Anime Takes on Life in a Post-Collapse World With Dr. Stone and 7SEEDS

A medium that exploded in popularity in the wake of multiple atomic detonations, anime has long dealt with ecological frailty — which is to say, the fraught relationship between humans and the litany of other organisms and environments that make up the Earth. Several Studio Ghibli classics, like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, interrogate the often-harmful side effects of industrialization, and the clash between those interested in living “with” nature and those interested in profiting off it. Even the starkly interior, robot-based series Neon Genesis Evangelion is, among other things, a series about life in a climate-devastated Earth, to the point where penguins now regularly live in tropical environments. 

Climate change, of course, looms larger and larger on our collective horizon — and anime has tried to rise to the challenge of depicting it, with two high-profile series tackling what it might look like to bring humanity back from the brink of extinction. In Dr. Stone, humanity has been completely petrified — turned to stone through an unspecified process — and slowly begins to recover after a few people are freed from their pillars. In 7SEEDS, a meteor impact has, Deep Impact-style, wiped out most of civilization and dramatically raised sea levels, forcing several groups of cryogenically frozen youths to make their way through a changed Earth. Because this is anime, in both cases the responsibility for rebuilding falls squarely on the shoulders of 21st-century Japanese teenagers.

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Growing Pains

Superficially, the premises of Dr. Stone and 7SEEDS feel similar. But in their approaches to the subject matter, the two shows couldn’t be more different. (For the record: I haven’t read either manga, so this is solely about the anime adaptations.) Each series has a particular view of humanity, a view of how people might survive in a post-climate catastrophe world — which is to say, a view of how people should respond to climate change now.

Dr. Stone is fundamentally an optimistic, humanist show. Protagonist Senku Ishigami is a scientific genius, capable of grasping and applying the principles behind everything from lightbulbs to gunpowder to making ramen. Senku, who literally writes “e=mc2” on his clothing, has an unflinching faith in the power of the human brain — as does the show. Though the setting of Dr. Stone would suggest a grim, muted tone, it’s full of bright colors (especially vivid greens depicting the way that plant life has reclaimed much of the Earth’s surface), comic reactions, and little cutaway bits dramatizing Senku’s exercises in rebuilding as high school science experiments. You, too, the show seems to say, could rebuild Earth after a catastrophic incident, if only you paid attention in class.

The world of 7SEEDS, meanwhile, is designed to reinforce the view that humans are cruel and that the wilderness is unforgiving. Your comrades will sell you out, and solace is fleeting. The series jumps around between the SEED teams, each of which has been revived in a different area of Japan, and none of which manage to stick out much. Each member of each team is largely reduced to either a tragic backstory or an equally tragic crush. (One boy was literally sold by his mother to the government as a test subject, while another team was winnowed down from a large group of trainees in a brutal test, literally murdering the teens until seven remained.)

And even though 7SEEDS posts an elaborate, government-backed selection process for the teams, rather than Dr. Stone’s more or less random mass petrification, there’s no real coherent sense of why anyone is there. 

When Humanity Can’t Stand The Heat

The centralized planning behind the SEEDS project seems, superficially, like it should more accurately reflect the way we respond to climate change. But in this world, the Japanese government has made a series of inexplicable decisions. Why are all of the teens spread out in scattered groups, rather than in a large, well-organized community? Why is one of the adults tasked specifically with murdering team members who become an impediment to the mission? And why did the government not simply build a ridiculously tricked-out bunker with hydroponic farming and koi fishing in order to create a sustainable underground habitat with Elon Musk?

This last question is the most telling about 7SEEDS’ priorities — the cynicism it brings to bear on the lives of its characters somehow does not quite extend to the wealthy individuals and government officials who would almost certainly have access to the resources needed to save themselves from impact. A scattered flashback to an underground bunker aside, there’s little sense of how those with real power in the world responded to the crisis. And though there’s an obvious rejoinder to these arguments — that 7SEEDS is being told from the perspective of the team members, who have little information about what’s going on and are just as disoriented as we are — that doesn’t mean the show itself should have such a loose grip.

It’s a mirror image of the petrification process in Dr. Stone, the nature of which leaves open the possibility that humanity could continue on, much as it has before, if only Senku could make enough rejuvenation liquid to free everyone. 

We Can Rebuild You… But Should We?

What to do with the hibernating remnants of humanity is, in fact, the central conflict in Dr. Stone — Senku is forced to revive the sociopathic super-athlete Tsukasa, who wants to create a new world free from adults. In his view, if they were revived, civilization would merely backslide into war and decadence. Going back to the way things were is a real option for Dr. Stone, even though we might just mess it all up again. 

Though the remnants of civilization litter the world of 7SEEDS, there’s never any suggestion that Earth might return to its pre-meteor state — at least not for a few hundred years. If civilization were ever rebuilt, the bleakness of 7SEEDS suggests that it would likely take a similarly destructive shape. 

Dr. Stone is unwilling to consider the possibility that Tsukasa might have a point; 7SEEDS is too busy yelling about how obviously right he is to question why that might be tragic. In their way, both series model different responses to climate catastrophe — a strong belief that scientific innovation will save us, and allow things to go back to “normal,” and a complete nihilism that moves too quickly toward a place of resignation. Hopefully the next series that tries to model a post-climate Earth will land somewhere in the visionary middle.