What a Way to Go - Life at the End of Empire
Review: Today I watched the newly-released 2-hour movie “What a Way to Go”. From a long list of emerging crises, it focuses on human population overshoot, climate change, peak oil and mass extinction.
In dealing with these biophysical problems, it addresses the trajectory of human culture since the rise of agriculture in the context of our human nature, the two factors that have brought us to our present situation. And in doing this it asks the questions that repel most Americans, questioning and breaking the breaking the culture of silence. As such it confronts these systemic problems in a way that parallels the approach of the Frank Fenner Foundation.
Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn (quotations from both of whom have appeared in our journal), William Catton (whose book was reviewed in our journal), Richard Heinberg (whose books and movie appearances you will have seen), Thomas Berry (at 93), Chellis Glendinning, Richard Manning (Against the Grain) and Jerry Mander feature throughout and a host of others add their own perspectives to the first comprehensive look at the problems occurring now. All these are white Americans, but that’s not inappropriate. Derrick Jensen sums up the first half of the movie: “Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels”.
Woven in between these scholars and thinkers are the views of ordinary people who are beginning to grasp the human place in nature and the scope and scale of the problems. Doing this puts us in the movie.
The movie deliberately eschews a “happy chapter” ending, and tells us what we must do to make the future liveable and to mitigate the most serious possibilities. These measures are simple, and we don’t really need this movie to remind us of them. What we do need - constantly - is the personal reminder from Dmitry Orlov who asks “Are we going to continue destroying the planet, just to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while?” That is, the solutions are not waiting on scientists to refine technologies they are political in the broad sense of the term. Others tell us, starkly, that the situation is unique in human history and that there is no one out there looking after us, thus faith in ‘technofixes’ is delusional thinking.
The documentary's weaknesses are its heavy use ironic of 1950s popular culture images and the loss of rigour you would expect when popularizers are interviewed for soundbites. The corny 1950s images can divert us from the more subtle and pervasive messages embedded in our culture today. The significance of the popularizers' contributions can be overlooked if we take the advice at the beginning of the movie: to “let it wash over you”. These contributions deserve a second or third viewing and should lead viewers to read the authors' books where their arguments are fleshed out with rigour and coherence. Jerry Mander warns us in the movie about the limitations of audio-visual media, but his warning is fleeting: only those who have read his first book can understand what he is really getting at. But let’s not quibble. The movie's scope is impressive - greater than “An Inconvenient Truth” or “Crude Awakening” and it's totally celebrity-free. Despite its uncompromising challenges to viewers, I predict it will quickly acquire “cult status” because of its power to change lives and to motivate people to change events and that we’ll be hearing a lot about it over the coming years.
Two detailed reviews of the movie are here:
Trailers are available here:
The DVD is available here:
Our copy of the DVD cost $US 24.00 and postage cost $US 12.50 coming to a total of $US 36.50. This converted to $AU 43.85 early August 2007.
Review by Keith Thomas, 23 August 2007
On 29 August 2007 NSF sponsored the first public screening of the movie in Australia. The response from those attending was wholly favourable, with some who have been active in the topics covered feeling an immediate close bond to the movie. Here is a selection of the comments received:
Thank you and NSF very much for hosting the showing of this important analysis of the issues and challenges confronting us. It is critical that people - particularly decision makers - see it to help face the realities confronting us now, not in some distant future.
While the issues and urgency raised were not new, what was valuable was the analysis of why and how people in the US in particular avoided - or were able to deny - the consequences confronting them. However the lack of any analysis of what we could or need to do to take responsibility of the mess we have created was of concern. It is our mess; we are responsible for it and for clearing it up. Contrary to US history there is no new Mayflower or boat that will sail us over the horizon to find, colonize and exploit a new virgin resource base and allow us to ignore our obligation to restore what we have so fundamentally and rapidly degraded.
The North America that the Europeans invaded and appropriated 400 years ago was one of the richest, most bio-diverse and bio-productive regions of the planet. We have only one livable planet and can not afford to junk and discard this part of the planet's natural capital just because our greed has degraded it. We have a responsibility and imperative to restore it. There is no new continent left to plunder. Even if there were, our attitudes to the sustainable management and restoration of natural capital would need to change fundamentally to make such environmental refugees welcome and viable.
Fortunately, but far from being a magic bullet, we know a great deal about how and why we have degraded the soils, water, fisheries, bio-diversity and natural ecosystems that have sustained us and what we need to do to restore them so they can again sustain viable healthy communities. We have the capacities and eco-technologies to design and implement far more sustainable water, food, waste and energy systems able to overcome many of the challenges now facing us. The issue is do we recognise the need - and have appropriate committed societal structures - to take the essential action in time. Although there is much that we still need to learn, this does not negate our obligation for taking responsibility and enhancing our response ability to restore the capacity of these bio-systems to again sustain life including our own.
Consequently let the boat trip take us to the virgin opportunities of our own backyards, our communities and ourselves for us to restore as sustainable productive ecosystems and equitable, inclusive and tolerant societies. We have the knowledge, the resources and the responsibility to restore what we have degraded. And through that restoration secure a more balanced but qualitatively better future for communities in close accord with other species and natural eco-systems.
