The Skeksis (pronounced skɛksiːz) come out of the brilliant and dark mind of Jim Henson — the famous puppeteer behind Labyrinth, and the more wholesome Muppets. They are voracious creatures that have vulture-like beaks, reptilian teeth, and opulent attire reminiscent of European monarchies of the enlightenment. They are despots who rule over the magical land of Thra with an iron claw. Skeksis are creatures of contradictions. They are strong but have atrophied arms and wings. They are cunning but are destroying the world in the vain pursuit of immortality.
This depiction of forthright resource extraction should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the current plight of our planet. The richest of humans have recklessly hurt the Earth for power. The Skeksis are a metaphor for this naked ambition. They are a warning of what can happen when the powerful are not stopped in their pursuits:
The world dies, but the rich live on.
‘There Is No Darkening’
The Skeksis made their debut performance in the 1982 Dark Crystal movie. The land of Thra is desolate at this point in the timeline. The landscape surrounding the Skeksis castle is overcome by desertification. The dominant sentient life on the planet, the Gelflings, have been genocided after a decades-spanning war with their former masters.
The prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, begins the months leading up to the genocidal conflict known as the Garthim War. The Skeksis have controlled the far larger Gelfling population for centuries through state propaganda. They claim to be the guardians of the Crystal of Truth, which is the life essence of the planet, and this propaganda has kept the Gelfling population in line.
The Skeksis aren’t actually protecting the Crystal of Truth, however, and have secretly drained its essence to extend their own lives. This decision has created a die-off where the landscape is slowly being corrupted by an evil force known as the “Darkening,” which is an on-the-nose metaphor for climate change. We even have mystical, sentient trees (The Great Trees) trying to keep the Darkening at bay through underground sequestration in much the same way the forests of our Earth do for carbon.
The Skeksis have denied the existence of the Darkening. The Emperor (Jason Isaacs/Dave Chapman) has officially ruled that it does not exist, despite evidence of corrupted animals popping up throughout the countryside. He has even hidden the truth from his people. There is a scene in episode seven of the first season where his General (Benedict Wong/Kevin Clash) is surprised to learn the truth of the Darkening’s existence:
EMPEROR: Behold, the Darkening.
GENERAL: You decreed there is no Darkening.
EMPEROR: I lied! It grows day by day. Its veins creep across the land, blighting all it touches.
The parallels to the present-day are apparent to anyone who has seen the 45th president of the United States tweet about climate change. He has consistently claimed that global warming is a hoax. In 2018, he buried a report from his own government that confirmed the existence of climate change, telling the press, “I don’t believe it.”
Those in power have historically tried to deny, downplay, or ignore the reality that human activity is radically warming the planet at unsustainable levels. Power brokers within the fossil fuel industry have spent years investing in institutions that discredit the current, unanimous scientific consensus that global warming is happening right now. Charles and the late David Koch, in particular, spent years funneling money into anti-environmentalist messaging because they were worried such regulation would cut into their bottom line. In the words of author Christopher Leonard to The New Republic:
“Tactically, the way their political network did this was by funding a constellation of think tanks, from the Heartland Institute to the Cato Institute to the American Energy Alliance. And they produced study after study predicting terrible economic consequences if the federal government regulated greenhouse gas emissions.”
Denialism has consequently been the Republican party’s line on climate change for years. The impact of global warming is becoming more severe, however, and harder to ignore. We are all starting to talk about the devasting effects of climate change because you cannot bribe forest fires, sue super-storms, and lobby away refuges.
Now that the widespread consensus is shifting away from outright denialism, carbon-inefficient industries like oil and gas are trying to push responsibility for this crisis onto society at large. For example, in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, Shell Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden erroneously claimed that it was society, not energy suppliers, that was to blame for the environmental crisis:
“It’s us as a society that needs to transform, not just the suppliers of energy. If you want to decarbonize the energy system, it’s not about forcing people to take lower-carbon supply.”
Yes, the current Shell CEO tried to argue that we could reduce our carbon emissions without lowering our carbon emissions. This strategy of misdirection is ultimately a stalling tactic for these companies as they scramble to be a part of a post-fossil fuel world.
Fearful that they will be deemed the enemy by a climate change-weary world, carbon polluters are trying to change their image. They are investing in greener energy, lobbying for a carbon tax, and developing mechanisms to protect themselves from the resource-starved populace if and when a more violent revolution forms (more on this later). The rich are scared that they will be held responsible for their past pollution. The world is mobilizing for a significant climate change movement, and with that comes a renewed sense of justice. There is already a slew of litigation in place which is trying to sue companies for their past pollution. If this resentment is not managed correctly, the public might demand more than environmental backpay.
