Living With Mass Extinction
In discussions of climate change and the mass extinctions the world is promised in the coming century, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who supports climate change. This point is an obvious one, but perhaps an unusual one. In America’s mainstream bipartisan political discourse, we normally see two opposing sides. Some side says there should be less guns, some other side says there should be more. Some side says all abortions should be illegal, some other side says they should be unrestricted. You get the point; either the party en masse is for it or against it. But regarding climate change it’s slightly different. Some side says we need to stop it and some other side says ‘it’s not happening’ or ‘it’s happening, but since humans aren’t the ones who caused it there’s nothing we can do’. It’s true that some don’t support action against climate change because they think the economic consequences would not be worth the environmental benefit, and that sort of seems like it could be in opposition. But when pressed, most politicians would not advocate for the changing climate, and that is different than most other debates American politicians have. Diluted, I am saying that in mainstream American politics, everyone either thinks that climate change is bad, or that if climate change were real/caused by humans/happening like scientists say it is, it would be bad.
So it would seem that we are all in agreement, at least on that basic premise. The disagreements we are having are simply ones of urgency, implementation, and ignorance. Let us pause there, and leave the realm of mainstream politics for one much more outlandish and contentious: children’s movies. Specifically, the gorgeously animated film The Song of the Sea from writers Tomm Moore, who also directed it, and William Collins. This movie inserts itself into the conversation about climate change in a way that doesn’t line up within this basic agreement. Now, you might already think you know where I am going with this article, so let me just say plainly that The Song of the Sea doesn’t support climate change and mass extinctions. But I do mean to convince you that it falls outside of the mainstream universality I introduced above in a radical and perhaps unsettling way. Let us review the movie, and I’ll show you what I mean.
To begin, all we need to do is look at the broadest possible strokes of the movie. The movie takes magic, myths, and folktales and puts them in a human context. But not just any magic and folktales; this story centers around a young selkie, a half human half seal. Myths around the world, the celtic ones called upon here are no exception, are so often meant to explain or connect us to the natural world. The figure of the selkie makes this connection even more clear. Selkies live as seals in the sea, but they can take off their sealskin coats to reveal a human form and the ability to live as one on land. They move between the two worlds, are a connection between them. Just this simple premise starts to connect the movie with the natural world. Now that we’ve made this thinnest observation, let’s jump to the first major conflict.
After Saoirse is discovered playing in the ocean, Granny forces her and Ben to move to the city. Ben begs his dad to stay, or at least to take his dog with him, and his father backs up the grandmother, forcing him to go. We follow the car as it goes to the city and we see shots of chimneys billowing smoke. The animation gets darker, and the cars and buildings become more cramped, with smog and garbage on the street. This transition is given a few minutes on screen, where we leave the gorgeous coast and replace it with the oppressive urban scape; the whole time Ben is mapping landmarks so he can run away as soon as possible. This sequence illustrates a concept that social philosopher Max Weber coined as disenchantment (Wikipedia, 2006); the societal move away from religion and belief to rationalization and science. Twentieth century childrens’ movies have engaged with this concept many times before. Classic kids’ movies like Tarzan, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book and Princess Mononoke are just a few of the more famous, obvious, examples. In each, the natural world is glorified over the industrial one, and it becomes the main conflict of the story. The Song of the Sea is doing this work also, but this movie came out in 2014. In 2014, this trope calls more associations than it might have in the mid to late twentieth century. We are surrounded by not just the existential angst that rationalization and urbanization brought up, but by the very present and tangible effects that climate change is having on the world. Images of smoke and trash on the ground doesn’t just represent the downside of societal organization, it calls up pollution and waste and the ways they destroy the natural world. The biggest conflict of the movie is the spread of climate change, and Ben and Sairse must run away and embark on a journey to get home and “save us all” (Moore, 2014).
As Ben and Saoirse journey home from Granny’s house, they face two major obstacles. Saoirse needs to get home to the sea and her seal skin coat to sing her song or she’ll die, and Macha the Owl Witch is stealing the feelings of all the magical creatures, the faeries, and turning them to stone. Continuing with the climate crisis as the journey itself, let’s place these two obstacles in that realm. The first one is fairly overt. Saoirse is dying because she is far from her home and her seal skin coat. The natural world is dying from our distance from it in favor of industrialization and urbanization. That much is a clear parallel. But it is significant that we see her in the process of dying. It isn’t that as soon as they get to the city she dies because she is far from the sea. She has a limited time to return before she dies. This likens her to the warnings of ‘the point of no return’ that are issued around climate change. In the time we are in right now, scientists are warning the world that if we don’t take radical change by a certain date or geological marker (i.e. two degrees warmer globally) then it will be too late to reverse the damage we have done. Saoirse is our warning in the movie.
