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Is carbon the new blackface?

Netflix’s Selling Sunset: no genre loves burning fossil fuel more than reality TV

All art dates eventually.

We know that – and then the stuff that’s any good does come back into fashion (eventually). Check out drama’s from the 1930’s, and notice your wince as the protagonists light up, delivering lines between flamboyant puffing and ashing – and yes, I know they still smoke occasionally in modern movies but isn’t that usually to make some kind of statement? Recently, with the Apple TV series coming out, I re-read Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy and had a pious chuckle over the line … “all the scientists and their wives were relocated to Terminus

And so on – you know what I mean. Until we get all the way down to blackface, surely the cringiest and stinkiest outdated movie phenom of them all.

Of course, it’s not that Asimov meant to be misogynistic, or Al Jolson racist (in fact he was beloved by black audiences of the era and actively campaigned against racism). But times and values change, and so does the way we look at things, and with that thought I took to pondering the present moment. What, I asked myself, are we unconscious about in today’s movies and TV? What is going to seem impossibly dated in a few decades time that our grandkids are going to gag over it – what are we not seeing?

And then I had a realisation: what if that thing was carbon? (Or rather, the egregious burning of it).

Now a confession: I’m almost certain this thought popped into my head because I recently purchased a Tesla. Sorry, if that sounds smug, but I’ve lusted after one for years. Ever since I test drove an S Class when they first came on the market in Australia, and I have to admit my desire was based more on the speed, and the design, and the excitement surrounding the new technology than climate altruism. But now that I’ve been in it for a few months I’ve noticed something bizarre: just driving an electric car has re-wired my brain. The silence, the simplicity, the bleeding obviousness of it all is staggering – it’s like waking up from a dream.

For example, I borrowed my wife Vani’s petrol car last week. Noticed for the first time in my life the way the motor went galloomphaloomph when I turned it off. Everything running down; the gears and cogs whirling and churning, pistons pumping and fans spinning. Not only are these machines hugely complex and expensive to maintain, but in order to keep them running we must pump all this stuff out of the earth (at enormous expense and with incalculable damage to the land and sea), move it thousands of kilometres to refineries where even more mess is made refining it into fuel, then move it again to depositories dotted all over the country just so we can burn it to move in a forward direction. At the traffic lights these lumbering beasts are all around me, chewing up money, devouring fuel – how come I never noticed before?       

Crazy. Especially when you can just plug in your electric car and off you go – 16 moving parts, hardly anything to break down or service, just drive the bloody thing.

And please let me hasten to add, I’ve never been a climate evangelist. I am guilty of burning carbon all my life with unthinking profligacy – but the Tesla has blown my mind in ways I never expected. And yes, I know there are problems with electric cars too. We have to make the power which often comes from fossil fuel, and the batteries use copious amounts of exotic metals. But at least with an electric car we only need to mine the material once and presto, we have a Tesla. With petrol cars we have to keep extracting petroleum every day, forever!


It was after having all these thoughts that I started noticing stuff on TV. Many shows of course, depend on the lascivious burning of carbon – think James Bond – but surely, no genre more than reality TV?

The private jets, the super yachts and mansions, Hummers full of partying bachelor or bachelorettes, helicopter rides and bubbling spa baths (who ever drinks champagne in a spa bath by the way? Ask yourself, when was the last time you had, a) a spa bath and, b) a glass of champagne while taking it?), these shows are a non-stop orgy of carbon porn. In the future I can see our grandkids playing drinking games, doing shots every time a bit of carbon-kitsch appears on the screen – which may or may not distract them from the water lapping at their feet.

So why all this ecstatic celebration of incineration?

I have a theory. It’s a cliché to say that reality TV is anything but – but in one aspect it surely is authentic: and that is the way that it reflects our own fantasies and desires back to us. My wife, an ardent feminist, is hypnotically drawn to watching The Batchelor. Like the Manchurian Candidate, she knows what she’s doing is wrong but just can’t stop herself. I found myself clicking up an episode of Netflix’s Selling Sunset. The producers hit the reality TV jackpot here: LA mansions, glamorous women being nasty to each other – I ended up watching a whole episode before running off to iron my hands.

But we can’t blame the producers, can we. They are only dishing out what we want to see – romance, adventure, beautiful people, and super-luxe lives – and there wouldn’t even be anything wrong with it really, except that baked into its conception in a way we’re unconscious about, is the inevitable burning of copious quantities of carbon to make it all possible.

I recently heard The Rolling Stones have decided not to play Brown Sugar live during their upcoming world tour. This was applauded by some and bemoaned by others, but actually I think it’s probably just smart. You simply can’t play that song anymore.

I’m predicting (hoping, really) that there will soon be a raising of mass consciousness about global warming. We all know about it of course, but now we need to know about it – in our gut – and start acting to reverse it with breathless urgency. And once we do that, it will naturally be reflected in our TV as well. Just as you can’t have a teen drama without a gay character anymore, the reality TV of today will look as dated to future viewers as the all-white cast of Survivor from the 1990’s does to us. The new reality stars will suddenly be driving electric cars, living in, and promoting everything eco-friendly.

Green will be the new black, and carbon the new blackface.

  • Andrew M
    Posted at 10:28h, 02 August Reply

    Great read, enjoyed the metaphor of carbon in today’s world. The push for green is the way of the future.

  • Hyrum
    Posted at 02:14h, 10 September Reply

    Interesting points. The media spouts a lot of smoke about going green, but their products are quite lacking in examples. Your book looks good, BTW!

  • Stephen K Stanford
    Posted at 10:47h, 10 September Reply

    Thanks, glad to hear it. I’m very happy with the cover!

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