So, I saw the latest Climate Change campaigning film yesterday: The Age of Stupid. [Warning - I describe the film in some detail, click here to find out how to see it before reading]. The film is set in an apocalyptic future where climate destabilisation has destroyed most of the Earth’s ecosystems, and over 90% of the human population. We are given a harsh review of the signs we ignored and our future over the next fifty years in order to set the scene: famines, mass migrations, the burning of the amazon and nuclear strikes. The real focus of the film however is not in hypothesising about the details of this portentous future, but in looking back to today, and how we are failing to curb climate change to bring about a more positive future.
In the Arctic, Pete Postlethwaite has built a fortress in the ocean, protecting the artifacts of human civilizations and archiving our history. Postlethwaite is mining the digital archive for answers to the question that dogs his mind: “why did we not save ourselves when we had the chance?”. This sets the scene for the film, as he flicks between six (real) sub-documentaries which follow individuals’ experiences of and contributions to the climate problem. These include:
- A determined young woman in Nigeria, trying to build a life and become a doctor in the face of poverty and the environmental destruction in her home town. In particular her opportunities are confounded by Shell’s intrusion to extract oil, not only polluting the environment, but also assisting the “resource curse” that oil has become in many developing countries. The images of her attempting to fish, with a typical poor African rural village on one bank, and an enormous steel Oil refinery belching gas flares and oil into the river were pretty incredible. This was topped off when she washed her meagre catch of fish with Omo (soap) in order to rid it of the spilt oil that coated the fish. Hers was a shocking tale but also one full of spirit and the ambition to positively overcome hardship, and it finished with her getting into a medical school - of course it seems unlikely she will ever read this, but I wish her the best of luck.
- Piers - an entrepreneur who has worked in wind energy for many years, and attempts to build a wind farm in Bedfordshire, but is thwarted by local campaigners who block his planning permission on the basis of the view. Despite agreeing to downscale his project in response to local complaints at a hearing the local council turned down his application by ten to one. Whilst the size of the defeat was depressing, symbolising our inability to act quickly to move to a low-carbon economy, it was the interview with the leader of the campaign against the wind farm that really lingered in the mind. After being asked if the environment is an important issue she squirms at the idea she might be branded as an anti-environmentalist, and attempts to maintain that she is on the right side of the battle, but you can see she no longer really believes it.
- Jeh - a member of a privileged and wealthy family, who is setting up India’s first budget airline Go. He believes he his helping lift India out of poverty by providing new opportunities through access to flights for even the poorest in India. Although in the context of the larger film he is unconvincing, you cannot help but recognise the pride in the air stewards as they go through their training and see what the company can offer individuals. Here the real message is how difficult it is to reconcile people’s wish to strive for improvement and a wealthier life against the need to scale back our climate impact. I found the moment at the end of the film when feel-good music is set against the frightening message of the rest of the film, and the celebration of the first flight of Go airlines surprisingly powerful.
- Fernand Pareau - an extraordinary 82 year old guide in the French Alps, who has personally witnessed the local impacts of climate change, including the declining of a glacier by over 150 metres. I can’t really sum up this story, only that I left feeling that he was a truly inspirational individual.
- Alvin - a man who stayed in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and rescued over one hundred members of his local community in the aftermath. Interestingly, he calls himself an environmentalist, whilst also having worked for Shell prospecting for oil
- A young pair of siblings in Lebanon - perhaps aged eleven or twelve - who had fled Iraq during the war. Their father was killed by American soldiers, and their mother was conspicuously absent. We follow their story as they live and work together on a journey of survival, taking on a whole range of tasks including repairing and reselling items such as trainers which people in the West have prematurely cast away. Beyond the basic sadness we feel in simply witnessing the hardship of a pair of children trying to fend for themselves, the strongest message was in how the West’s actions are affecting people’s minds. The brother states quite starkly that if the Americans returned to his home he would kill them in vengeance for his father. I fear that just as capitalism fails to include the environmental costs of its transactions, so we fail to include the social costs of our actions, and the enemies we create.
These six documentaries* are weaved together not only by clever editing, but also by their inherent relationships which help convey how interconnected these stories are, even though they are from all corners of the globe. The images of flights over the melting Alps. Shell’s interventions in Nigeria, along with Alvin’s tale and the pumps that fuel Jeh’s plane. The search for improvement in Lebanon and India. The oil that helped incentivise war in Iraq with its consequences for Iraqi refugees. There were many more, and I felt the whole approach enabled a honest portrayal of the complexity and multiple faceted nature of Climate Change and the problems it brings.
I hadn’t really intended for this to become a film review/outline. Instead I had planned to write about how the film made me feel about my role and behaviour as both an individual and campaigner. Now however it seems I would be best to leave that to another post. In the mean time, please go and see it while it is still in the cinemas. I believe everyone should reflect on what the future might bring, and what roles we are serving to construct it - especially when the scientists are crying out to warn us of how bad the situation is. This is a vital review of where we are, which facilitates this reflection. The cinemas that are currently showing the film can be found here: http://www.ageofstupid.net/weekone
* The idea for this was taken from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.