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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Life on Earth: from crisis to sustainability?

Gerald Schmitz

06/21/2017

The Age of Consequences
(U.S./Germany/Spain/Jordan 2016)
Chasing Coral (U.S. 2017)
Call of the Forest
(Canada/U.S./Germany/Ireland/Japan 2016)
From the Ashes (U.S. 2017)
The Third Industrial Revolution (U.S. 2017)
Tomorrow (Demain) (France 2015)

Donald Trump and his cohorts may deny climate change, but it’s a hot topic in national security circles including the Pentagon as explored in Jared Scott’s The Age of Consequences (http://theageofconsequences.com/), which cites U.S. defence Department reports to the effect that climate extremes are a “threat multiplier” exacerbating resource scarcities (water especially, pointing to consequences brought on by major droughts in Syria and Afghanistan), population displacements, and other conflict-inducing risk factors. In the words of an American general, “climate change as an accelerant to instability” is a real and present danger to long-term U.S. national security interests, something any president should care about.

Helmed by Jeff Orlowski and the team behind Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral (http://www.chasingcoral.com/), winner of the Sundance audience award and available on Netflix, is the product of three-and-half years of globe-trotting undersea exploration which also features remarkable time-lapse photography to chart the damaging effects of ocean temperature rise and acidification on coral reefs. The film drives home that “without a healthy ocean we don’t have a healthy planet.” (A cover feature “Ocean Warning” in the May 27 edition of The Economist puts the problem more bluntly: “The ocean sustains humanity. Humanity treats it with contempt.”) The filmmakers’ challenge is to communicate the urgency of these issues. In part this is done through truly extraordinary images — best appreciated on the big screen — of what is happening in the ocean depths.

The science is alarming. On our blue planet, 72 per cent covered by water, 93 per cent of the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by the oceans. As well, some of the carbon dioxide pollution is dissolved, making the oceans more acidic. Corals, which have existed for hundreds of millions of years, are complex and diverse organisms — the polyps are animals that contain within themselves micro-algae food factories which give them their fantastic range of colours. Coral reefs play a critical foundational role in ocean ecosystems that contain “galaxies” of amazing life forms we are still discovering. They “have the capacity to build their own habitats” that then serve as support systems for universes of marine life.

The problem is that corals are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature and chemistry caused by global warming. Their stress response leads to bleaching that ultimately leaves dead skeletal remains. Over the past three decades the global loss is 50 per cent and in many areas close to 100 per cent. The rate of loss is increasing and severely affecting natural wonders such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The filmmakers’ complicated underwater camera systems record incontrovertible evidence of what is taking place, including the last gasp of some stressed corals described as “the incredibly beautiful phase of death.”

The reality behind these images warns of a widespread ecological collapse. A montage of bleaching events across the globe is a sign of worse to come. (The Canadian documentary The Sea of Life also features stunning underwater cinematography in tackling the adverse consequences of the climate crisis.) At the same time, the Chasing Coral team and scientific experts insist that resolute action is possible on cutting carbon emissions and transitioning to clean renewable energy sources. The film closes on that optimistic note, “dedicated to all the young people who can and will make a difference.” One hopes its combination of impressive facts and emotional appeal provokes such a response.

Directed by Jeffrey McKay, Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees (http://calloftheforest.ca/) takes a journey with botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger as she extols on the benefits of natural old-growth forests — as carbon sinks, biomedical sources, suppliers of healthful aerosols (in Japan “forest bathing” is popular) — and explores the loss of forest biodiversity and the native species dependent on this habitat. She shows how healthy forests are integral to coastal marine ecosystems as well as those inland such as the vital boreal forest that covers much of Canada. (If there’s any doubt that trees are amazing organisms, read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.)

Deforestation and climate change are major threats to the biodiverse forests that remain. Beresford-Kroeger makes a passionate appeal for action on both from the local (including the planting and maintenance of urban forests) to the global. Like the oceans, which supply much of the world’s oxygen, we ignore harm to forests at our peril.

Director Michael Bonfiglio’s National Geographic production From the Ashes (https://www.fromtheashesfilm.com/) delves into the history and prospects of America’s coal industry which has seen epic union battles by coal miners, safety violations and terrible accidents, work-related diseases, booms and busts with mass lay-offs. Currently 40,000 coal miners remain; average age 50. Coal still supplies 30 per cent of U.S. electricity but is increasingly uncompetitive with other less polluting energy sources. Corporate bankruptcies have left workers behind. A miner’s wife puts it bluntly: “The coal companies have basically failed everybody.”

