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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Two documentaries offer love and hope this Earth Day

04/20/2016
Gerald SchmitzHow To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change
(U.S. 2016)
Love Thy Nature (U.S. 2015)

The scale of global environmental problems is such that one can become depressed by the alarming forecasts. At the same time, environmental consciousness has never been greater, manifested in the many movements worldwide aiming to mobilize concerned citizens. Earth Day is an opportunity to encourage such collective awareness and action.

Opening theatrically today in the U.S. is Josh Fox’s How To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (http://www.howtoletgomovie.com/). It will shortly have its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s HotDocs festival and be televised in June on HBO.

My introduction to this rousing documentary was at its Sundance world premiere where I joined others dancing on stage following its last public screening. Yes, it’s that kind of film — hard-hitting in its probing of ecological ills yet also driven by an infectious positive energy for change.

Fox, a banjo-playing activist, starts off dancing to a Beatles tune and it reminded me of Emma Goldman’s quip: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” But the director of two award-winning documentaries, Gasland and Gasland Part II, about the threats posed by the “fracking” boom to the environment and human health, is in a pensive mood. He worries that local victories against the encroachment of the fossil fuel industry won’t be enough. “It dawned on me we might lose everything we love to climate change.” That larger civilizational challenge had to be confronted, but how?

The impact is already extremely serious. Take the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in which “a sliver of the American dream was left on the scrapheap,” the environmental devastation exacerbated by the “other disaster” of economic inequality as low-income neighbourhoods suffered the most. The melting of polar ice means rising sea levels. Other areas will be afflicted by prolonged droughts. That Syria experienced its worst drought ever could have been a contributing factor in its civil war. Fox consults a range of experts on keeping global warming under the 2°C threshold to prevent catastrophic effects. That maximum is only a global average, so the temperature rise in some places will be much worse. Lester Brown observes that greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut 80 per cent by 2020 to keep the immense Greenland icecap from melting. “A major overhaul of every human system” may be needed to avoid runaway climate change.

It all seems so daunting, especially with major American corporate and political interests still denying the science and standing in the way of stronger action. Even if becomes too late to avert some negative consequences, the temptation Fox feels to throw up one’s hands, “to let it go,” leads him instead to go in search of “the things climate can’t destroy.” So he embarks on a personal journey to 12 countries on six continents, asking the question: “What is so deep within us that no calamity can take it away?” Who are the people who are carrying on the fight and finding “the revolution inside”?

In the Amazonian region of Ecuador and Peru Fox meets with indigenous groups who are monitoring oil pipeline spills and trying to protect their world against the false promises of an exploitative model of “development” that results in the ruination of nature’s treasures. Destruction of the rainforest depletes a major carbon sink that also serves as the lungs of the planet. Resistance, in which women are playing a prominent role, means protracted legal battles and sometimes going up against military and security forces. (The award-winning Sundance documentary “When Two Worlds Collide” explores the high stakes in the Peruvian Amazon.) But for the indigenous people on this frontline, the struggle to preserve the richness of the nature on which they depend is both essential and deeply spiritual.

In Utah Fox profiles Tim DeChristopher who has led the fight to block the sale of environmentally sensitive lands, exposing himself to arrest and jail time in the process. When individuals put themselves on the line like this it’s a question of the human future not just scientific observation. As he says: “You can’t divorce energy from the rest of the corporate consumer-driven model. . . . We need more than a shift in energy. We need a shift in our societal model. . . . The crisis could provoke an opportunity for transformation.”

In Australia, Fox investigates the export of coal to Asian markets and the efforts of the Pacific Climate Warriors, indigenous activists from small Pacific island nations threatened by sea-level rise, to block these shipments. As their hand-carved vessels go up against the massive tankers, harbour police on jet skis try to swamp them. But they are undeterred: “We are not drowning! We are fighting!”

In China Fox visits the heavily polluted megacities afflicted by dense smog. It’s estimated that 1.6 million deaths annually are due to dirty air. China’s rise to become the “factory of the world” has been fed by our own consumption addiction, so its burgeoning emissions are not just a Chinese problem. And while China continues to burn huge amounts of coal, it also manufactures 60 per cent of the world’s solar panels. Fox interviews Huang Ming of “Climate Mart” and community solar activist Ella Chou on initiatives underway to convert to renewable energy sources.

Travelling to Inner Mongolia to look at wind farms, Fox is watched by Chinese police and briefly detained. Fortunately inside his banjo the hard drives containing his footage are secure. He has friendlier encounters elsewhere. In Vanuatu he observes the resilience of its indigenous culture in the wake of the worst-ever Pacific cyclone, and suggests “we are the ones who are underdeveloped in democracy, generosity . . . in the things that matter.” In Zambia he finds an impoverished region that finally has electricity thanks to solar power. Back closer to home, in coastal areas hit hard by Sandy, he takes heart from the community efforts to overcome the storm’s ravages and move forward.

Everywhere, what drives Fox is how the challenge of climate change can be used to harness the power of popular action, and how “moral imagination” can spur thinking outside the dominant socio-economic paradigm; how innovation and human ingenuity can support more ethical energy choices.

Since Sundance, the film’s rollout has been linked to a 100-city “Let Go and Love” tour pairing screenings with resource materials and networking activities designed to promote community-based renewable energy solutions.

***

Love Thy Nature (http://www.lovethynature.com/) is a passionate labour of love by Brazilian-born writer-director/producer Sylvie Rokab who also shares in the cinematography and editing credits. Its spirit flows from the opening aphorism by the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.”

Narrated by actor Liam Neeson as the collective voice of our 200,000-year-old species homo sapiens sapiens, how is it that our pride in being earth’s most intelligent beings, our hubris in wanting to control and exert “dominion” over nature for our benefit, has led us to the brink of ecological crisis? Indeed the price of our progress in seeking independence from the natural world has been a disconnection from nature so disturbing that it may now threaten our very existence. Somehow we need to recover an interdependent respectful and responsible relationship with other living beings and nature as a whole.

Rokab’s film, with its lyrical passages and striking images, suggests our understanding of nature, including our own, must go beyond purely mechanistic, scientistic explanations of the nature of things toward an organic holistic comprehension of earth’s evolving systems and complex web of life forms. That means going beyond descriptions of processes as devoid of any meaning or purpose toward an appreciation of the natural world that is, dare I say, spiritual in some measure, not merely technical or utilitarian.

The movie is not a critique of technological advance so much as an appeal for human innovation that looks to nature for inspiration rather than being destructive of nature’s gifts. Rokab interviews experts in “biomimicry” — “the conscious imitation of nature’s genius” — and “integrative medicine” to find solutions grounded in understanding human well-being as integrally bound up with the health of natural systems. How plants and trees pull carbon from the atmosphere might be applied to climate change. Natural systems are essential for clean air and water.

In 76 minutes Rokab sometimes strains to cover too much too quickly, ranging lightly over assorted ills from urbanization and stressful sedentary lifestyles to reliance on processed fast foods. But she makes a convincing case for reconnecting with nature and recognizing its healing properties. The benefits of such “biophilia,” the love of life, are more than physical, extending to “mindfulness” and ultimately a sense of meaning and fulfilment.
This is a love story leading up to a positive message about the millions of people around the globe who are organizing and mobilizing to take action for environmental and social justice.

Every day will have to be an earth day for that story to succeed.