The Postman and Renewable Energy After the Apocalypse
Seven years after winning the Best Director Oscar for Dances With Wolves (1990), Kevin Costner directed and starred in The Postman. Costner's efforts were greeted with nearly universal derision and Roger Ebert predicted that, "There are those who will no doubt call 'The Postman' the worst film of the year."1 He was right.
With 20 years of hindsight, it's clear that The Postman was out of sync with its cultural moment. A film filled with "mawkish jingoism," "mired in flag-waving clichés" with "no discernible irony" came across as "an absolute hoot, some of the most bizarre foolishness" in end-of-history 1997, but likely would have looked less out of place in the post-911 cineplex.2 I don't exactly want to recuperate it, but The Postman, imperfect as it is, merits our critical attention and its focus on infrastructure looks positively prescient at a time when infrastructure in the United States is falling apart, from potholes to the I-35 bridge to New York's subway.
The Postman is not a dystopian movie. In a dystopian narrative, everyday life is shitty because the already existing civilization is shitty. In a post-apocalyptic narrative, everyday life is shitty because there's almost no civilization to speak of anymore. And, one marker of civilization is working infrastructure. Post-apocalyptic narratives often retain the rudiments of the transportation infrastructure (roads) but other parts of infrastructure are less prevalent or in need of rebuilding, such as the communications infrastructure that The Postman rebuilds.
In short, The Postman makes plain a generic fact: post-apocalyptic narratives are infrastructural narratives because to sustain everyday life after the apocalypse requires a practical foundation. It requires infrastructure. As Fredric Jameson has written, the apparent realism of science fiction does not give us images of the future; rather, it defamiliarises and restructures "our experience of our own present . . . in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization."3 The Postman imagines some of the concrete forms that living with climate change-driven apocalypse might take by depicting a future in which what remains of the United States struggles to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure to survive in the post-apocalyptic world.
The Postman (played by Costner), a wanderer in the post-apocalyptic wilderness of a future 2013, is captured by the Holnists, a violent militia led by the warlord General Bethlehem (Will Patton). When the Postman escapes the Holnists he happens across an abandoned postal service vehicle filled with undelivered pre-apocalypse mail. The Postman next visits the town of Pineview, gaining entry by seeking to deliver letters addressed to some of Pineview's former residents, the familiar names on envelopes re-forming webs of contact across space and time. Thus begins the accidental creation of a myth of a reconstituted United States government. Caught in the noble lie of a working postal service, the Postman leaves town to deliver more mail, with one resident, Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), taking up the job of Pineview postmaster.
Bethlehem soon arrives in Pineview in pursuit of the Postman. He and his armed escort take over the city's streets, threatening the locals. He approaches an old stone building, the revived post office, and shouts out, "Who is responsible for that?" A low-angle point-of-view shot from behind Bethlehem shows the stone building and, on the flagpole next to it, a newly hung American flag. The post office's promise of communication across widely dispersed settlements makes possible the flag's promise of a reconstituted United States of America. Bethlehem commands a villager to set the flag and the post office on fire, a pair of actions that act out Bethlehem's statement that "The United States does not exist." But, between the building and the flagpole something important is spinning, something that Bethlehem doesn't order burned: a wind turbine.
The turbine next to the flagpole explains how, in a world of candlelight and hand-cranked sewing and washing machines, Pineview's community hub has strings of coloured light bulbs as decoration. If the lone hero Postman is responsible for the rebirth of the communications infrastructure, the people of Pineview are responsible for their own wind power. The Postman finds shelter and friendship in Pineview because the town has created its own electrical power. The same occurs when the Postman arrives at Bridge City, which is on top of a hydroelectric dam that creates electricity. Infrastructure – in this case renewable power generation – makes the tentative first steps back to civilization possible.
The Postman ends 30 years after the film's climactic battle, with the Postman's daughter unveiling a statue of him. At the event there are about 100 people and two video cameras, with a microphone amplifying her voice. The presence of cameras not only testifies to the film's "premise of communication as the basis of revolution" and "the dubiously divine virtues of getting the post," but also shows that the United States has managed to re-electrify more extensively over the next few decades, probably with the kind of wind and hydroelectric power on view throughout the film.4
The Postman's vision of a future 2013 makes post-apocalyptic life better by building on what was already happening in power generation at the time of the film's production. In Oregon, where the film is set, there were 27 hydroelectric plants online when the Postman was made; Oregon also has 18 wind, nine biomass, two geothermal and 11 solar plants, almost all of which are twenty-first-century projects. Since The Postman played in theatres, new renewable plants have expanded across the northwest: one wave, five geothermal, 90 solar, and 150 wind. Almost 100 more renewable plants are currently proposed.5 To build a new United States requires not just The Postman's heroic postal delivery and battlefield success against fascists, but also the continued growth of renewable energy production.
The Postman's combination of small-scale democratic settlements with locally produced renewable energy creating, after multiple decades, a renewed United States calls to mind Lenin's declaration that, "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, since industry cannot be developed without electrification. This is a long-term task which will take at least ten years to accomplish."6 In this regard, it is tempting to characterise the production design and set decoration of The Postman (by Ida Random and Ron Reiss, respectively) as bringing a kind of accidental Leninist undercurrent to the film (with the Holnists as the Cossacks).
All joking aside, a film in which renewable energy and an investment in infrastructure are necessary to fend off the worst of the damage that a massive cataclysm will do to human civilization deserves a second look during the Trump era when the effects of climate change are already affecting everyday life. By generating renewable electricity side by side with a resurrected communications infrastructure, The Postman imagines a way out of the damage American culture has done to itself and the world, a way to confront an apocalypse of our own making.