Protect & Survive: Can doom-laden messages ever be successful?

Spoiler alert: This blog contains spoilers for the following films and programmes – Don’t Look Up, The War Game, Threads, The Day After, and a single episode of BBC’s Panorama from 1980. If you want to watch any of these and for them to be a surprise then stop reading now.

Trigger warning: This blog contains discussions of climate change and nuclear war. The consequences of both are dire and can justifiably cause anxiety. Nuclear weapons and nuclear war are indescribably horrendous and you might not want to have another thing to worry about at the moment.

The echo-chamber of my Twitter feed was buzzing over the holiday period for the Netflix film, Don’t Look Up. The film, described by those involved as a satire, follows a pair of scientists after they discover a comet heading for Earth. They try, and fail, to convince the world to take them seriously. They come up against a media that is obsessed with celebrity and politicians that are only bothered about their next election, even when the fate of human civilisation is at stake. Through apathy, selfishness, misinformation, and distraction the world (well, the US) misses all its opportunities to act and the comet hits the Earth and presumably wipes out all humans on it. It’s a comedy but not a feel good one.

Trailer for Don’t Look Up

Although the plot is about society’s response, or lack of, to a very real threat in the form of a comet, the film is really a deliberate allegory for our lack of a serious response to climate change. Some of the criticism I have seen of the film (there’s been a lot along with a lot of praise) is that it is a message of doom – it ends in failure and suggests that we do not have a capacity as a species to take hold of the solutions that are in reach. The reason for this criticism is a belief that to restrict climate change we need the majority of the public to take meaningful actions and for that they need hope. Messages of doom have been shown that they can raise awareness but actually make it less likely that people will do anything about it (Link).

A counter-argument to this is often that it should not be up to individual members of the public to bear the burden of climate action. Some go further and claim that campaigns and tools based around the concept of an individual’s ‘carbon footprint’ are actually a distraction campaign, placing the focus and blame on the individual consumer and not on the fossil fuel companies profiting from their pollution, and the politicians who enable, subsidise, and fail to curb them. They would argue that messages of doom actually focus attention on those who are most to blame and also have the ability to solve it. They would say they are speaking truth to power.

Doom-laden communications during the Cold War

Now, let me take you back to the last century (millennium even) and the era of the Cold War. My earliest memory of it was Timmy Mallett giving away fragments of the freshly demolished Berlin Wall as prizes on his morning kids TV show. I did most of my growing up in the post-Cold War world where the spectre of global thermonuclear war seemed to be something, thankfully, consigned to the past. I think it is difficult for people of my generation and those younger to really appreciate what it was like to live during this time and the very real fear of nuclear war.

With my interest in how risks are communicated, I have become fascinated in the information provided to the public about nuclear war and comparing them to messaging on climate change or flood risk. Below is a summary of some of the films I have been watching – before you continue, I would refer you back to the trigger warning at the start of this blog and consider if you wish to continue.

I started a few months ago with The War Game. Not to be confused with War Games (one of my favourite films), this 1966 black & white film is a dramatised documentary that tried to describe the likely aftermath of nuclear war on the British public. It was initially decided to be too horrific to be screened by the BBC and was only first shown on TV in 1985 (Link). It portrays the panic before the nuclear exchange and the near complete breakdown of society after, where law is enforced by firing squad and food becomes the only currency of value. It has been a few months since I watched this one but the bit that stayed with the most were the interviews with children a few years after the an attack – they are asked what they wanted to be when they were older. They universally replied “I don’t want to be anything”. It was simply the death of hope and the loss of the future.

A clip from The War Game showing the moment of nuclear attack

The second film I watched was a drama called The Day After. Made in 1983 and set in Kansas, it follows people going about their day to day lives (including a hospital doctor and a young couple getting ready to be married) as an international incident develops and is communicated via newspaper headlines and snatched messages from breaking news broadcasts. It famously does not reveal who launched first but does show the launches of US ‘Minuteman’ Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) from sites around Kansas. After the first launches there’s a poignant shot of a white horse bolting – there was no way of putting them back now – and the crowd at a College football game watching them launch – “It will take thirty minutes for them to reach Russia,” “That means it will be thirty minutes before theirs reach here”. The aftermath shown is similar to The War Game, dealing with themes of societal break down, struggle for food, and radiation sickness. The doctor struggles to deal with the sick, including the overwhelming number of burn victims in a hospital where all electrical equipment has been rendered useless by an Electromagentic Pulse (EMP).

Trailer for The Day After

Threads is the film that impacted me the most and left me feeling nuclear anxiety. Made in 1986, it is set in Sheffield and follows a similar pattern to The Day After. We follow people just living their lives as the relations between NATO and the Soviet Union deteriorate in the background – none of the characters are involved in the situation, they have no agency in it, and many show little interest until they are forced to.  The nuclear exchange begins with the detonation of a large yield warhead over the North Sea, the resulting EMP knocking out electronics and communications across Europe. Military targets outside of Sheffield are then hit before a direct attack on the city itself targeting the steel works. Most people are unprepared but some have hastily constructed shelters and manage to survive the blast, sitting in their ruined homes under upturned doors and binbags of dirt until the radioactive fallout has ended and radiation levels have lowered to an immediately survivable level.  The title of the film refers to the ‘threads’ of community that hold society together and which rapidly unravel after the attack. The second half of the film shows this, much like in the other two films, yet goes further by showing the potential effects of nuclear winter, something we only really began to understand in the mid-1980s.

