Stream Queen: “The Crown” is about Climate Change, Actually

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” is not a line from The Crown, and if you’ve watched The Crown at all, you’ve probably got a good idea why; The Crown (which follows Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage up through at least her oldest son’s first round of marital scandal) stresses the inviolable need for its heroine to do nothing and be neutral in all situations. While QE2 does occasionally take a stand as an individual within her role as nominal head of state as a way to keep the emotional tensions of the show alive, the notion that she’d say anything so incendiary is laughable. No, the recent rhetorical hard-line quoted above about humanity’s suicidal war on nature, as magnificent a sound-bite as it makes, isn’t scripted for fiction at all. At the beginning of December, UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke to the BBC at a special event about the environment. 

“Nature always strikes back, and is doing so with gathering force and fury,” Guterres said, and it made a brief flurry in a news cycle already trying desperately to reorient itself around the global pandemic in the face of the aftermath of the U.S. election and the increasing tension around Brexit trade talks, but by the next day, Guterres’ dire warning had faded from the conversation as quickly and as completely as the episodes of The Crown which hint at environmental concerns fade from the main narrative of the show. However, just like the issues of hazardous pollution, mass casualty incidents, and Margaret Thatcher didn’t fade from the lasting impact they made on the world just because the next episode of The Crown was more interested in spinning decades-old tabloid scandals into cohesive dramatic arcs, nature isn’t going to stop biting back just because António Guterres didn’t manage to keep ahold of the next news cycle.

That’s right, press and propaganda alike may have colluded to give the impression even to careful readers of the text that The Crown is about composing an immediate and human narrative around some of the more enigmatic and remote, speculated-about people in the English speaking world, or about a glorification of the top-down hierarchical class system of the country which through colonization spawned the rest of the English speaking world, or about keeping every actor in Britain who has been in a period drama in the last fifty years employed, but The Crown is actually about climate change. Whether you read our central focal point QE2 as a heroine or as a rare, royalist variant of the brooding anti-hero trope, it’s undeniable that her role as a figurehead is, like the paint-chipped mermaid at the prow, to go down with the ship, and as Guterres and the vast and increasingly frantic global scientific consensus has warned us, this ship is definitely going down.

Partially, The Crown is about climate change because this week I’m reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, a dire and hopeful rundown of the climate crisis and the fundamental cultural shifts which addressing it in any kind of effective way will require, and so, for me, almost everything is about climate change this week. But The Crown also deliberately takes on the deleterious effects of a purely profit-driven energy system limping along in the distant wake of the industrial revolution in such a way that it cannot be said to be coincidental, and in so doing it provides a neat illustration of why decades on decades of environmental warnings have passed us by without an attempt to turn the boat around. 

In season one, newly re-Prime Ministered Winston Churchill is faced with a brief climate crisis — a pollution-born fog which a previous incarnation of the government had been aware was possible, but hadn’t felt immediately required to address, and which Churchill, too, feels is less important to than more urgent matters, like his ego trip over his self-appointed task to train up the new sovereign to interface with government in a way which befits her station. The fog, which, on screen, looks an awful lot like that day this year when we all woke up to find the western coast of the United States had been dyed a dull orange with wildfire smoke, continues to seem unimportant to Winston, who has a bee in his bonnet about Prince Philip’s new hobby as an amateur pilot, until his young secretary is hit by a bus in the smog, and he’s moved by her personal plight to pledge some extra money towards understaffed and underfunded hospitals.

This pattern, where a real-life disaster is spun out into a fictionalized opportunity for momentary character growth, plays out again several times, including two seasons later when fossil fuels make their way into the foreground of the action again with the depiction of the Aberfan mining disaster. The Aberfan disaster was a landslide which killed half of the children in the village, and was caused by a combination of an extreme amount of rain and a large amount of unthoughtfully-disposed-of mining waste. In this episode of The Crown, the tension centers around the queen’s unwillingness to visit the site of the disaster to attempt to comfort the grieving miners. It is eventually revealed that this is because her majesty has trouble displaying the correct emotional response in her performance of grief, and she doesn’t want to let her people down by responding coldly to something so awful. As far as it goes, this is one of the more relatable problems QE2 faces over the course of the series so far. 

Both the Aberfan disaster and the week-long pollution fog are events which technically were caused — in the sense that it is the last straw which breaks the proverbial camel’s back despite the fact that it is the build-up of the previous straws (or industrial waste) which brought the poor camel to the brink — by the weather. On the other hand, in a larger sense, both of these events were caused by the fact that fixing them before the crisis point would have cost more than not fixing them. Of course, the reason these events are memorable enough to have made their way into the timeline of the most lavish original production of Netflix’s relatively brief history is that they ended up exacting their own cost in lives. 

