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It's Time for Star Trek to Tackle Climate Change

Maddie Stone May 02, 2019. 17 comments
“They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales.”
GIF: Paramount

It’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan. After years of lying low like a dormant space tardigrade, the franchise is bursting with new life . But while there are some modern, topical issues Star Trek: Discovery is trying harder than its predecessors to address, there’s one very relevant subject the franchise continues to steer clear of. I’m talking about climate change.

Discovery’s second season just wrapped up with a bang (or, more accurately, a few thousand of them ), and the series is poised to strike out into truly uncharted territory when it returns. There’s at least one new Star Trek animated series in the works for the first time since the ‘70s, and a group of upstart kids at Starfleet Academy are reportedly getting their own show, too. So is Starfleet’s most revered elder statesman, Jean-Luc Picard . As a lifelong Trekkie, this is all delightful news. But as an environmental reporter who spends the bulk of her waking hours thinking about how the most important planet in the Federation is melting and burning, my excitement for the deluge of new Trek content is tempered by a nagging feeling that something’s missing.

Like all of the best science fiction, Star Trek has always been a show that wrestles with, and attempts to solve, the problems of the present. Why, then, isn’t the franchise doing more stories on what’s arguably the greatest threat the denizens of Sector 001 have ever faced?

The dearth of climate change mentions in Star Trek is stark.

The franchise paints a pretty rosy picture of our future, one in which, by the start of the 22nd century, humans have eliminated war, poverty, disease, and bigotry on Earth (though bigotry toward extraterrestrials still rears its head from time to time). I recently re-watched every episode of every series with the hope of gleaning some insight into how Earth also averted its rapidly-unfolding 21st-century climate disaster. I could only find two hints: a brief conversation between Captain Archer and subcommander T’Pol in season three of Enterprise that touches on 21st century Earth’s addiction of fossil fuels; and a spat between science officer Paul Stamets and engineer Jet Reno in a season two episode of Discovery, where Stamets describes how Earth’s environment was going to shit until everyone started putting solar panels on trucks. (Also, apparently—mild spoiler for those who haven’t seen Discovery’s season two finale—on the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Even 1986's Star Trek IV —a film that is literally about saving the whales!—only touches on the climate crisis at a glance, when Spock describes humanity’s “dubious flirtation” with nuclear energy before the start of the “fusion era.” There are a few other plotlines that can be read as allegories for climate change, most notably “Force of Nature,” a late-series Next Generation episode where the crew of the Enterprise discovers that warp travel is tearing holes in the fabric of space, and regulations must be enacted to keep the environmental damage at bay.

But compared with the amount of time the series devotes to, say, the rights of artificial beings , the perils of genetic engineering, or just fighting Nazis, climate change seems notably underserved by the franchise.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this. When Star Trek first aired in the 1960s, our biggest existential threat wasn’t the warming effects greenhouse gases—which were only just beginning to be understood by a small circle of scientists —but nuclear war with an antagonistic superpower, a subject the franchise tackled frequently .

By the time Star Trek rebooted in the late 1980s, our understanding of global warming had grown considerably—notably, The Next Generation’s first season began airing less than a year before NASA climate scientist James Hansen famously alerted Congress that climate change was under way—but public concern over the problem was still low. It would remain that way for decades, thanks in no small part to misinformation campaigns spearheaded by fossil fuel companies . As recently as 2013, less than 15 percent of the American public considered themselves “alarmed” about climate change.

But now, it’s 2019, and the climate monster has hatched for all the world to see. Powerful hurricanes are flattening our coastlines ; entire towns are being devoured by megafires . And it’s only going to get worse, with study after study detailing how sea level rise will make entire countries uninhabitable and increasingly brutal heat waves will cause death and suffering around the world.

Public alarm is finally catching up to the science, with a recent poll indicating that 60 percent of all Americans are at least concerned about climate change. Per another recent poll, two-thirds of Democratic voters feel it should be our nation’s top priority. The young people Star Trek is now looking to hook on the sci-fi their parents grew up with? They’re taking to the streets to strike for a habitable planet.

As Star Trek spins up once again, it should embrace this climate zeitgeist. Discovery has already demonstrated a clear interest in environmental themes—heck, the ship’s lead scientist is named after a guy who thinks mushrooms can save the planet—but it can do a lot more. It could tackle the climate crisis allegorically, perhaps by revisiting the harmful environmental effects of warp technology or some other essential piece of Federation tech. The crew could visit a pre-warp civilization on the cusp of wrecking its own atmosphere, and be forced to make one of those Prime Directive-bending choices about whether or not to intervene (knowing Discovery’s crew, they totally will). Or, Discovery could continue to use its favorite physically-implausible plot device—time travel—and deliver audiences back to the crucial moment in the mid-21st century when decisions were made that would change the fate of the Earth. Having finally cast off its prequel shackles, the crew can literally go anywhere!

Writing for the Washington Post recently, science fiction author and io9 co-founder Charlie Jane Anders observed that stories about climate change can “help sway people’s hearts and minds in a different way than a recitation of undeniable facts.” Sure, there’s been some outrageously bad climate fiction in recent years (cough , Geostorm ), but we’ve also seen some damn good environmental storytelling, from thrillers about water rights in a drought-ravaged Southwest to mind-bending ecological horror stories to a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by killer rain .

What Star Trek can add to this burgeoning eco-fiction landscape, I think, is a sense of optimism and human agency. Discovery may be a few shades darker than its predecessors, but the connective tissue unifying so many decades of exploration on so many warp-class ships has always been our capacity to solve problems and overcome seemingly impossible odds. I have no doubt the fine people of Starfleet, if confronted with a crisis like climate change, would rise to the occasion.

And I for one would like to see what they do about it.


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