Snowpiercer and Earthmasters: Complementary Views of Geoengineering


Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer is an allegorical — and sometimes phantasmagorical — science fiction thriller about a geoengineering climate fix that goes terribly wrong. When the film opens, we see planes releasing something called CW7 into the upper atmosphere to help cool a warming planet. As a result Earth freezes catastrophically, killing everyone except the few hundred people who have bought or forced their way aboard the Snowpiercer train. This powerful, seemingly unstoppable, train circles the globe once a year, racing through the frozen wasteland, while preserving in miniature the oppressive social relations that existed before the Earth froze (in 2014). The first-class passengers in the front of the train –- who live luxurious lives complete with spa, conservatory, nightclub, and sushi bar –- contrast with the wretched masses at the rear of the train, who eat disgusting food and live in filthy, dark conditions. Wilford, the technocrat who created Snowpiercer, believes that these social divisions are necessary, and his point of view is echoed by his minion Mason when she says,”We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front; you belong to the tail. Keep your place.” Though the film contains many violent scenes that earned it an R rating, it brings together environmental and social justice themes in surprising and effective ways.

There are lots of good reviews of Snowpiercer, and taken together they offer a more complete picture of this complex film than I have just given. Kate Aranoff at Waging Nonviolence emphasizes the class conflict aspects of the film and identifies Bong’s major point as follows: “Confronting the climate crisis means confronting capitalism and the inequality it produces.” Jason Mark at Earth Island Journal focuses on the film’s relationship to other eco-disaster and dystopic sci-fi fare, including the recent Elysium and The Hunger Games, and he calls Snowpiercer “the smartest bit of cli-fi I’ve come across since reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” And Ty Burr at The Boston Globe tells us that Snowpiercer almost wasn’t seen in the U.S. because the distributor didn’t like “…the film’s dark tone, often brutal violence, and general creative weirdness” and believed American audiences wouldn’t understand it. But Bong refused to change the film, and I’m glad he refused, not only because Snowpiercer successfully brings together issues of class and ecology, but also because it makes an effective indictment, however strange and fictional it may be, of geoengineering.

And if you think Snowpiercer is just a science fiction allegory, and there aren’t any threats to our planetary well-being like CW7, maybe you should take a look at Clive Hamilton’s 2013 book, Earthmasters: the Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. Hamilton says, “For sheer audacity, no plan by humans exceeds the one now being hatched to take control of the Earth’s climate.” He defines geoengineering, which will supposedly allow humans to end-run around the daunting collective task of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, as “deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.” One such form of intervention, solar radiation management, could include the possibility of spraying sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions. The fact that this action could hinder the repair of the hole in the ozone layer or might even have a negative impact on the Indian monsoons hasn’t stopped investors from backing the research. These investors include Bill Gates, who Hamilton says is now “the world’s leading financial supporter of geoengineering research.” For example, Gates has invested in Intellectual Ventures, the company that did a feasibility study of the StratoShield, a hose designed to be held in the sky by balloons as it “delivers” sulfate aerosols. Though Hamilton is not opposed to appropriate uses of technology, he says  “…climate engineering is intuitively appealing to a powerful strand of Western technological thinking and conservative politicking that sees no ethical or other obstacle to total domination of the planet.”

I first started reading Hamilton’s Earthmasters while I was taking Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics Massive Open Online Course in which Geoengineering was a topic. Hamilton and Singer are fellow Australians and both are ethicists. In February of 2013, they debated the topic “Playing God with the Planet: the Ethics and Politics of Geo-Engineering” at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne. Among other things, they disagreed on whether or not Bill Gates is really helping humanity with his geoengineering investments.

