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Limited critique, internal contradictions

Dan Edwards: Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

Burning Sugar Cane Field in El Salvador. Still from Burning Sugar Cane Field in El Salvador. Still from "This Changes Everything"
There’s a rather jaw-dropping moment in Louie Psihoyos’ environmental documentary Racing Extinction (2015) when the director, in voiceover, offhandedly mentions his dismay after calculating the immense amount of greenhouse gasses generated by the production of his movie. Having acknowledged his contribution to the problem his film documents, he glibly glosses over this inconvenient truth and spends the rest of the film playing the heroic white American investigator catching out environmental abusers in developing countries like China.

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, which has been doing the rounds of special screenings organised by environmental groups across Australia, is not quite so wilfully blind to its own internal contradictions, but I couldn’t help feeling the same sense of discomfort I experienced watching Psihoyos’ film.

As if to pre-empt responses like mine, in the opening moments of This Changes Everything Klein tries to head off any suspicion she will follow a well-established formula. In a chatty, rather cutesy voiceover she declares that climate change documentaries are “boring” and images of polar bears on shrinking ice caps “have never really done it for me.” Despite this, the film treads much the same path as countless other recent documentaries on environmental issues.

First we are bombarded with astounding statistics and mind-boggling images of environmental degradation to demonstrate the irrationality of mega-rich corporations and their governmental lackeys. At around the 50-minute mark there is a ray of hope, with a story of localised resistance to corporate development instigated by poor people in the developing world. Then the filmmakers bring it back home with a heart-warming, small-scale initiative in a Western country involving people like us, who speak English. They then make some vague statements about finding a better way to live, slap up a website in the end credits so people can find out how to “take action,” and send us all home reassured that saving the planet is only an online petition away.

Lest I sound like a cynical climate change denier, let me clarify. I don’t for a moment doubt we are on the edge of environmental catastrophe, and that those who say otherwise are either protecting vested interests or are wilfully blind. It is also abundantly clear that governments around the world now see their role as representing the interests of capital above all else. But I also strongly believe that constructing simplistic binaries—between developed and developing countries, corporations and the ‘99 per cent,’ capitalism and some other economic system that cannot be named—is preventing all of us taking an honest look at ourselves, our lifestyles and our culture. Films like This Changes Everything often feel like they are about reassuring us—concerned, middle class people who actually watch these documentaries—rather than alerting us to the disastrous path we’re all on.

Take, for example, the film’s vague attack on “capitalism.” I put the word in quotation marks because there is no attempt here to really examine what capitalism is as a social, political and economic system. Instead, it’s bandied about as a handy symbol of all that is wrong with other people. Is capitalism necessarily inherently doomed to generate environmental disaster? If so, what exactly are Lewis and Klein proposing as an alternative? There is no evidence that centrally planned socialist systems are more friendly to our planet, as the state of parts of the former Soviet Union attests. Or is the problem the neo-liberal variant of capitalism that has been instigated across the West since the 1970s? If so, then what form of capitalism might better serve the environment? Lewis and Klein examined some alternative economic models in their earlier film, The Take (RT 69, p21), but This Changes Everything doesn’t seriously delve into any of these questions. Instead, we get some rather glaring instances of interviewees blaming “capitalism” and corporations for our problems, while failing to reflect on our own imbrication in the consumerist way of life that these corporations are feeding.

Early in the film, for instance, we meet Crystal, a young Indigenous leader of the Beaver Creek Nation in Alberta, Canada. This is tar sands country where oil is being extracted on a vast scale, with predictably grim results for the surrounds. When her people learn of a spill from a pipeline, Crystal tries to gain access to the site, as is her legal right as an Indigenous custodian. She is interviewed by Klein as she drives to the mining company headquarters in her car, waxing lyrical about what our obsession with oil is doing to the planet. At no point does Crystal, or anyone else in the film, notice the irony of condemning oil companies while going about her daily business—like so many of us—in a large, privately owned, petrol-fuelled motor vehicle.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from "This Changes Everything"
Later in the film, we see a group of Greek women in a beautiful forest area earmarked for mining. The Greek Government, we are told, is rapidly selling off all the country’s natural resources to try and inject funds into the cash-strapped economy. The women raise a toast to the beauty around them that they are trying to save—using disposable plastic cups.

These sound like small incidents, but it is tiny, unthinking acts multiplied billions of times across the planet on a daily basis that are inexorably destroying our world. It’s easy to blame big polluters—and they should certainly be held to account—but how many of us in the affluent West are really prepared to rein in our lifestyles for the sake of the planet? How many of us are even prepared to stop buying coffee in disposable cups, let alone give up our cars?

The filmmakers themselves traverse Canada, the United States, Greece, China and India in the course of the documentary—much like Louie Psihoyos’ globetrotting effort in Racing Extinction. Yet nowhere do Lewis and Klein reflect upon the damage they are inflicting by happily zipping around the world on jetliners. When are we going to see an environmental film that actually tries to lead by example, instead of simply reiterating visual and verbal clichés?

Of course the impact of making a documentary like this does not compare to the mining of the tar sands of Alberta. But the filmmakers’ willingness to blithely burn the oil they condemn others for extracting speaks, I think, of a deeper denial. Large corporations are feeding a demand created by us—all of us. If what is happening really changes everything, why aren’t documentary makers like Lewis and Klein at least trying to challenge their usual modes of filmic production?

This Changes Everything, director Avi Lewis, producers Avi Lewis and Joslyn Barnes, writer Naomi Klein, Canada-USA, 2015.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 27

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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