'Be Joyful, Though You Have Considered the Facts'
Ahead of nationwide release of new documentary film, some thoughts on climate, capitalism, and the need for stories that regenerate to battle those that destroy
[Editor's note: Several weeks ago, ahead of the U.S. premiere of his new film, This Changes Everything, journalist and filmmaker Avi Lewis spoke with Common Dreams via phone to discuss the documentary inspired by the book of the same name, written by his wife Naomi Klein. Some of that discussion was presented in an article published on October 1. Now, as the film makes its West Coast premiere Friday evening in Los Angeles and ahead of community screenings and its nationwide theatrical release next Tuesday, CD thought today would be as good an opportunity as there would ever be to publish some extended excerpts from that conversation. Only slightly edited for clarity, what follows covers a range of topics – from the importance of narratives and the inadequacy of despair to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and the Leap Manifesto in Canada. Overall, Lewis offers both an informed analysis and personal assessment of what's needed—and what's possible—when we realize what it means to "be joyful, though [we] have considered the facts."]
Man vs. Nature vs. Markets: On the Narratives That Bind
I think it's pretty clear that a view of the world in which Man dominates and exploits nature endlessly—and I use the gender pronoun very intentionally there, because historically that's been the case—is a very profitable one for the very few. And therefore we have a culture and a system which reinforces that message at every turn. And its modern incarnation that the free market—this mysterious force—will solve all our problems for us as long as we ruthlessly pursue our self-interest.
"A view of the world in which Man dominates and exploits nature endlessly... is a very profitable one for the very few."
So for people who already have a lot these are incredibly convenient stories and it's not a surprise they are the dominant culture. It's either the people who control it—or, in the case of politicians, the people who serve it. But I think that you see growing unease in the population and I think there's been a really painful lesson for Americans.
The Rise of Obama and the Pitfalls of 'Hope'
I was in the United States for the year leading up to the 2008 election and my job actually was to produce half-hour documentaries for Al-Jazeera English to explain the underlying issues behind the U.S. election cycle. So not the horse-race, but the underlying stuff for a global audience. And so I followed Obama's rise very closely and it's been really heartbreaking for a lot of people on the left in the United States that Obama seemed like such a game-changer, and yet, in the years post-2008 corporate profits have continued to spiral and inequality has continued to deepen and the middle-class is more and more fractured and dissolving, and the downward trajectory for the majority of the people continues. In this, we see how the climate crisis seeds in terrifying ways.
"This is a lesson that many progressives already knew and allowed themselves to temporarily forget—that no one's gonna come and save us."
And I think the lesson from this is a lesson that many progressives already knew and allowed themselves to temporarily forget—that no one's gonna come and save us. In fact, we know, the way change happens is people in movements change politicians. In this country you have a huge, huge problem to get corporate money out of the political process so that you can actually have a democracy where votes count more than dollars. But, let's not forget, in Canada we have our own challenges.
'Rock Star Moments': From Pope Francis' Encyclical to the Sanders Surge
The Encyclical on the environment by Pope Francis—although I don't agree with everything in it—is a really beautiful and important historical document. When first released, however, it didn't get as much play in the U.S. as it should have. My understanding is that there are very conservative forces within the Catholic institutions here and they simply weren't advancing it despite it being the pope's missive on the most crucial issues of our time.
"Ask anyone on Earth if you can infinite growth on a finite planet and everyone is going to say, 'Of course not.' Yet our entire global economic system is premised on that crazy idea."Now, the pope's position on climate change—which is resonating so deeply with people—is really getting the attention that it deserves here in this country and I think that's immensely gratifying, but I don't think it's that surprising. And who else is going through a sort of unexpected 'rock star moment'? Bernie Sanders. They are both talking about inequality and climate change and making the links between the two—and bing!—they're resonating crazy across society. It's thrilling for Naomi and I, because those are the themes of our work. But it's also unsurprising because the fact is, people know. Ask anyone on Earth if you can 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.
People are ready for a deeper, much more systemic critique and much for grassroots radical solutions.
'We're Not Winning' But We Know What Winning Can Look Like
In the film—and it's only about a minute in the film, but it's one of the most important minute of the film to me—we look at what's happened in Germany.
