Do we need a Revolution in environmental thinking?

Our lab recently screened a new film by director Rob Stewart. If that name sounds familiar, you might have seen his previous film Sharkwater, which received a lot of critical praise. His new film is called Revolution and focuses more broadly on environmental problems, namely CO2 pollution and ocean acidification.

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Before we go into depth about the film, I’ll just say that it’s definitely worth watching and if you’re in academia, this is something you should consider showing to your class. You can watch a trailer of the film here, or you can stream the full film here. It only costs $3.99 to rent it, or $5.99 to buy it, and $1 of that goes to the World Wildlife Fund.

Most of the people in the lab watched this film and we were split in our reactions. So we’re splitting this blog post in half. Casey will give his mostly positive review of the film and then Jamie will highlight some of his concerns.

Casey’s Impressions:

First off, the photography in this film is amazing. If you’re into nature documentaries, it’s worth watching just for the animal footage. Most of it focuses on coral reefs, but I could have watched an hour of the lemur footage from Madagascar and been pretty happy with that.

The film starts with the director discussing the success of Sharkwater. More than 100 countries now have bans on shark finning and much of this success can be attributed to that film. The director’s passion is for the oceans, but the first act of the film documents the broadening of his thinking from “How can we save sharks?” to “How can we save the planet?”. In other words, what’s the point in saving the sharks if most of the fish in the ocean are going to be gone by the end of the century?

I don’t think that ecologists need necessarily be environmentalists, but most of us are. That’s because we’re interested in studying how natural systems work and when you become connected to a system, you want to make sure it will be around for others to appreciate too. We don’t just appreciate the aesthetic value of nature (although that’s certainly important), but as we understand how important ecology is, we want to protect the functional role of natural systems too. It was nice to watch somebody in another profession go through the same process than many scientists have gone through during their career.

After watching the trailer for this film, I was a little skeptical about watching it because I thought it was going to just bemoan all the environmental problems of the world without offering concrete solutions. In part that is true of this film (see more in Jamie’s comments below), but that’s not the take-home message. The take-away is that scientists have done their job in documenting a huge problem and telling people how to fix it. Now it’s up to people to create the political will to do something about it. The focus of the film turns towards those people that are trying to do something about environmental issues, mostly focusing on younger activists, including children. I found this second half of the movie to be more inspirational than hokey. There is an interview with this young Bavarian kid who is more well-spoken than I can ever hope to be. He’s pretty bad-ass and you come to realize that if there were a few hundred million clones of him, we wouldn’t have a problem at all.

The environmental problems discussed in this film won’t come as a surprise to any ecologist or environmental biologist, but I suspect that’s not true of the average undergraduate or high school student. However, the solution offered here is that we need a revolution in how individuals think. As one speaker in the film notes, neither reason, logic, or a sense of fairness are going to solve the problem. A huge environmental calamity is more likely to change people’s thinking about the importance of environmental stewardship, but it might be too late to do anything by the time that happens. Big governments are practically run by money and corporations, but fundamentally are still run by individual votes. The only way to create the political will for change is through overwhelming demand from individuals. That’s the only way that any of history’s injustices have ever been corrected.

Anyway, for the audience for this blog, this movie is likely mostly preaching to the choir. However, it’s a well-made film with a compelling and inspirational message. The film ends with an edict to educate people about these issues and sharing this film with friends, family, colleagues, and students is a great way to begin doing that. I will certainly show parts or all of this film to my Ecology and Intro Bio classes and I hope you’re able to share it too.

Jamie’s Impressions

To be honest, I didn’t like this film, and I wouldn’t recommend it (but for a gorgeous, genuinely educational, and totally free documentary about ocean acidification, check out Lethal Seas from PBS: I found Rob Stewart’s personality grating, and was annoyed by his oversimplifications when explaining scientific findings. However, I’m going to chalk those grievances up to personal bias and leave it at that, because I really just want to talk about one thing: the film’s message.

Like Casey, I loved watching Rob come to the realization that it is “up to the people” to do something about climate change. But in the end, I was disappointed that he didn’t actually tell people how they could personally make a difference. In placing the blame on “governments” and “corporations,”  he allows viewers to separate themselves from the problem, when in reality, it is our dependence on fossil fuels in pretty much every aspect of our daily lives that is fueling climate change. There seems to be a disconnect between the film’s core understanding of the problem (the desire to “stop” climate change) and the reality that there are 7 billion people (and counting) on this planet, who all have their own personal needs, wants, and dreams. We all (but especially here in the US) depend on fossil fuels for life. I need to get to work every day, I need to eat food that isn’t grown here in LA, I need some way to cook that food, and I really like having electricity. All of that requires fossil fuel. What frustrates me about these documentaries is that they talk a lot about how bad global warming will be, and how much we need to stop it, they never say how. How can seven billion people meet their basic needs without impacting the planet? How can seven billion people live fulfilling lives, visit new places, and raise their children, without having a tremendous impact on the planet? It doesn’t take complex math to understand that any impact at all times seven billion will be a big impact.

I think our job, as scientists, is not just to tell people how bad climate change is going to be. We already know that the future climate will be different that the one we’ve grown up with, and there’s little we can do about that. As scientists, we need to take a deep breath and be willing to accept that, because all evidence suggests that we cannot “stop” climate change (according to  today, June 16th, atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa is 403.7 ppm. Remember when we were supposed to stop at 350?). I do not want to minimize the importance of individuals reducing their carbon footprint, or of renewable energy sources, or of activism that puts pressure on the government – these are all ways we can limit the severity of global warming, and hopefully prevent the worst of it’s potential outcomes – but the goal of a global warming documentary shouldn’t be to make people angry and depressed. Making a child cry (as happens in one of the activist scenes) because he believes his future will hold only misery and suffering serves no one. The goal, I think, should be to lead by example. Rob Stewart came to the realization that he has a huge carbon footprint, and that “we are the problem,” but ultimately, it didn’t seem like he really changed. Wouldn’t that have been the perfect point for him to vow to reduce his impact in specific, tangible ways that we could all follow? Like taking public transport, or avoiding foods that are environmentally costly to produce? Because until we are willing to make personal sacrifices and seriously reconsider how we live our lives, demand for fossil fuels is only going to rise, and fossil fuel companies will always be there to meet that demand. Whether or not you decide to watch this movie, please consider what you can do, personally, to reduce your impact on the planet. And if you do show this to your students, please, after the movie is over, and they (hopefully) have learned why we need to reduce our impact on the planet, do not forget to ask them the most important question of all: how?

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