On Avi Lewis’s This Changes Everything

352250460_ee2f9e5565_oI emerged from the WA premiere of This Changes Everything in a foul mood. To get to the cinema – in Innaloo: not the most charming neck of the woods – I’d had to sit in heavy traffic for an hour and a half, moving barely at all. Arriving at the cinema one minute before kick-off, I was then urged to turn to the person next to me and tell them something about myself, why I was here at the premiere and what, above all, I most wanted to save about ‘our beautiful planet’ (‘Not Innaloo!’). There followed a moment of silence for the victims of recent extreme weather events, then the film, then more invitations to ‘share’ with my neighbours, then a long talk by one of the premier’s organisers. By the time I emerged, blinking, into the cinema car park, hungry and in need of a drink, I was ropeable.

There was another, better, reason for my moroseness. Avi Lewis’s documentary, which is based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same name, left me in no doubt at all that as far as the issue of climate change goes we still have all our work ahead of us. Advertised as a call to arms, and introduced by Klein herself as something different from the ex-Vice President/polar bear-heavy climate change documentary, it leaves the viewer contemplating an all too familiar set of emotions: concern, obviously; anger, certainly; but also despair at the sheer scale of the problem: impotence mixed with self-reproach. The title of Klein’s book is a statement of fact: global warming really does change everything. But whether this film will help change the behaviour of those whose behaviour really needs changing – that is another question entirely.

The problem, as I see it, is perfectly caught in the structure and focus of Lewis’s documentary. In order to humanise the issue of global warming, the film concentrates (largely, though not entirely) on communities in the so-called ‘sacrifice zones’: those areas of environmental degradation necessitated by a system based on endless growth and the extraction of raw materials. Thus we move from Alberta, Canada, where members of the indigenous Cree community face off against the companies operating in the tar sands; to Montana, where an oil spill destroys a young couple’s goat farm and, with it, their dream of an eco-friendly life in an area of extraordinary beauty; to India, where coal-powered power stations are polluting the wetlands, and where the people who live and work in them are angry enough about it to fight back with their bare fists. (The footage of Indian protestors pursuing well-fed policemen through the tall grass drew a small cheer from the audience, though the elation foundered on the next bit of vision, in which, as a disincentive to any future agitation, the cops shoot two people dead.)

All of these communities refuse to lie down, and their struggles are at once inspiring and maddening. But the fact that their experiences are so far removed from the city-centric, high-consumption lifestyles of the people in the cinema audience is a problem the film never really resolves. By focusing on small communities, This Changes Everything attempts to humanise the issue of anthropogenic climate change while at the same time eliciting our sympathy for (and, it is hoped, solidarity with) people who were already marginal to the system that created it: the dispossessed, the forgotten, the poor. But while this is a strength, it is also a weakness; for if the original inequality was not enough to arouse our solidarity, why should this issue be any different? Okay, the film contains sections on Greece and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and these, together with the usual projections, charts, statistics, scenarios etc should be enough to drive the issue home. But my feeling is that they aren’t, or won’t be, not because viewers will be dismissive of them, but because, in taking us to the brink of this crisis, our system has also created a society that is superbly ill-equipped to deal with it.

That, surely, is the real challenge: how to convince citizens in the global ‘North’ – consumerist, disconnected, hyper-individualised – that action on climate change is in their interests. Arguments from deep ecology and appeals to an emerging planetary consciousness will not get the job started, let alone done, and Lewis’s film is least convincing when it dwells on vistas of unspoiled countryside, or when its narrator (Klein) holds forth on ‘the story we’ve told ourselves for 400 years’: that nature is ours to do with what we want, a machine that we need to exploit for our benefit. The latter emphasis is especially baffling, since the great advantage of Klein’s book is the fact that it places responsibility for our current environmental calamity, not at the door of ‘human greed’ (a deeply puritanical concept), but at the door of a system defined by profit, by endless growth on everything, everywhere, irrespective of what we need, or even want. In other words, the appeal of Klein’s analysis is the way it happily cops the charge most commonly thrown at environmentalists – the charge that they are ‘watermelons’: green on the outside, red on the inside – and says, effectively, ‘Of course we are! What the hell did you expect?’ It’s not human beings’ exploitation of nature, still less their greed, that is the problem; it’s the system that, in order to thrive, necessitates (endless) exploitation and greed and creates for its own convenience a human being for whom consumption is not a marginal activity but a way of life.

How to redefine the self-interest of that person is the challenge environmentalists have, and it’s one that ‘the environmentalism of the poor’ showcased and lauded – rightly lauded – in This Changes Everything doesn’t meet. For the brutal fact is that no one in that audience felt themselves to be poor in that way. None of us has to fight for our lives – not yet, and not for some time to come. We will go on the marches, sign the petitions; we will attend the relevant premieres. But at the end of the day, and even in the light of everything we know about climate change, how much are we really prepared to give up?

All of this is just a way of saying something that is, or should be, obvious: that what the West needs is an environmentalism, not of the poor, but of the middle class – one that attempts to combine concern for the planet with material/financial self-interest. No doubt that last prepositional phrase will stick in the craw of environmental activists who, in dedicating their lives to this issue, do evince altruism and solidarity, and grow their own fruit and veggies to boot. But that, I’m convinced, is just how it is – for now, and barring a major disaster. What we need are ideas and policies that link our current system to the one to come, and which lessen the rate of damage in the meantime. Free rooftop solar would be a good place to start, even if it has to be done in stages and over the course of a decade or more. Yes, it would be attacked by the right; but it would also have wide political appeal.

In taking us to the ‘sacrifice zones’, This Changes Everything attempts to shock its audience out of that other zone – the one traditionally labelled ‘comfort’. But anyone who doesn’t know by now that the first wave of climate change effects is going to disproportionately impact the poor simply hasn’t been paying attention. Nor will they bother to see this film. What we need now are new ideas on how to appeal to voters in the North and parties willing to take the risk of turning those ideas into policies.

That, and better traffic management on Mitchell Freeway and Scarborough Beach Road.