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Cli-Fi: Snowpiercer and the Struggle Against Climate Apartheid

Written by Heather Alberro.

Keywords: cli-fi, climate apartheid, transgressive eco-dystopia, apocalypticism


The 2013 cli-fi thriller Snowpiercer based on a French graphic novel of the same name by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and recently remade as a series on Netflix, offers prescient observations and cautionary tales about our socio-ecologically turbulent era. The film depicts a post-apocalyptic future wherein a failed climate geoengineering experiment has plunged the globe into a new ice-age and confined the last remnants of humanity to a train that must remain perpetually in motion if its inhabitants are to survive. Its passengers exist in a rigidly hierarchical class system wherein the wealthy elite revel in profligacy while the poorest literally and figuratively serve as fodder for the maintenance of the former and the train itself. The film’s prescient tropes shed light on what scholars and UN officials have termed ‘climate apartheid’. Herein, extreme and widening levels of socioeconomic inequality pave the way for the world’s plutocratic elites to effectively buy their way out of the worst effects of climate and ecological breakdown, leaving the rest of the world’s inhabitants to face the worst of the chaos. However, the film powerfully demonstrates the necessity to strive against the myriad deficiencies of the ‘Now’ and towards more livable alternatives, despite the difficulties of living and hoping amid the end times.

The Intrusion of Crisis into the ‘Now’

The present Anthropocene era of extensive human impacts on natural systems is one plagued by a host of climatic and ecological perturbations. The apocalyptic wildfires scorching Australia and other parts of the world, rising seas, new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and the Sixth Mass Extinction are only a few examples of the crises we currently face. The intrusion of crisis into the present has infused the popular imagination with a sense of uncertainty and apprehension. Hence the recent proliferation of post-apocalyptic films and series such as Mad Max: Fury Road and the Danish series The Rain. Snowpiercer is a prominent example of the relatively novel genre of ‘climate fiction’ (or Cli-Fi)- films, series and literary works that offer imaginative depictions of what it might be like to live in worlds radically altered by climate breakdown. However, few in my view offer such a poignant and visceral depiction of the wildly disproportionate effects of climate and ecological crisis across class, racial, gender and species lines as Snowpiercer does.

Climate Apartheid

“To go back to the well-worn metaphor of the titanic, the ruling classes understand that the shipwreck is certain; they reserve the lifeboats for themselves and ask the orchestra to go on playing lullabies so they can take advantage of the darkness to beat their retreat before the ship’s increased listing alerts the other classes” (Latour).

Snowpiercer, directed by South Korean Bong Joon Ho, depicts all of the horrors and injustices of climate apartheid. Following a failed climate engineering experiment that freezes the Earth to its core, the wealthy elite literally attempt to retreat on an ark in the form of a fortified train designed to withstand the inhospitable conditions without. A rigid class hierarchy, portrayed as natural and immutable, is maintained on board by the character Mason (Tilda Swinton): “All things in their place; all passengers in their section. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place!”. Command over the ‘sacred engine’ that keeps the train perpetually in motion, as well as vital- and limited- resources such as food and water, is held by the elite passengers at the front of the train. These fortunate dwellers enjoy the finest foods, arts, entertainment and otherwise daily revel in hedonistic extravagance. The train’s poorest inhabitants, on the other hand, are confined to the dark and overcrowded tail section, survive on blocks of insect protein, and literally serve as fodder for the wealthy by providing raw labor power and children whose small size allows them access to the engine for maintenance.

Wilford, the train’s elusive creator, refers to the train as ‘the world’, and its inhabitants as ‘humanity’, suggesting a shared existence and common future. However, their lived realities are in fact worlds apart, as depicted in the image above of ‘first class’ whose extravagant living conditions recall Marx’s ‘vampire’ metaphor with regards to the parasitic nature of ruling elites. The first-class inhabitants at the front of the train revel in excess and idleness, while the inhabitants of the tail section wallow in deprivation and ceaseless toil. Ultimately the inhabitants of the tail section grow tired of their unrelenting exploitation and, led by a man named Curtis, the film’s protagonist, ignite a revolution.

Climate and ecological breakdowns are social justice issues. This is because, both historically and presently, the most culturally and socioeconomically marginalized communities are often most vulnerable to the various effects of climate and ecological breakdown. The cruel irony is that such groups have vastly smaller fossil footprints than the world’s wealthy elites, and have done the least to cause our present predicament. The extent of inequality today is truly astonishing. The richest 1% of the global population now own more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion of the world’s inhabitants. This not only affords the wealthy elite considerable political power but also the ability to buy their way out of the worst effects of crises such as food and water shortages.

