Shortly before receiving David Sloan Wilson’s invitation to write an essay for this collection on “Evolution and the Arts,” I finished a draft of my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Climate Movies and American Culture.  As a cultural historian specializing in popular dramas and performances on stage, film, and television, I made the transition to an evolutionary framework for my work in 2015 and published an overview of the political development of rituals, plays, and films from the late Pleistocene Epoch to the end of Trump’s presidency in 2021. Seeking a topic that would allow for a tighter historical focus and more political punch, I was surprised to discover that no one has yet analyzed the many feature films that passed for commentary on our climate emergency during the last twenty years. Hollywood released many popular movies on the topic, beginning with The Day After Tomorrow in 2004 and ending with How to Blow Up a Pipeline in 2022.

Nearly all of these popular films are varieties of melodrama, with a clear distinction between the forces of good and those of evil. But is melodrama the best way to grapple with the moral complexities of our climate emergency? Yes, we can all name several villains who deserve condemnation. But arguably, most of us are also culpable for taking actions that we know are both too little and too late to reverse our slide toward collapse and mounting deaths. I will argue that filmic tragedy offers a better genre than melodrama to gain perspective and purpose for the ethical and political difficulties ahead.    

The last thirty years of evolutionary scholarship – especially the merging of genetic and cultural dynamics in comprehending our species’ history – is particularly relevant to my project. The work of Michael Tomasello on the cognitive foundations of cooperation and morality, of Joseph Henrich on the evolution of prestige and domestication among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and of Harvey Whitehouse on ritual transmission and modes of religiosity have been especially influential in shaping my views on the history of performance. From these and other sources, it’s now clear that ritual performances and storytelling around hunter-gather campfires – probably as early as 800,000 years ago during Homo erectus times – preceded the evolution of our own species and human language by around half a million years. Among other ramifications, these insights help to substantiate Aristotle’s statement in The Poetics that drama – by which he meant the ritual performance of tragedies, satyr plays, and comedies in ancient Greek religious festivals – is the “imitation of an action.” Hollywood climate films derive from a long tradition of imitating action.

It’s important to locate dramatic movies as a part of our prelinguistic evolutionary legacy because they activate emotions that also derive from our hominin history. In his The Evolution of Imagination (2017) and subsequent work, philosopher Stephen Asma develops what he terms a “mythopoetic cognitive science,” which can help us understand why the realities and implications of climate science have proven so difficult for our species to grasp. It's not that we can’t comprehend the science behind our rapidly changing climate.  It’s simply that most of what we call “science” is a part of our “indicative,” not our “imperative” mode of thinking and responding. As Asma explains, we deploy these two distinct modes of minding to comprehend our experiences. When we see a snake in the grass – in one of Asma’s telling examples – our indicative cognition tells us that the animal is a “snake,” while our imperative minding “cuts to the chase” by urgently energizing our body to “RUN” (Asma, Adaptive Imagination, 4)! The two cognitive modes can act together, as in this example, but humans also evolved to separate them into what many psychologists call “hot” and “cold” cognition. Hot cognition is ancient and dominant. It activates the emotional families of FEAR, RAGE, and PANIC/GRIEF, among other groups of emotions that derive from our mammalian past. Predating language and logic, hot cognition helped our ancestors to survive through gut feelings, rapid reflexes, and strong emotions.

One way of guiding and modifying the commands of our primal emotions, however, is storytelling. According to Asma, “the symbols that rule this imperative world of action are stories and images, not the phylogenetically more recent descriptive language of science” (Asma 2021, 4). Stories are especially important, says Asma, because they are based in imitating human actions and all humans experience their own lives as inherently dramatic: “Our everyday world is a story of struggle, failure, overcoming enemies and challenges, forging alliances, nurturing children, hoping, dreaming, hunting, and being hunted. This is as true for my local librarian and mail carrier as it is for the Kalahari Bushmen and Aboriginal Arrente people” (3).

Asma affirms that we come to understand ourselves and our social world primarily through the stories we tell: “Paradoxically, high-quality social knowledge can be better acquired through stories than through actual human interaction. . . .  A well-told story or enacted performance usually reveals the causal network of internal feelings, ideas, and actions” (6). Because these dynamics are often hidden to us even in the interactions of our own families, Asma concludes that imperative plots, unlike indicative reports of factual information, can directly motivate all individuals and groups to take purposeful action. Ever since the era of “silent” movies, Hollywood has emphasized “hot” action over cool dialogue and that mode of storytelling continues to be dominant in all major film genres today.

Despite our interest in surviving, Homo sapiens have been “creating [evolutionary] mismatches for ourselves ever since we started to change our environments in an autocatalytic spiral from hunter-gatherer groups to the mega-societies of today,” notes Wilson in a recent post for ProSocial World ( 11). But Hollywood – unfortunately still a major provider of adult miseducation in America – depicted most climate change catastrophes in films of the last twenty years as melodramatic natural disasters, not the result of any changes we humans decided to make along the path of our cultural evolution. The Day After Tomorrow (2004), for example, generated blockbuster success by depicting a tsunami flooding Manhattan followed by an Ice Age freezing much of the northern hemisphere as a result of a sudden reversal of the Gulf Stream. As critic-ecologist for The Guardian George Monbiot noted, the flick was both “a great movie and lousy science” (Monbiot quoted in Wikipedia, 7).

