Naomi Klein & the Let­down of the Leap Manifesto: It’s Time We Divest From the Pipelines – the Pipelines of Film & Television (part 4/4)

October 14, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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 You don’t need to tell me that some people out there take film rather seriously. Sometimes ridiculously seriously – "film for film’s sake, art for art’s sake!" Fortunately, and as far as I’m aware, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis only fall into the former category. Nonetheless, in a conversation with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! that followed the release of the Leap Manifesto and the documentary This Changes Everything, Klein, Lewis and Gonzalez pretty much trip over each other while extolling the amazing things that film can (supposedly) do:

Klein: I think the thing that a film can do so much better than a book, frankly, is really bring us into the heart of the social movements… And, you know, it’s one thing to read about it – "Oh, these movements are rising up" – but it’s something very different to be immersed in the energy of social movements.

Lewis: There’s another… thing that film can do that books just can’t: The look on Naomi’s face in the cutaway in the climate deniers’ conference is pretty unforgettable. That alone was worth the experience.

Gonzalez: Well, the other thing a film can do, obviously, is capture, in a way that a book really can’t, the actual beauty of the planet that is being violated by this rampant industrialization.

I’m obviously not going to touch Lewis’ comment. But regarding Klein’s and Gonzalez’ comments, what they could have also mentioned is that with enough computing power and technological advancement, virtual reality (VR) could far outshine film when it comes to "bring[ing] us into the heart of… social movements" and "captur[ing]… the actual [actual?] beauty of the planet." Would VR be an acceptable tool in the arsenal of progressives and activists? And would it matter that an extra dose of fossil fuels would be needed for it all? Because the one thing that the medium of film does much better than books is burn through climate change-causing fossil fuels. Sure, a film, in the singular, can enlighten, possibly even end up carbon neutral, but that point of view misses the forest for the trees. Because when we take a systemic, full-accounting look at the medium of film (which means including an analysis of its knock-on effects) – the advertising needed to cover its costs, the fossil fuels required to power all the induced consumption, and so on – it’s plainly obvious that film in its totality is heavy in the carbon spewing red. That’s something books can’t accomplish, or at least nowhere near as effectively. That being so, I can’t help but wonder if the aforementioned praise lavished upon film is just another round of (unintentional) prostration before the altar of techno-gimmickry. (In case you didn’t know, the telegraph was supposed to erase all boundaries and usher in peace between all nations. So was the radio. The destructive potential of dynamite was to forever-more ward off the possibility of war. Television was supposed to enlighten the masses. And on and on and on. Now it’s "film can… really bring us into the heart of the social movements". Sure, okay.)

What I also can’t help but wonder about is the net result between the amount of activism that film inspires versus the amount of pacification it induces in viewers. For on top of much else, does "captur[ing]… the actual beauty of the planet" actually result in a benefit, or does it mostly make us into a bunch of passive voyeurs content with accepting things the way they are, partially in thanks to the many things – like "beauty" – that we can readily access and consume thanks to screens? If it’s the latter, might it not be possible then that that pacification is contributing to a people who are less and less capable of doing things for themselves, who become more and more dependent upon the products and services of corporations, which all then feeds into the growing divide between the haves and have nots? Just because industrial agriculture feeds many of us – including activists – that doesn’t mean it should be championed. Similarly, just because film (industrial communication?) can be used to inform activists (or just your average concerned person), is that enough of a reason to sing its praises?

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Director of The Take and This Changes Everything (photo by Jordi Motlló)

Supposing there’s mirth to any of that, none of it seems to be of issue with Klein or the Leap Manifesto in the slightest. On the contrary, while showing indirect support for the film industry via the making of This Changes Everything (whose production team included Seth MacFarlane, Danny Glover, and Pamela Anderson), they do also show a direct support for the film and television industries. Because included amongst the Leap Manifesto’s initial supporters is a who’s who of some of the luminaries of Hollywood North (otherwise known as Toronto) and the rest of Canada: Leonard Cohen, Ellen Page, Arcade Fire, Feist, Rachel McAdams, Donald Sutherland, Neil Young, Alanis Morissette, everyone’s favourite futurist William Gibson, Sarah Polley, Pamela Anderson, and so forth.

As the Globe and Mail put it,

the Leap Manifesto [was] signed by prominent NDP supporters, native-rights activists, movie stars and pop musicians, and endorsed by public-service unions with strong NDP links.