Singer said that we shouldn’t see Gates’ bankrolling of geoengineering research as sinister because he has already put a “vast amount of money into trying to reduce global disease, trying to help the poorest people in the world,” and the Gates Foundation has probably saved 5.8 million children’s lives. We can therefore “assume [he] has some altruistic, benevolent impulses,” and wants to help prevent climate catastrophe. Hamilton didn’t deny that Bill Gates is a philanthropist but said he represents a “…technological world view, a Promethean world view” that doesn’t recognize that we have already made errors in our uses of technology and could easily make more. People with a technocratic, hubristic mindset think that “what we need is more technology, what we need is grander technological solutions, what we have to do is counter our previous technological mistakes with much more godlike technological contributions — seizing control of the planetary system in total.” In Earthmasters, Hamilton dubs those who are in favor of technological solutions like climate engineering Prometheans, after the god of technological mastery. But in their quest for mastery, Prometheans can set into motion unstoppable and unfixable consequences. Hamilton calls those who err on the side of caution and oppose technological fixes Soterians, after the goddess of safety and deliverance from harm.

So is there really a discernible connection between the actions of technocrats as portrayed in Snowpiercer and those described in Earthmasters? After all, technocratic Wilford in Snowpiercer doesn’t cause the climate to go haywire, and he isn’t responsible for the film’s geoengineering catastrophe, though he is cruel and heartless in his attitude toward his fellow humans.  Gates, by contrast, has a philanthropic worldview, and he wants to invest in engineering the climate to help humanity. Is it a stretch to talk about the two men in the same breath? To me the Snowpiercer mogul and Microsoft billionaire are similar because, as each strives to protect human beings from themselves, he enters the realm of Promethean hubris. And in this realm where a few rich technocrats make all the decisions about how and when technology is used, when things go wrong — as is almost inevitable — it will be the poor and marginal who suffer the worst consequences.

5 thoughts on “Snowpiercer and Earthmasters: Complementary Views of Geoengineering”

  1. “After all, technocratic Wilford in Snowpiercer doesn’t cause the climate to go haywire, and he isn’t responsible for the film’s geoengineering catastrophe, though he is cruel and heartless in his attitude toward his fellow humans.”

    I think you missed a subtle detail of the film. Remember that the train was built BEFORE the catastrophe, Wilford had been generally derided for his obsession with his train, and he said at one point that he ‘knew’ that the climatic disaster was coming. When you add in that the experimental substance that caused the rapid global cooling was designated CW-7 (C. Wilford -7 perhaps?) and you have to seriously wonder if he IS responsible for the geoengineering catastrophe. All his detractors are dead and he gets to ride around the world in his train for the rest of his life, just like he always dreamed …

  2. I’ll limit my reply to the film, which I did not care for. Recall that Wilford tells the rebel leader toward the end that he’s been duped. His “rebellion” was engineered by those at the front. We also discover that the 2 Koreans are not drug addicts, but hoarding explosive material (my memory’s a bit vague on this).

    My point is that the drama is poorly scripted. We find out only at the end that the film we’ve been watching was not what was actually happening. In composition it’s called planting and harvesting: You cannot harvest what you have not planted in the reader or viewer’s mind. In short surprise endings are cheap tricks. In our visual culture these errors in dramatic logic are generally ignored.

    Finally why an allegory on climate change? The East was a bit better film, but faded at the end. Let’s face it head on. How ’bout a film called, Revenge of the Koch Brothers, or Invaders From Congress, I Spit on your Planet, High Noon Forever, The Big, Big, Very Big Heat.

  3. In response to “[it] is poorly scripted. We find out only at the end that the film we’ve been watching was not what was actually happening.”

    I submit there was foreshadowing: for instance, who was slipping the notes in the protein bars?

  4. I generally agree with Harry White’s criticisms of the film, and yet believe that Snowpiercer was an unusually effective by contemporary standards. It seems that in the contemporary film industry an endless amount of violence, an endless series of climaxes and “surprise” twists are necessary to get the millions of dollars to make the film in the first place, so I don’t really blame the director or screenwriters of the film (or hardly any other contemporary film for that matter) for these limitations. The film did however manage to avoid the usual class reconciliation that also typifies contemporary films, in which we discover that everybody has a good side and sees “reason” and does the “right thing” in the end. In Snowpiercer, the upper class was and remained harsh and brutal in the beginning, middle and end of the film, culminating in the sadism and god-complex of the technocrat savior. In this area the film was complex and uncompromising, and deserves real credit.


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