Tim Bennett and I have just returned home from two screening tours of What A Way To Go. We toured 13 communities in the Northeast during August and 23 communities in the West and Midwest during October and early November. I’ve now got a finger on the pulse of current levels of awareness in the US about the seriousness of our global predicament. Our audiences I believe are the cream of the crop. They are the best, the most tuned-in, the most concerned. It was a pleasure to be with them. They shored up my waning fondness for humanity as a whole. But despite the obvious goodness of the ordinary people that I witnessed, I am not encouraged about our prospects.
I can say this with a fair degree of confidence: save for the few who are already fully awake, most people who are now looking at the world are just waking up to the four horsemen that we address in What A Way To Go: Peak Oil, Climate Change, Mass Species Extinction and Population Overshoot. They are just waking up and they have no accurate idea how late in the game it is.
What’s the game I’m talking about? The game of “civilized, industrial, technological life as we know it.” We are at the end of that game. And people are just beginning to wake up to the fact that it’s a game.
I’m talking about The Apocalypse, which, I’ve come to learn, literally means The Unveiling. We are on the verge of The Unveiling. We are beginning to pull back the curtain and see clearly what our civilization has actually been up to over the past two centuries and eight or ten milenia.
The Unveiling is upon us and only a small percentage of the people are waking up. Those that are, are waking up at the last minute. And they are waking up rather slowly and reluctantly. Most still imagine the full unveiling and revelation of consequences must be decades away. They believe it’s at least a generation or two off. Most, even after they see our movie, continue to think there’s time to create a mass awakening, a popular uprising, a reformation. They want to believe that there’s a revolution afoot, that “green building” and “hydrogen cars,” will save us, if only “we the people” will demand those things. They continue to think there’s decades yet ahead in order to turn away from catastrophe, that it’s possible to solve our energy and climate and ecological holocaust. But you don’t solve a holocaust. At best, maybe you survive it.
Hello. It’s not generations away. It’s not decades away. As Tim says in voice-over early on in the movie, “Turns out it may be just around the corner.” In fact, for most of the community of life, apocalypse is right now. Today, for two-hundred species, life ends at midnight, or noon, or even as I write this.
Two hundred species a day we are losing. Two hundred. As Daniel Quinn says in the movie, “This is calamitous.”
Many who have been studying peak oil for years now suggest that the “peak” may have happened a year ago. You can tell yourself that hundred dollar a barrel oil is just corporate gouging. That we can somehow make them stop the rising prices. But that’s delusion. No doubt the oil companies are going to make as much as they can manipulating the prices. But the prices are going up. And up. And up. There may be a few manipulated blips on the upward curve. But demand will outstrip supply, if it hasn’t already, and the price will continue to climb, blip, climb, blip, climb.
Likewise, the evidence that climate change tipping points have already started to tip is also mounting. Summer sea ice levels on the northern ice cap hit record new lows this summer, new lows that far exceeded past predictions. Extinction continues unabated, as does rising human population. Richard Heinberg, who published The Party is Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies in 2005, has just published Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. The party is indeed over, and not just for oil, but for all the things we’ve become accustomed to, for all the stuff the culture has eaten up and spit out and landfilled and is now trying desperately to recycle.
People have no idea how late in the game it is. And, sadly, many don’t seem to want to know. If people wanted to know they would walk from a screening of What A Way To Go to their local library or independent bookstore and start ordering and reading books from the authors we interviewed. They would find our website and click links to the many sources of energy, climate, extinction and population information. They’d find and read The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin. They would immerse themselves in the information because they’d want to know. But the truth is, most don’t want to know.
Having toured 36 communities with our movie in the last three months and having sat with over a thousand people in post-screening dialogue circles, I find myself sad and sobered. And I thought I already was sober. I thought I had a clue about how little consciousness exists with regard to the extent and consequences of our human impacts on the world. I thought that was the whole point of making a no-punches-pulled, hard-hitting, wide-lens documentary in the first place. We knew people were sorely uninformed and misinformed about how dire the situation is. But we were naive.
We were not naive about the lack of awareness. We were naive about the lack of desire for that awareness. People don’t really want to know. And a surprising number of people acknowledge that. They don’t want to know because they realize they are already depressed. They are depressed and discouraged. And they believe they would rather be numb and distracted. They don’t see a way through the depression and discouragement so they turn their backs and resolve not to look.
I’ve come to see that there’s a major paradox we now face, having made a documentary that is as comprehensive and thoughtful and hard-hitting as ours is, in the context of a populace that is as dumbed-down and disheartened and disempowered as America’s. I thought it would be an unequivocally good and empowering act to make a movie that is smart and compelling and that moves people emotionally. But in fact, for many, the movie actually becomes part of their sophisticated denial system. Having seen it they believe what is not true, and what is true seems to go right over their heads. Maybe it’s too smart. And paradoxically, maybe it’s too compelling. Most people don’t seem to want to think that hard. And they don’t seem to want to feel that much, either. So they don’t watch it again and again, as we have, to make sure they won’t go back to sleep.
