Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Age of Stupid

Today I went to a screening of The Age of Stupid, which was being shown as part of the Cineco Film Festival, a series of free ecological films showing around Edinburgh between September and November.

The Age of Stupid investigates the contradictions and myopia of our present age from the viewpoint of an archivist (Pete Postlethwaite) living in a remote Arctic refuge storing what could be salvaged of the world's cultural treasures, looking back from the year 2055 at decades of catastrophic climate change and using a glorified iPad to create a documentary warning for extraterrestrials. It doesn't sound like a format that will fly, and the film opens with apocalyptic images of London underwater, the Swiss Alps without snow, Las Vegas being covered by sand dunes and Sydney's CBD consumed in a towering inferno, further confirming my expectations that the film would consist largely of terrifying crystal ball gazing, showing an unfolding series of disasters that would lead to Postlethwaite's archivist on his lonely refuge. Instead, the 2055 viewpoint is a mere framing device to allow a pastiche of archival documentary and news footage from prior to 2009, along with original interviews following six or seven figures from around the world. The period between 2009 and 2055 is left largely blank and we are confronted directly with the stupidity of our own age.

The archivist narrator begins with this question:

"The amazing thing is we had a chance to avert this. The conditions we are experiencing now were actually caused by our behaviour in the period leading up to 2015. In other words, we could have saved ourselves. We could have saved ourselves, but we didn't. What state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?"
And that is the focus of the film: the inability of our present society to join the dots between fighting climate change and wanting cheap flights, or hating wind farms. It is a moving and at times darkly amusing film, but the apocalyptic framing which grabs your attention also proves somewhat distracting, since the full devastating effects of climate change are left largely unstated. There is a brief discussion with Mark Lynas (author of the widely-read Six Degrees) and a couple of other hints (passing references to food riots, for instance), but the shape of the threat that could conceivably lead to the archivist's world is largely unspoken. Perhaps this was for the sake of time, or perhaps to avoid the charge of fear-mongering, though I think that a rational discussion of the genuine threats identified in the scientific literature is far more responsible (even if initially more terrifying) than a few apocalyptic images and a heavy dose of post-apocalyptic regret.

Once again, the film was stronger on the diagnosis of the problem than on offering plausible paths to how we might indeed "save ourselves", or (what might now be more realistic) offering healthy ways of salvaging what we can from a disaster that is now unavoidable, but whose effects can still be significantly reduced.

That said, I would still recommend the film as worth seeing. One particular highlight was the brief and clear explanation of contraction and convergence, which is a serious suggestion for how it is possible to slash global emissions while allowing developing nations to get out of stupid poverty. Of course, this means developing nations cutting their emissions even faster in order to leave some room for the global poor to meet their basic needs. This option is not politically viable, especially in the places where per capita emissions would need to fall the fastest (US, Australia, Canada and parts of the Middle East), but it is the most equitable of all the options on the table and has received support from a number of nations, including the UK.

Also coming up as part of the Cineco film festival are two more films that look very interesting. The first is called Our Daily Bread and consists almost purely of footage of contemporary industrial agricultural processes with commentary or soundtrack beyond environmental noises recorded with the footage, allowing the viewer to form her own opinions. It is screening at 6pm on the 12th November.

The second is called Dirt! and traces one of the major ecological challenges that doesn't receive much attention: the soil beneath our feet (and all too often, beneath our concrete too). In the last one hundred years, in different ways we have squandered about a third of all fertile topsoil on the planet. It is screening at 6pm on 17th November (Martin Hall, New College) and will include a panel discussion with local religious leaders. Here is the trailer.


byron smith said...

DD: Iowa losing topsoil up to 50 times faster than replacement rate.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Soil: it's what keeps us clothed and fed.

"There is more fresh water in the world’s soils than in all its lakes and rivers. Soil contains more carbon than in all the vegetation and atmosphere above it. In a single handful of soil there are a billion organisms, 10 million species and more DNA than in a human body."

byron smith said...

Stephen Leahy: The quite crisis. Soil degradation has affected an area the size of Canada and China combined, and 12 million hectares more are lost to desertification each year. Mitigation is relatively easy, but requires policies that encourage long term thinking over short term gain.