Without question climate change, the end of cheap oil, food insecurity, population pressures, pollution and epidemic diseases will impact on these eco-systems. However, the extent to which they will impact will depend inevitably on how buffered and resilient the sustainable eco-systems that we have restored are. We, like all species and communities, are subject to natural selection and evolution. However we have the advantage of being able to use our intelligence to learn, to design and to adapt to the pending realities, here and now, rather than escaping in some magical lifeboat or to a past unspoiled world. Our simple choice is will we take the first step. There may be many others keen to help and join on the way.
The film was clearly very much in accord with the focus of social ecology and the work of NSF. Interesting to see people I had not seen in person before such as Thomas Berry, Chellis Glendinning, Daniel Quinn, and William Catton. I have seen Richard Heinberg previously and his comments are incisive. The film's main purpose I think is to wake people up to the fact that if we do not get off the "progress train" soon, we could soon experience the consequences of a major derailment. In a more positive sense, it encourages us to once more re-engage with nature, rather than destroy it. Its use of a kaleidoscope of images does this very well, backed up by the interviews. If I have a criticism, it is that it could have achieved the same task in less time, as about three quarters of the way through, it kind of produced a dragged out result for me. Then the final part "Walkabout" came back to provide more direction, energy and inspiration. Should be required viewing for all Federal MPs and Senators, as well as Paul Lennon in Tasmania.
It was wonderful having a documentary that covered everything, not least population for a change. I felt, however, that it would have been more effective were it half as long and it certainly would be more marketable were it an hour long and not two. And while it was good to have something that was spoken from the heart, so to speak, it could have done with a touch more intellectual/scientific rigour. For instance, it could have looked at the renewable alternatives and what place they will play in a post-oil society. It could have addressed how we get our population down to sustainable levels in a non-coercive way.
I think the situation is certainly bleak but there are a few bright spots on the horizon, like agri-char, for example. It could have looked at ways in which we can make the changes rather than just being aware of the necessity to change. Some of the talking heads were excellent but there were too many of them and too many from well-meaning family members or friends.
On the whole, worthwhile viewing but errs too much on the side of earnestness unleavened by humour. A happy chapter would have been welcome if only to help us all get onto the right path.
Some people criticized the movie for its length (123 minutes) and other technical or production matters. Such criticisms surprised me: let's focus on its content and its arguments rather than comparing its technical aspects with movies in general. It would be a pity if viewers resorted to technical criticism as a means to avoid addressing its confronting message themselves or to maintain the conventions of "small talk" in their conversations with others. In fact the movie exposes the conventions of civilization - aspects of the present lives and daily choices of ALL of us - as unsustainable and a serious part of the problem. It is the difficulty we have in making different, uncomfortable choices that the movie challenges us to deal with head on.
Sally forwarded this [that is, a link to NSF's web page] on for me to look at. Thanks for your kind words, and for your help in getting the word out. Great page. Nice to have comments, links, etc, all in one place like that. Well done!
Your comments about the length align with ours. We made it long and dense on purpose. The situation itself is long and dense! Difficult to wrap our minds around. So we chose to have the movie mirror that experience. The present predicament requires that we dig deeper, watch the movie more than once, and/or read the many authors you listed on your site. At screenings we've become pretty adept at avoiding that tendency toward film criticism (fun, but a distraction, as you point out) and focusing instead on the content and how it lands with us. Thanks for being an ally in that.
Regarding the runny moose marrow, my original list was probably six times as long as the list in the movie, but there just wasn't time to use it all, unless it scrolled so quickly that you couldn't read any of it. We had to keep going back and balancing it, so that the speed and content worked in the time allowed. I kept runny moose marrow in until the end, because I love the moose, and I also loved the quirky name!
The content of the film is a satisfactory synthesis of the problems caused by humans, but it fails to go the next step. No solutions are proposed, nothing concrete put forward. It seems to be the rage now to bemoan the state of affairs and the govt.'s unwillingness/inability to do anything, while maintaining like a mantra "we must do something before it is too late" - I see this formula repeated in most discussions on the current state of things. However, I shouldn't be so critical of people who think they are trying - there are no solutions that are acceptable to most "civilised" people; the govt isn't going to change anything that alters current power structures and balances, and the insidious virus of hope that "people will do the right thing when they know" and "we can all do it if we do it together", is almost universally widespread, and prevents more radical, but effective actions.
Another gripe would be that some of the speakers (Manning, Jensen etc) say good stuff, but it is not followed to its logical conclusion - that civilisation is fundamentally unsustainable and therefore is doomed, along with nearly 6 billion of us suckers thankyou very much. The film wastes these authors, whose books (e.g. Jensen's Endgame) are far superior in their depth, scope and proposed solutions.
The narrator's voice is annoying.
These two movies have broadly similar themes and were released within a few weeks of each other. It would be tempting, but misleading, to see them as similar or as alternatives.