Which makes me think of holding aloft three apples and a banana and noticing "hmm, one of these is different from the rest." Because while we know what prominent NDP supporters, native-rights activists, and public-service unions stand for (and that Klein supports their social justice aspirations), what are "movie stars and pop musicians" doing in this bushel? That is, it’s obvious enough that what native-rights activists stand for is native-rights. By extension, I think we ought to know that the underlying thing that movie stars and movie directors stand for is movie industry-rights. And what movie industry-rights have to do with social justice (the goals of the other three mentioned) is beyond me. And why you would want to be giving legitimacy to movie industry-rights when talking about climate change is really beyond me.

As Klein described the reason for having celebrity backers,

they’re people, and they’re really freaked out about climate change and really grateful to be able to do something about it.

But every one of us counts as a "people", and to try and justify somebody and/or their actions because, well, "they’re people" can quite easily be interpreted as whitewashing. For as Klein told Rob Hopkins,

if we pretend that our political differences don’t exist and that we’re all friends in every arena, then we erase very real systems of oppression.

But aren’t those with political differences also "people"? Don’t they also get some kind of pass? And if not, why does one set of "people" get excused but not another bunch of "people"? I’ll substitute a few words of my own (in italics) into Klein’s latter quote to make my point clear.

[I]f we pretend that our differences in the way we make our livings don’t exist and that we’re all friends in every arena then we erase very real systems of climate destruction.

To add a bit more clarity to this, here are a few words David Suzuki gave just before Klein commented about "people".

It’s an entry point in for people who pay a lot of attention to celebrities that you otherwise might not have… [Because] what they do is offer their ability to attract press to let people like Naomi talk to the wide world.

And herein lies, I believe, one of our biggest problems with our current approach to climate change. By depending on celebrities to attract attention to "people like Naomi" – and by extension climate change – what we are essentially endorsing is what you might call "ethical narcissism." And the problem with "ethical narcissism" can be seen with Klein’s statement that celebrities are "really grateful to be able to do something about [climate change]". Reason being, the only "something" that these celebrities are doing is voicing a few words (and perhaps adding in a signature). And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that perhaps those "people who pay a lot of attention to celebrities" might not be getting their cue from the latest what’s-her/his-face that celebrities are supposedly bringing attention to, but rather from the celebrities themselves. And if that’s the case, then what we’re teaching ourselves is that what we do with our lives – how much we consume, if we actually produce anything of worth, how our chosen line of work effects the greater good (or bad) – doesn’t really matter. Because what really matters is that we get up on stage to voice our opinions and say those five oh-so-important words – "I disagree with climate change." Otherwise put, words speak louder than actions.

I’m sure I could go on and on with examples here, but having mentioned Tommy Douglas in part 1, let’s go with the Leap Manifesto backer that happened to marry Douglas’ daughter (and sire two children with her, one named Kiefer), Donald Sutherland. While Sutherland makes his living in highly costly industries (film and television) that can only pay for themselves with massive amounts of consumption-inducing advertising, he doesn’t stop there. For as was burned into the audible portion of my memory many years ago, Sutherland apparently needs the extra $200,000 – $400,000 that celebrities can get for doing an hour’s worth of voice-over work. And whose commercials might Sutherland be shilling for? That would be none other than the automobile manufacturer Volvo. Or perhaps "formerly shilling for" would be a better way of putting it. Because as I just learned, Sutherland has moved up – way up – in the world. That’s right, no longer content with shilling for land-based CO2 spewers, for several years now Sutherland has been the spokesman for… wait for it… Delta Airlines! (And while we’re at it, Sutherland’s son, Kiefer, has shilled for Ponzi-scheming Bank of America – which I suppose means that he’s oh-so-against economic growth or something.)

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Leaping for it? (photos by Ibsan73 and bradleypjohnson)

The climate lesson here, I think, is very clear: please be "really freaked out [enough] about climate change" that you put aside any scruples that may get in your way. Do whatever you need to make a buck (or several hundred thousand of them – or millions of them) and to move up in the world. Because once you’ve gotten high enough, only then will you be in a position that matters and which people will take seriously enough to listen to. That’s how one makes a difference. (And please don’t forget – fly Delta!)

This oh-so-concerned celebrity way of life is then effectively excused by Klein and the Leap Manifesto when it’s said that we can supply 100+% of our current energy usage with renewables. Because if so, then there really isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t look up to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and there isn’t any reason to think that we can’t – shouldn’t – be as consumptive as we want.