Trump campaigned on ending the “war on coal” by removing environmental regulations (coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions). Promising to bring back jobs was a vote getter in places that have depended on the industry. Yet, as coal country has moved west from Appalachia to areas like Montana’s Powder River Basin, the syndrome of company towns and the extraction trap is repeated. Corporations take the profits and leave behind long-term damage to ecosystems. In the west, land and water protectors — a coalition of cowboys and Indians — have fought against open-pit coalmining projects. Appalachia has seen protests against the devastating effects of mountaintop removal. Air pollution from coal-burning plants is responsible for many thousands of deaths annually.

What may finally weigh most heavily is that most governments and consumers are looking for cheaper and cleaner energy sources. As the price of renewables falls the transition to them will accelerate (to wind in Montana for example). A lot of coal has been exported to Asia, but Chinese demand is already falling rapidly. The film concludes that the prospect of “clean coal” is illusory and that, notwithstanding Trump, the “coal industry is on life support.”

Transition to a new economy is at the heart of another of the Tribeca festival’s Earth Day premieres, The Third Industrial Revolution, directed by Eddy Moretti of Vice Media, which produced the documentary with the backing of Ford Motor Co. I really didn’t like its uncinematic format — basically a filmed lecture by futurist and economic guru Jeremy Rifkin talking for 70 minutes to a captive Brooklyn audience of mostly millennials before taking a few softball questions. Rifkin, an adviser to the EU and China, may be preaching to the choir and some of his confident assertions are debatable. Still, the argument drawn from his eponymous book merits consideration. As described by the filmmakers, its central thesis is “that the emergence of the digital Communications Internet, the Renewable Energy Internet, and the Mobility Internet, riding atop an Internet of Things platform, will dramatically increase productivity, create vast new business opportunities, employ millions of workers, reduce ecological footprint and revolutionize how we live, work and consume in the context of climate change, and the exhaustion of natural resources, and sluggish economic and jobless growth.”

Saving the best for last, a different kind of optimism about sustainable alternatives is presented in a much more cinematically engaging way in the French film Demain (https://www.demain-lefilm.com/en/film) also based on an eponymous book, which was awarded the 2016 best documentary “César” (France’s equivalent of the Oscar). Directed by Cyril Dion and Melanie Laurent, the English version Tomorrow was released in the U.S. this spring.

There is mounting evidence of threats to the planet’s life-support systems and human civilization — from climate change, an accelerating rate of extinctions, and population growth leading to scarcities, migrations and conflicts. But the activist filmmaker collective behind Tomorrow didn’t want to make yet another movie sounding the alarm. Instead, convinced that “everywhere in the world solutions exist,” they embarked on a global search for transformational stories of people creating sustainable alternatives.

The first chapter explores possibilities in agriculture. In Detroit, industrial wasteland has been converted into organic community gardens. In the U.K. they find an “incredible edible” program at the local community level. Without romanticizing this, urban agriculture and productive micro-farms can provide a small-scale alternative to an industrial agriculture of monocultures highly dependent on harmful chemicals and fossil fuels.

A next chapter on energy shows the possibilities of renewables (hydro, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal) as cost effective, reducing consumption while increasingly efficiency. It’s not just hypothetical. The city of Copenhagen plans to be 100 per cent energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral by 2025. There are health and social benefits to living better and more sustainably at less cost.

Chapter 3 on “economy” looks at some promising examples. In San Francisco organic waste is being diverted from landfills to be sold as compost to area farmers. A successful factory in Normandy produces its own energy and operates on a 100 per cent sustainability basis. Towns in the U.K. have created their own local currencies to support local enterprise. These are forms of economic activity that promote efficiency and build community. They do not depend on a system of endless growth, accumulation and resource depletion.

Citizens taking back control is a further theme addressed in chapter 4 on “democracy.” Iceland’s economic crisis led to a constitutional revolt and more deliberative approaches to democratic representation. In India village democracy is making a difference. Texas may be an oil state but, as communities seek cost-efficient renewables, it has more wind turbines than any other state. A final chapter on “education” also points to its contribution, citing Finland’s highly trained teachers, learning centres and skills development programs.

Tomorrow, with its emphasis on grassroots community-led alternatives, offers a practical and bracingly positive challenge to the hold that destructive ideologies have on our societies. Achieving global change can seem overwhelming. But no tomorrow is possible that does not begin with small steps today.