The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Deadly Threat to Our Very Existence

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On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. No, I’m not sure why. Yes, this does get back around to climate change, I promise.

What I want to talk about is not the 1986 movie but the musical play it was based on. The two share characters, musical numbers, dialogue, and the script writer, Howard Ashman, yet they are fundamentally different works. I’ll get into the how and the why of that difference another time, on another blog, but for now let’s just say that the happy ending of the movie changes things.

The important thing is that the off-Broadway musical, but not the movie, works as a uniquely modern morality play, one with truly planetary implications. Was it intended to be such? Probably not–I’ve just watched an interview with Howard Ashman, included as a special feature on the DVD of the movie, and it seems as though he wrote the play simply as entertainment. Yet, as a fiction writer myself I can say that the creative process is largely sub-conscious and can include significance the writer knows nothing about. The allegory I am about to explicate is therefor quite valid because, even if it was not intended, it works.

A Synopsis

First, a summary of the plot so that we all know what we’re talking about.

The action takes place almost entirely inside a florist shop, inexplicably located in a truly terrible neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it’s in the process of going out of business. The staff consists of the owner, Mr. Mushnik; the floral designer, Audrey; and a shop assistant and plant geek, Seymour. The latter two are clearly in love with each other, though Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly. Into this mess of woe comes a strange little plant and, surprisingly, its very presence draws in lots of paying customers. Suddenly, business is booming.

The catch, as Seymour discovers, is that the plant is carnivorous and demands human blood. At first, being small, it does well on a few drops at a time from Seymour’s own fingers. As it grows–and begins to talk and sing–it demands more. At first Seymour refuses to commit murder to feed it, but begins to waver when the plant offers him money, fame, and access to beautiful women. When the plant points out that Audrey’s abusive boyfriend actually deserves to die (and he does, the man is awful), Seymour agrees. The following day, the dentist accidentally over-doses on nitrous oxide and Seymour calmly watches him die and then drags the body home for consumption.

With the dentist dead, Seymour has no trouble becoming Audrey’s new boyfriend. Their relationship is actually quite touching and sweet. But Mr. Mushnik saw Seymour cutting up the dentist’s body, and promises to keep quiet about it only if Seymour runs away and leaves the lucrative plant behind. The plant quietly suggests another alternative, which Seymour accepts, and Mr. Mushnik, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything he said he wanted, but the guilt is eating him. When a businessman suggests taking cuttings from the plant and selling them worldwide, Seymour rebels. But before he can extricate himself from the situation, the plant tricks Audrey into coming within reach and grabs her. Seymour pulls her out of the plant’s mouth, but for some unexplained reason she dies anyway. Her last request is that Seymour feed her body to the plant, because then by taking care of it, he’ll really be taking care of her, too. He complies, but then, in a rage of guilt and shame, grabs a knife and allows the plant to eat him, intending to cut it up from the inside. The plant then spits out the knife.

Shortly thereafter, the business man returns and begins taking cuttings.

While the play is ostensibly a comedy, and generally received as such by audiences, it is one of the most profoundly and disturbingly tragic stories I have ever encountered.

A Morality Play?

When I was a kid, watching both the movie and, later, the play, I always assumed that the plant was simply a carnivore, no more evil than any of the quite real entities that do specialize in eating human blood, such as certain species of mosquito (which, by the way, kill huge numbers of people through disease transmission). As an adult, I’ve started thinking about the story again and I’ve changed my mind.

The plant is just too clearly in control, and too clearly getting a kick out of its power, not to be held responsible for Seymour’s growing depravity. First the man sacrifices himself in a small way, then he kills for love and anger, then he kills for personal gain. Then he feeds the woman he loves to the plant, and then finally kills himself. The plant isn’t really after blood, is it? It’s after Seymour’s soul. And it wins.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings, which are equal to, and tied up in, the very things that make him great. Seymour is very much a hero in this sense, except that it is his ordinariness that is both his appeal and his downfall. Who among us would not do as he does, were we in his shoes? Who wouldn’t spare a little blood to save our livelihood? And, having accepted the cognitive dissonance involved in nursing a little blood sucker, killing for love isn’t such a big step. Letting Mr. Mushnik go isn’t too big of a step beyond that. Faced with unbearable loss and guilt, of course he makes a last, desperate attempt to fix his wrongs, and thereby serves the plant’s interest yet again, destroying himself and leaving it free to propagate. To identify with Seymour is to admit that we, too, could be culpable in the end of the world.

Maybe we already are.

Don’t Feed the Plants

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Silly, isn’t it? After all, carnivorous plants aren’t really a threat, are they?
The villain of the play may be fictional, but the human vulnerabilities it preys on are not. The reality is that we humans sweet-talk each other for blood regularly, with consequences just as stark and tragic as in this parable about a plant. It is that vulnerability that is the real subject of the final song’s warning.
But “plant” has a second meaning, as in “factory.” Is it too much of a stretch to interpret the warning quite specifically in terms of corporate industry? Global warming itself was not much on the public radar in 1982, when the play opened (though it was well-known by people who followed such things), but plenty of other environmental and social problems stemming from factories were in full view. Of course, those social and environmental ills are intimately connected to climate change, too–the same “plants” are responsible.
For us, as for Seymour, it has been a question of weighing costs in choices that seem like no choice. Of course he gave the plant his blood–what else was he going to do? His livelihood, and the good will of the only people in the world who even pretended to care about him, depended on it. It’s not like many of us have a real choice about fossil fuel, either. How else are we going to get to work? The availability of that energy has saved countless lives. But the price gets bigger over time. Are you willing to give up the life of one sadistic dentist? How about the boss you never cared for anyway? Or the health and safety of people you don’t even know–like, for example, the people of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who have insanely high rates of cancer because of contamination from nearby tar sands development. Or the people of the Gulf Coast, where the oil industry (and other factors) is gradually destroying the wetlands on which both hurricane safety and the region’s fishing industry depend. Or the people of Oklahoma, who are coping with three hundred times the region’s natural rate of earthquake occurrence, thanks to the underground disposal of waste products from oil production.  Or the ongoing fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their drinking water and sacred sites from a planned oil pipeline. Or the half of all North American birds that could be under threat from climate change by the end of this century. And on and on.
The question is, when do you stop paying the price? And what do you do when the choice you have is no choice, and ant rebellion could result in your feeding your beloved into that green maw-and blaming yourself?

Look, it’s a horrible story, and it’s all too true. So, if singing about a carnivorous vegetable helps you keep your spirits up, then go for it. Pick up a light-hearted metaphor and use that for your motivation. Get silly with it. Use comedy and camp and music. Next time Trump-the-Climate-Denier promises to make America great again by putting President Obama’s climate legacy on the chopping block, imagine him all green and viney. And don’t go leaping into his jaws with a knife, either (I’ll let you work out that metaphor yourself) because we know that doesn’t work. If we fight it we’ve still got a chance

Come on, look up the music on YouTube or something and sing it with me:

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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