Trailer for Threads

The firestorms that would follow a large nuclear exchange would force huge quantities of dust and soot from destroyed cities into the atmosphere. This would block out the light and heat from the Sun, an effect that some modelling has shown could last for over a decade and dramatically lower global average temperatures and rainfall (Link). Even a much smaller exchange between India and Pakistan could have profound impacts on global climate and could entirely deplete the Ozone layer globally, exposing the planet to harmful ultraviolet rays (Link). In Threads this is shown by people having to work the land by hand (all machinery either destroyed by the EMP or lacking fuel) with faces and bodies wrapped in rags to shield from the sun. Harvests are poor, if any at all.

What is universal about all three films is that are utterly devoid of any form of hope. They are as doom-laden as they could possibly be – even if you were to survive, the aftermath is so horrific you’d be pressed to consider yourself lucky.

The final film I watched had a different take. It was an episode of the Panorama programme from 1980, featuring an exceptionally young looking Jeremy Paxman, that was critical of the UK’s plans to prepare for a nuclear attack. Its opening argument was that at that time the nation was so unprepared that more than 70% of the population would die, yet with a credible national plan and some personal resilience actions more than 70% could survive – it highlighted the dramatic mis-match between the nation’s spending on nuclear weapons and the funds it provided preparing the civil defence in case it happened. However, plans to prepare members of the public at the time consisted of distributing the “Protect and Survive” pamphlet to households and even then it was unlikely these could even be printed in time. The same Protect and Survive messaging would also have been distributed via radio and TV. The messages provided information on the dangers from nuclear attack, the alert signals that would be used, and how to prepare a fallout shelter for your household.

Original recording of the 1980 episode of Panorama – If the bomb drops

However, as explored in the three dramatised films and where the Panorama episode is particularly critical, any attempt to prepare yourself was entirely futile if there was not a Government plan to ensure those ‘threads’ of society were maintained in the aftermath. In the 1980s there was a plan of sorts, with the country being divided into sections with each run from a nuclear bunker staffed by the equivalent of a local resilience forum, with the head of the local council having supreme command. As shown in Threads, when the situation arises individuals might prefer to stay with their families rather than being stuck in a bunker totally oblivious to their fate. In the programme, Eric Alley from the Institute of Civil Defence was rather scathing of the nation’s preparedness – “At the moment we’re back to the British system of ad hockery, of hoping for the best… we can’t muddle through how we have muddled through in the past”.

Threads itself was inspired by the Panorama episode, featuring in it snippets from the Protect and Survive videos and shows people following some of the personal resilience actions like the homemade fallout shelters. It was being critical of the Government’s plans to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear attack but also critical of the very notion of telling people they could survive it or even that surviving it would be preferable to perishing in the initial blast. It was considered that promoting the idea that the UK could survive a nuclear war (the closest you can get to winning one) – providing hope in this grimmest of situations – was actually dangerous and might encourage Government to pursue that course of action. It prompted anti-nuclear protestors to produce the “Protest and Survive” pamphlet as a response – better to convince governments to get rid of these weapons altogether than trying to survive on tins of beans, surrounded by bags of dirt, whilst radioactive dust rains down around the ruins of your home.

Perils of doom-laden messages for climate change

Despite it clearly being preferable that we do what we can to stop it altogether, climate change is not as immediate or binary as a nuclear war would be, but it could be just as terminal. Individuals do have genuine agency in reducing the impacts of climate change and we need those messages of hope to inspire these. Yet, over-emphasis on individual actions risks leading governments into complacency and inaction – the impact of those individual changes will be relatively small compared to what could be achieved through strong and collaborative action by the world’s governments. To inspire this action we may need the messages of doom from films like Don’t Look up – it was rumoured that US President Reagan claimed The Day After had an influence on him signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet leader Gorbachev after all (Link).

The big difference though is that climate change is not just introducing new hazards into the world, it is making existing ones worse. An example close to home for me is tidal flooding in Hull. This is a very real threat to the city, sadly demonstrated by the 2013 storm surge. It is crucial that people living in areas at risk are made aware of the risks they face but also feel empowered to take actions that would help them. Sea level rises of up to 1.2m by the end of the century will increase this risk a lot. Doom-laden messages are used about Hull claiming that this will plunge the city “underwater”, to make people aware of climate change to inspire them to put pressure of authorities to tackle it but this is problematic for two reasons. First, it is an exaggeration of predicted impacts and whether using hope or doom, you should always be honest. Second, by causing fear of future flooding it disengages people from present dangers, increasing their risks. You can read more in my old blog post here.

To summarise, there is a place and also a real need for the doom-laden messages to help us address climate change but they are a double-edged sword that must be wielded carefully and sparingly. Unlike nuclear war, individuals can make a real difference to limit the impacts. Also, a groundswell of grassroots action has the potential to lead companies and governments into positive changes. The majority of messaging should be hopeful, focusing on the solutions that already exist, whilst acknowledging that the burden of action should not lay with individuals.

Climate change, as Joshua discovers about Global Thermonuclear War in War Games, is “a strange game. The only winning move is not to play”.

Additional comments:

I am writing this whilst watching news reports of a Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine, with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists keeping the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. In recent years Russia has been rapidly modernising its nuclear arsenal including the development of hypersonic missiles that are able to evade modern missile defence systems. Russia has also been rumoured to have adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” approach that theorises that they could ‘win’ a small scale nuclear exchange and force their opponent to the negotiating table (Link).

Russia isn’t the only nation modernising its nuclear arsenals. The UK is refreshing the Trident nuclear deterrent but increasing the number of warheads at the same time (Link). It is considering adding scenarios to the reasons to justify a retaliation using nuclear weapons, including a wide-spread cyber-attack on the country (Link).

The risk of nuclear war is much lower than in the Cold War. The risk of nuclear war is not even considered as part of the UK’s National Risk Register, but then again neither is climate change…

Needless to say, these views are entirely my own and are not intended to represent the views of my employer.

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