IMDB Synopsis: In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and  Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and  outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find  dry land. 

Director: Kevin Reynolds 

Writers: Peter Rader, David Twohy 

Stars: Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Dennis Hopper  

I am not ashamed that I love the movie Waterworld. I am also ashamed  that I love Waterworld. 

Sustainability-wise, it is a diamond mine. Another in the post-apocalyptic-world-after-man-has-destroyed-the-earth genre, Waterworld does  not disappoint. It starts with our typical prologue for the genre – “The  future. The polar icecaps have melted covering the earth with water.  Those who survived have adapted to a new world.” Blahdy blahdy blah dy…. Soon, I imagine, we won’t need this trick. 

Kevin Costner, who plays the Mariner – a mutant outsider with a heart  of gold – has developed gills and webbed feet. This is our mostly consistent clue to how far into the future we have actually traveled – long enough for some human evolution. But also long enough for languages  to merge (some speak PortuGreek), long enough for people to forget Climate Change and how it happened but not so long that they can’t cling  to myths of a place called Dryland. It doesn’t quite make sense.  

The earth, Mariner reminds them, wasn’t “created in a deluge, but was  covered by one.” The more historic Bible myth seems to have survived  and overtaken science in Waterworld. This hit home for sustainability in  the political theater of today (I’m looking at you so-called Senator James  Inhofe). The search for Dryland is, once again, our Return to Eden story.  

Producer Costner’s lefty-leaning and relationship with oil-based disasters are well-known. His company Ocean Therapy (a seller of centrifuge-based oil-water separator technology he acquired from the US  government for $24M – roughly what Waterworld made its opening  weekend) sold a machine that promised to clean up BP’s Deep Horizon  disaster. It was a perfect publicity stunt for Waterworld five years too  late.19 

Waterworld’s big reveal revolves around another real-life oil spill – the  Exxon Valdez (1989) – the oil tanker that ran aground spilling 10.8 mil lion gallons of the “black stuff” along the coast of Alaska, inciting little  eco-punks like me to urge my Mom to cut up her Exxon gas cards. She  did, I was 18. 

Deacon (Dennis Hopper) a high priest of the “black stuff” often refers to  “the Deez” throughout the first half of the movie as a kind of henchman  headquarters. It is not until the final moments of the film that we are  let in on the all too obvious gag as the tanker sinks and we see the name  of the ship across the stern. It is true that Hopper does a great job of  channeling Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now “we’ll have this atoll in  no time.” 

In real life, the one-two punch of the Valdez and Deep Water Horizon  were not enough to knock out big oil for many reasons. Waterworld  explores that reason – corruption. Director Kevin Reynolds leans hard  on this perception. Deacon’s henchmen are like a combination of filthy  coal miners (not the hot models from GE’s Ecomagination “Clean Coal”  campaign of 2005) and asshole frat boys on jet skis. An interesting  connection here is that GE spent $90M on the Ecomagination campaign  and also, at one time, owned part of NBC Universal (then just Universal)  – one of the production companies behind the movie. Alex Jones could  create an amazing conspiracy theory with just these threads alone. I  cannot. 

The henchmen often refer to each other as “cousins” which plays into  the concept of a dwindling population and the very real possibility of  in-breeding, again the specter of mutations is toyed with. Lineage is  playing a role here as the film’s true hero is revealed to be a little girl named Enola (Tina Majorino). Enola is Native American for “Solitary.”  Waterworld is leaning pretty heavy on the child-as-hope trope that modern sustainability loves to toy with. 

A tattoo on Enola’s back is claimed to be a map to Dryland (Eden). Enola  draws trees that have not been seen in theoretically thousands of years  all over the Mariner’s awesome trimaran. Paper has an extremely high  value as a relic from the past on which to capture stories – through there  is little indication that the written language is still available. These  moments of art-memory-history are like a kind of imagined sustain ability Report pointing backwards as a way to promise a better future.  That’s what they are today. “ Look at this [watch]. It’s worthless – ten  dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a  thousand years, it becomes priceless.” said Belloq in Raiders of the Lost  Ark. Same for paper and soil in Waterworld, it holds amazing powers of  currency. Marshal McLuhan said “what is current creates currency,” but  post apocalypse, relics of survival supporting a myth have more value.  I think of Sustainability Reports as a fossil record, layers upon layers  revealing a march to end of days or salvation.20 

In Waterworld, Deacon assumes the role of priest. He feeds his “cousins”  (SPAM – still around thousands of years later), prosthelytizes about Dry land, explains it all through Visions accessible only to him (of course he  has recently lost one eye, so….) And he assumes the position of a kind  of Priest of Big Oil as he says, “Growth is Progress, Growth is Progress.”  This is not only the ideology of Big Oil, it is also the ideology of the  cancer cell according to Ed Abbey. Of course when it is time to move the  Valdez to a new location, out come the slave oars. 

Deacon stands in front of a portrait of Captain Joseph Hazelwood who  serves as a kind of patron saint of Oil. Later, he pours one out for his  dead homie (where did he get Jack Daniels?) on the deck of the Valdez  (Hazelwood was cleared of the charge of being intoxicated when the  Valdez crashed, fined $50,000 and assigned 1,000 of community service.  The misdemeanor of “negligent discharge of oil” is perhaps one of the  greatest misrepresentations of a crime ever). Dark stuff in this Mad Max  on the water movie where the last remnants of Big Oil are still corrupt ing and applying toward pressure on the planet. Reminiscing, Deacon  says “we should have kept the oil, we should have kept the oil.” No, wait.  That was Trump at the Memorial Wall of Agency Heroes at Langley. 

If there is a bright-side inside of Waterworld it is not that they find  Dryland. It is that people have finally started to recycle more. Or, rather people are recycled more. At funeral while dumping a body into brine, a  priest recites this eulogy: 

“Bones to berries. Veins to vines. His tendons to trees. His blood to brine.” 

This is Will McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle (ashes to ashes). This is the  Circular Economy. But, of course, for them it is far too late. When it’s  called “survival,” it’s too late. 

Near the end of the movie the Mariner stands on the deck of the Valdez  holding a lit flair over an open hole leading to the belly of the tanker and  the last 4 feet of oil anywhere. An old man who tends the oil, sits in a  rowboat down below. Again, he reminds me of a coal miner or senator,  trapped in a lie about the promise of fossil fuels. Hang in there, old man.  The Mariner drops the flair, and as the old man watches it drop into the  black stuff and the explosion begins he says, “Oh, thank God.”  

The end of oil, and his sweet release. 

Though 10 years before the Horizon disaster, the movie’s tagline holds  new meaning. “Beyond the horizon lies the secret to a new beginning.” Maybe. 

19 Fun fact: Costner was sued by Stephen Baldwin – the Christian Evangelist Baldwin  Brother – for fraud over this business. Despite Baldwin’s close connection to a higher  power, he received no money from the lawsuit. 

20 I’m beginning to think more about the intersection of religion and sustainability. They  both tend to rely on strikingly similar archetypes, mythos and symbolism. This could  also just be pop culture messing with the signals, but it is something that I want to  continue to explore. If you have any ideas, email me [email protected]