Perhaps I should point out that I say this as somebody for whom one-third of the reason he passed up on the opportunity for a lucrative film career was because he took climate change seriously enough that he decided to not go through with it (which was two years before he learned about peak oil), and who also hasn’t watched a minute of film, television or online video in more than ten years either. That being the case – and I’ll put this lightly – I can no longer help but find this whole climate change movement of ours as being little more than a complete joke. As far as I see it, climate change isn’t taken anywhere nearly as serious as it should be, and is why I long ago wrote off all the blather one hears about climate change for a greater emphasis on the issues of peak oil and collapse.

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The secret cabal behind the 100+% renewable energy push: The Mickey Mouse Club (currently on display at Australia’s premier institution of higher learning, Melbourne University, Baillieu Library: "TeeVee at Sixty" – yippee!)

In retrospect, I was initially put off by an assertion made by Steve Hallett in his book The Efficiency Trap (pp. 156-57):

Conserve energy for what, exactly?… Save [fossil fuels] for what, exactly? To answer this question we need to think about how much of the world’s endowment of fossil fuels humankind will actually consume, and the answer to this question is simple: we will consume all the coal, oil, and natural gas that we can… Fossil fuels saved are not really saved at all. They are just saved to be burned another way on another day.

But after giving some thought to Hallett’s assertion over the next several months I realized that what I didn’t like about it was that it was "negative". That, however, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t right, and so far as things like the Leap Manifesto keep showing me, I think he is right (while not being nihilistic, I should add). Because beyond the non-impactful-upon-our-lives actions of replacing our cars and driving more fuel efficient light bulbs, it’s blatantly obvious that we’ve so far been unwilling to make any (significant) sacrifices in our lives. Moreover, and thanks to the green light provided by such things as the Leap Manifesto, it now seems even more likely that we’re going to continue consuming the movies and other products hawked by ethical narcissists, all fine and dandy thanks to 100+% renewable energy (be it a fairy tale or not).

In no way do I mean this as a veiled jab at Klein who, as the Guardian puts it, "is set to rock up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, ‘a climate criminal’." And just like Klein doesn’t want to be trapped in "gotcha games", I similarly don’t want to get dragged into pointing fingers at Klein. Sure, I too have read people make far-fetched yet strangely arguable observations that, now with Al Gore mostly out of the picture, it can seem that the fossil fuel industry has planted Klein there in order to discredit the opposition. But as I was told by Mike Nickerson (author of the book Life, Money and Illusion), "I was asked by my publisher at New Society Publishers, ‘are you willing to burn up a bunch of fossil fuels to drive all across Canada talking about your book and about using less fossil fuels?’" That is, burning up some fossil fuels is unavoidable if one wants to speak up beyond the confines of one’s neighbourhood (I think this is what Wendell Berry was referring to when he said "this is original sin, round two"), and it’s ultimately up to us and the person in the mirror to decide what degree of CO2 spewage that should be.

What I do want to single out though is the over-emphasis on the vicarious supply-side approach of trying to stop oil pipelines, divesting ourselves – not really ourselves, but institutions – from fossil fuel companies, unloading virtually all responsibility for fixing things onto governments, and so forth. Says Mashable:

Australians overwhelmingly believe in climate change, according to a new poll, and they are more than ready for the government to do something about it.

There is of course nothing wrong with trying to stop a pipeline going through your land that will destroy your farm, way of life, surrounding ecosystem, etc. (Andrew Nikiforuk’s updated version of Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil is on my reading list). But while some of us vicariously support initiatives on the supply side, virtually nothing is being done on the demand side. For contrary to Klein’s opinion (the Guardian: "[Klein] argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much"), major differences could very easily be implemented on the personal, demand side.

That is, while supporting work to halt pipelines that transport crude, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t also start working on stopping the pipelines made out of coaxial cables (and such) that transport industrial communication. Or in other words, it’s time we start the work of shutting down the film and television industries.

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I once (stupidly) forked over 5,000 smackeroos for one of those things. But it fortunately ended up getting in the way of the blunt end of an axe (photo by Jordi Motlló)

Here’s some reasoning: while the advertising industry is of course the greatest instigator of our consumptive ways of life, the most powerful and effective means of advertising come to us via the film and television industries, since no form of advertising is as effective and entrancing as moving pictures accompanied by sound.

Next: Klein has stated that

Moving to a far more localized and ecologically based agricultural system would reduce reliance on fossil fuels, capture carbon in the soil and absorb sudden shocks in the global supply – as well as produce healthier and more affordable food for everyone.

