The Hard Bullet for Progressives to Bite

What A Way to Go may not make much money because “Collapse doesn’t sell. ”

More than one supporter has told us this. We want to be paid something, of course, for the monumental amount work we’ve put in, and continue to put in, to this movie.

I don’t have fear about not making a pile of money at this. I’ve always had enough, and I’ve never had a pile because I never cared that much about it. No, my fear is that it will make people mad. It’s scary to make people mad.

I’m coming to terms with that fear, however. Some people will be angry with us. Some will reject us.

What’s most likely, though, as we take What A Way To Go on the road is that people will act out the familiar pattern of well-mannered, civilized humans when confronted with something uncomfortable. They will just quietly and politely ignore the message.

Regardless, we know that, besides the most clueless and insulated of the very wealthy, everyone else knows that things are not right. We all feel it. The weather’s not right.

Our collective paychecks don’t go far. Our collective debt is huge and getting huger. We try to keep up a hopeful attitude. But we know things are not good. We see only the very rare politician that we like and trust, and almost never see one of those make it to Washington.

People want to be hopeful. We want to believe what we learned in school about the miracles of science.

We want to believe in the American values of innovation and progress; that we are indeed pursuing progress; and that progress will eventually make life better for everyone on the planet. People want to believe these things because people are basically good.

What people actually experience, if they stop shopping long enough to notice, is the opposite. Lives are stressed. Work is unsatisfying. Children are unhappy. What most have to look forward to is going out to eat. Think about it. It’s a place where someone will take care of you and treat you with a modicum of respect. At least in a chain restaurant, the average person has some power. You can leave a nice tip. Or not.

So while most mainstream folks are in deep denial, progressives are just in moderate denial.

Progressives know we’re in serious, very serious trouble with the climate. They don’t doubt Mr. Gore’s statistics. They know there’s no debate. And they are aware that fossil fuel energy is both dangerous and limited.

Progressives are less immune than others to their experience of the ramifications of all of this. They feel it more. And to keep a little emotional distance from the really tough realities, they hold on to the innocent hope that there is time.

Surely humans are so smart and so good that when it gets bad enough we will come up with some sweet innovations to suck carbon and heat from the atmosphere and put it somewhere that it will not do any more harm. Surely we will develop some kind of technology to keep our high-energy, highly comfortable lifestyles possible.

I mean, if you cover the desert in the Southwest with solar panels, that will take care of our energy problems and carbon problems in one fell swoop, right? It’s just a matter of political will, right? We just need a strong progressive in the oval office, and in many other offices, and all these problems will go away, right?

We just need a popular uprising to take control of the means of production, at last, and we can keep up the good life that we’ve started here, the good life we’ve gotten so very used to.

We just need to do it right. Right?

What’s the truth about all of this? Is it possible that we can innovate enough new technology to meet the current human energy demand with non-polluting, renewable sources?

None of the sources I’ve seen with reliable, holistic data say we can. William Catton, the author of Overshoot, says in What A Way To Go that the way we are living now, we overshot the carrying capacity of the planet with the population size we had at the time of the Civil War. Yikes. That’s like five and a half billion people ago.

Five and a half billion! That’s a lot of people. More than will fit in your new Prius. More than the local co-op grocery can feed with organic food. That would be a lot of organic ramen to come up with. This is serious.

Even if we could find a magic energy elixir that would keep things going as they are, there are other gigantic questions that follow. Could we pull off a mass consciousness change that would ensure that we utilized that energy elixir in fair, sustainable, life-supportive ways? I don’t think so.

Look around. Look at the world that has been created since the discovery of the last magic energy elixir humans got their hands on.

Do you like this world where the rich get richer and richer and spiritually sicker and sicker while the poor get poorer and poorer and the shrinking middle class works longer and longer and longer? I don’t.

We don’t need more energy. Looking for a technofix is a distraction. We need something else entirely. If more energy were going to create a saner, more spiritual, more just world, that would have happened in the last two hundred years. We’ve had our high dose of magical energy. It hasn’t helped. It’s made things worse. We’re teetering on human-caused extinction of our own species, to say nothing of the human-caused wreckage to the rest of the species already in progress. That hasn’t happened before.

No. It’s not more energy we need. It is a consciousness change, a radical reconnection to life itself, and to one another, that we ache for.