While the time pressure increases their urgency, Saoirse is abducted by Macha the owl witch. Ben goes to rescue her, and learns that Macha has been stealing the emotions of all the magical creatures, and turning them to stone. She is the perpetrators of climate change, purposefully destroying the faeries. Again, an obvious parallel to draw. But also again, we can get a little more nuanced in our reading of her character. She tells Ben that she couldn’t bare to see her son, the giant Mac Lir, grieving, so she relieved him of his pain and turned him to stone. Then, once Ben shatters all her jars full of emotion, she feels the emotions she was stealing away and sees that she was wrong to take them, and even helps Ben and Saoirse get the rest of the way to their home. This is unusual, she changes her mind and then helps the heroes! So she is a climate change perpetrator who actively wants to help undue it when she realizes what she is doing is wrong.
We are closer to making sense of the movie. Let’s put these observations together and then examine the ending. The conflict is set up just as it is in 2014 when Ben is standing on the steps of Macha’s house. He puts on his 3D glasses for courage, and gets ready to confront evil and fight for his sister. At this point in the movie, we know climate change is a problem, and that it’s affecting the world. We know that we have a limited time to fix it or Saoirse will die and everyone will stay turned to stone. We also know that Macha is the cause of this problem, her actions are causing the climate to change. If this movie followed Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the ending would be easy to predict. Ben would defeat Macha, and get Saoirse home to her coat. She’d sing her song and all the faeries would be unfrozen, and the kids would return to their home, changed by their journey. We already know this isn’t how it ends. It gets disrupted by Macha because Ben changes her mind. She sees things his way, and actively helps him to get Saoirse home. With everyone wanting the same thing, they should be able to get her to the sea and have her sing her song! Macha gives Ben and Saoirse the spirit dogs of Mac Lir to speed them home. After almost being stopped by their father, Saoirse finally is reunited with her coat. She floats into the air, her hair, which has been turning white to signify her proximity to death, turns brown, color returns to her face, and she glows bright and sends energy around the world. This is the happy ending we have been waiting for – except no one is revived. They stay stone. She releases the spirits of all the magical creatures in the world, and they move on to the spirit world. Then Ben and Saoirse’s selkie mother appears, and tells Saoirse she must go too because she is magical. Saoirse wants to stay, but her mother says that the only way she can stay is to become a full human, which she does. The happy ending of the movie, and it is a happy one to watch, is the human family closer than ever, living in a world totally absent of the magical creatures they spent the movie supposedly trying to save.
Let’s be very clear with what this ending is telling us in the terms of climate change. Even if all the major contributors to climate change suddenly had a change of heart – not just stopped polluting and emitting greenhouse gases, but worked actively to reverse it – then it is still too late! The world has been forever changed. The best case scenario is to process and acknowledge our feelings of grief, and then go back to our lives. This is the radical political message of the movie.
Collins and Moore have created a film that promotes an idea starting to get more attention at the intersection of climate change science/activism and psychology; ecological grief or eco grief. This term was first coined in the 1949 book by Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac but is carried and defined today by climate researchers Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis among others. Cunsolo and Neville define it precisely, as “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change” (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018). In their article “Ecological Grief as a Mental Health Response to Climate Change-Related Loss” they write that climate change is not just an abstract scientific concept, but a very personal one, and that ecological grief must be processed “individually and collectively, publicly and privately, ethically and politically, in order to enhance our understanding of climate change impacts, and to expand discussions on what is to be done” (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018). Through The Song of the Sea, Moore and Collins add their voices to theirs. They have entered the political sphere, but this is a take on climate change that is located past the realm of the current political universality rather than in disagreement or agreement with it. Rather than dispute what action must be taken and when, Moore and Collins, perhaps pessimistically, take us to a world, our world, where the loss has happened and gives us a sobering take of what we must do to survive the changing world. And it doesn’t involve any activism or action to fight the changes, just the internal tools we need to live with them.
- Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8(4), 275-281. doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
- Moore, T. (Director). (2014). The Song of the Sea [Motion picture]. United States: Cartoon Saloon.
- Wikipedia. (2006, March 5). Disenchantment. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disenchantment