By the way, Germany is not some tiny outlier, this 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—created 900 energy cooperatives where they de-privatized electricity utilities across the country through referendum and a citizens' movement. And now renewable energy, in many cases, is run locally by communities who receive the economic benefit from selling that electricity to the grid. And they can use the revenue to pay for local services. And this didn't happen because politicians just decided it would be a good idea. It was the anti-nuclear movement in Germany that pushed for years for 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 the coal industry, which is the final missing piece in Germany.
"This didn't happen because politicians just decided it would be a good idea... It's this dynamic of people pushing from below."
So it's this dynamic of people pushing from below that's so vital. I mean, look, 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.
And I'm not saying we're winning. 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.
Despair: The Luxury We Can't Afford
How do we reconcile the destruction we're witnessing with victories and solutions that often seem elusive?
For me, it's the balance of cold-eyed realism—which shows us that we're on a truly catastrophic path and 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. Or put it this way: despair breeds paralysis, while hope can lead to action.
"This is absolutely critical—if you're going to embrace hope, 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 I actually believe, speaking for myself personally, that hope is a choice and that despair is an indulgence that we simply don't have time for. Yeah, I can make the case to you that we're fucked and we should just turn on the tv, take our drug of choice, and just tune it out. I can make that case for you and it would be completely convincing. But what on earth is the point of that? I think it's been a mistake for other similar initiatives—that come from a really good place—to try to shock people into action. That worked for Upton Sinclair in The Jungle and it was possible in the early muckraking decades to "prick the conscience" of people and lawmakers and for change just to happen by showing how horrible everything was. But that model has been broken for decades. Now we actually have to inspire people to action and we're not going to scare them into action.
But—and this is absolutely critical—if you're going to embrace hope, 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. Everybody's who sees it will come to their own conclusion on that. I have no idea if I succeeded, but that's definitely what I was aiming for.
Landscapes of Destruction and the Titans of Struggle
We don't candy-coat things in the film. We don't pretend that the tar sands aren't a vast crime in progress against the earth. But on the other hand, there are people up there—like Crystal Laman of the Beaver 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—unlike anywhere else in the post-colonial world—that give that lawsuit a real chance, a real hope, of being a game-changer.
And there are people like Liam Hildenbrand, a boilermaker of the local 190 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who I met up there and who started an organization called Iron & Earth to build support among tar sands workers for a renewable energy transition. And he's got lots and lots of people who are involved, a lot whom wouldn't speak to me on camera—because it's a very oppressive and conformist culture in the oil industry—but there are people in this vast landscape of destruction who are doing incredibly exciting and hopeful things. The film is conveying both.
What's the Leap?
'The Leap Manifesto' came out of a really organic process where we were connecting the dots, as Naomi says in the film, between the carbon in that air and the economic system that put it there.
"We put forward this policy proposal about the kind of country that we wanted to build—an exciting, ambitious, expansive set of demands that goes way beyond anything that's being introduced by the political class."
And as we were working on this project we were seeing movements working on all these different issues: migrant rights; Fight for $15 and the minimum wage struggles; Black Lives Matter and the struggle for racial justice; First Nations and indigenous struggles for land rights; environmental struggles to protect land, air, and water; and anti-capitalist struggles that try to attack the core logic of this system. And we felt that the only solution was to connect the dots among all these struggles and so we started trying to convene meetings across issues and using Naomi's convening power to bring people to together.
And in Canada we had this extraordinary meeting in May, with 60 leaders from indigenous, labor, environmental, migrant rights, and anti-poverty organizations and we decided to spend some time on a difficult and fascinating conversation about the kind of Canada that we want. And Naomi had the idea to write a manifesto of actual policies—political demands that this huge range of groups could get behind. And then we decide to launch it during the election campaign in Canada and around the time of the film's launch at Toronto International Film Festival [in September]. And there was a staggering array of Canadian celebrities—from musicians like Leonard Cohen and Leslie Feist, and actors like Donald Sutherland and Ellen Page, and writers like Michael Andache and many others—who all wanted to sign it. And we put forward this policy proposal about the kind of country that we wanted to build—an exciting, ambitious, expansive set of demands that goes way beyond anything that's being introduced by the political class.
