This Side of Thunderdome

If you want to make the gods laugh, an old proverb suggests, tell them your plans. The three years since I first started posting these essays online make a tolerably good case for that claim. When I launched The Archdruid Report three years ago, I had no great expectations for the project, and I certainly never expected to end up facing the business end of a video camera on a Los Angeles sound stage, talking about Mad Max.

Still, that’s exactly where I was yesterday, doing my peak oil talking head routine while the camera rolled and the time I usually spend writing my weekly post here went elsewhere (which is why this post is a day later than usual). Warner Home Video is gearing up for a 30th anniversary DVD rerelease of Mad Max, with the usual assortment of bonus tracks, and one of the bonuses will be a documentary feature looking at the dystopian future portrayed in the Mad Max movies. When the producers started looking for – what do you call experts on dismal visions of the future? Doomologists? – my name came up; the result, after a flurry of emails, was a quick flight down to Los Angeles.

It’s popular these days to despise Los Angeles, and certainly there’s a lot about it to dislike; the gray smoky soup that passes for air comes to mind, not to mention the relentless rush and clamor of seven million people or so crammed into a modestly sized coastal valley between the desert and the deep blue sea. Still, I have a grudging fondness for the place. Though it often seems as though every single one of those seven million people are there for one purpose – to make a fast buck or, rather, as many fast bucks as possible – it’s almost refreshing to see that fact so nakedly on display, free of the bulky garments of hypocrisy that so often bundle them up elsewhere.

It’s also not too hard, while strolling along Promenade Park in Santa Monica or peering through the smog at the harsh brown slopes of the mountains all around, to glimpse what the area was like before it became Exhibit A in any study of metastatic urban sprawl. Nor is it too hard to imagine what the same region will be like a few centuries from now, when the inevitable dieoff is a matter of fading memory and salvage from all that sprawl will most likely be the economic mainstay of the small population that remains. If you want to talk about apocalyptic futures, in other words, greater Los Angeles is not a bad place to do it.

Nor is it an inappropriate place to talk about the way that our collective imagination of the future is shaped by the most unlikely influences. If you asked people to put together lists of believable sources for visions of the future, low-budget action films would probably not appear very often. Yet Mad Max and its two sequels have had an extraordinary impact on the contemporary imagination. Suggest that the near future will look like the settings of Zardoz or Logan’s Run, to name two other dystopian-future films of the same decade, and you’ll likely get blank looks from those who’ve forgotten the movies in question, and horse laughs from those who do. By contrast, if you suggest that we’re likely headed toward a “Mad Max future,” you can be tolerably sure that everyone present will understand what you are saying, and at least a few of them will agree with you.

Now of course this is partly because the story lines of Mad Max and its sequels are old hat to anybody who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the last four decades or so. Mad Max is simply another 1970s good-cop-gone-rogue action film set in a vaguely defined future instead of the present; the title character is a member of an elite highway patrol whose running fight with a motorcycle gang ends up costing his wife and son their lives, sending him on a quest for vengeance. The Road Warrior maps the plot of a thousand and one Westerns – the lone gunslinger seeking redemption by rescuing a community threatened by bandits – onto a more detailed future of social collapse and brutal violence. Even Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, which strayed a little further from this sort of formulaic plot, is pieced together from a dozen or so reliable Hollywood themes.

As a framework for thinking about the future, a reliance on familiar plot formulas has some severe and predictable problems. Think of the way that the late and unlamented Bush administration based its foreign policy on a storyline that was essentially borrowed from superhero comics. We’re the good guys, therefore anything we do to the bad guys is justified; they’re the bad guys, therefore their behavior is motivated solely by their own badness, nothing need be done about the abuses they claim to be avenging, and everyone can be expected to cheer when the good guys clobber them. It’s a familiar story line. Apply it to war and politics in the real world, though, and it turns into an epic source of failure.

The same risk faces attempts to use the formulaic framework of the Mad Max movies in any simplistic way to make sense of the future. Still, certain themes in the movies are at least worth some reflection. The collapse of civilization over the course of the series, in particular, is not a sudden thing. In the first movie, some semblance of government and ordinary society still exists, though both are fraying catastrophically; in the second, civil order has broken down temporarily in a mad scramble for resources; in the third, new social structures with their own laws have begun to emerge, and alternative energy resources have come into their own – I can’t think of another attempt to portray a deindustrial future that has achieved the gritty realism of Beyond Thunderdome’s Bartertown, with its methane energy economy driven by fermenting pig feces.

Nor, I am sorry to say, is the violence central to the film’s storyline entirely out of place. My inflight reading on the trips down to Los Angeles and back again was an old favorite, John Morris’ The Age of Arthur, the only really comprehensive attempt so far to use the tools of history to make sense of the original context of the Arthurian legend – the collapse, partial recovery, and final defeat of Roman Britain in the fifth century. It’s a hefty volume, but worth reading for anyone who hopes to get a sense of what the collapse of a civilization actually looks like. The collapse of social order was a lived reality at that time; Lord Humongous, the hockey-masked leader of the raiders in The Road Warrior, had a close equivalent in the canny Saxon pirate Hengist, who took advantage of civil war among British magnates to ravage Britain and lay the foundations for the later ascendancy of the English; the fragmentary records of that time, with their references to unchecked violence and the collapse of civilized life, find ample confirmation from archeologists.

What makes so much current talk about a “Mad Max future” problematic, it seems to me, is simply the assumption that this sort of catastrophic unraveling will be a universal experience. This is a little like suggesting that anyone who lived during the twentieth century must have spent time huddling in an air raid shelter or been interned in a concentration camp. In any future we are at all likely to face, the collapse of social order will be a significant fact in some regions, and the raids and mass migrations that swept away most of Roman Britain and built the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy on its ruins will likely have equivalents in certain places; this is the sort of thing that happens when civilizations break down. Other places, however, will follow very different trajectories, because another thing that happens when civilizations break down is that historical events downshift to a more local scale. To borrow Thomas Friedman’s metaphor, civilizations flatten out the Earth, but this is a temporary effect; when civilizations decline and fall, roundness returns, and communities once bound into a sprawling whole find themselves cut loose to shape their own histories.

It may be possible to anticipate at least some of the regional differences that will take shape as the industrial age comes to an end, and next week’s post will suggest some of the issues involved. In the meantime, it might be a useful exercise for those of my readers interested in exploring the subject to sort through their own images of the future, to get some sense of how many of those images come from media of the Mad Max variety, and to compare them with the way some tolerably well documented example of collapse actually occurred – the fall of Roman Britain is only one of many possibilities, though libraries in the English-speaking world tend to be tolerably well stocked with books on that particular example. Though the Mad Max movies went zooming off beyond Thunderdome, most of us will likely end up a good deal this side of it as the industrial age creaks and clatters toward its end.