This price is what makes these events a tragedy, but it’s also an inherent effect of the brand of industrial capitalism which developed as a direct offshoot of the colonial period which The Crown sentimentally and euphemistically depicts Great Britain ungracefully extricating itself from. Industrial capitalism, through which industries thrive by continuing to expand until they either monopolize the market or implode, is designed around the principle of extracting the maximum amount of labor from workers with the least possible compensation — in essence, passing the cost of production along onto the bodies of those not compensated for their labor. More than that, once an industry has expanded to the point, as with coal mining, where the infrastructure of society is so centered around its product that it seems highly unlikely that they’ll lose business no matter what they do, it has no incentive aside from individual scruples and norms (which the Trump years should have given us all a crash-course in recognizing as fragile and easily lost if not carefully guarded) for maintaining safe and fair working conditions.

Both of these events, then, seem to argue that oversight might have provided the guardrail between the whims of bad weather and the disasters which ended up coming to pass. However, the notion of taking action to prevent these disasters from repeating themselves doesn’t even make its way into the action in The Crown. Instead, the queen and her family are relegated to the purely reactive role — they only enter the picture when it’s time to eulogize, or to bear witness to whatever the Prime Minister says — and beyond that, they are told (and they go on to tell one another), the reaction they have should generally be silence.

This passivity can be frustrating for viewers, but it reflects a larger truth about Great Britain’s and America’s reactions to the climate crisis (and The Crown has a lot of debatable things to say about that “special relationship,” too, but that’s a whole different essay). Pollution crises and the Aberfan disaster are, in the world of The Crown, events which only fall into the purview of the protagonists at the crisis point — at the point, in other words, when those disasters end up on the news. Industrial capitalism has for generations on generations allowed these two nations as individual bodies (although not in the bodies of each individual citizen) to thrive, and so the negative effects which come with it are, to both governments, crises to be managed in the moment, but not to be avoided; instead, they’re events which must be taken as they come. Within these systems, industrial capitalism is the entity which is treated as the true force of nature, leaving the force of the actuality of nature aside to look after itself, most of the time.

In a way, there’s something almost touchingly innocent about a point of view like this, which sees vast, climactic and climatic events as the settings for personal tragedies because these are acts of god, and can only be dealt with, rather than prevented. No one person — this point of view argues — no one administration, no one generation should have the arrogance to presume that the global landscape is something small enough that it can be impacted, improved, or ruined. Instead — and Naomi Klein also points out the pervasiveness of this point of view in early environmentalist thought — this point of view sees the earth as something which must be mastered, because it is massive and uncontrollable. This point of view has been proved wrong again and again, though, as over-fishing, over-mining, farming unsustainably, and a thousand other ways we’ve tried to extract from the earth more than it has to offer has proved. Whenever humanity projects infinity onto a physical reality, whether it tends to get proved wrong. 

This wrongness is both why I don’t think we, as a species, can be trusted with space yet, and also why it’s never a surprise when the characters in The Crown careen towards emotional disaster. The doctrine of the divine right of kings had a lot more victims than just the families royal, but there’s something undeniably hubristic about the notion that any one person should be the one true representative of the divine on earth. Whatever piece of the larger societal psyche we’re seeing ourselves in as we watch this particular reflection of Queen Elizabeth II cry one single, repressed tear at the end of an episode for our own repressed catharsis, we’re probably wrong, too. Under-reaction in service of enabling an industrial system which has put humanity through a meat grinder in both the short and the long term, over and over again, has brought us to the point where UN Secretary General António Guterres said, just a month ago, that, “Our planet is broken,” and you know what? He’s probably right.

Honorable mentions:

Videodrome: Was casting Debbie Harry as the ultimate, brainwashing, destructive-redemptive force meant to be a convoluted visual pun for “video killed the radio star”? Well played, sir.

Poldark (2015): Aiden Turner looks a bit more “kicked puppy” than “glorious patriarch” so fans of the 1975 adaptation may be (or may have already been, given how late to the party I am) disappointed. Discussions of mining as a doomed venture when undertaken with only an individual profit-motive as a goal, rather than the intention of stimulating a healthy local economy makes an interesting contrast with The Crown.

The New World: Who knew you could film two hours of a three-hour movie entirely during the golden hour? Lots of filmy beauty/brutality motifs tied together by the theme of men are disappointing.

Gilmore Girls: Specifically the episode “A deep-fried Korean Thanksgiving,” which was directed by Kenny Ortega — who knew?

The Right Stuff: I wanna see Chuck Yeager fistfight Matt Smith’s Prince Philip from The Crown, who’s with me? It’s the crossover event we all deserve.

Sidney Dritz is currently reevaluating what to do with the rest of her life, which makes the angle to take in bios tricky. She finished her three-college tour of America at the University of Southern Maine, and her poetry has appeared in Glass Poetry Press’s #PoetsResist series, in Claw & Blossom, and in Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters.  

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