Nonetheless, Hollywood hits breed repetition and the result was many more films that simply dodged the bullet of the climate crisis by dramatizing salvation from the FEAR of a bad-weather apocalypse through heroic intervention. Similar formulaic movies, such as Absolute Zero, Tornado, Flood, and Storm Cell, hit multiplexes across the States from 2006 to 2008, followed by The Thaw, Beyond the Pole, Arctic Blast, Seattle Superstorm, and Christmas Twister from 2009 through 2012. The parade of disaster flicks decreased during the decade, but ended with two final efforts, Greenland (2020) and Don’t Look Up (2021), which sent Americans rushing for cover from deadly meteor showers before the pandemic shut down most Hollywood production. In addition to ignoring the human causation behind these climate calamities, the films mostly refused to consider future possibilities for mitigation and prevention. Apparently, all the victims could do was wait for the right hero, usually played by a rising Hollywood star, to save them from the FEAR of the next disaster.

Mother Nature gone wild provided the dominant formula for “understanding” climate change, but melodramatic fantasy offered others, usually by stoking a response of righteous RAGE. Easily the most popular of these was the immense success of Avatar. Before its release in 2009, director James Cameron admitted that he wanted viewers of his film to become warriors for the Earth and its native peoples. The movie was set so far in the future, however, that it was difficult for audiences to imagine how they might prevent elite US capitalists and imperialists from killing the tall, blue-skinned hunter-gatherers who lived on a nearby planet in order to steal their natural resources. A few other movies, such as Beatriz at Dinner and Downsizing (both 2017), also attacked the inequities of neoliberal capitalism – the first through dream fantasies of killing rich exploiters and the second by satirizing Americans who preferred to “downsize” themselves and their habits of consumption in order to enjoy a richer lifestyle. Neither films centered on rampaging nature nor capitalist villainy had much to offer citizens vaguely aware that radically altering the status quo might be necessary to sustain life on Earth for their children and grandchildren, not to mention other living species.     

In contrast, First Reformed (2017), written and directed by Paul Schrader and structured as a psychological thriller, explored the tragic potential of its hero’s response to climate chaos. The title refers to an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, where pastor Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, struggles with spiritual, romantic, and political problems. After he agrees to meet with Michael, a parishioner’s troubled husband and a radical climate activist, Ernst arrives to find that the man has killed himself with a shotgun. Michael’s suicide throws Toller into a psychological tailspin centered on PANIC, GRIEF, and GUILT, the typical emotions evoked by personal and dramatic tragedy.

Among the film’s fans is Jamelle Bouie, a progressive editorial writer for The New York Times. When the Times invited him and others to describe “the piece of [American] culture that best captures the country’s problems and promise,” Bouie chose First Reformed. As he explained, “There’s not much in American culture that captures the dread and anxiety felt by young people and fueled by the looming climate crisis.” Schrader’s film, though, “reflects this reality.” (NYT, 25 June 2023). For validation, Bouie quotes from one of Ernst’s early lines in the movie when he’s talking with Mary, the suicide’s widow: “Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. . . . I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself” (Ibid).

Toller himself experiences the difficulty of acting on these “two ideas” and they almost tear him apart. His “despair” is the recognition of his inherent sinfulness, a legacy of Calvinist predestination that nearly dooms him to revenge or suicide in recognition of his own inaction and indirect responsibility for climate calamities. Toller’s “hope” eventually endorses a version of Catholic liberation theology that celebrates the power of religion to inspire humans to take a stand against immoral power. True to its structure as a thriller, First Reformed plumbs the potentially tragic depths of this conflict and finally comes to a last-minute resolution that narrowly averts tragedy to arrive at a peaceful and productive conclusion. The growing love of Ernst and Mary, the film suggests, will lead both of them to honor Michael’s work by taking action in the future to mitigate climate disasters and their accompanying social and economic inequities.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the action of First Reformed accords with a conception of tragedy first proposed in the nineteenth century by G.W.F. Hegel, the German romantic philosopher. Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible also work within this mode of tragic experience. May Schrader’s embrace of this structure and vision be the beginning of wisdom for Hollywood writers and producers when they turn again – as they must – to reckon with the cultural fallout from our climate chaos.   


Asma, Stephen. 2021. Adaptive Imagination: Toward a Mythopoetic Cognitive Science. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 5:2 (Fall): 1-33.

________. 2017. The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  

Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McConachie, Bruce. 2015. Evolution, Cognition, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

________. 2021. Drama, Politics, and Evolution: Cliodynamics in Play. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Monbiot, George. Accessed 3/4/2022.

Tomasello, Michael. 2016. A Natural History of Human Morality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  

Whitehouse, Harvey.2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission, Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Wilson, David Sloan. Accessed 2/10/2024.