How Godzilla Explains All Our Modern Environmental Debates

The state of the universe.
June 5 2014 12:13 PM

Godzilla vs. Technology

How the radioactive monster explains all our modern environmental debates.

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Opposition to nuclear power and industrial chemicals has been a core theme of modern environmentalism ever since, based on the same inspiration that brought Godzilla up from the depths: We need to protect nature from human-made technology. Those environmental values now also inspire opposition to genetically modified food, or fracking, or large-scale industrial agriculture—any modern technology that allows humans to manipulate and threaten the natural world, the benign true natural world that existed before humans came along and, with their technology, ended it, as Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature suggests.

Of course, humans are a species too, not separate from but a part of the natural world, and like all species our interactions with the natural world have all sorts of impacts. True, the human intelligence that allowed us to master fire has meant that we have done far more harm than other species. But science and technology have also brought fantastic progress and offer great hope, including solutions for the mess technology helped us make in the first place.

Gojira itself raised precisely this conundrum, framing the modern conversation we’re still having. As it ends, Tokyo is in ruins. Humans’ most powerful weapons are useless. The monster has retreated to the depths, but no one is sure if or when it will rise again. The reclusive scientist Dr. Serizawa and our hero, Hideto Ogata, are on a boat heading out to find and destroy him.

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Serizawa has finally admitted to Ogata what the film has hinted at: He has a weapon that can kill Godzilla, a technological device, which, dropped into water, sucks all the oxygen out of it. He has kept it a secret until now because “if the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course, they’ll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist—no, as a human being—I can’t allow that to happen! Am I right?”

Hiroshima aftermath, Aug. 6, 1945.
Hiroshima aftermath, Aug. 6, 1945.

Courtesy of Paul Tibbets/U.S. Navy Public Affairs Resources

Ogata replies, “Then what do we do about the horror before us now? Should we just let it happen? If anyone can save us now, Serizawa, you’re the only one!”

Serizawa grabs the device and jumps into the sea, killing Godzilla and sacrificing himself but saving mankind … by using a technological weapon more powerful that the atomic bombs that woke the monster from his prehistoric sleep in the first place.

Geoengineering may be able to help combat climate change. Genetically modified food may help feed a global population soon to approach 10 billion. Safer forms of nuclear energy may power population growth cleanly. Are these technological solutions to some of the damage humans have done to ourselves and the natural world, or are they just versions of Castle Bravo and the Oxygen Destroyer, escalations of a self-destructive technological death spiral? Are those who oppose these technologies just modern Godzillas, rising up like mindless angry monsters willing to cause massive suffering and destruction to defend nature?

These are the questions Castle Bravo and Gojira asked. We are still fighting over the answers.

David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard and author of How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. Follow him on Twitter.

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