Game of Thrones and the Climate Crisis

I – like apparently just about every other person with internet access or a television – have just finished watching the final season of Game of Thrones. Plenty of people have written about the problems with the season: questionable plotting (or, at least, incoherent pacing) and a cringe-worthy finale that seemed more like the last-ever episode of an entirely different show – one regularly described by words like ‘feel-good’ and ‘wholesome’ rather than ‘brutal’ and ‘disturbing’. But I’m not a TV critic. I’m an environmentalist (though of course I’m sure there are plenty of people who are both). And the last season of GoT was a weird rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings if you had started to see the show as at least partially an allegory for the climate crisis.

This article contains copious spoilers, so if you continue to read you only have yourself to blame for ruining several key plot points for yourself.

It seems fairly unlikely that George RR Martin, DB Weiss or David Benioff intentionally created the existential threat of the white walkers as a timely parable for our environmentally catastrophic times (though you never know, I haven’t asked). But whether intentional or not, for several seasons (and while reading the books), I’ve thought it’s quite possible to draw some reasonable parallels between the two. An existential threat that could destroy all of civilisation and the end the human race? Check. Unable to be defeated unless we all stop our power-hungry, murderous bickering and come together to fight? Check. Requires an acceptance of an uncomfortable reality that we’d much rather pretend doesn’t exist? Check. Apparently impossible to defeat until the very last minute? Check. Able to be defeated by technology that already exists? Check.

So, the build-up to the Battle of Winterfell was nothing if not realistic, from an environmental activist’s perspective. Nobody wanted to help Jon Snow, because they were too interested in seeking power (bend the knee or its off with your head, etc.). Nobody even believed him that the threat was real (can I get a ‘climate denial’ up in here??), so he was literally forced to go catch one of the things and bring it all the way back down to King’s Landing to prove he wasn’t full of shit. And then, even when he proved it was real, certain parties (ahem, Cersei) lied and said they’d help, and then sat back and decided that, actually, it would be much more fun to watch the world burn (or freeze, as the case may be) (see e.g. ‘sustainable growth’, the greatest oxymoron in history that allows leaders to pretend they give a shit while carrying on with the same old crap). Then,hooray!, the army of the dead are defeated by a plucky young woman with a knife (Greta Thurnberg, I’m looking at you. Minus the knife, of course).

So far, so good. Now,I thought, we just need to take this lesson and apply it to real life: plunge a solar-panel-plated dagger into the heart of carbon emissionsThis is hopeful. This is uplifiting. I felt inspired. If Jaime Lannister could abandon his sister/lover to do the right thing and fight the army of the dead, then maybe we could all come together and face down the climate catastrophe together, too. Maybe we didn’t need absolutely everyone on board. Maybe even without the Cersei Lannisters of the world, with all their power and money, we could do this thing. And, even better, considering Daenerys’ persistent insistence that she wanted to ‘break the wheel’ and ‘build a better world’, I thought, Damn, this allegory might even extend to the creation of the new socioeconomic system that we need to make a just transition out of our current extractive, exploitative world and into the next one. Problematic as Daenerys’ brutal sense of justice and rampant imperialism had been, I thought that it was just possible that something truly revolutionary might happen (within the context of the story, of course. I certainly wasn’t expecting her to introduce democracy, or abolish the prison system, or, say, introduce universal healthcare or a minimum wage. That would be absurd).

But then I crested the top of the optimism roller-coaster and started careening earthwards. Because sure, the army of the dead was defeated/climate catastrophe was averted, but it quickly became clear that this was not going to be the beautiful, unicorn-filled new world I’d imagined (of course, how could it be? This is Game of Thrones after all). Daenerys’ character development went into hyper-speed, and a turn to madness/megalomania/whatever that should have taken a good season to really flesh out came about in the space of two or so episodes. She burned King’s Landing to the ground and seized power in a storm of flames and screams and ash. And I thought, Oh noOf course. We’re not getting a new system. We’re just getting more of the same. Just another power-hungry dictator whose version of a new world looks a hell of a lot like the old one.

Also not King’s Landing burning. Photo by Pixabay on

But I wasn’t off the ride yet. Jon Snow decided that he couldn’t let it happen. He killed her! The day might yet be saved! We might end up with, say, the seven kingdoms splintering off into separate, self-governing but interlinked realms. Or some other paradigm dramatically different to the one that came before, to make my optimistic allegorical dreams come true. But no. I’d counted my allegorical chickens before they’d hatched. Flash forward and somehow the idea that a white dude telling a bunch of other white dudes and a couple of white women that they should, in fact, choose who should rule, is presented as somehow revolutionary.

Fun fact: it isn’t.

The answer’s in the name of the show, for goodness sake. The Game of Thrones. The whole show has been about one person seizing power from another, everyone fighting each other for it, searching for powerful supporters for their claim. Sure, the validity of the claim had some connection to birth-right and primogeniture. But then again, no it didn’t, because Robert Baratheon had inherited no rightful claim, but he decided to challenge the former king, found powerful people to support him (voting with their armies rather than words, but the idea’s the same), and took power. Cersei Lannister had no ‘rightful’ place on the Iron Throne, but she took it anyway, because she had enough powerful supporters. Daenerys took the throne (even if it was only for like one second) even knowing that actually, under the rules she was playing by, it rightfully belonged to  Jon Snow. But she had the power (a dragon) and enough followers holding weapons (read: votes) to take it, and he didn’t. The rules of the game remained the same. The existential threat was defeated for the lords and ladies, sure, but for the ordinary people of the now Six Kingdoms, nothing at all changed. They still faced the existential threats of starvation and oppression and whatever else the common people of Westeros had always faced.

So, in the end, the allegory didn’t work out quite as cheerfully as I’d hoped. It still works, sort of, if you squint at it – it just ended up painting a pretty depressing picture. It’s not enough to just ‘fight climate change’ if we do it with the same weapons we’ve always used. If we try to avert climate catastrophe and ecological collapse by shouting ‘we must grow the economy at all costs!’, ‘humans are selfish individuals who only look out for number one!’, ‘there is no alternative!’, then we’re probably going to fail miserably. As would the people of Westeros have been demolished by the white walkers if Daenerys had refused to help Jon Snow. But if we fight these crises with the slightly modified battle cries of ‘sustainable growth/development!’, ‘green capitalism!’ and similar bullshit then even if we do manage to halt the runaway train of environmental apocalypse and the extinction of our species and many others, we’ll end up with a world just as riddled with most of the same problems as the one we live in today. Let’s do this differently. Let’s not end up like Season 8 of Game of Thrones, fizzling out like a candle in the rain. We can do better. We can blow this shit up (and by that, I mean solving the climate crisis by breaking out of the existing, broken socioeconomic system and building a new one, not finding ourselves some dragons and burning the old world down. I’m no Dany). Who needs a remake of Season 8 when we’ve got a real-life do-over?

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