Idiocracy came out 13 years ago, in 2006. Yet it could not be a more scarily prescient depiction of our current shitstorm of climate disaster and impending extinction.
The movie on its own is a piece of sharp-witted genius. Produced by Mike Judge (of Office Space fame, another absolutely classic social commentary), it follows an extraordinarily ordinary guy as he muddles his way through the society he has found himself in 500 years in the future. He's surrounded by karst-trash peaks, spectacular morons with root vegetable-levels of self-awareness, a ubiquitous soda terrifyingly named Brawndo, and an economic, social and political system that is as life-affirming as a handful of shit for Christmas.
In 2016, when Donald Trump became President of the United States of America, many film buffs jokingly but with an edge of nervous concern remarked that the premise of Idiocracy was sure enough coming to light. Even scriptwriter Etan Cohen flippantly weighed in. There are certainly parallels between Trump's and Camacho's (played flawlessly by Terry Crews) presidential campaigns: shrieking nationalism, guns, and meme-worthy lies (who said "it's not corrupt if everyone knows you're doing it"?). You could write a whole thesis on the foresight of Idiocracy on the USA's political mudslide between the years 2015-2020 (and I'm somewhat surprised and disappointed Michael Moore didn't touch on it in Fahrenheit 11/9). Plus, the gradual takeover of entire industries and government departments by extreme corporations like Brawndo and Carl's Jr. is like a modern-day parable. But there's something much more ominous, something terrible you get the slow, agonizing realization the movie was prophesizing.
One of the first shots we see of this brave new world Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) steps into is the apocalyptically steaming Kilimanjaros of trash that sprout human dwellings, a visual resurrection of the term "crapshack". This is Out-of-Control Solid Waste Pollution whose set location could now easily be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or Beijing's Plastic Gobi, or the Ganges or Citarum. That's without mentioning microplastics, which are probably now running through our tap water and even our veins. Will we, like Frito Pendejo Esq., the sub-hero of our movie, eventually be so undeterred by living atop a fecal-fragrant topography? Will we be too busy "'batin'" to care?
Before long, Joe the ordinary guy ends up getting recruited as Secretary of the Interior for his relatively astronomical "intelligence" (shout out to David Bernhardt), and is instantly tasked with the near-impossible task of solving the [quote]. This is nothing if not a pointed nod to rampant drought that in the year of the movie's release, ravaged south Australia, parts of England and nearly 40% of the US. Judge couldn't possibly have predicted it, but these dry disasters have been exacer-batin' year on year since then, most notably in the Midwest, southeastern US, California, Mexico, Brazil's main metropolises, the Sahel (twice), East Africa; even arguably catalyzing the Syrian civil war.
The scientific causes may be different, but the oafishness of the human species underlying it is the same. In Idiocracy, plants no longer grow because they have been absorbing Brawndo, which is believed to have "what plants crave. It's got electrolytes". It only takes Joe a swift measure of water ("like, out the toilet?") to encourage a green shoot to appear on the barren landscape. Everyone is saved, he is a hero and is appointed the new Mike Pence.
We too are facing a freshwater crisis right now, albeit not because we are watering plants with a sports drink (yet). As many as 2.1 billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion don't have safely managed water for sanitation. By 2050, 5 billion people could have poor access to fresh water. The world (or some of it) has been watching in helpless horror at Cape Town's ongoing water shortage. "Day Zero" is like an unfunny genuine forewarning to "what's killing the crops".
If we reach the worst-case scenario of 8 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, we are coming up against food deficits and land incapable of growing comestibles; namely a replica Idiocracy future. In fact, any amount of warming will make this happen. Lack of rainfall in that millennium drought of Australia meant that rice and cotton production in the region fell 99 and 84% respectively. But unlike in Idiocracy, it won't be a simple case of lack of water, no siree. Deadly heat waves, pests and disease, rising sea levels and unpredictable storms will make growing crops about as effective as teaching a manatee to quickstep. Climate breakdown is like a dick tempest coming at us from all sides.
Even vegans are fucked - many of the plant foods we grow have slowly been declining in nutritional value, a phenomenon known as "nutrient collapse". Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow, and lately they've been getting way too much of the latter. Rice, barley, wheat and potatoes are all lower in protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin C and higher in carbs than 20 years ago, known as the "junk-food effect". This nutrient deficiency will affect millions of the planet's poorest most severely by 2050. While Judge imagines the fall of "civilization" as a result of dimwits reproducing willy-nilly, it could well be nutrient deficiencies that stunt the global population's brain development - if it's not the increased share of carbon dioxide in the air we breathe.
In the Global North, our diets are slowly degrading in nutritional value as we turn away from plants to processed foods that satiate our imagined need for eNdLeSs pRoTeIn, which we already get too much of. The minerals and vitamins we used to get from our relatively balanced variety of foods is being replaced by this hegemonic idol of nutritionists and Instagrammers, while most of us haven't a clue how much we need, let alone why. Won't be too long before all we crave is "Brawndo... it's got electrolytes."
Other movies and television such as Game of Thrones, Mad Max, Interstellar have in some way or another imagined the climate catastrophe ahead of us. But as David Wallace Wells notes, they have always depicted it as as something that was not our fault, something alien coming at us from the outside. Idiocracy, years ahead of those blockbusters, turns that blamelessness on its head. We are all Frito (unless you happen to be Greta Thunberg). We all let this happen, and are carrying on almost oblivious to the fact that these changes are happening now, rather than in the dim and distant future. Economics takes precedence over growing climate injustice and ecological annihilation - "I can't believe you like money too, we should hang out". Idiocracy has these levels of human ignorance spot on - complete indifference, nay apathy, under what is essentially an ongoing apocalypse. Where intelligence of any form makes you a "tard". You can't help but notice the way the citizens of Idiocracy world treat Joe, vilifying him like many climate truth-sayers have been, and continue to be vilified today.
We should look to the end of the movie to see what Judge prescribes the average Joe who finds himself, confounded, in such a dystopia. After spending the whole movie trying to find a time machine to take him back (aren't we all?), Joe Bowers decides to stay in the land of dunderheads and biodiverse garbage. He gives in. However, he has made a change. Thanks to one man, this world, in spite of its problems, is probably not going to get worse.
We will not be so lucky. If our climate breakdown could be solved by sprinkling toilet water onto a field, we'd be on our knees in a second installing hoses in our water closets. Even if we were able to curb emissions and halt ecological destruction right now, we'd still have to live with decades of the impending effects of the damage we've already wreaked. In a sense, Joe's adventure and his final decision to stay could be read as one straight white man's story of adaptation. But while this lone hero was able to save the citizens of the Idiocracy, we fallible masses must harness his out-of-the-box, obvious, self-preserving initiative.
Thing is, we don't have til 500 years in the future. We have to start yesterday.