Both movies feature thinkers and writers who contribute their perspective on global problems and their causes and solutions. Both movies intersperse these contributions with evocative visual images and narration which weaves a story for us. Where they differ is that Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour is a highly professional Hollywood production with the images, narration, text and cinematic conventions weaving a single, largely consistent story which is as accessible as other mainstream Hollywood output, whereas What a Way to Go permits the featured thinkers to say their pieces in their own way, so that they and the accompanying narration delivers a messier, inconclusive but more realistic account.
DiCaprio's landscape visuals are spectacular: some are heart-achingly beautiful while others – depicting environmental destruction – are just as eye-catching in their own way. But I am not sure that depicting pristine wildernesses helps convey the movie’s message. We need to understand and value ecosystems and biofeedback rather than anthropocentrically as iconic species or beautiful landscapes in isolation.
What is the message of The 11th Hour? It’s mixed (as is the message of What a Way to Go). DiCaprio, Ray Anderson and others focus on “industrial civilization” and the resource extraction and pollution that is the inevitable concomitant of industrialism. But The 11th Hour also has its “happy chapter” highlighting energy efficiencies and other means of holding on to our present ways of life. It enjoins us to rejoice in frugality.
For What a Way to Go, the message is also mixed, with Tim Bennett allowing William Catton, Derrick Jensen and others to speak, but coming to his own conclusions rather than scripting these guests to contribute to his story. Bennett demonstrates the truth that we are all responsible for selecting in our own ways how we interpret the mass of evidence before us and how we change accordingly.
The carefully-groomed guests in The 11th Hour contrast with the rough and ready guests in What a Way to Go, who speak unscripted from the depths of their experience, passions and wisdom. The respective appearances of Professor Stuart Pimm illustrate this painfully well. In The 11th Hour, Pimm wears a suit, collar and tie and his hair is perfect (The 11th Hour deployed hairspray liberally – it didn’t enter the mind of Tim Bennett); he gives a polished rehearsed performance, unmoving against a blank background. In What a Way to Go he wears a jumper, his hair is a mess, he is speaking off the cuff, his body swaying with passion and the background is an incongruous mantelpiece.
Richard Heinberg gives a succinct explanation of peak oil in What a Way to Go, but reports that “the producer and director [of The 11th Hour] decided against including a mention of Peak Oil”. William Catton and Richard Manning speak directly about human overpopulation in What a Way to Go, but the problem is skirted in The 11th Hour.
The guests in The 11th Hour are all establishment names; the guests in What a Way to Go include a two of the same characters (Mander and Pimm - who are on the edge of the establishment) but most of the time is given to thinkers who are a bit too hot for the establishment to embrace with comfort. You won’t find What a Way to Go's main guests in National Geographic or receiving awards from the AAAS.
Overall, these are very different movies. An average child could safely see The 11th Hour as it is a sanitized account of reality, whereas What a Way to Go is more confronting. There is a place for both movies: just as An Inconvenient Truth dumbs down the science, over-simplifies the issues and underplays the magnitude of the problems - yet also awakend millions of people to a crisis they had not previously perceived, The 11th Hour breaks it gently for those who have not previously thought deeply about Earth's environment - the viewer takes away images and impressions. What a Way to Go is the advanced course for those who are intellectually and emotionally prepared to examine critically our way of life - the viewer takes away ideas, even subversive ones.
- to rally and inspire and increase the number of activists involved in particular campaigns
- for individual couples and families to help plan their futures - career choices, house location, house design, investments
- for groups who recognize that there are mounting problems around them, but who need to get focus and come to a common understanding to determine the best actions to take together
- for individuals to help them focus on what the fundamental problems are and what they themselves can best do about them
Deal with it
Here are some of the more difficult and confronting problems the movie asks us to deal with and not to avoid:
- Our culture, including some things we value most in daily life, is unsustainable. Tim Bennett explains in his 31 August 2007 blog post why he focused on our culture rather than the individuals whose businesses, advocacy and power are destroying the world.
These are the issues on the long list that scrolls up the screen halfway through the movie:
Record numbers of new coal plants coming on-line
Destruction of indigenous cultures
Salinization of groundwater
Depleted uranium poisoning
The unscalability of alternative energies
Red tides and algal blooms
Germ factories and bioweapons
Pre-emptive strikes policies
The US national debt
Collapse of the dollar
Collapsing housing bubble
Religious wars and crusades
New non-lethal weapons technology
Patenting of organisms
Lingering questions about 9/11
Declining per capita food production
Illegal mining and lumbering
LNG safety issues
Mental health breakdown
Runny moose marrow*
Heavy metal contamination
Methane hydrate mining
Conservation and efficiency
rising insurance losses
Rising birth defects
*Runny moose marrow? This is a manifestation of climate change that has achieved cult attention because of the quirky name given to it. The following reference was posted on the Web in 2004: "Native leaders say that salmon are increasingly susceptible to warm-water parasites and suffer from lesions and strange behavior. Salmon and moose meat have developed odd tastes and the marrow in moose bones is weirdly runny, they say."