Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Sustainability Movement in 2011, Part 3

January 26th, 2011

This little survey of the state of the sustainability movement going into 2011 would not be complete without looking further at policy and practice in a number of increasingly problematic areas, from water, to energy, to agricultural runoff, to education, and so on. As always, the rhetoric far outpaces the reality. But it’s important to know where each of these are, so we know where we’re starting, and what we need to move forward.

Despite the failure of climate change legislation to pass the Senate and become law, the Obama administration remains clear that the problem is an urgent one. In a speech on September 20, 2010, Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter led off the “Sustainability Education Summit” with the following:

Continue Reading »

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

The 11th Hour; or is already it much later than that?

August 23rd, 2007

The 11th Hour is clearly a movie that needed to be made – and needs to be widely seen – and Leonardo DiCaprio has done a creditable job in lending his talents and star presence to the effort. Yet in some ways, and perhaps not least in the marketing of it, it still pulls its punches; and leaves the audience reassured that we have the time, the will, and the know-how to make the change. The reality is that we probably have less time and political will than we think, and we certainly have not figured out yet all of the solutions.

DiCaprio also missed an opportunity to tell a dramatic, personal story – the way Laurie David did about Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth – relying instead on the purely didactic elements, dramatic music, and some spectacular footage, to get the adrenalin pumping, leading some reviewers to write it off as a lecture and weakening its long-term emotional resonance.

But DiCaprio makes the first and most fundamental case, that we need profound change, and on many levels. First, we need to realize that we are all in this together, and that if we do nothing to alter the global economic system we will most likely become extinct along with the thousands of species we are already extinguishing. This case needs to be stated again and again until humans are mobilized to action, for nothing else will be sufficient to ensure our collective survival.

Considering that we Americans are responsible for much of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing (or at any rate exacerbating) global warming, it is important that we hear the message and take action here – as the Europeans and even the Chinese have already started to do, to a much greater extent than our own current Administration.

DiCaprio has assembled an enormous number of experts from a variety of fields. Consider the following list, all of whom not only appear in the movie but are also profiled on the movie’s two web sites, and

Ideas & Experts

Air Pollution
* Tim Carmichael

Civil Society and Collapse of Civilization
* Joseph Tainter
* Nathan Gardels
* Oren Lyons

Climate Change
* Andy Revkin
* Bill McKibben
* Peter DeMenocal
* Sheila Watt-Cloutier
* Stephen Schneider

Consumerism and Media
* Betsy Taylor
* Jerry Mander

Economy and Corporations
* Herman Daly
* Leo Gerard
* Lester Brown
* Michel Gelobter
* Pierre Andre Senizergues
* Ray Anderson
* Tom Linzey

Environment and Ecoliteracy
* David Orr
* David Suzuki
* Homero Aridjis
* Kenny Ausubel
* Mikhail Gorbachev
* Paul Hawken
* Stephen Hawking

Environmental Justice
* Bill Gallegos
* Omar Freilla

Forests and Land
* Andy Lipkis
* Gloria Flora
* Jerry Franklin
* Tzeporah Berman
* U’wa Tribal Leader Berito Kuwaru’wa
* Wangari Maathai
* Wes Jackson

Fresh Water
* Brock Dolman
* Sandra Postel

Human Health
* Dr. Andrew Weil
* Theo Colborn

Human Thinking / Human Capacity
* Byron Katie
* Carolyn Raffenberger
* James Hillman
* Jeremy Narby
* Paolo Soleri
* Wade Davis

Individual Action
* Andy Lipkis
* Diane Wilson
* Matthew Petersen
* Nancy Jack Todd
* Tezozomoc

* Diane Wilson
* Jeremy Jackson
* Sylvia Earle
* Wallace J. Nichols

* Matthew Simmons
* Richard Heinberg
* Thom Hartmann

Religious Perspectives
* Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
* Rabbi Michael Lerner
* Rev. James Parks Morton
* Steve McAusland

Renewable Energy
* Greg Watson
* James Woolsey
* Steven Strong
* Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran

Solutions from Nature
* Janine Benyus
* John Todd
* Paul Stamets

Species and Biodiversity
* Peter Warshall
* Stuart Pimm

Sustainable Desig
* Bruce Mau
* Rick Fedrizzi
* William McDonough

DiCaprio himself gives an effortlessly outstanding and yet low-key performance. Squinting as though into a blinding sun, he states what is both obvious and yet largely disregarded in the mainstream media: that the evidence is now clear, and yet our political leaders continue to disregard it; that the problem is us – too many of us, doing too many of the wrong things – and that the solution is also us, both individually and collectively, by taking action to achieve greater harmony with nature, or at the very least to merely avoid utter environmental catastrophe.

What is not clearly enough stated is what is most likely to occur under even the most rosy scenario. There will be significant global climatic changes; they are already occurring, and they will expand within our own lifetime. While we could apply technologies that would reduce our footprint by 90% on the planet, we are not likely to. What is most likely to occur is something better than we have now, but still falling far short of what is truly needed – leaving millions to die and millions more to be displaced as refugees, and the planet struggling for hundreds if not thousands of years to regain its equilibrium.

As James Lovelock, author of The Gaia Hypothesis – that the Earth behaves as a singular living organism – has recently stated:

Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.

Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This “global dimming” is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool’s climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable. (

“Her condition will worsen to a state like a coma”: to avoid this will take concerted human action on an almost unimaginable scale – much the same scale as the action we have taken to build cities, and superhighways, and power plants, and vast mining and drilling operations. If we are now to make these sustainable, we must “do them over” in really remarkable ways. If we are to imitate nature, as Janine Benyus describes in her book Biomimicry, we must

“seek sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s designs and processes (e.g., solar cells that mimic leaves, agriculture that models a prairie, businesses that run like redwood forests).” (

It’s not clear that any significant number of us even understand this, let alone know how to implement it, or will have the will to do so before a very large proportion of the human race and the entirety of many other species have been extinguished. This will be a world that is not only not the one we aspire to but is indeed greatly diminished. This is the most likely outcome, and this may be the one we need to keep in front of us in order to maintain our sense of urgency, of complexity, and of scale.

My concern with the movie is that even though it sees itself as (and in many ways is) a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, it will not get seen widely enough to have the kind of impact that Al Gore had. From New Jersey, we had to drive in to Manhattan to see it – albeit sporting our new “Drive 55” bumper sticker – and it seems to be playing in no more than a dozen theaters around the country. I doubt if there were 30 people in the audience, though admittedly this was the late afternoon showing, and no doubt more showed up in the evening. But if this is being treated as an “art-house film” (as suggested by the FWD:Labs Collaborative) it will never get the audience it needs or deserves. We need to create a movement to get people to see this film, because it’s the next step in awakening people to the need for global action, and beginning to ask more meaningful questions about when, how, and to what extent we need to act in order to survive.

(Cross-posted at