Archive for October, 2007

What a Way To Go

October 14th, 2007

What a Way to Go is the strongest statement yet of the multiple crises that are facing us as a planet and as a species today. It differs from the other major documentaries we’ve seen recently – Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour, in several important ways – both in scope and in emotional impact. For anyone concerned with the fate of America and the world, this is a must-see film. But you won’t find it in theaters. Buy, beg, borrow, or steal a copy, or see if your local environmental or peace group has a scheduled showing. And then steel yourself for something as disturbing as you have ever seen before.

What this movie is mostly about, not to put too fine a point on it, is the impending ecological suicide of our species; and the only question is whether we will just take some or all of the other living beings on the planet with us. As Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael) states at one point, imagine that we live in a tall brick apartment building, and every day we go down in the elevator and remove 200 bricks from the bottom floor in order, so we say, to build the structure higher. This is what we are doing currently. Scientists estimate that we are destroying two hundred species every day, by destroying their habitats, changing their micro-climates, poisoning their food supplies.

The movie deals with four broad and interrelated topics: the end of oil, climate change, overpopulation, and mass extinction.

Of these, the least plausible for me has always been the argument about “peak oil.” Not that there’s any dispute about the numbers. The discovery of new oil reserves reached its highest level in the 1960s, and has been steadily declining at roughly the same rate that our consumption has been steadily rising, so that we now consume 3 barrels of oil for every new barrel that is discovered. The end is clearly in sight. What makes it questionable, however, is the conclusion that with the rising cost of oil our entire modern civilization, built as it is around the use of fossil fuels, will collapse. This seems to me implausible for several reasons: first, because we will tap other sources as oil becomes more expensive; second, because other forms of fossil fuel (such as coal) remain abundant; and third, because the end of oil does not mean the end of cheap energy.

Moreover, as oil becomes more expensive we will most likely begin to reposition it for “higher” uses (plastics, mostly) where its higher cost is not as much of a deterrent, and merely shift to burning other and cheaper resources – if we do not indeed begin to wean ourselves off our fossil reserves altogether. This seems to me the one area where a “technological fix” remains possible.

But the same cannot be said so easily for climate change, overpopulation, or the demonstrably irreversible process of mass extinction. It is possible that we have already set in motion climatic changes that will create an unstoppable positive feedback loop, leading to a catastrophic failure of the world’s ecosystems no matter what we do. It is probable that we cannot stop or reverse these climatic changes before they begin to impact us severely, by changing weather patterns, sea levels, and species habitats. And it is certain that if we do not change course sufficiently, either through ignorance or greed, we will overshoot and cause a massive global ecosystem collapse – on the scale of what is still an unmentionable threat, an accidental or deliberate nuclear winter. These problems cannot be resolved by any of our current technologies.

The truly overwhelming nature of this is, moreover, borne into us by the way it is presented. The story of how we got here is told through author, director, and editor Tim Bennett’s quintessentially American life story, from growing up in the hardworking and god-fearing mid-West, to trying to fit into a regular job and develop a conventional suburban life, to awakening into this unique moment in history and realizing just how fragile, how endangered, and how oblivious it all is. What is even better, Bennett does not show us an endless series of hurricane-ravaged resort areas, or images of the earth from space – images which have long since ceased to have the emotional impact they once had – but rather a series of scenes from old movies, mostly black and white, that show earlier and often more hopeful periods of American life, along with some strikingly prescient moments of foreboding.

For trailers and other reviews of the movie, visit The movie site also has links and resources, a book list, and some blogs, though nothing that speaks as powerfully as the movie itself. Watch it. Your life and your work will never be the same.

(Crossposted at