A similar thing happened in the land of Thra. When the truth about the Skeksis began to unravel, there was also an attempt to spin the situation. The duplicitous Chamberlain (Simon Pegg/Warrick Brownlow-Pike) tried to lie to the world and brand the Gelfling dissenters that knew about the Darkening as heretics. The Darkening was branded a myth by the emperor, and there was a hope that the situation would play itself out.
This tactic was unsuccessful in the prequel series, however, because, like with our world, the Skeksis could not will away the lie forever. The planet was still dying, and the Gelflings could not ignore withering crops and possessed animals indefinitely. The Gelfling resistance inevitably formed in the face of the Skeksis’ refusal to address the systemic cause of the Darkening: their mismanagement of the planet.
In much the way oil executives are coming around to climate change, the Skeksis eventually accepted the existence of the Darkening, but they would not cede the Crystal of Truth back to the planet. They were unwilling to give up power, even though the damaging nature of that power was evident to all but them. This ignorance has everything to do with the Skeksis believing in the lie of their own superiority.
It is a lie the rich of our world share as well.
The Skeksis are vain, disgusting creatures who have no genuine interest in governing. They act with disdain when they visit the Gelfling villages they rule. They have outsourced the management of the Gelfling clans to their monarchies or Maudras. The Vapra clan has been uplifted by the Skeksis to rule the other tribes, which is a tactic to sow artificial division amongst the Gelfling.
The Skeksis care about governing only as far as it lets them consume their subject’s resources. They demand hefty tithes or taxation that allows them to indulge in feasts that last for days on end. They pause solely to discuss ways to mitigate people trying to usurp their power. There is one point in the series where they squash an uprising from the Gelfling palace guard and return to feasting almost immediately. They feast not just on food, but on the very lifeforce (or “essence”) of their guards:
COLLECTOR: You’re probably wondering how we came by all this essence. Ah, it’s a delightful tale. After the guards were defeated, we started draining them. Now, we feast essence!
It’s all about consumption, and it’s not like there are millions of Skeksis to spread the Gelfling wealth around. There are only 18, and their rapacious appetite is destroying all of Thra.
The destruction of Earth is likewise happening due to the consumption of a small group of individuals. It has been cited often by environmental activists that eight individuals have the same amount of wealth as 50% of the world’s poorest. There is an extreme amount of inequity on this planet of ours, and the rich spend that wealth on unstainable CO2 emissions. According to an article from United Nations University, which analyzed a 2015 report from Oxfam:
“…the emissions of the world’s richest 1 percent create an even larger emissions gap: the 1 percent could emit 30 times more than the poorest 50 percent and 175 times more than the poorest 10 percent.”
We see anecdotal evidence of this finding everywhere.
The rich feast on the resources of our world. As with the Skeksis, they have fallen in love with the myth of their self-importance. They have convinced themselves that their acquisition of wealth is a good thing for the world, even though the deterioration of our society is a visceral sign that this is not the case. Billionaire Mark Cuban articulated this delusion in a blog post he advertised recently titled The Most Patriotic Thing You Can Do, where he argued:
“Get out there and make a boatload of money. Enjoy the shit out your money. Pay your taxes. It’s the most Patriotic thing you can do.”
This view is quite common among the elite, and it has it’s defenders among the nonrich as well. Some pundits and politicians will fight for the wealthy’s “right” to hoard resources from the greater populace. As Mike Patton argued in Forbes:
“Think about this. What if all rich people suddenly left the country and moved to Antarctica? America would become like a third-world nation!”
This delusion of self-importance has created a preservation instinct where the rich conflate the protection of their power as a social good. A good they believe they should have forever.
‘To Live Forever’
The Skeksis are obsessed with immortality. They believe that they are and should always be immortal. The reason they have drained the power of the Crystal is to maintain that “right.” When the Crystal starts to fail because they are consuming its essence, the Skeksis do not reevaluate their role in governing the planet. They double-down on their resource extraction and resort to draining the essence of the Gelfling themselves.
These actions only hasten the spread of the Darkening, but the Skeksis don’t care. They perceive the limitations of their own mortality as the real insanity. When Skeksis Chamberlain is confronted by Gelfling Rian (Taron Egerton/Neil Sterenberg) about his people’s cruelty, Chamberlain describes it as a natural cycle:
CHAMBERLAIN: All things kill. Is z’nid bird evil because it eats crawling Nurloc? Birds eat to live. So do Skeksis. All living things consume other things to survive. Not evil. Natural…Death is unnatural. Death is cruel joke. Death mocks life, mocks Skeksis. But no more. Skeksis conquer death. And you, Gelfling, will do same in Skeksis’ place.”
