Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A rare still from 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' with Tom Hardy in the role of Max Rockatansky

A rare still from 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' with Tom Hardy in the role of Max Rockatansky

Why We Should Drop the ‘Mad Max’ Metaphors

• February 18, 2013 • 4:00 AM

A rare still from 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' with Tom Hardy in the role of Max Rockatansky

In Namibia, the filmmakers creating ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ have run into a different kind of fury, and few roads.

Here’s a drinking game: Sit down with some friends and talk about modern life and fossil fuels—supply, demand, embargoes, carbon, cars, batteries, whatever—and see how long it takes for someone to mention Mad Max. Ever since 1979, when an Australian ER doctor named George Miller and his friend James McCausland released a bootstrapped film about a bunch of gnarly drifters driving around looking for gasoline after the apocalypse, Mad Max has become the cultural reference point for fossil fuel depletion and the dystopia that ensues when “people don’t believe in heroes anymore.” Indeed, the film’s rather didactic modern fable has been highlighted in all sorts of serious discussions about resource depletion, oil dependency, chaos, and environmental collapse.

Mad Max makes a compelling moral fable for first-world viewers about fossil fuel dependence leading to environmental collapse and moral decadence. But it makes for a flimsy system of analysis in the real world. That problem is illustrated perfectly by the many troubles that transpired when Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment of the franchise, was filmed in Namibia in July-November 2012. The issues ranged from the comical (the caterer reportedly disappeared without paying the Hollywood stars’ hefty imported almond milk bill) to the sobering (damaging the local ecosystem and playing to stereotypes of Africa). Altogether, the story reveals just how deeply we misunderstand energy scarcity and environmental destruction, especially in the underdeveloped world.

Of course the production of Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t adequately green—that’s entirely predictable, given the 800-person crew and fleet of freakish vehicles. What’s more interesting is that environmental degradation—of the type that makes us stop believing in heroes—doesn’t necessarily look bad or ugly. In fact, the movie was filmed in Namibia in the first place because of changing climate. For a decade or so, Miller planned to shoot the film in Australia, in the New South Wales desert town of Broken Hill. But freak rains have turned the formerly dry-as-an-apocalypse area into a field of bobbing wildflowers. Really. And fields of wildflowers, while they may be real signs of ecological calamity, do not read as such on the screen. So the film had to up and move to Namibia, which boasts a desert landscape with a healthy but nearly invisible lichen crust that appears properly damaged to Western eyes. Whew!

Namibia may have nearly looked the part, but creating a fable about the effects of environmental destruction predictably still required quite a bit of mutilation—in a fragile place whose yearly rainfall is measured in wisps of fog, where tiny crusts of lichen take decades to develop. On a message board devoted to the film, a tourist wrote that he or she heard from a guide that the crew “brought in sand to simulate a more desert like environment (sic).” A “lonely tree” apparently looked a little too lonely—“new branches had to be glued” onto it. Of course this is hearsay, but it shows how cinematic environmental ruin is at odds with the real.

More seriously, a resident of the major regional town of Swakopmund complained that the crew was “systematically” destroying sensitive dune ecosystems and rare animal habitats in the Dorob National Park. “The Mad Max people go where they want, when they want,” Kit Collard wrote in a letter to government ministers that got a lot of press in Namibia. Apparently this complaint was echoed by the more influential coastal conservation commission.

Environmental impact aside, the shear surrealism of Mad Max: Fury Road‘s experience in Namibia reveals the limits of the fable. Mad Max‘s implicit warning about the perils of gasoline dependence makes intuitive sense to Americans and Australians—sitting in traffic jams, we feel we’ve become morally soft. In Australia, there are 551 cars per thousand people—cars are part of the culture and soul of the country. But in Namibia cars are a rarity. For every thousand Namibians, there are 52 cars. So this “Road War” is being shot in a country with very few roads, and only 14 percent of them are paved.

It’s a little perverse to use Namibia to teach the developed world this lesson. For Namibia and other under-developed countries, burning more fossil fuels offers one path to social cohesion and environmental preservation—the very opposite of collapse. The average Namibian creates just 1.4 metric tons of carbon a year, while the average Australian creates 16.7. In 2010, only 34 percent of Namibians had access to electricity, which means they cut wood or other biomass to cook dinner. Increasing electrification in Africa preserves remaining forests, cuts the time people spend scavenging wood, improves health, and, because of electric lights, creates more opportunities for education. (Of course, Nambians don’t have to use fossil fuels to make electricity; they could use solar or nuclear.) Per capita, Americans use nine times as many kilowatt hours as Namibians do. All of that energy gives Americans a certain degree of control over our destinies—we can work in IT rather than tilling the land; we can avoid asthma attacks by cooking over an electric stove rather than a wood fire. We are engaged in a Rube Goldberg-esque machine that turns energy into economic value, and it has meant that we keep our antibiotics in the fridge, and leave the trees standing when we cook dinner. We in the first world obviously need to make our own factory way less carbon intensive. But there’s nothing inherently evil about creating progress itself.

Namibia also provides a slightly bizarre counter-argument to the fears of resource scarcity that run through Western culture from Malthus to Mad Max. With a stable government, a smallish population of 2 million, and 10 percent of the world’s uranium, Namibia is not on the verge of running out of anything except water and arable land. The country literally has a beach covered in diamonds; like all diamond producers, its main challenge is to extract diamonds from the seabed slowly enough to maintain high prices. The perception of scarcity is an important commodity itself in hypercapitalist societies—it’s what keeps stock prices high, makes lines form outside the Apple store, and gets people asking $10,000 for a ticket to the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert. Fear of scarcity is as vital to our culture as consumption—which is part of what gives the Mad Max fable its power.

Namibia also offers a hopeful lesson in environmental stewardship. After a century of German colonial occupation, South African apartheid, and war, Namibia’s lion population was down to a few dozen by the 1980s. Now, thanks to a community stewardship program that cut poaching, the country has 120 lions, and the elephant and rhino populations are also flourishing. During a trip in 2012, I sat in the safety of a rental car and watched five lions roughhousing under a tree.

Finally, there was something a bit sour about the way the film production hired local boys to portray the downfall of civilization. The boys, who were recruited from three local high schools, said they sometimes started work at 6 a.m., when the desert can be cold. They earned between $12 and $59 per day for riding around in the backs of trucks without shirts on, embodying the myth of the African with nothing left to lose. According to the local paper, the boys were chosen because they were “tall and skinny and had a certain look in their face.” What was that certain look? Maybe they were worried about missing their exams. Namibian media reported that parents and high school principals were angry that the boys were missing too much school. The boys themselves reportedly said that being extras was “fun, but not worth it,” suggesting that they had a very good sense of what they had to lose. Anyway, the meaning of “skinny” is entirely different in Namibia—which currently has high HIV rates—than it is in Hollywood.

I’m not dissing Fury Road. I’ll definitely go see it. What I will stop doing is using Mad Max as shorthand for a fossil-fuels-and-the-fall-of-paradise parable that simply isn’t true. Paradise is falling all the time—but in unexpected ways. It could be that perpetuating the Mad Max vision of disaster could even blind us to realities—like when environmental apocalypse is a field of flowers in the wrong place. The truth is that we, not high-school boys from Namibia, are those people “who will do anything” for fuel, even pay for gasoline on credit cards with 28 percent interest. My advice to for the next Mad Max: Avoid national parks, and find something more actually downfallen, like abandoned shopping malls.

Lisa Margonelli
Lisa Margonelli is the author of Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank. She is currently working on a book about termites.

More From Lisa Margonelli

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.