Dr. Strangelove’s Strange Environmental Lesson for Architects
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of those rare movies that not only gets better with time but also presents a new layer of meaning with each viewing. Recently I’ve come to believe that it’s the most important movie about environmentalism ever made, not only because of its warning about nuclear annihilation, which is obvious, but because of its sly critique of the idea of professionalism and the nature of work.
My relationship with Dr. Strangelove started early. When I was young, I would spend a week of each summer at my aunt and uncle’s cabin by an Alabama river. During one of those visits, when I was about 10 years old, I stayed up one night after everyone had gone to bed. I turned on the ancient television, turning the UHF dial until I came upon a movie just starting. It looked like an old war movie, and nothing on the other four channels interested me, so my boyish mind settled in for some excitement and adventure.
Excitement and adventure indeed. After the movie ended and the television channel signed off with the national anthem, I was left thinking, “What was that?” The 10-year-old me did not fully understand the satire and completely missed the pervasive sexual innuendo. However, that boy was mesmerized by the sight of a general pulling a 50-calibre machine gun from his golf bag, the heroism of the B-52 crew, and the haunting strains of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” accompanying the airmen on their fateful bombing mission.
The standard Cli-Fi (climate fiction) critique of Dr. Strangelove examines the Cold War satire as a warning about the possibility of thermonuclear warfare, which was an even more ominous threat in the 1960s than now (even if the real danger of a nuclear attack has not subsided that much). It begins with an insane Air Force officer, Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (the great Sterling Hayden), announcing that he has ordered his squadron of B-52 bombers to attack the Soviet Union. Unknown to Ripper, but revealed to the U.S. President and the “War Room” later in the movie, the Soviets had just completed a “doomsday device” that will automatically render the world uninhabitable if the Soviet Union is attacked. Thus ensues a frantic effort to recall the squadron of B-52s.
Released in 1964, under the direction of Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove is full of Cold War stereotypes: the drunk Russian Soviet premiere (Dmitri Kissov), the ineffectual intellectual (U.S. President Merkin Muffley), the steady ally (Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake), the semi-reformed Nazi (Dr. Strangelove), the nefarious Commie (Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky), the by-the-book soldier (“You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company”), and the cowboy soldier (numerous examples). Three of the characters—Muffley, Mandrake, and Strangelove—were played by the brilliant Peter Sellers.
Sellers was slated to play a fourth character but was prevented from doing so by a broken ankle. Played instead by Slim Pickens, Maj. T. J. “King” Kong seems to fit the cowboy stereotype; he even goes for something of a rodeo ride in the film’s most iconic scene. But Kong’s Texas drawl and cowboy hat are mostly just a façade; at heart, he is a consummate professional: intelligent, well-trained, dogged, dedicated to his job, and a natural leader who inspires his flight crew to perform heroically in the most difficult of circumstances.
As well-trained as he was, however, Maj. Kong lacked the acuity necessary to examine the big picture. His fatal flaw was not questioning the mission, taking for granted the “go code” he received from his base commander. Being able to execute a “go code” represents a high level of intelligence, but knowing whether or not a “go code” is valid represents a mental attribute underappreciated in contemporary society: wisdom. Stated another way, well-trained is not synonymous with well-reasoned.
The challenge of educating for wisdom, depth, and sound judgment is brilliantly explicated by David Orr in his book Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Orr argues that contemporary education, with its division of knowledge into disciplines and silos, encourages students to see the world in a disjointed way, which discourages them from seeing the relationship of the parts in a complicated system, such as the Earth’s environment.
In the chapter “Dangers of Education,” Orr compares the education and careers of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister of armaments, and Aldo Leopold, the “father of wildlife management.” At first, this comparison seems bizarre, but it’s actually valid. Both men were well-trained, but Speer succumbed to the rigidity of his formal education, while Leopold did not.
Orr quotes Speer’s memoirs, composed 25 years after the conclusion of World War II, in which he wrote, “[Our education] impressed upon us that the distribution of power in society and the traditional authorities were part of the God-given order of things. … It never occurred to us to doubt the order of things.” Dr. Strangelove’s Kong, like Speer, never thought to question the order of things.
In contrast, Leopold retained his ability to see the interconnectedness of the many parts that make up this world—the plants, the animals, humanity, and all of humanity’s ideas and aspirations—despite being trained in a specific discipline. Leopold’s ability to see the forest and the trees led to his developing the Land Ethic, the concept that knowledge of our environment is incomplete without an affinity for that same environment.
Returning the discussion to Dr. Strangelove: Maj. Kong’s decision to direct his bomber toward the Soviet Union is made with only the barest of reflection. But it quickly has consequences: shortly after entering Soviet airspace, the B-52 is damaged by a missile. This prevents him from receiving the recall order, establishing the dramatic tension in the final third of the film: Will Kong and his crew complete their mission and, thus, destroy the world?
The real cowboy in Dr. Strangelove is General “Buck” Turgidson, played by an over-the-top George C. Scott. When Turgidson is asked if the Soviets have a chance to stop the errant B-52, he is overwhelmed with enthusiasm, saying, “If the pilot’s good, see, I mean if he’s reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low … oh you oughta see it sometime. It’s a sight. A big plane like a ’52—varrrooom! Its jet exhaust … frying chickens in the barnyard!” In other words, if the pilot is a professional, he will complete his mission.
The other members of the War Room stare at Turgidson, appalled. His smile fades as it slowly dawns on him that the fate of all of humanity depends on Kong and his crew not completing their mission.
What’s slowly dawning on us? The pause caused by the coronavirus—when worldwide lockdowns resulted in a dramatic decrease in economic activity, resulting in less traffic, fewer emissions, cleaner air, and resurgent wildlife—revealed the global economy for what it is: a giant machine that is chewing up our home, the Earth.
Those of us in the AEC industry are a huge part of that machine, given the amount of raw materials and energy required to construct buildings and the even larger amount of energy needed to run them. Our answer to this problem is to put a green veneer on the beast—a slightly better HVAC system, some low-VOC paint, a PV array on the roof. But, of course, this buys into what I call the “Triple Bottom Lie,” which claims that more people plus more consumption by each person plus an economic system completely dependent on the aforementioned items, can just keep on working forever, without consequences. Who doesn’t want to believe in that and bask in the warm embrace of the invisible hand? After all, innovation is a renewable resource, and there are a lot of asteroids floating around just waiting to be mined.
That architects are mentally unprepared for the climate crisis is not surprising. The dominant mode of architectural thought today—the lukewarm leftovers of 20th century Modernism—was developed during a period of unprecedented and unsustainable growth in worldwide population and consumption. Intellectually, we are living in Corbu’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s world of technological triumphs and limitless horizons. And who can blame us, really? Who wouldn’t rather enjoy a little new frontier nostalgia than plan for an era of intelligent retreat?
One of the obvious challenges of the early 21st century is the so-called death of expertise. (One of many examples: the shambolic federal response to coronavirus in the U.S.) But we also face the challenge of expertise being deployed to effect the wrong outcome.
Although movements such as Architecture 2030 and Architects Declare are gaining real momentum, far too many architects are building far too many buildings as if it were 1970. Others are declaring “Game over, man!” and giving up on climate mitigation, because truly addressing the climate crisis feels too difficult—or perhaps because doing so presents too many challenges to dearly held economic shibboleths.
The real Cli-Fi lesson of Dr. Strangelove is this: like Maj. Kong, architects are intelligent, well-trained, dogged, dedicated to our jobs, and natural leaders—working like hell, often in service to the exact wrong thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, wave that hat and yell “Yee-haw!” The mission is nearly complete.
All motion picture dialog is from imdb.com.