As we listened to people, all too often we had the scary sense that they liked our movie because they wanted to get other people to watch it. They wanted other people to wake up. They wanted to believe that because the movie had been made it was an indication that things are getting better. They wanted to don a blank, hopeful, smile and declare weakly “People are waking up!”
Other people. Because it’s always other people that need to wake up. Not us. We already know. We are the choir. We don’t need preaching to. We get it. If we can just get this movie seen by other people, the people who really need to wake up, the masses, the leaders, the rest of the population, then everything will be okay. If only we can get this movie seen by everybody, then everything will be okay.
It’s not going to be okay. It’s too late for everything to be okay.
Soon after we had finished the movie, Marc Maximov wrote that What A Way To Go is an “ecological horror film”. When we read that comment in his article we laughed. We thought it interesting and startling that he would describe the movie that way, given that we had interviewed such luminary scientists as William Schlesinger and Stuart Pimm, and such amazing thinkers as Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn and Chellis Glendinning. I mean, who would have thought that Thomas Berry would appear in a horror movie?
But now I think Marc was on to something important. I think he astutely observed that in spite of the scholarship and intelligence and poetry in What A Way To Go, many people will respond to it as if it were a horror movie rather than as a documentary. When people don’t want to wake up to the nightmare, but are faced with an accurate and compelling assessment of their condition, they can, and will, relegate that experience to the file they’ve created in their heads labeled “Horror Movies and Other Things I Don’t Want to Believe Are True.”
Human beings are extremely creative when they want to be. That includes being psychologically creative. That includes being creative about constructing defense and denial mechanisms that serve to keep them numb and asleep. They seal off accurate knowledge about the world just as they’ve sealed off a thousand other real and unreal images that they’ve been exposed to via the media. They relegate the feelings that arise when confronted by the four horsemen of This Apocalypse to the same realms they relegate feelings elicited by Stephen King’s fiction, by terrifying dreams, and by the boogey man under the bed. They unwittingly label this documentary the way they labeled The Shining: Just Another Horror Movie. And, having filed the experience away, they then go back to sleep. They step into the fantasy that “green business” is selling: the solution to our environmental and social and resource problems is to be good consumers and to buy more stuff, green stuff. After all, people vote with their dollars don’t they? Wow, lacking real elections this is the deal: You can vote by spending! So the more you spend the more powerful you are. Wow. This is great! We can step into our powerful identities as consumers and accept our full responsibility as citizens. We get to vote every day we buy something. What a great fantasy: the destruction of the world will be stopped by spending more money.
The answer to these problems is simple, and everyone can be involved: one can shop. Because shopping is fun. And shopping can happen even at home or on the airplane. One can look adoringly at advertisements for hybrid SUVs. One can admire how Chevron is going green! One can fantasize about someday living in that wonderful solar heated, natural green home of 3-5 thousand square feet, with imported rugs on comfy, cozy, water-heated slab floors. And that next bedspread? Well, do consider hemp! That will make a real difference. Best of all, considering the time of year, it’s time to vow to make it a Green Christmas: buy beeswax candles and exotic fruit baskets and yoga mats. Buy imported things and support indigenous cultures. Buy big things and small things, green things and live things. And in so buying, we can all pretend that things will get better. That things are getting better. All one need to do is shop correctly. After all, shopping is fun. And stopping the destruction of the world should be fun.
I realize I’m on a bit of a tear here. I can’t help it. I sat with over a thousand people and I’m more discouraged about the awakening in the world than ever. And mostly I’m sad. I’m sad that as a group we are not getting it.
And the rest of the community of life is at risk. No. Wait. See how easily denial slips in? The rest of the community of life is not at risk. The rest of the community of life is being wiped out while human population numbers continue to increase, and shop.
On our tour, after the screenings, we avoided the typical Q & A. After all, while we admit to some extent of knowledge as a result of the last four years spent deep in research and analysis, we really aren’t experts, or authorities. We’re pretty smart and we’ve peeled off many layers of denial. And because of that we’ve let the magnitude of the global predicament hit us in the gut, over and over. But we don’t pretend to have answers or authoritative prescriptions. Not that anyone does. In fact we hold that anyone who says they have the prescription to stop the destruction and reform this system in order to make it work is either extremely ill-informed, lying, and or flat out delusional. There just aren’t any easy answers other than shutting down the industrial infrastructure yesterday. And that would not be easy.
So we didn’t do Q& A after screenings. We refused to be set up to be hit with people’s understandable projections and anger at all the authorities and experts who continue to confuse, disappoint, and exploit them.
