By Anders Lorenzen
We live in a world fascinated by dystopian fiction novels, films and TV series. Perhaps the mainstream media’s constant reporting of climate breakdown, the world being about to collapse, the destabilising pronouncements of Donald Trump, renewed fears about nuclear war or Armageddon, and the growing populist and anti-globalisation movements shaking society are all feeding into this mood.
Modern social media provide the echo chambers for these fears that the world is going downhill, and it is easier than ever to shield people from any good news happening in the world today. However, as Swedish Professor Hans Rosling argued in Factfulness, there are many things to be optimistic about.
The latest series to offer a dystopian view of humanity’s future is Netflix’s first ever Danish production, The Rain. This dark TV series gives a glimpse of humanity’s collapse. A released bio-engineered virus is trapped in the rain which kills a human being within seconds of contact with a single raindrop, after spasms of vomiting and choking.
Our two main characters, the brother and sister, Rasmus (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen) and Simone (Alba August) are hauled into the car by their father, the scientist Dr Frederik Andersen (Lars Simonsen). Together with their mother, they are driven in a panic at hair-raising speed to get to safety before the rain starts. After narrowly avoiding a car crash on the motorway, they have to abandon the car and make their way on foot to an underground bunker, built by the company for which their dad works, Apollon. In dramatic fashion they just make it to safety before the first raindrops fall. As they travel, Simone grills her father with a series of questions while watching on social media people die en masse. Her father pulls her aside, saying he has to leave now as he is the only one who can fix the problem. He tells her she has to look after her brother because he is very special and the key to beating the virus. But he tells her that she must stay put, and assures her that he will come back for them.
Shortly after he leaves, Simone in a naive state opens the front door when she hears someone knocking. A stranger having contracted the virus attacks her. Her mother rescues her, but in the process gets pulled out into the rain and dies. Now it is only Simone and her brother left in the bunker which is stocked up with enough food for them to survive. Six years later, Rasmus has grown into a 16-year old teenager and they are running out of food. They now come to realise that they need to leave and that their dad might not be coming back. They agree to leave the following morning, but discover that the air vents in the bunker are blocked. They are forced out and are met by an armed group of people who want to enter the bunker looking for food. Simone manages to persuade them to join them in order to find food, as she knows where the other bunkers are where food might be stored. Now follows a journey where they travel from place to place in search of food, and try to work out what exactly is going on and where their father might be.
The Rain and the dystopian climate future
The virus released is bio-engineered and created by Apollon and is therefore not a climatic event. This is a dystopian reaction created by man, though I guess one could say climate change is too. But perhaps one underlying message is that once we start messing with nature, we really do not know what will happen and whether our actions are reversible. Take geo-engineering for instance:
In our slow response to dealing with climate change, geo-engineering is more and more talked up as a solution, with more money pumped into it than into clean energy.
But the honest truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen, when we start messing with nature in such a way. We do not know the impacts of reflecting sunlight through mirrors in space, and we do not know the impact of engineering rain patterns. Many are worried that if we go down such paths, of which these are just a few examples, we could reach tipping points of no return. In The Rain, the released bio-engineered virus may have created a point of no return. In the story, six years down the line Apollon are still struggling to find a cure and Denmark remains in lockdown, literally a quarantine zone alongside parts of southern Sweden. We assume that the rest of the world is fine, but we do not know. And we have to wait for Season two to know the answer.
In this season`s final episode the virus breaks out in the Apollon headquarters in Sweden through Frederik´s son Rasmus, as the three of them had been united in the search for their father. Rasmus was Frederik´s trump card as his dad had made him immune to the virus by injecting him with it before it broke out. But we also learned in the finale that the only way he could provide the cure would be to kill him as it is contained in the bone marrow. On top of that, even though he is not impacted by the virus, he is contagious and anyone in bodily contact with him contracts the virus.
The importance of water
The subject of water and rain is the basis for the plot of The Rain. And therefore the focus of attention is on water as the basis of human existence. Many experts are arguing that in the future water will be the new gold. Even in a 7.6 billion world population, water in many regions is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. Projected population growth by the UN is expected to climb to 11 billion by 2100, before flatlining and starting to decrease. On top of that, and with a warming world, climate impacts such as droughts are set to intensify. Therefore, water resources will inevitably become even scarcer.
Of course, technological breakthroughs might limit the impacts. In high income countries we have become accustomed to taking water for granted. But in many other countries around the world as in previous generations, that is far from the case. The limits to human development are linked to being able simply to turn on the tap for clean water. In The Rain the group had to distill water before it is usable. And as they walk from place to place, they constantly have to be aware of streams and water puddles, and of avoiding contact with any animals which might carry infection and pollute water supplies.
A closer connection can also be found in the phenomenon of acid rain which was first discovered in 1853. But it was not until the 1960’s that it was actually studied, and not until the 1990’s that it began to be dealt with. Acid rain is a result of the burning of fossil fuels just as climate change is. The term describes rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it has elevated levels of hydrogen ions ( pH value below 7). It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals and infrastructure. It is caused by emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. Acid rain has been shown to have adverse impacts on forests, freshwater and soils, killing insect and aquatic life-forms, causing paint to peel, causing corrosion of steel structures such as bridges, and causing weathering of stone buildings and statues as well as having impacts on human health.
Even if The Rain in itself is not climate related, it could just as easily have been. And my argument here is that the story line reveals many ways in which society could react in real life to climate breakdown and environmental degradation caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And from a scientific point view, based on the information given to us in The Rain so far, the virus will have huge implications for bio-diversity due to the water carrying that virus. And I’m sure many more examples than the ones I have mentioned could be explored. Again, from what we know so far, it is not yet clear whether the virus in The Rain was carried in the rain as a one-off event or if the situation continues.
The range and quantity of environmental fiction is a valuable aid to discussion of these topics, which surely can only be a good thing.
If you have seen The Rain , we would love to hear your thoughts and comments below. If you haven’t, it is available on Netflix.