If he wanted, filmmaker Avi Lewis thinks he could probably scare you into total paralysis.
"I can make the case to you that we're fucked," he says over the phone from New York as he spoke with Common Dreams about his new film, the perils of climate change, the inequities fostered by modern capitalism, and the prospects of humanity's current efforts to make a course correction away from planetary destruction. "I could say that we should just turn on the TV, take our drug of choice, and just tune it out. I could make that case for you and it would be completely convincing."
With his new documentary film—This Changes Everything—making its U.S. debut this Friday night at the International Film Center in New York City, Lewis says the goal was not to "shock people into action." Rather, the film was conceived with the idea that if the story of the climate crisis was told with the proper balance of fact-based concern and a very specific view of hope, it could inspire transcendence of the helplessness that prevents many from taking action.
"It's the balance of cold-eyed realism which shows us that we're on a truly catastrophic path and that we're hurtling in the wrong direction as a global society and the importance of choosing to be hopeful, because people don't act out of despair," Lewis says.
Put another way: "Despair breeds paralysis. And hope can lead to action."
Considering the current political moment—just one year after over 400,000 people gathered in New York City for the historic People's Climate March and just two months before the much-anticipated COP21 UN climate talks begin in Paris—Lewis says the world remains in a crucial period where understanding of the crisis, and the energetic desire to do something about it, must be matched with a new vision for what the world can be. "If you're going to embrace hope," he argues, "it has to be credible hope. It has to be hope that's actually based on something and it has to be hope that is mitigated by an acknowledgement of how bad things are. And that is the very fine balance that I tried to strike in the film."
"Ask anyone on Earth if you can have infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' It's common sense. And yet, our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea."
Citing evidence for this theory of inspiration matched with policy, Lewis cites two individuals who have generated perhaps the most palpable levels of excitement in the U.S. recently: Pope Francis, who just concluded a two-week visit to the Americas, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign calling for "political revolution" has ignited grassroots passion not seen in decades.
Both the Pope and Sanders, says Lewis, "are talking about inequality and climate change and making the links between the two—and bing!—they're resonating crazy across society." Because those issues are the tandem themes of the film, Lewis says it's thrilling for them to be getting a larger audience. "But it's also unsurprising," he says, "because the fact is, people know. Ask anyone on Earth if you can have infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' It's common sense. And yet, our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea."
What the film does show, he argues, is that people all over the world "are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much more grassroots, radical solutions."
It would be too easy to assume that the new 90-minute documentary is simply a film based on the book of the same name authored by Lewis' wife, Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein—but that's not entirely accurate.
Conceived and executed as a parallel project nearly from the get-go, Lewis' film—which made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month—is just the latest installment of a synchronized and orchestrated endeavor which, though it is narrated by Klein and drew enormous inspiration from her best-selling book, also includes a website and a sophisticated outreach effort (run by a dedicated team of colleagues) which serve to promote and expand the work that has now occupied the last five years of their lives.
"People are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much more grassroots, radical solutions."
As Lewis explains, "I didn't have the book to look at, but I was making a movie about a book that hadn't been written yet."
Shot over four years on five continents and in nine countries, the film takes a global look at the intertwined crises of corporate greed, neoliberal capitalism, and climate change—but does so by sitting down with and listening to some of the very people who are standing their ground against those forces. Following the New York premiere at the IFC on October 2—which will include a Q&A with both Lewis and Klein—the film will open on the West Coast in Los Angeles on October 16, before a nationwide release—including select theaters, community screenings, and on iTunes—on October 20.
Captured at least in part by the trailer that follows, the film explores the key themes of the book, but does so with a particular emphasis on meeting those individuals and communities from around the world who are confronting—not abstract disparities and economic theories—but actual injustices that have intruded on their lives in the form of polluted water and air, stolen land and traditions, and the systematic erosion of democracy which has been wrested from them by powerful fossil fuel companies and elite interests.
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The bigger story, however, is about more than destruction. It is about resistance, renewal, and the opportunity that lies just below the surface of what is commonly understood about global warming and its most negative impacts.