Which is absolutely correct. What Klein doesn’t mention though is the one thing needed if we don’t want a bunch of California-esque organic monocultures replete with (dismally low EROEI) biofuel-powered tractors. And that one thing, namely, is people. But as "Wes Jackson, the visionary founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas" (Klein’s words, not mine, although they might as well have been) has described it in one of his most prescient observations, we lack an adequate "eyes-to-acres ratio." Or otherwise put, we don’t have enough people to properly take care of and work the land. And how, may I ask, are we ever going to improve upon our eyes-to-acres ratio when we have such a massive eyes-to-TVs-and-movie-screens ratio, encouraged by such valued voices as Naomi Klein and David Suzuki, as well as such things as the Leap Manifesto? How are we ever going to make the agrarian shift we need for "moving to a far more localized and ecologically based agricultural system" if while decrying business-as-usual we nonetheless continue to support life-as-usual?

For lack of a better analogy, forget killing two birds with one stone. Because by getting rid of film and television we could kill an entire flock with one stone. Not only could we free up the eyes needed to improve Jackson’s eyes-to-acres ratio, but we could also rid ourselves of the need for all the fossil fuels to power the production and consumption of those films and television shows, we could make a major dent in the Cult of Narcissism that plagues us like virtually no other cult, we could throw a decent-sized spanner in the consumption-inducing hold that the advertising industry has on us, and on and on and on. An entire flock!

When I started telling people that I hadn’t watched any film and television in over two years (which is now over ten years), the question I got asked the most was "but what about eco-films?" Never mind that to some that will sound kind of elitist – watching eco-films is okay, but watching Game of Kardashian Thrones is not? – but if ditching film and television was actually a serious goal of ours, then that could never be accomplished without a proper example given by those at the "top", those who claimed to be the most concerned about eco-oriented issues. (It’s worth noting though that perhaps the only arguable reason for watching film and [particularly] television is because after coming home from your unrewarding and soul-destroying wage-slave job [or second wage-slave job or third wage-slave job or –] that you’re so completely spent that you barely have the psychological capacity to function anymore, save for microwaving something for the little ones and crashing in front of the TV. It’s hard to blame that person for "indulging".)

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Coming soon (soonish?) to a civilization near you

Another problem with "eco-films" is the idea that we absolutely need film and television to talk about things like climate change with one another. For if we don’t think that we can accomplish conversing effectively with one another without film and television then I’d say we’ve got a problem much bigger than climate change of which perhaps needs to be dealt with first. Secondly, are we so enraptured with film and television that we can’t consider doing away with it? Is cutting back on – ridding ourselves of – film and television off limits when it comes to addressing limits? Because the fact of the matter is there is no single extremely viable change we could make in our lives to combat fossil fuel consumption – and by extension climate change – than ditching film and television. We can’t instantaneously stop driving cars, we can’t instantaneously stop eating industrial food, we can’t instantaneously start defecating in compost toilets, etc. However, we most certainly can stop watching film and television at the snap of a finger, which would also go far in cutting down on our exposure to and complacency when it comes to narcissism, vapid advertising, and so forth. The knock-on effects would be enormous. An entire flock!

As Michael Klare has asked,

How [do we] explain the world’s tenacious reliance on fossil fuels, despite all that we know about their role in global warming and those lofty promises made in Paris?

He then points out that

approaches [that] helped reduce tobacco consumption around the world… can be adapted to the anti-carbon struggle… [A]dvertising can be made to incorporate warning signs saying something like, "Notice: Consumption of this product increases your exposure to asthma, heat waves, sea level rise, and other threats to public health." Once such an approach began to be seriously considered, there would undoubtedly be a host of other ideas for how to begin to put limits on our fossil-fuel addiction.

Similarly, Klein has stated that

After years of recycling, carbon offsetting and light bulb changing, it is obvious that individual action will never be an adequate response to the climate crisis. Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action. One of the key areas in which this collective action must take place is big-ticket investments designed to reduce our emissions on a mass scale.

This is most certainly true. By no means can we expect many people out there to be as much of an idiot as myself that they actually pass up on a lucrative career as a filmmaker (and who have watched no film, television or online video in over ten years) because they take climate change to be of serious importance. That’s not going to happen. That being the case, what we need, as Klein stated, is concerted "collective action". That is, collective action to begin the dissolution of the film and television industries.

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Yes film, we’re talkin’ to you – it’s time to vamoose!

