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Comparing What a Way to Go with The 11th Hour

Keith Thomas, Nature and Society Forum (NSF)
Here is the full comparison of “What a Way to Go” and Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The 11th Hour”

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.
(11 October 2007)
Part of a larger section at the NSF site: “What a Way to Go – Life at the End of Empire”

Stop Calling Me a “Doomer”

Carolyn Baker, Truth to Power
Last week a review of the documentary “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” was posted on Energy Bulletin and sub-titled “a review of a new doomer cult classic.” While the review was favorable, I must state that as someone who has seen the documentary dozens of times, who consistently shows it to my history classes, and who is a personal friend of the film makers, I was appalled at the use of the word “doomer” to describe the film. The reviewer’s use of the term was the culmination for me of the inappropriate use of “doomer” to label individuals who have rejected the soporific of “hope” with respect to the terminal state of planet earth. I am equally unnerved by those who consistently describe me as “negative” and obsessively attempt-almost beg me-to offer them “something positive.” Hence, the inspiration to write this article.

I’d like to begin with defining the word doom. My dictionary defines doom as: “fate or destiny, esp. adverse fate; unavoidable ill fortune.” When I consult a dictionary of etymology, I notice that the term had its origins in the early Christian era and is connected with the idea of divine judgment. Since I have made clear ad infinitum, ad nauseum that the “fate” of the planet is in our hands and that extinction of earth’s life forms including humanity is unequivocally avoidable, labeling me as someone who embraces “doom” is factually erroneous. Likewise, most people who know me well do not experience me as someone who walks around preaching divine judgment. After all, I published my autobiography earlier this year in which I described in vivid detail my exodus decades ago from Christian fundamentalism and all that “divine judgment” yah-yah that I grew up with.

Let me say again: The probable extinction of the human race and all life forms on the planet is absolutely avoidable, and it is not the product of an angry deity who will visit judgment on his naughty children. Only humans can reverse the lethal process they alone have set in motion.

Secondly, anyone who watches “What A Way To Go” to the end will be incessantly confronted with the notion of opportunity that the film makers insist the collapse of civilization brings with it. In fact, one could easily replace nearly every use of the word “collapse” in the documentary with the word “rebirth.” People locked into “doom” do not talk about rebirth; far from it-they are generally depressed individuals who may be looking to throw themselves under the next freight train or jump off the nearest cliff.
(22 October 2007)
As Carolyn mentions, the film review itself was sympathetic to the movie, as is JMG who posted it on Gristmill. Carolyn is specifically objecting to the headline, but I am not sure who at Gristmill wrote it. In any case, I think her larger point is against the label “doomer.”

Personally, I have not found general arguments about “doomers” and “collapse” to be very helpful. There is so much uncertainty, so much emotion involved. Besides I always find myself in the middle.

I’d rather talk about specific trends and responses. For example, what’s the effect of oil and natural gas shortages on fertilizers and food production? How do you convince people of the need for change?

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I think the “anti-doomers” have become more aware of the dangers ahead. And those who had been labelled “doomers” have become active in some form of response. -BA

Desire and the Green Cure

Richard Glover, Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
I used to feel bad about mindless consumerism but not any more. The green movement has come to my rescue. With every purchase, I can now enjoy the warm glow of helping develop environmentally sound practices.

There’s my new briefcase, for example. It is shiny and luxurious and its purchase has allowed me to throw my old one into the bin. But there’s no eco-guilt for me.

According to the manufacturer, the leather in my briefcase was stained using “extracts of bark and seeds collected from renewable sources in the forests of Africa and India”. The work was all done by “traditional artisans”, all of them using “sustainable practices” in the “old saddler tradition”. There’s not a lot of detail on the leather but, based on the tone of the pamphlet, I’m pretty sure the cows would have been volunteers.

I feel I now deserve some sort of medal just for handing over my credit card.

I’m not alone in falling for this sort of sales pitch. People are always looking for an excuse to consume more and the latest excuse – bizarrely – is environmentalism.

Let’s call it “greensumerism”. Forget the simple mantra of “less is more”; with the help of the green movement you can now indulge in a frenzy of consumerism, with each luxury purchase excused by the idea that you are helping the development of the “green” sector.
(21 October 2007)
Also at Common Dreams

A strange feeling as a way of life

Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
Is everything alright? It should be, but it increasingly feels like it’s not — even though we may have enough to eat and have a comfortable roof over our heads. We can go buy anything we imagine we need. Besides more war and a corporate-lackey government, what’s wrong with our lives in what’s supposed to be a democracy?

This question has been explored by many social philosophers. Some answers have emerged. But they usually don’t offer a realistic, current analysis of what’s happening to the economy and infrastructure of “developed, rich” countries. Nor do they flesh out well the likely scenarios of a world without abundant exosomatic energy as we’ve come to expect with electricity, transport and petroleum-grown/distributed food.

…I have written 168 columns and reports before this one on, exploring our dominant culture’s weaknesses and fatal flaws, and identifying examples of destructive policies and individuals. The bad guys are not really the problem, and the good guys will not save us. We have to be our own leaders. We can do two things to help our own cause as individuals, as members of our true community just ahead, and as a species. I believe those two things are …

…The global peak in oil extraction has been recognized by the City and County Of San Francisco, and the crisis is being explored for mitigation in part through education of the citizenry. I am honored to have been appointed by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 4th to be a member of the new Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force. On it I can only try to share my knowledge and my enthusiasm for meaningful social change through both policy and individual life-style transformation. The goal in my heart and mind is to help point the way to a “new” culture of frugal, local energy use and climate-saving daily living for our precious Earth and all its species. Be assured the technofix is not going to get a free pass on my watch, nor, I suspect, from my esteemed fellow task force members.
(14 October 2007)