The Skeksis are not interested in defeating death in general, though. They only want to solve it for themselves. They see their exploitative effort to conquer mortality as the natural state of hierarchies. They have overcome all other limitations for themselves.
Why not death?
The Skeksis’ selfish desire to overcome their mortality has roots in the real world. The rich have always been interested in living forever. The kings and emperors of antiquity constantly tried to overcome death by using the wealth of their citizens. In one infamous example, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty (259 BC — 210 BC) invested heavily in alchemy to create an Elixer of Life. He died at the age of 39, consuming one such Elixer — cinnabar or known today as mercury sulfide. Historians now suspect that he died of mercury poisoning.
On a superficial level, we see this obsession continue in how the rich are focused on “healthy lifestyles.” Study after study shows that the wealthy consume healthier food, and are more engaged in physical activity. Although a good thing in the abstract, this desire to be healthier can lead to trends that are as dangerous as the cinnabar of ancient times.
Take the concept of “raw water,” which for those who are unaware, is the bottling and selling of unfiltered water. Raw water is extremely unhealthy because it lacks the filtration that would protect consumers from diseases such as cholera and legionellosis. It is a product that has had tremendous success in the wealthy zip codes of Silicon Valley. While pseudoscientific conspiracy theories partly contributed to raw waters’ rise, a promise of longevity was also a factor. One raw water distributor Live Water has the following description of the product on their website:
“Minerals are a fountain of youth that can give us more energy, boost our metabolism and help us live a longer healthier life.”
Again, raw water has no health benefits and is not only actively dangerous but more expensive than regular, filtered water. The promise of a long life, though, is enough to attract customers.
This trend of the rich squandering their wealth on curealls is by no means an anomaly. Paypal founder Peter Thiel has tried everything from human growth hormone pills to investing in the blood transfusions of young people to prolong his lifespan. The FDA has contested the validity behind the latter method, but that hasn’t stopped people from shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in a preliminary trial. As Peter Thiel remarked to Business Insider in 2012:
“There are all these people who say that death is natural, it’s just part of life, and I think that nothing can be further from the truth.”
Countless billionaires have a startup of some kind trying to tackle death or aging. The founders of Google have a startup called Calico. Jeff Bezos (and Peter Thiel again) have Unity Biotechnology. Businesses are trying to upload your consciousness. There is a startup that wants to revitalize your telomeres. There is a company that wants to freeze your body and unthaw it at a later date.
The search for the Elixir of Life is alive and well among the rich. Tech startups promise to solve the distant, existential dilemma of mortality while ignoring the larger, more immediate problems that affect the majority of humanity. In the words of Bill Gates on Reddit (aka “the one good rich person”):
“It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer. It would be nice to live longer though I admit.”
When you are both obsessed with your mortality AND are convinced that the extension of your lifespan is a social good in of itself, then that conviction can blind you to deconstructing your power. It constrains the type of solutions you are willing to entertain. If you know the world is dying, in part because of your actions, then the priority does not become saving everyone.
The priority becomes saving yourself.
‘The Castle Of The Crystal’
The first significant thing the Skeksis did with their stewardship of the Crystal of Truth was to build a fortress for themselves. They erected the Castle of the Crystal, a nearly impregnable structure immediately accessible only by a narrow bridge spanning a large canyon.
The Skeksis were and have always been parasitic to the Gelfling population they rule, but there were a thousand or so years (or “trines”) where they gave their subjects something in return. When the Skeksis arrived on the planet (yes, they are aliens), the Gelflings were neolithic. The Dark Crystal mythos alleges that the Skeksis imparted knowledge to the Gelfling so they could advance to roughly the medieval era.
This knowledge was given by the Skeksis freely, but it came at the demand that they would be worshiped as living Gods. Their Gelfling subjects were tolerated in so far as they were useful. The moment it became more convenient to disregard the Gelfling population for their essence, the Skeksis did not hesitate to do so. The Gelfling tried to resist, but could not take the heavily fortified Castle of the Crystal.
Many of the rich in our society do not strive to be ‘evil.’ If you look at one of the biggest expenditures of the rich, it’s philanthropy. Billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates give tens of millions of dollars away every year for a variety of causes ranging from reducing child mortality to HIV prevention.
