Baubles and energy. That’s what our modern lives revolve around. Our beautiful distractions and the juice that makes them go. Technology has revolutionized our lives a thousand times over in the past few centuries. It’s also given humanity a sense of indomitability, that this world of ours is a machine to be manipulated to our brilliant ends. Thing is, the world is big, and yet surprisingly fragile. We’re just inches away from pushing this planet irrevocably over an existential cliff. Of course, the planet itself won’t be gone. Just most of the things we recognize living on it. Us and the polar bears. All the cars and clothes and smart phones won’t make a whit of difference when there isn’t enough arable land to grow food for everybody. Think the Dark Ages with twisters and typhoons thrown in for good measure.
But that’s a future that hasn’t happened yet. This Changes Everything (2015) marks our momentous present, circuiting the globe to capture the intense environmental fights unfolding in places from Canada and the U.S. to Greece, India and China. Naomi Klein narrates the film based on her book and directed by her partner Avi Lewis. Klein has a knack for hot button issues, from burgeoning corporate advertising (No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies) to ethically appalling corporate exploitation (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). She’d probably dislike the comment, but her brand is anti-globalization. Fortunately she brings a tone of wry observation along for what really is the most stridently urgent issue of our time. She herself remarks in the film’s opening that she’s always hated films about climate change. It’s a disarming start, but it calls quick attention to our own stifling inaction. It’s not that it’s too hard to care. The problem is just so numbingly big.
Lewis and Klein are careful to ground these battles in individual people. In so many cases, these struggles are taken up by just a few brave souls, almost always poor, about to be crushed by the grinding corporate capitalist machine. Here in Canada, the bogey is the massive tar sands development taking place in Alberta, a project estimated to be potentially worth $150 billion in revenues over the course of the next few decades. The process for extracting the oil is devastating, as first the trees, then the top-soil, subsoil and clay are all stripped away in vast swathes of deep-cutting destruction. Then the oily sands below are taken for processing with huge amounts of water, the waste byproducts of which are jettisoned into enormous tailing ponds currently covering over 77 square kilometres of land (or roughly 30 square miles). A dam to hold in these tailing ponds is among the largest earth structures in the world. The engineering’s impressive but aerial shots reveal the work as massive black sores on the land. Small native communities live in the shadow of this development, and the leaks and processing are killing them. The struggle to slow down or stop the development is ongoing, with the Harper government turning an unsurprisingly deaf ear. It’s disheartening watching a native woman attempt to navigate the red tape just to get access to see the development taking place on what is supposed to be native land. Meanwhile the oil field workers make massive coin and drown their residual guilt in a haze of alcohol, knowing just a few years of grinding the earth will set them up for life.
The money potential is massive, and it’s hard for other countries like debt-ridden Greece to turn down, as when a Canadian gold company wants to build a large processing plant. But again such development comes with a clear environmental cost, and in Greece the local residents rise up and successfully beat back the prospect of a noxious factory polluting their home. In India, the local populace protests the building of large coal-burning power plants, whatever the benefit of the electricity might be. But not before police kill two protestors during a demonstration. The projects themselves are seductive, offering the alchemy of money for resources, or the siren call of development and productivity. Klein’s key insight is that this thinking is a story we’ve all bought into, that nature is a machine for humanity to manipulate and dominate. Originating in the Enlightenment in the 1700s, this narrative has fuelled tremendous industrial and technological development. But it’s also divorced us from our connection to the planet that fosters our existence. Lewis and Klein draw out the ways in which indigenous and agrarian cultures recognize a link to the land that we have forgotten. The insight’s even more clear in China, where development has run amok, choking city skies with the thick fog of pollution. Sure, they’ve experienced tremendous industrial growth, but with an obvious cost. Protest isn’t easy. An independent filmmaker’s documentary on the pollution is viewed millions of times on the internet in the week before the government takes it down. But the effects are so clear that Beijing is forced to embark on a massive program of switching to solar energy. For once, the benefits of a command economy are clear.
Certainly, the champions of the free market don’t get off easily. Lewis and Klein talk of sacrifice zones, places where corporations have deemed that the poor or uninhabited land will bear the brunt of development. Even Obama is presented in a less than flattering light, shown bragging about the miles of gas and oil pipelines his administration has green-lighted, so many that laid end-to-end they’d circle the planet. And while Germany’s Angela Merkel is an appalling proponent of the sort of austerity that’s crippling Greece, the German people have been amongst the most forward thinking around, buying back their local hydro companies and embarking on their own city solar plans. Klein observes that this crisis in its many instances around the globe is our best chance to make something better, to rethink how we live and the ways we prosper.
The film isn’t entirely successful. It’s a diffuse argument. Klein’s book is 500 pages long, and it’s hard to boil down in a 90-minute movie. Undoubtedly it’s preaching to the converted. Just about anybody that’s likely to see it already believes the film’s core tenets. Even so, and let’s say a majority of us do believe the climate has changed significantly for the worse in the past twenty years, the idea that grassroots battle can make change is significant. It’s always been true, for civil rights, gay marriage, just about any progressive issue. Where governments can’t or won’t lead, the grassroots show the way. Where the film shows local people fighting to protect the places they live and winning, it is inspiring. But what the hell do you do about the climate, the air, the earth and the water? The movie shows that picking a direct fight works, if enough people come together with a clear target to oppose. I’ve got one more suggestion for you, a simple one. Some time in the next five to ten years, when you buy your next car, make it electric. Good as it is, Lewis and Klein’s movie won’t change everything. That really would.
This Changes Everything appears on Sunday, September 13th at TIFF, and will play twice more during the festival. It will also appear at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October. For TIFF screening info, see here.