I just finished Wielka Woda, or High Water, on Netflix. It’s a miniseries about the Central European floods of July 1997, a catastrophic event that killed 114 people in Poland and the Czech Republic. I absently started the series thinking about the likes of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021), an enjoyable (though arguably somewhat heavy-handed) cautionary allegory about climate change, not even realizing that this was indeed a historical drama. It got me wondering about how historical fiction can possibly be used to process societal perspectives on climate change. I’ve read a bit lately about the solarpunk genre, which takes a more hopeful view of our climate future, but I’ve encountered plenty of sheer gloom, too– thinking about the likes of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go In The Dark.
Scientists Rage Against The Machine
Overall, Wielka Woda is pretty solid television, but as television, it’s definitely way more interested in the strategy, science, and social components of disaster than it is in something like character development. We have two dueling protagonists. Agnieszka Żulewska plays Jaśmina Tremer, a brilliant, troubled, and often irritatingly (and self-defeatingly) recalcitrant scientist who is considered one of the foremost experts in the hydrology of the region– and, amid multiple instances of high tempers, family drama, and professional mishaps, sometimes finds herself lapsing back into her old life as a drug addict.
Our moodier, more punk rock Erin Brockovich is less concerned with salvation than she is in demonstrating that she is, in fact, right— that Wrocław will flood. (Wrocław = VRO-tswahv, by the way, get it right). But, of course, it’s an old boys’ club, marshaled by her ex (and, we guess, maybe baby daddy?) Jakub Marczak (played by Tomasz Schuchardt), and, of course, no one listens to her until it’s too late. The series is great in that the stuff hits the fan rather slowly, so, with the swell of the floodwaters, we’re seeing things happen over the course of whole episodes. Hey, wanna move these people out of this hospital that is going to flood? Chekhov’s gun stuff– that won’t happen for another two or three episodes!
Instruction Through Past Failures
This is where it’s a bit reminiscent of Don’t Look Up (a film that, apart from the allegorical subject matter, it overall has absolutely nothing in common with). Is Wielka Woda instructive in thinking about what all is wrong with the current state of public policy and decisionmaking around climate change? I mean, I guess so. We do have a ton of people arguing with each other over what kind of approaches we should be taking to climate policy, but plenty of people definitely aren’t listening to the experts– whether they’re folks like me, advocating to decarbonize the built environment and transportation using common-sense solution, or perhaps the folks throwing probes out of helicopters into Thwaites Glacier to figure out, you know, just how screwed we are.
I’ll recommend it to anyone who is down to watch a foreign language series and isn’t a complete barbarian like my roommate (idiomatically fluent in two whole languages and refuses to watch anything with subtitles). I do love trying to figure out different languages, so this was a big selling point, and there’s even a plotline that involves a German-speaking son (I think?) of a Polish character who speaks in Polish and notably-accented German. (Tremer also gets down with her Dutch boyfriend. They’re so cosmopolitan on the continent!).
I’m not terribly interested in apocalyptic fiction as it’s so hard to do well. However, disaster fiction– or, in this case, historical disaster dramatization- is one of those opportunities to consider how something like climate change is not just about quaint policy notions extravagantly packaged in the technocratic ivory towers of the likes of the Rocky Mountain Institute or McKinsey. It’s a fiercely political issue. We know this. But it’s certainly political beyond the overrepresented minority of Republicans in Congress who believe it’s a hoax. I don’t think we’re quite prepared for how complex a lot of the wrangling is going to have to be. In the transportation sector, for example, we’re having a hard time convincing policymakers that VMT reduction is an important thing— since so many powerful people are focused on Cars And Infrastructure For Cars.
And finally? Not only is Tremer confronting an old boys’ club in the Wrocław establishment, she’s also being told she’s wrong based on decades-old hydrological data and what not. “We haven’t updated our maps, and our old ones say that this isn’t a problem!” This is something that came up a lot during my work with the American Society of Adaptation Professionals in the climate science discussion. We need better, more current data. And we need to listen to the people whose major stake in the game is– I’m sorry, not some George Soros UN Agenda 21 Marxist Globalist Conspiracy– solving the problem. Doesn’t hurt to have some great cinema to watch while we try and untangle this knot, too. So, yeah, check out Wielka Woda (High Water).