Some wealthy people actively advocate for more redistribution. Billionaires ranging from venture capitalist Warren Buffet to 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer have supported a wealth tax. There are groups like The Patriotic Millionaires, which organize as class traitors to increase taxes on their wealth bracket.
These efforts are admirable, but like with the Skeksis, they are freely given. If the public were to ever long for more, they would have to breach metaphorical castles of their own.
Another thing the rich invest heavily in is security and privacy. It has, for example, become increasingly popular for affluent neighborhoods to ban Google’s photography vehicles from entering, so their resident’s houses don’t show up on Google Street View. A new trend for the rich is building homes with panic rooms, or in some cases, mansions that are underground altogether.
This desire for security even extends to the philanthropic rich we discussed earlier. Bill Gates spent years creating his estate dubbed Xanadu 2.0 in reference to the movie Citizen Kane. The home reportedly is worth $120 million and is located in the affluent Washington neighborhood of Medina just outside of Seattle.
Medina is also home to Jeff Bezos and several Microsoft Executives. In a familiar detail, the way to get there requires going across the world’s longest floating bridge. There are high walls and security cameras surrounding the most illustrious residents. The town has its own dedicated police department, with one Business Insider reporter noting that they were contacted by the police within their first fifteen minutes there.
When it comes to prepping for climate change, many of our wealthiest residents are trying to construct their own fortresses. Peter Thiel has been purchasing land in New Zealand, where he currently has citizenship. Companies such as Rising S Co are specifically designed to give the wealthy steel bunkers for their doomsday prep. The company’s slogan is, “We don’t sell fear. We sell preparedness.” As one head of an investment firm remarked anonymously to The New Yorker:
“I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.”
On an even more extreme end, we see this with the luxury space industry. There are as many tech startups devoted to space travel as there are ones tackling mortality. Some companies like Axiom have created modules equipped with hotel designer rooms and even wifi. The goal is to build a consistent space travel industry that supports building structures orbiting the Earth, on the moon, and beyond. In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plugging his space initiative Blue Origin:
“We will have to leave this planet. We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better. We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay, will stay.”
These fanciful endeavors are advertised as for the benefit of humanity, and you might be able to argue that in the long term, but in the short term, this narrative is a lie. Space travel is yet another escape plan for the rich. The poor will not be able to “come and go” as they please. They will be either stuck on the deteriorating surface of the Earth or indentured servants in space.
In truth, how likely is an influential person to care for their homeworld when it is 225 million kilometers away? The rich have insulated themselves from the Darkening because an escape plan is more comfortable to swallow than giving up their power. We are the Gelflings, and the Skeksis of our world are indifferent to our cries for help.
The Garthim War
There is a chilling scene in episode eight of the first season where the new All-Maudra of the Vapra clan has gone to the Skeksis castle to plead on behalf of her people. She successfully has helped the Skeksis put down a rebellion in Stone-In-The-Wood, and now she wants mercy for the rest of her race.
ALL-MAUDRA: I understand The-Stone-In-The-Wood must pay for their defiance, but the other clans have not forgotten their place. Surely, they will be spared your wrath.
EMPEROR: (cackling) No.
The Skeksis Emperor finds the idea that her people would be spared for the greater good laughable.
He cares only for himself.
The Gelfling do not know it at the time, but this is the start of a genocidal war that will wipe out the vast majority of their race on the surface of Thra. The Skeksis will build autonomous, beetle-like forces known as the Garthim, who will ruthlessly hunt the Gelfling so the Skeksis can drain them of their essence.
This war also leads to the creation of the Crystal Bats. These are flying creatures that allow the Skeksis to surveil the land from the comfort of their castle.
The Dark Crystal series provides an interesting lens on how some of the rich might react to climate change. It is a dark, but not unrealistic future where they double down on their resource extraction, at the expense of everyone else. It is too early to say whether an AI-driven security force controlled by the wealthy will happen, but the incentive structure is there.
A Garthim War replete with AI war machines and surveillance bugs could be on the horizon.
We have seen how insulated the upper echelons of society are. They have constructed elaborate mythologies that cast their hoarding of resources as a supreme good. They have fetishized the continuation of their power. Many of the rich have also physically protected themselves by investing in increased security. They have purchased escape plans for if and when “society collapses.” The rich are so insulated from the harm caused by their CO2 emissions that it’s easier for them to consider restarting life on a barren world than to fix it here.
The people who created this problem lack the prospect to solve it. The only solution that matters is for them not to be what they are. It is for them to surrender their metaphorical crystals of truth so that humanity may continue to survive.
In this way, the magical and far off land of Thra is not very far away at all.