Although how to go about dismantling the film and television industries will require much more thought than a few paragraphs in a mere blog post, some off the cuff (and a bit over the top) general ideas for a future Endarkenment Manifesto are as follows:

  • Film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival must start reducing the amount of films they play by 10% a year. No loopholes – films have a maximum length of 100 minutes, credits included
  • No permits for new television stations/channels are to be given out. Furthermore, the amount of television stations/channels should be reduced by a predetermined percentage every year
  • Television broadcasting is to be restricted in the wee hours of the night, starting off with a no-broadcasting window between the hours of 12am and 7am
  • All televisions and projectors must be removed from schools
  • All film schools should be phased out and shut down within four years
  • A buy-back system is to be put in place to take in existing televisions, which are to be dismantled
  • Movie theatres, like film festivals, are to cut down the amount of movies they play by 10% a year
  • Netflix and similar operations are to be heavily taxed
  • The sale of video cameras is to be phased out
  • Video cameras on smart phones are to be phased out
  • Cameras on the top of computer screens are to be phased out
  • As per Klare’s suggestion, "advertising… incorporat[ing] warning signs" are to precede every movie and television show. They are to depict various outcomes of climate change and the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization due to peak oil and other limits to growth, with warning signs of increased severity due to sustained film and television viewing. (I’d direct the ads myself, but I don’t think there’s enough bailing twine and tuct tape in the entire world to put my video camera back together again.)
  • And YouTube? While commercials are to be restricted from usage by YouTube, YouTube videos are to be limited to a resolution of, say, 100 by 100 pixels

Since the collapse of the film and television industries is inevitable in the long run due to energy constraints and the collapse of industrial civilization itself, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t start dismantling them ourselves now and save ourselves some even greater pain down the road. And for those who get a bit too antsy waiting for things like collective action, then there’s always the option to, as John Michael Greer has suggested, "collapse now, avoid the rush". (Or perhaps "endarken now, pre-empt the blackout".)

Because while climate change says we should start dissolving the film and television industries for the future’s sake, peak oil says we should do so for the present’s sake. For if we expect to have the time and the mind frame to deal with the kind of effects that energy constraints are already having in countries like Greece (see my previous posts on that here and here), then there’s no way we can keep up with the film and television way of life.

Furthermore, the inevitable protracted collapse of industrial civilization will imply the need for people to grow more of their own food – less of being couch potatoes and more of cultivating potatoes. Similarly, we will ultimately need more farmers – good farmers – which means men and women who are observant of the many variables involved – soil nutrient levels, hydrology, precipitation, erosion, weather patterns, plant health, interaction between (mixed) crops and insects, seed vigour and preservation, animal health, upkeep of barns, animal shelters and sheds, maintenance of tools, capture of carbon from the air and its sequestration into the soil, and on and on and on. In other words, a good farmer is someone who is acutely aware of their surroundings and many variables. But unfortunately, and as Joel Salatin put it to Michael Pollan in the latter’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Wall Street has sucked all the A students from the farms and left all the D students (which is mostly correct except for the fact that it was actually Wall Street and Sunset Boulevard). That’s been somewhat viable for the time being thanks to industrial farming and all its inputs, but won’t work with the ecological agriculture we’re going to need in the future – or rather, which we need now.

While thus needing a lot of sharp people to get into farming, it is inherent that these people be acutely observant of many variables. And who else is more fitting to be the poster-child of the future observant-farmer than the occupier of (one of) the profession(s) that we need to get rid of – filmmakers! Filmmakers – and most specifically, directors – must be similarly attentive of a wide array of details which are then brought together into a whole – script, lighting, acting, costume, set, camera work, editing, etc. In other words, while needing less couch potatoes and more potato cultivators, what we also need is less observant "filmers" and more observant farmers. (What, did you think I named this blog From Filmers to Farmers: From Couch Potatoes to Potato Cultivators because it sounded cute?)

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Melbourne gets it! In a few weeks the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) is to be shut down forever due to inclement weather!

Of course, I don’t expect the rough proposal I’ve laid out here to be taken seriously in the slightest. (Aussies, as per Mashable: "C’mon government! Do something about clima – ho woah woah, you want to do what!? Easy now, we weren’t being that serious. Let’s not be rash about this. Look, I’ll skip my latte today. That should be okay, right?") But if Avi Lewis was serious when he stated (as quoted in part 2) that "winning has replaced change as the goal… and that’s wrong", well believe you me, you ain’t gonna be winnin’ much a’ nuthin’ by ditching a film career to put an end to film careerism.

All aboard the From Filmers to Farmers express –

Losers ‘R Us!

Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

After four years in the film studies program at Ryer­son University in Toronto, Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen decided to turn his back on film­making and refrained from submitting what became his final film into the short film program of the Toronto International Film Festival. He is currently finishing off his first book, which will (somehow) be followed by the starting of the seed saving, fruit fermenting, booze brewing, billy goat browsing, experimental, demonstration, and educational farm: The Centre for Recovering Filmmakers.

Tags: climate change, films, peak oil, powering down