An Earth Screaming for 'Reciprocity and Regeneration'
Connecting of the dots across issues is utterly critical. There's no question that the Syrian conflict has been driven by the drought—linked to climate change—which preceded it. If not the cause of it, it's definitely an accelerating factor. Sadly, there are more and more people on the move on this planet every year and the climate crisis is fueling a tremendous amount of that and will even more in the future. And the question of how we in the "rich world" treat "the other," is one that goes back to the founding our countries—and the genocide against Indigenous people that founded your country and mine. And so these are questions that we cannot dodge any longer. And if we're looking for a way to face the existential crisis that faces us as humans, we need another story other than the one about endless domination of nature to extract profit that flows upwards like the emissions themselves, with the profits consolidating at the top—and the upper-stratosphere representing the so-called "one percent."
"We need another story other than the one about endless domination of nature to extract profit that flows upwards like the emissions themselves, with the profits consolidating at the top."
So there are those other narratives around—narratives of reciprocity and regeneration—and they've been around for thousands of generations and they've been kept alive by original people and they're still held by people who are closer to traditional society. And this is not about romanticizing the Indigenous, it's a question of how to understand those older narratives of connectedness in a post-modern world. But that traditional wisdom tells us, very clearly, that there has to be another way. The earth is screaming at us to get off this path.
A Better Side of Ourselves
When you make those connections across all of these 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.
I believe that the momentum behind Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and the euphoria around Pope Francis and the extraordinary generosity of spirit that we've seen among populations around the world towards refugees in this moment, speaks to the better side of ourselves. And the ugly side is always there; it's still there—and it still holds the reigns of power—but I think these are moments that remind of us who we can be. That's why in the film 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 and that actually is "the best way to be," as Milton Freidman would have it. 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.
On Fatherhood, Climate, and the Transformations of Grander Scale
First of all, discussing the role of becoming a parent in the context of climate change is something I don't particularly like talking about. But the reason I don't like talking about it is because I actually have an allergy to this notion that we're "doing it for the children" and that somehow becoming a parent gives you some magical insight into the future and makes you "care about stuff." There's so many dangers to that. First of all, it's so indefensibly exclusionary toward people who decide not have children, or who can't have children. So it becomes this club, which I hate.
But also, it kicks the can down the road. When Al Gore in 'Inconvenient Truth' offered that moment which was like 'Do it for your grandkids,'my response was like, 'No. It's happening now... to us. Do it for us now, right?' So I think they are real dangers in that 'parenting' narrative.
"The notion of what transformational change can be like can unlock one's sense that transformational change is possible on a much grander scale in the world."
And yet, becoming a parent in the course of this long and extremely demanding five-year work of making this movie, actually did a number of things to me and for me, which I am happy to share. First of all, it was extremely humbling that we were able to bring life into the world and considerably less time than it took to make a book and film. And we didn't have particularly easy time with it, as Naomi writes about in the book. So that was humbling.
Another thing is that having a baby and then a toddler requires that you dwell in a completely silly and fun-filled land for a part of every day. And actually just be an idiot and being a child with my child has been a great antidote to this work which can be very depressing and very taxing.
But, and I think to be more serious, becoming a parent is the first time in your adult life—for many people, I mean there's lots of other experiences that can do this—but for me, it was the first time in my adult life when I all of a sudden assumed a new identity. And it kind of sneaks up on you, because you're so focused on the pregnancy and so focused on the birth and so focused on taking care of the child—and you realize along the way: 'Oh my god, I'm a dad.' And that's the first sort of new identity that I've had to take on as an adult. And you have those moments like, 'Oh shit, I'm an adult. I actually have to take responsibility for this now.' And that's a process of profound personal change to take on a whole new identity. And if people who understand their gender differently over the course of their life or as people who move from one society to another, go from being a member of one culture to being an outsider in another, there are lots of experiences in life that can suddenly thrust upon you a whole new identity. Parenting has been that for me.
And so the notion of what transformational change can be like can unlock one's sense that transformational change is possible on a much grander scale in the world. And I do feel like something clicked in me when I realized that "everything was changing" anyway in our lives, that certainly resonated with the political part of our work.
"I'm Not a Quotes Person"
In fact, I'll confess impolitely that I kind of hate email signatures and the inspirational quote thing just doesn't do it for me, like viewers of the film will learn that polar bears don't do it for Naomi. However, I actually printed out a quote and taped it up over my desk for the years I've been working on this project and it's by the great poet, farmer, philosopher Wendell Berry, who said, "Be joyful, though you have considered the facts."
And I hope in some way that that's the spirit of the film.