Experts increasingly warn of a looming climate apartheid due to such extreme gaps in wealth and access to resources. The world’s richest are seeking refuge in luxury doomsday bunkers, protection by private security and emergency response teams, and ‘beating their retreat’ into neighboring planets while the world’s multitudes are left to scramble for survival amidst an increasingly inhospitable planet. As the recent COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, we are not all ‘in the same boat’. While millions have lost their jobs and livelihoods, the superrich have amassed even more wealth. Their exclusive access to private yachts and jets, armies of domestic and private medical staff, and ‘escape’ mansions make their experiences of crisis categorically distinct from those of the rest humanity.

The Not-Yet

Snowpiercer is an eco-dystopian thriller par excellence and sheds light on the structural inequities generated by global capitalism’s relentless pursuit of expansion and profit maximization. These inequities in turn fuel climate and ecological breakdown, whose impacts are distributed wildly unevenly across geographic, cultural, racial, gender and socioeconomic lines. Without radical changes, what we face is a future much like the one in Snowpiercer: a ravaged Earth plagued by climate chaos and chronic resource shortages where a plutocratic elite amass what’s left in order to create their own exclusive utopias.

The vital critical function of utopias lies in their ability to shatter the seeming immutability of the ‘Now’ through their projection of better alternatives. Dystopias extrapolate from the socio-ecologically deficient present in order to demonstrate the horrors that might unfold without urgent and fundamental systemic transformations. Hope in a better ‘Not-Yet’ similarly resides in dystopias, as critique of a certain set of conditions or mode of existence implies that things might be otherwise. In effect, utopias and dystopias tear holes in the fabric of the present, generating spaces where radical critiques and alternatives can flourish.

Transgressive Utopias

Snowpiercer contains elements of a contemporary transgressive eco-dystopia. Coined by utopian scholar Lucy Sargisson, transgressive utopias - like all utopias - arise from ‘profound discontent with the political present’. Yet they go further in rule-breaking, boundary deconstruction, challenging dominant paradigms and creating new conceptual and political spaces. The film depicts a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world manifest aboard a train that is perpetually in motion yet headed nowhere in its repeated revolutions around the globe. The tail section’s revolt thoroughly refutes the seemingly fixed ‘sacred order’ imposed by the front, and gestures towards the potential for other ways of living.

The apocalypticism in the revolt against the oppressive hierarchy aboard the train and the inhospitably freezing conditions point not to the end of the world but the end of a world - i.e. the world of today. Indeed, the boundless potentiality for other worlds and ways of living to emerge is wonderfully encapsulated by the film’s closing scenes. Once Curtis and his comrades make it to the front of the train, Curtis is offered control of the train by Wilford. Instead of opting for piecemeal change under a more benign reign, Curtis decides to destroy the engine, effectively ending the ‘world’ as it has materialized on board.

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope never vanishes despite the film’s apocalyptic tropes. Hope is embodied by the survivors from the train’s wreckage, Yona and Tim, two non-white, working class children. Coming forth from the ruins of the ‘old’ order, they set their gazes on an expansive horizon wherein the deadly cold that had confined their elders to the train has begun to dissipate. They catch their first glimpse of life outside in the form of a polar bear which symbolizes hope and the boundless potentiality of life.

No concrete depiction of ‘the better’ is offered, nor can it be amid times pervaded by crises that shatter traditional conceptions of linear historical progression. However, though the film’s survivors know not precisely where they are heading, they gesture towards a potentially better world - a non-hierarchical, post-capitalist future populated by all manner of creatures striving to live together on a radically altered planet. The film reminds us that despite the dystopian conditions we currently find ourselves in, which make it difficult to even imagine better worlds, a radical disruption of and departure from the present system is not only possible but essential.

We may not know where we’re going, but we can and must direct our steps towards a world without oppressive hierarchies. Our best hope for achieving this is, as suggested in the film, through mass collective action. As English poet Percy Shelley famously remarks in his poem The Mask of Anarchy, ‘We are many, they are few’.

/Heather Alberro

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Works cited:

Latour, B., 2018. Down to Earth: Politics in the new climatic regime. John Wiley & Sons.

Sargisson, L., 2002. Utopian bodies and the politics of transgression. Routledge.


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