“That Which Once Was” (Takesue 2011) is a dystopian picture of the future—the year seems to be 2032—in which climate change has dramatically increased the number of refugees in the world. A newspaper headline indicates that the entire city of Jakarta is now under water. A young boy, who seems to have been traumatized by the tsunami that presumably claimed his home and his family, befriends a man who makes wonderful ice sculptures. The boy learns that the man is himself a refugee, spotting the tattoo that seems to mark refugees. A man on the radio is heard to complain about his tax dollars being spent on caring for refugees when the people of his home country (from his accent, as well as his attitude, one assumes he is an American) are not being properly taken care of.
What is most powerful about this short film to me is a pair of things. First, it infuriates me that the people, conservative politicians prominently among them, who deny climate change—or acknowledge it, but refuse to do anything about it—are the same people who complain incessantly about refugees and immigration. This position is logically incoherent. Climate change will eventually make refugees of us all, if it is not stopped. The second thing about the film that resonates with me is the anger that the boy displays at the end of the film, when he smashes a piece of ice that it presumably took a good bit of time to make. The viewer expects the older man to be upset; but one should remember the earlier scene when the boy destroyed a completed sculpture. On that occasion, while the older man seems to have complained to someone, he did not get angry. We learn that he does not regard the beautiful sculptures that he works so hard to make as having any special significance. They produce only memories, such as the memories that are all that is left of his family and his home. So far from being angry with the boy, the man joins him in angrily smashing the blocks of ice on the ground. To me this suggests that refugees in general have developed, in this futuristic situation, a kind of racial anger that oppressed people are likely to feel. The difference, of course, is that it is no longer only specific races who are oppressed, and consequently feel this anger. It is refugees in general, of whom there may by 2032 be billions.

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I have remarked that it is incoherent to deny the reality of climate change, or to refuse to do anything about it, and then to proceed to lament the number of refugees in the world. Climate change produces refugees. It does this is a couple of different ways. First, as the Earth’s overall temperature rises due to the emission of greenhouse gases, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. As this occurs, what was once land becomes more sea. Second, more water in the seas; warmer seas; and warmer air that retains more moisture—all combine to produce extreme weather, such as the tsunami mentioned in the film. Therefore, climate change produces refugees as sea levels rise, and land is turned into more sea; and as a result of extreme weather that destroys homes and families.

In an interesting recent book, Naomi Klein argues that there is no solution to the problem of getting people to react constructively to the problem of climate change so long as our economy continues to be capitalist in nature (Klein 2015). This is an intriguing thought, and Klein argues for it persuasively. However, we must hope that she is wrong, because by the time people think to question capitalism it will almost certainly be too late.

  • Klein, Naomi. 2015. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Takesue, Kimi. 2011. “That Which Once Was,” Future States. Online. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN1ixEDMG7A; Internet. Accessed 20 September 2017.