Ending the beginning?: ‘The end we start from’ brings the climate fightback alive

This review first appeared on Resilience here.

The scene begins with a heavily pregnant woman (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve) readying herself for a bath. But the scene is filmed from a very different angle: from within the tub. As it fills up, the viewer’s eye gets flooded out by the rising waters. This unsettling experience foreshadows what is very shortly to come: as her waters break, floodwaters burst into her house, signalling the chaos of an unprecedented climate disaster.

The end we start from takes places in a near-future in which London is submerged by a vast deluge, closely following a long drought. This beautifully-observed, stunningly-acted poetic drama is shaped around a realistic appraisal of the kind of future that may face us all — unless we change course.

And this is why I think this movie matters.

For to date, incredibly, no quality, mass-market film has focussed in a believable way on our climate predicament — and the kinds of impacts we can reasonably expect. We are awash in disaster-movies, post-apocalyptic scenarios of every stripe; but until now no-one has succeeded in making a film directly enabling humans imaginatively to inhabit our likely climate-impacted future.

This is not just another dystopia-flick. I’m not just conjecturing: I’ve seen the Production Notes. These stress an intention to be firmly realistic, but not dystopian. Rather, this often-poignant, sometimes-funny film portrays what I’ve come to call a ‘thrutopia’. It shows us how we might move through the horrors that may be coming, in a manner we can be proud of. That preserve — and even grow — our humanity.

How so?

Comer’s character credibly succeeds in manifesting a sense of positive possibility for her baby, Zeb, and those around the two of them, even amid partial societal breakdown. The film doesn’t shy away from the less savoury possibilities of our species under the pressure of mass homelessness and food shortages. But the Mum through whose eyes we see all this never loses her faith that it’s possible for people to pull together under such pressures, rather than being torn apart.

This faith is expressed most powerfully in her refusal to be drawn into a seemingly idyllic alternative life in a commune on a Scottish island, among a group who have decided quite explicitly to Leave The World Behind (in the title of another fine recent film, focussing on the political crisis of our times). Instead, she takes herself and her baby back into a devastated London to clean up and re-establish home there.

Because true community doesn’t mean withdrawal. It means reconnection. As Comer’s character insists, at the Scottish idyll: “This isn’t me…this collective f****g rejection of the world and everyone in it. I have to tell my son that I tried, that I didn’t just hide from it and pretend that nothing happened.”

Despite everything then, this mother turns back to the world. To what end? To help co-create a future for her child, along with her neighbours.

In my book Parents for a future: How loving our children can prevent climate collapse, I suggest that the true meaning of a parent’s love for their offspring has to encompass the whole human future on this blue jewel in space. Fully loving your own kids requires you to look after the world without which they and theirs may not be.

What we are — as mammals, as human beings — is love. The emotions that wash as surely as the floods through The End We Start From are all, in the end, love. We fear for the future of those we love; as we grieve for what/who we loved that has been torn from us. Fear and grief are forms of love.

As I watched this movie, I felt my own vulnerability; for I dwell in a part of England prone to flooding. This sense of vulnerability is good. It’s a reminder of what matters, and a prompt to seek to build transformative resilience against the coming climate disasters.

The vulnerability I feel hardly compares to the apogee of human vulnerability: a baby. And yet the wonderful thing about baby Zeb is how effortlessly he copes with most of what’s thrown at him and his mother. Because, of course, he has known nothing else. There is a lesson in such natural stoicism, shown by the most vulnerable of all.

After the end of this movie, the following words, which you’ll have seen many times before, appear on-screen: “The story, characters and events depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to places, buildings, actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.” Yes — and no. Of course this is fiction — and yet, not only does it offer a possible future, but that future is here already for many suffering from climate breakdown. The fate experienced by mother and child here has often been experienced in real life by people subject to severe climate dislocation – though mainly in poorer parts of the world than the Anglosphere.

First it came for the low-lying island states, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t live there. Then it came for the poor countries of the world, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t live there either. Then it came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me… Will we let our world unfold in that way? Or will we learn a lesson from the family evoked and suffused with tremendous compassion in this film? Will we hear and speak the truth of our world’s terrible vulnerability now, and move to prevent what will otherwise wash much too much away?

It is not until the film’s ending that its title actually appears on the screen at all. As Zeb takes his very first steps, the words ‘The end we start from’ finally flash up. Thus the opening credits become complete only as the film reaches its conclusion, neatly implying that new beginnings are sometimes possible only when something major has been allowed to end.

In the film, both for its protagonists and hopefully its audience, what ends is: the complacent assumption that climate mega-disasters only happen to ‘someone else’, in far away countries of which we know little. In early 2024, we are still just in the early stages of what will likely prove to be the most extreme ‘El Nino’ climate-event ever – so far. Prepare this year to see temperature-records smashed even more extremely than they were in 2023, worldwide – and for worse storms than ever before. And when I say prepare, I mean that quite literally.

Will we wait until after our great cities have flooded, before we start taking adequate action? We cannot go on like this. Beginning from this end of normalcy, we badly need to choose a new future together. To make it real in our lives.

This movie may have come our way only just in time.

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