the sorcerers who managed it.”  Sorcerers promulgate an imagined “distance of subject from object, the presupposition of abstraction… founded on the distance from things which the ruler attains by means of the ruled.”1 In medieval Europe, narratives of sorcery fed directly into fascination with alchemy, the discipline that would develop into Enlightenment science. The incredibly popular book Secretum secretorum, “Secret of Secrets,” written by an imitator of Aristotle, claimed secret knowledge of a “stone that is not a stone” but “animal, vegetable, and mineral.” Only alchemists could unleash the potential of this stone and prolong human life.

        The ultimate twist in the original “Green Knight” poem depends on sorcery. The Green Knight himself is ultimately revealed to be faux-natural. He turns out to have been, for the entire narrative, a magically disguised relative of King Arthur, transformed to test knights’ willingness to sacrifice themselves. The knight thereby allows Gawain, all the wiser for his journey, to return to King Arthur’s court as its honored member. Through this final twist, nature is instrumentalized within the diegetic world of the poem and by the poem itself. Nature is disenchanted to manifest the resolutely human values that one must not lie, and that one must not hold onto one’s life too closely in any case. The question of what it would look like for human beings to actually give themselves to the natural world they cannot fully know, without the intervention of human ideals, is ultimately excised from the text.

        But in Lowery’s film, Gawain faces a truly natural knight. And with Gawain’s final fantasy, The Green Knight places its emphasis on the abstractions that govern and transform civilization into something unlivable. Questions of honor destroy romance. The ideals of rule destroy kingdoms. It explores what Adorno and Horkheimer ultimately call the “dialectic of enlightenment”: the process through which, ironically and tragically, humans find themselves subjected to the abstractions of their own making. This process can be traced in anything from the invention and effect of financial abstraction—consider all of the violence that has been caused by the ordering of trade with abstract measurements!—to the reality of climate change itself, which takes the dialectic to an entirely new level of insidiousness. And so Gawain imagines a pitiful fate, in which he is conquered not by green nature, but by the sociopolitical sphere into which he imagines liberation.

        By playing out this fantasy, Gawain realizes that his choice is not between “mediocrity” and “greatness,” “selfishness” and “chivalry.” Rather, it is between hewing to a society that harbors abstract values of status, honor, conquering, and chivalry over considered investment in human flourishing—or relinquishing those abstractions before nature: to not only acknowledge the inevitability of the natural world, but to allow nonhuman logics to lay an ultimate claim on him.

        Gawain’s  character is thereby taken on a full arc. Initially, the ideal of “valor” that governs the Arthurian court overrides his ability to see that the “game” laid before him is actually senseless. It keeps his testosterone-pumped brain from fully cognizing the possibility that he’s agreeing to the rawest of raw deals. By the end of the film, he realizes that when conquest and sacrifice are seen as valuable apart from—or even in opposition to—human flourishing, something is greatly amiss.

1. There is a whole school of criticism of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight that suggests that the poem itself intends to comically critique these values of questing and conquesting—a view that was kicked into critical attention by John Speirs in 1949. I lack the critical acumen to take these various critiques into account, and merely suggest that whatever critical energy lies latent in the original poem is doubtlessly foregrounded and pushed further by Lowery’s adaptation.



        Gawain finally chooses to lay down his life. “Well done, my brave knight” he is sweetly congratulated by the Green Knight, who then draws a branchy forefinger across his neck and concludes: “Now off with your head.” 

        The film cuts to the title card on a severed tree stump and abruptly ends.

        With this final line, Lowery sticks a chillingly brilliant landing. Not only does Gawain give up his whims before nonhuman logic. The film itself does away with the oh-so-human narrative logic viewers have come to expect. It plays against narratives both older than the original Green Knight poem and manifest in recent stories like Harry Potter: narratives dependent on the twist revelation that to give up your life is not, ultimately, to lose it. Your willingness to give up your life is what matters most—and once this will is in place, you shall ultimately be spared.

        This is a Biblical narrative. But, as Kierkegaard has most famously argued in Fear and Trembling—a book that explores Abraham’s confusion and pain as he considers the brute reality that he must sacrifice Isaac—exclusive focus on this narrative logic may allow one to overstep the gravity, tragedy, and pain of actually relinquishing one’s will. Without facing the brutal, imminent reality of sacrifice, we’re still left with the ideal of sacrifice as an abstraction—the very abstraction that justified the ideal of chivalry. When sacrifice is only viewed in the light of its inevitable redemption, when Good Friday is only fathomed in the overwhelming light of Easter, the pure horror of self-sacrifice is mentally ameliorated before the full weight of tragedy can be faced in full. And when we take these kinds of mental shortcuts, we thereby weaken the value of any actual redemptive surprise, any actual twist that we cannot foresee with our limited minds. The Green Knight is therefore bold enough to suggest that to sacrifice before the reality and power of the natural world is to face the logical reality that one may legitimately die, full-stop. There is no material guarantee of redemption for sacrifice in this life—and that is, in fact, perhaps closer to the Biblical truth than we’d wish to acknowledge.

