The Ostrich-Like Approach to Energy of NBC’s Apocalypse Drama ‘Revolution’

There’s something deeply craven about the energy politics of at least the ads for Revolution, the splashy J.J. Abrams apocalypse show that NBC is adding to its schedule this fall. I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of a world where “all forms of energy mysteriously cease to exist,” even as I tend to think hitting the reset button on civilization is interesting. But there’s something particularly cowardly about the approach the show appears to be taking to that amorphous premise: this is a show about energy politics that doesn’t seem to have the courage to even mention that electricity is generated by other things, among them coal, natural gas, and oil.

Seriously, this is a show that says things like “We used electricity for everything. Even to grown food and pump water. But after the blackout, nothing worked. Not even car engines or jet turbines. Hell, even batteries. All of it. Gone forever.” Except that absent some mysterious magical thing or scientific nonsense Abrams and Eric Kripke, his co-creator dream up for introduction at some point, electricity doesn’t have an on-off switch: it’s generated by many different methods. Messing with the grid that distributes electricity is not the same thing as removing our capacity to ever generate and distribute more of is. We don’t use electricity to make airplanes stay up, we use jet fuel—20.2 billion gallons of it annually as of 2009. And while hybrid electric cars are on the market, those too rely on internal combustion engines, which in turn are powered by fossil fuels.

I’m fully aware, of course, that most television is based on junk science. But the reason this is particularly disappointing is that Kripke and Abrams are setting up a scenario here that undermines precisely what science fiction has the potential to do: reckon with what we’ve done to ourselves and posit solutions, be they scientific or societal. A magic shutdown scenario, rather than a situation where we’ve run out of fossil fuels, doesn’t require us to grapple with what we’ve done to ourselves—there are no contractions of services, no resource hoarding, no slow adaptation and competition between classes or nations. The blame can and probably will be placed on some sort of mysterious cabal rather than our collective inability to radically change our energy use. And the solution will be in the form of hidden knowledge possessed by an equally small and brilliant cabal, rather than major, painful, realignments in the way we live our lives and innovation that changes it. Setting up its central conceit this way, Revolution is a fantasy of an energy crisis where no one is to blame, in the same way that Tony Stark’s building-powering arc reactor (a great discussion of the relevant zoning issues is available here) is a fantasy that an alternative to fossil fuels is just around the corner.

But at least The Avengers argues that green energy innovation is sexy (as will, apparently, Marion Cotillard in The Dark Knight). That’s much more attractive than a fantasy in which an energy crisis happens to us as innocent victims, rather than an acknowledgement that we happened to the world’s energy reserves.