As Klein, who acts as narrator in the film, asks provocatively, "What if global warming isn't only a crisis? What if it's the best chance we're ever going to get to build a better world?"
One of the key examples of this—and one of the most important episodes in the film, says Lewis—is the energy transformation that has taken place in Germany over recent years.
"This is not some tiny outlier," he explains. "Germany is the most powerful industrial economy in Europe and one of the top economies in the world. And in the last fifteen years they've shifted their electricity system to 30 percent renewable; they've created 400,000 news jobs and—more importantly perhaps—900 energy cooperatives where they de-privatized electricity utilities across the country through referendum and a citizens' movement. And now renewable energy is run, in many cases, locally by communities who receive the economic benefit from selling that electricity to the grid and use the revenue to pay for local services."
And this transition didn't happen, Lewis goes on, "because politicians just decided it would be a good idea. It was the anti-nuclear movement in Germany that pushed for many years on this. And once they turned the tide on nukes, they set their sights on renewables, and now that they've got the energy transition going on in a very satisfying way—imperfect, but in a very exciting way—they're moving to shut down coal, which is the final missing piece in Germany."
"We're not winning. But there's been an incredible string of victories that really need celebrating and I think point the way forward strategically."
Lewis explains it as a shift in which people pushing from below in strategic ways can absolutely impact the outcome of policies. "Look," he argues, "the one thing that politicians are really good at is figuring out what's popular and trying to be popular. So I think our job is to propose policies and build political power behind them until we can get the politicians to come to us. And I think that's what we're seeing in the climate justice movement globally."
But don't get him wrong. "I'm not saying we're winning," he quickly adds. "We're not winning. But there's been an incredible string of victories that really need celebrating and I think point the way forward strategically."
That idea, which Lewis expanded on throughout his conversation with Common Dreams, cannot be overstated.
The film doesn't candy-coat realities, he says, but the realities are not one-sided. "We don't pretend that the tar sands aren't a vast crime in progress against the earth," Lewis explains. "But on the other hand, there are people up there—like Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation—who are fighting the titanic struggle to fund a lawsuit against the Canadian government that makes the case that the cumulative impact of tar sands development is violating their constitutional guarantee to a traditional life. And there have been a string of incredible Supreme Court decisions in Canada that have advanced aboriginal land rights enormously—like nowhere else in the post-colonial world—that give that lawsuit a real chance, a real hope, of being a game-changer."
Lewis confesses that though inspirational quotes have never been his thing, he did, in fact, print out one short line written by the poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry which he hung up over his desk and returned to often as he and his wife labored over their joint project during these last years. It reads: "Be joyful... though you have considered all the facts."
If there's a single underlying notion that might serve as the "spirit of the film," Lewis hopes it's that one.
"When you make connections across various issues—and fundamentally get at the economic logic that's driving our multiple, overlapping crises—you actually see the way towards multiple, overlapping solutions. That's the place where people are getting really excited."
And then what about the sorrow or helplessness produced by the devastating warnings issued by the world's scientific community? Such despair, says Lewis, is simply "an indulgence we don't have time for" any longer.
"The earth is screaming at us to get off this path," he explains. "And when you make connections across various issues—and fundamentally get at the economic logic that's driving our multiple, overlapping crises—you actually see the way towards multiple, overlapping solutions. And I think that's the place where people are getting really excited."
And finally, Lewis concludes, "I believe that the momentum behind Bernie and the euphoria around Pope Francis and the extraordinary generosity of spirit that we've seen recently among populations around the world towards refugees, speaks to the better side of ourselves. And the ugly side is always there, of course. It's still there—and it still hold the reins of power—but I think these are moments that remind of us who we can be. That's why in the film, you know, Naomi says, 'It's not about polar bears. It's about us.'"
"It's about whether we are going to give in to this message that we are selfish, greedy, self-interested people. Or whether we're people who know how to take care of each other, and of the land—and whether that's the side of ourselves that we can live in, together."
So think about that. Even as you know the facts.