Instead, on these tours, we invited people to pull chairs into a circle and talk with us and each other as concerned peers, to respond to the movie by expressing their feelings, by talking about what moved them, what emotions were touched. We knew this might be a stretch for many people. Most of us have been emotionally dumbed down as well as intellectually hobbled by this numbing and stupid culture. So we offered a menu of sorts to help people identify their feelings. We gave them a short list of the basic five: Glad, Sad, Mad, Scared or Ashamed. Turns out, this was a good thing to do. People actually reported on their feelings. They took the risk to do what is anathema for most Americans: they expressed their feelings, and they often did so in clear and heartfelt ways. I was touched and impressed. Circle after circle, people did this. They talked about their feelings with one another. Often it was quite moving. And on occasion I think the experience was not only cathartic but transforming for certain individuals. And probably it planted a fair number of seeds. I wonder, though, how many of those seeds will ever germinate into any kind of action. Despite the genuine expression of feeling in the rooms on those evenings, I don’t get the sense that the majority of these people went home to start radically changing their lives.
I say this because by the time the tour came to an end I began to see something that was fairly disturbing. The most frequently reported feelings were sad and glad, followed by ashamed and mad, with only the rare expression of people being scared. I think that’s backwards to what would best be experienced. I think if people were really letting the information sink in, if they were letting it past their denial and defense mechanisms, that they would, first and foremost, be scared.
Let me explain. If a person is not scared when confronted with the immanent demise of their lifestyle, then clearly they aren’t looking at it. They are relegating the information to the “horror movie” file and continuing to pretend. They are telling themselves that all this is going to happen in someone else’s lifetime. But, in fact, all this is happening RIGHT NOW. Preparations for dealing with this, for responding, for surviving it, for helping to heal it, needed to begin 300 years ago or 30 years ago. Or at least yesterday.
But my sense is that people aren’t preparing. They aren’t even considering what making preparation might mean. Way too often what I witness is that people see the movie and then continue to talk about careers and retirements and the future. Like the future will in any way resemble the past or even the present
I genuinely liked most of the people we sat in post-screening dialogue circles with. Their expression of concern and caring for each other and the rest of the community of life evoked fondness. I often said that the circles convinced me that the human species, at least some percentage of it, is worth saving. But I have to say that I don’t really think that one viewing of the movie or one sharing of heartfelt concerns actually changed very many people in any significant way. I still feel fondness for these members of my species. But I don’t hold any illusions that this movie is changing people, or moving them into action with any kind of appropriate speed or conviction.
So I feel compelled to say something. I hope many people who have seen What a Way To Go, or who will see What A Way To Go, will take this to heart:
Our movie is not evidence that things are changing. Once you’ve seen our movie, that does not mean you don’t need to radically and rapidly change your life in preparation for utter upheaval of how you’ve been living and what you’ve been planning and working for.
Please don’t watch our movie and then be glad that change is happening. Because the most prevalent change that is happening is that things in the real world of plants and animals and water and soil and climate are continuing to get worse. Rapidly worse. They’ve gotten worse since An Inconvenient Truth. And they’ve gotten worse since Al Gore got the Nobel prize. They’ve gotten worse since our movie was released on DVD and since we’ve traveled the country touring with it and sitting with people in circles to process it.
Things are getting worse and they are going to keep getting worse until industrial civilization either grinds to a halt or is stopped. Only when that happens will the great bulk of humanity that is enmeshed with industrial civilization stop destroying the community of life through the inexorable consumption of everything.
All evidence I see is that there isn’t going to be a popular mass uprising. So don’t be waiting around for THAT to happen. There isn’t going to be a technofix. And the aliens, if there are any, are not going to intervene and clean this up for us. It’s time to pay the piper, or the rats are going to continue to overrun our village.
So please, don’t wait for someone else to “get it.” Don’t wait for the leaders of your country, or company, or community to get on aboard. Don’t wait for someone else to wake up and make the changes happen. Because they aren’t going to get it.
I think what Upton Sinclair said is more true than we want to believe: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” How many people’s jobs depend on them NOT understanding that capitalism is a dead end, that consuming is folly, and that technology is a hoax? Don’t depend on politicians or business people or even academics to understand what’s going on when their jobs, and their mortgages and their plasma television sets and probably their marriages depend on them NOT understanding it.
And don’t depend on yourself understanding it if your job and your current lifestyle depends on NOT understanding it. Denial is real and alive and most of us continue in it’s stranglehold.
Only when we wake up to that understanding will we begin to have some choices. Work your way to that place. Watch What A Way To Go thirty times or more, like we have. Read a bunch of books and websites. Choose to step out of delusion. It will probably mean you have to plan to quit your job. And maybe move. It will probably mean you have to consider a very different kind of life.
The good new is that, probably, a very different kind of life will be a life which has meaning and purpose and is grounded in the reality of soil and water and other living, breathing, feeling creatures. In some ways it will be a harder life that you’ll have to choose. But it will be better.
Feel your way into where you want to be and get there. Focus on the basics: water, food, non-fossil energy. Focus on how you can help to stop the destruction and start the healing. Listen to the voice-over at the end of What A Way To Go:
“The waters are rising. We’re going to have to let go of the shore.”
Listen to it again and again, and again. Until YOU get it. The waters are rising. It’s time to build an ark.
It’s time. Don’t wait. Build it now.