Friday, August 21, 2009

Home: where we've come from; where we're going

What do you think of when you think of "home"? Warmth, food, comfort, safety, family? A place to relax and be yourself? A place to leave your dirty socks lying around?

This ninety-three minute film is titled simply Home. It is stunningly shot, beautifully scored, nicely narrated and serves as one of the best short introductions to the current human predicament that forms the backdrop to my PhD research. It was apparently the largest film release in history, but somehow I hadn't heard of it until today. It has intentionally also been released for free viewing on YouTube. I would love to hear your reactions to it.

Most of the film consists of breath-taking aerial shots of places you've never seen, or of common things you've never seen like this before, while a female narrator takes us through the history of humanity and how we got to be where we are today, all in carefully scripted prose. After a twenty-minute introduction to life on earth and the history of homo sapiens, the bulk of the film covers many of the most pressing issues that are both caused by and threatening the continued existence of modern industrial society: peak oil, climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, pollution, over-fishing, sea level rises, wetland destruction, biodiversity loss, water depletion, mineral depletion, population explosion and social inequality (perhaps the only significant issues not touched upon are soil salination, desertification and introduced species - but, hey, they only had ninety-three minutes). The images progress from one case-study to the next, each standing for one of the issues under discussion. It is wide-ranging, but there is a coherent thread ("faster and faster") that unites the images, and the narration only occasionally lapses into breathless hyperbole.

And of course there is also the obligatory uplifting section found at the end of every mainstream eco-film. However, the hopeful possibilities held out, while inspiring, still felt mainly like wishful thinking. While deeply moving, it ultimately failed to convince me that "together, we can do it".

"It is too late for pessimism" the narrator repeatedly claims, but I wonder whether most forms of optimism require dishonesty (or at least a fair dollop of willful ignorance). At least, where that optimism is for something more or less like today, but perhaps with fewer cars, more efficient light bulbs and wall to wall windfarms. I am all for windfarms, but if even half of the claims in the first eighty minutes of the film are true, then it is too late for sustainable development. Things will have to get much worse before they get anything that approximates better. May God have mercy on us all.
All images from the film. Can you guess what each is of? H/T to Garth for the link and bringing the film to my attention.


Garth De Visser said...

Hi Byron,

I'm glad you got something out of the movie. Personally, I quite enjoyed it. I found it informative, easy to follow and beautiful to watch. I thought it did a pretty satisfactory job of covering a broad range of complications that are starting to arise from human influence on the planet. Also, I liked the different approach, with the development and evolution of ecological systems. I found that it gave a different context to our current problems than what we usually see.

The feeling I have about humanity's ability to address the challenges we've created for ourselves with climate change remind me somewhat of King Leonidas & the Spartans in their battle against the Persians: It was probably hopeless, but they fought anyway. Even up to the moments when they realised certain defeat was imminent, they kept going. In those last moments, I don't believe they fought any longer for the hope of victory, but they fought because it was who they were.

I feel this way about humanity's collective ability to address climate change. In a perfect world success would be almost certain, but with our limitations I believe we have too much inertia for change. It's all too human to concern oneself with immediate threats, but ones that sneak up over many years are overlooked. It's been reported on the news that despite the efforts to curb CO2 emissions, measurements have shown that we are progressing along the trajectory for the worst-case scenario faster than expected. There certainly will be some efforts made to curb modern society's approach, but I don't believe it will be enough, and I believe we will inevitably have to face the consequences of a progressively more turbulent climate in the years to come.

But at this point in the story, King Leonidas didn't throw up his arms & exclaim, "Ah, it's not working, let's just go home. Have some wine, make love to our wives, wait for the inevitable." Faced with the impossible he threw himself into it head on, and that, I think, is the inspiration we can aspire to.

In that way I support all suggestions of optimism, & I encourage all efforts to work towards a solution. Not because I hope for victory, but because this situation calls us to show who we really are.

byron smith said...

Thanks Garth, that is a very interesting and encouraging response and the Thermopylae reference is a very interesting one.

These questions are in fact close to the heart of my research (one of the issues I'm very interested in how we keep going even if it seems futile to do so). Something I'm considering is how it is possible to acknowledge the reality of a bad situation without giving in to despair or needing in some way to deny the seriousness of the situation (even to ourselves).