        The imagination of The Green Knight suggests, then, that to live with the reality of climate change, to live in chastened humility before the world, requires understanding that we might have to legitimately sacrifice our ends before the world’s destructive power. While the ideal of chivalry promises “greatness” and “valor” for sacrifice, true sacrifice promises only loss. One must die little deaths all the time, and these little deaths are deaths—not just brief moments in a comfortable redemption narrative, cemented in pre-made myths, that don’t actually require us to change how we live. 

        Except, as Adorno and Horkheimer would point out, the conquer-or-be-conquered logic of human myth still persists at the end of The Green Knight. The film’s fatalistic ending implies that only an alternative logic can escape the dialectic of enlightenment.

        And, in fact, an alternative possibility is suggested by a climactic turn in Pig.



        Nic Cage fans presumed that Pig would showcase another delightfully unhinged performance of revenge. And the film’s first couple acts do engage in a revenge-seeking dynamic, if at meditative pitch. But a climactic event shifts the trajectory of the entire film. Robin discovers that Amir’s dad, Darius—an egotistical, wealthy giant of the Portland culinary scene—is the one who has stolen his pig. Early in the film, Amir revealed that he first admired Robin because when Robin was a bigwig Portland chef, before his wife died, he cooked dinner for Amir’s mother and father. Although Darius had a tumultuous marriage and acted as an abusive husband before his wife was hospitalized with severe dementia, it was the most joyous meal of their lives. They returned home fulfilled and actually happy

        While confronting Darius about the pig, Robin sees how deeply Darius mourns for his wife, too. But unlike Robin, who receded to grieve in nature, Darius waged a war of capitalist brutality against the world that made her suffer. Although he is vulnerable to the whims of the natural world, he can win the game of the marketplace. He attains the abstract valor of a successful businessman. Acquiring Robin’s pig was simply one of many swings against the natural contingency that left him emotionally destitute.

        So Robin decides to fight back on behalf of the natural world that has pained him, too—but in careful coordination with the natural world. And unlike Gawain, he plays a different game.

        He cooks Darius dinner.

        Not just any dinner, but the very dinner he remembers cooking for Darius and his wife so many years ago: the dinner that ignited in them the possibility of what might be like to be united in marital communion, thrilled by the possibility of love through Robin’s loving play with the natural world. So Robin returns to the Portland food scene one more time—not as an avenging angel, but in order to procure the exquisitely sourced, natural ingredients he once cherished. If the alchemist fixates on abstracting natural objects away from their identity—the stone that becomes no longer a stone—Robin’s foraging and cooking demands intense attention to the particularities of nature as it is, in order to work with and actualize its potential. He makes an extravagant meal for Darius, curated and concocted with the care that once gave Amir’s parents joy.

        Darius, after some reluctance, eventually sits down to eat this meal. And, after a few delicious bites, after a few sips of wine, he breaks down in tears. Tears of sensory pleasure, present pain, and remembered joy.

        To enter into the climate change imagination is, I think, to experience a breakdown like Darius—or, rather, to experience little breakdowns like this all the time. To actually face the fact that we are formed out of, and participate in, a culture that has tried to steal and control and conquer the natural world for so long; to even imagine an alternative is to reconstruct how we think of ourselves. To recognize our own jadedness built into everyday behaviors and realities. It is also to let the natural realities of pain and death flood into our very hearts: the realities that we continually try to obliterate through acts of “sorcery” and alchemy,” through the transformation and the objectification of our very bodies into things that can be modified, fixed, imagined to be transcendent of the world by which they are made. To break with this dialectic is to face a world of pain, the world Gawain and Darius ultimately face: Gawain by choice, Darius by uninvited emotional response.

        But, as Robin demonstrates with his dinner, with this breakdown also comes the wonderful promise of communion. With this pain comes the joy of opening ourselves onto the beauty that can be only perceived when we embrace the natural dependence we’ve embodied all along. With this breakdown comes the replacement of fantasies of self-control with embodied and interpersonal intimacies and joys: wildly imminent deliciousness, crafted with ecological care.

        Of course, for Darius and for us, these joys will be radically incomplete. In the Anthropocene, to experience this kind of culinary masterwork, or to even experience the visual and auditory joy of natural beauty, is to recognize the painful partiality of experience. These experiences, when fully faced, bear forth the pain that our taste that is only partial, that our beautiful views may burn in fire or collapse in flood. We experience joys without the loved ones, and without the healed planet, that would make these joys complete. But if the alternative to this mix of joy and pain is to see nature as an “opposing player”; to buy into the conquest-or-be-conquested society that Gawain sees in his imagination; to cordon ourselves off with the facile protections of wealth and power, like Darius; to burrow into the bullshit fantasy that humanity may simply lift off into Mars with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos at the messianic helm—then perhaps we must enter into these simultaneous joys and pains together. And perhaps these joys, these little joys that are also pains, may break us down enough to imagine ourselves differently. Perhaps they can inspire us, through the tears of broken selves and broken ecosystems, to live differently with each other, with the world, with faith as we dare to imagine the different modes of being that deep, deep down, we all long for more than anything else in Creation: a longing so strong and sad and hopeful, and so sheepish for being hopeful.