Some of us are kind of aware of this. We want a bunch of people to wake up, quick. We hope for that. We carpool to our jobs and we shop locally and we do the best we can. Some of us participate in protests and write emails to our congresspeople. Some of us have changed every single light bulb in our houses and recycle every scrap of paper and every aluminum can and resist all unnecessary driving. We’re hoping there will be a mass consciousness change.

We want that so much.

The sad possibility that Tim and I have chewed on these past three years is that there may be no mass movement. As much as we want it, there may be no gentle transition to an ecologically viable way to live harmoniously with the rest of the non-human world. We’re on a crash course and there doesn’t seem to be any widespread move to stop.

Of course it is possible mass consciousness will shift. Until there are no longer masses of Americans alive (or Chinese, or Europeans or Africans), there will be that possibility. I like thinking about that possibility. But I don’t spend time hoping for it anymore.

Tim and I wrestled with this issue continually as we researched and wrote What A Way To Go. I tend to have more gentle optimism about people, while Tim tends, with huge doses of wry humor, to be more cynical. It’s a good balance. Truth is, now we both cry, and not infrequently, about how deep the denial is in America, and even in our local community. We cry because the destruction continues to increase. It’s very sad.

You see, I wanted to believe that our documentary would be just one log on a very huge fire that would burn bright to bring about a mass consciousness shift. I’d still like to believe that. I still hold it as a remote possibility. But as I watch gas prices rise right alongside carbon emissions and new parking decks and more freeways and multiplex shopping centers, it is hard to hold that as a wise vision to live by. It’s starting to look downright dumb to make personal decisions about how to act, where to live and whom to live near, based on the hope of mass consciousness change. I don’t see it happening.

What I do see is a small but growing number of people waking up fully. That is heartwarming. It’s great. But juxtaposed with those people continue to be huge numbers of people who buy and consume and throw away the planet, day after day, week after week, with no thought at all. All of this, despite the fact that a very well-made and highly successful documentary addressing one inconvenient truth, was given an Academy Award. That’s as mainstream as a radical message goes. And as a result of Mr. Gore’s documentary, climate change has become a household word and, for progressives, the fact of climate change being human-caused is beyond debate.

I’m sad to say however, that as a whole, progressives seem to be in denial about the radical change in lifestyle it will require to reduce carbon emissions to levels that will matter. We need a 70% reduction, yesterday. Today we need 72%. With continued growth, tomorrow it becomes a 75% reduction. Turning off lights won’t cut it. Taking the bus to work in the corporation that is making disposable plastic doo dads by the millions won’t help either.

This is the hard bullet we’re going to have to bite to get the job done: We’re going to have to fundamentally change how we live. To make that change, we’ll have to seriously challenge some very entrenched notions: things like unlimited private property rights, the idea of progress, the necessity of profit and, god forbid, the sanctity of capitalism. In What a Way To Go we begin to take apart many of those notions, so much as that is possible in two hours.

Do you think two yahoos with that kind of message and no political clout whatsoever will make it across the radar of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Shit, we’re freaking out film festival judges. We know this is an amazing movie. Way better than some of the stuff that danced into Park City. But people aren’t jumping to hear or put on the big screen, what Dan Armstrong called in his review, the whole truth. Not in this culture. Not in Empire.

No, collapse doesn’t sell. Not to the masses. And not to our most active progressives. I couldn’t believe it when I saw my email asking me to protest gasoline prices. Eli, what are you thinking? Isn’t it time we talk about Peak Oil? I mean, like, at least a little bit?

I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m just scared. Tim and I are about to take off on the road. Two introverts with big mouths. What will our progressive brothers and sisters say to us? Will they smile and tell us to keep up the good work? Most will. A few will walk away mad. But I’m starting to sense that every once in awhile, and maybe more and more, people will give us a hug and thank us for helping them commit to do the things they’ve needed to do, but haven’t. Because What A Way To Go, if you let it, will help you feel, really feel, what’s happening.

What’s happening is hard to look at. It’s a hard bullet to bite. It’s a hard reality to feel. But feeling is what motivates us to act. And it’s only when we act that our lives and our world will change.

Written by Timothy Bennett
An artist and filmmaker who has lived in North Carolina for eighteen years. Born and raised in rural Michigan, he began his inquiry into environmental and cultural issues in the late 80s. His talent for "big-picture thinking," along with his ability to see through the taboos, denials, and orthodoxies of our culture.