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SYFY WIRE climate change

How We'll Avoid the Dystopian Eco-Nightmare of Mad Max

You can't run out of fossil fuels if you stop using them.

By Cassidy Ward

George Miller’s dystopian vision of the near future, as portrayed in Mad Max (streaming now on Peacock) and its growing collection of sequels, pairs perfectly with popcorn, but it’s not exactly a window into our actual future. When Mad Max hit theaters in 1979, humanity had just begun to reckon with our influence on the environment.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had been published in 1962, bringing the problem of pesticides to the masses and launching the modern environmental movement. In 1970, the first Earth Day was observed at universities around the United States. By 1979, we had become aware that our activities were messing up the rest of the world. Scientists even knew that atmospheric carbon was changing the climate, but the notion of global warming wouldn’t become well known enough to enter the popular consciousness for another decade.

That’s the environment in which George Miller dreamed up Max Rockatansky and his world wrecked by a combination of radiation and climate collapse. It’s a world without water, a world ruled by the person with the biggest weapon and the fastest car, an apocalyptic landscape which feels very close to home. Unlike other end times tales featuring zombies or aliens, the only thing Mad Max requires is our failure to address the environmental and energy problems we’ve created. A quick look at the headlines might give the impression that humanity is on a runaway train toward ecological disaster, but the data reveals that we’re hitting the brakes.

For More on the Environment:
What Would Happen if We Cut Down All Trees? The Science Behind The Lorax
Do You Speak Too Loudly? Your Environment Might Be to Blame
These Plastic-Munching Superworms are Living Recycling Plants

The World of Mad Max Ran Out of Fuel, in the Real World We’re Transitioning Away from It

While things haven’t changed quite as quickly as we might have hoped, we have been making progress toward a world built on renewable energy. Over the last several years, the proportion of humanity’s energy mix coming from renewable sources has increased dramatically, and they’re increasing at a faster rate than fossil fuels.

The progress can be hard to see day over day or even year over year, but when we compare today’s energy mix with that of 50 years ago, the shift becomes apparent. In 1962, fossil fuels accounted for more than 93% of total energy production in the United States. Only two-thirds of a percent came from nuclear power and about 6% from hydroelectric, with a trace amount of other renewables. The remainder came largely from coal and oil. Today, nuclear and renewable sources provide roughly a fifth of all energy in the United States and approximately 30% globally.

Colorful Barrels

In 2022, petroleum, coal, and natural gas accounted for 79% of energy production in the U.S. with 8% from nuclear and 13% from other renewable sources including biofuels, wind, hydroelectric, solar, and geothermal. It’s also worth noting that the breakdown varies from sector to sector. The transportation sector, for instance, gets 90% of its energy from petroleum. That’s higher than other sectors, but transportation is being impacted by the recent influx of electric vehicles (EVs) and alternative fuels. It’s a significant contributor to global fossil fuel consumption with a ready solution that’s already in progress.

The most recent preliminary data for 2023 shows an even more favorable energy mix. The total energy production from fossil fuels was just 60% with nuclear accounting for 18.6% and renewable sources accounting for 21.4%. It hasn’t been as rapid or as smooth a transition as we would have hoped, but the transition is happening, and happening faster all the time.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook predicts a cautiously optimistic scene in the next handful of years. They project 10 times as many EVs on the road by 2030 and a global energy mix composed 50% of renewable sources. They also anticipate that investments in renewable energy will be three times as high as investments into new coal and gas power plants.

To be clear, we will not avoid the negative repercussions of human-caused climate change entirely, they are already happening. But we can mitigate their severity by reducing and eliminating carbon emissions as soon as possible. “The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable. It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ – and the sooner the better for all of us,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, in a statement. If things continue apace, Mad Max will remain an entertaining cautionary tale, we just need to keep on heeding the warning.

Catch Mad Max streaming now on Peacock.