Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

An inspiring summit, but big challenges at home and afar…

Posted 22 Oct 2016 / 0
screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-4-26-53-pmA still of Josh Fox in Beijing from his newest documentary, How to Let Go of the World.

All in all it was an ambitious evening. I am not sure of how it came that Pratt was able to host a visit from Josh Fox, documentary filmmaker, after a screening of his newest movie How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. I do know that Pratt senior and Envirolutions/Student Government Association member Elisia Langdon pulled the event together in short time with the help of a few comrades, and that Higgins Hall auditorium was impressively filled if not entirely full for the October 20th event. And for those who attended — seeing the movie, getting to hear from Josh Fox himself, and being able to participate in a broad discussion — I think it was an inspiring evening. I know it was for me, and at times I can be a little bit hard to inspire.

Billed as a Sustainability Summit, the event used Fox’s really intriguing film as a jumping off point for a conversation with Pratt students interested in environmental activism about how they might most effectively increase and improve sustainability efforts on and off of campus.

Before heading over for the screening, I watched most of Josh Fox’s first feature-length documentary, Gasland. For years I had kind of avoided watching this film because I had this vibe that is was going to be one of these “anecdote documentaries” that strung together a series of heart-wrending stories as a substitute for using cold, hard facts to discuss a problem. I don’t think that this is an entirely crazy aversion on my part, although perhaps as articulated in the previous sentence it might seem just a tad bit crazy. I think that I am just scared that the first person, experiential narrative might be used to tell any story, regardless of what the broader scientific reality is. My feeling about fracking has always been something akin to “sure, I think this sounds like about the dumbest, riskiest way of obtaining a source of energy… but I don’t really see anyone creating the kind of changes in where our energy comes from that would actually put a stop to fracking”. In other words, it is kind of hard for me to not to see the “me” — as a consumer of natural gas — in fracking; whether you realize it or not, a lot of the energy you use comes from burning natural gas. This doesn’t mean that I don’t feel empowered to support a ban on fracking or to decry what fracking companies do… I just don’t want to forget that it’s our demand that ultimately fuels what those companies do. Gasland turned out to be a film that relied heavily on dramatic anecdote, but it was far more grounded in science than I expected. And while our demand for natural gas wasn’t a focus of the movie — and the villainous nature of the gas extraction companies certainly was a focus — this still felt like an effective, fair movie.

How to Let Go of the World opens with an update on just how effective Gasland (and a follow-up movie, Gasland 2, which I did not get a chance to watch) turned out to be. In the opening scenes Fox returns to the childhood vacation home on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Basin as he revels in the victory of activists (including himself) who have helped push forward a moratorium on fracking. In a series of shots that emphasizes the raw beauty of this part of the country, Fox invites us to do little backyard victory dances along with him in celebration. But after spending some time in the place that inspired him to action, safe for now from gas extraction, Fox begins to worry about climate change. A special hemlock tree on his property, replanted in place by Fox and his father years ago, comes down with woolly adelgid, an invasive parasite whose spread is being aided by climate change. The dying hemlocks on his property pushed Fox to investigate the bigger, broader threat that climate change poses to his sacred nature space in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The next phase of the movie is kind of funny if you are able to find humor in tragedy. Fox obstensibly sets out to film an investigative documentary about climate change, interviewing a series of climate experts on the risks posed by climate change and what needs to be done to prevent catastrophic climate change. Where’s the humor in that, you ask? Well, the information that Fox obtains is so gloomy and overwhelming that it almost becomes comical. One of his experts starts talking about how climate change will create problems that can be well described by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Another expert suggests that we need to radically lower our greenhouse gas emissions by the following year in order to avert catastrophe. The bad news and impossibility of preventing climate change comes at us like an avalanche. Fox earnestly describes his emotional state as he receives more and more of this depressing, disempowering news: it makes him want to shut down, shut out, and head back to his little corner of paradise (where perhaps losing a few hemlock trees seems like a reasonably small part of the overall climate change price to pay). This isn’t at all a flippant part of the movie, but I think I found its very lively portrayal of a process with which I am deeply familiar to be so perfectly captured that it struck me as funny.

I suppose that I am in something like the same business as Fox’s doomsaying experts. As an Ecology professor, a big part of my job semester-in and semester-out is to let my students know just how scary our ecological impacts are, particularly those contributing to climate change. And I have seen my students overwhelmed by the same sort of “avalanche of depressing realities” as Fox. Those who really care about environmental issues express a paralysis that they feel guilty about. Others just write course evaluation comments like “everyone knows this class is a real downer”, as if I ought to maybe temper all the scientific realities I present with some warm-and-fuzzy nature stories so as not to make students feel too bad (truth be told, a big part of why I also like to teach Evolution is that it does allow me to focus on the grandeur of nature rather than the grand scale of our ecological impacts).

So the sort of overwhelming paralysis that comes with fully holding the heavy weight of climate change reality in your hand is familiar to me. I have seen that paralysis in my students, and in some ways I have seen it in myself. I don’t know how clearly I have considered the nature of my own climate change shutdown. On the one hand, you can make the argument that I am not paralyzed: my job is to teach about these realities and I perform that job with quite a bit of enthusiasm. But I also don’t think that I have really committed to the kind of activism that I think is needed in the face of climate change reality. There’s something akin to Fox’s safe little Pennsylvania haven in my position as an professor of ecology.

In How to Let Go of the World, Fox faces down his own climate paralysis by getting on the move. If the first part of this movie is a frentic storm of information, the second half is a frenetic flurry of activity. Fox’s solution to the climate change dilemma is to seek out people who are facing the causes and consequences of this change “on the front lines”. We meet an organizer who is helping survivors of Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaways come together and strengthen their battered community. We travel to the Sarayaku region of the Amazon to travel over rivers and dense jungles with indigenous activists as they chronicle the destruction wreaked by oil pipeline spills. We meet Tim DeChristopher, an activist who derailled the sale of Bureau of Land Management land by posing as a bidder at a land auction. We travel to Beijing, China, where environmental activists try to address massive PM25 air pollution problem amid massive government repression. And we get to ride in a boat with some of the Pacific Climate Warriors, who momentarily slow down the departure of massive coal container ships by blocking an Australian port with a flotilla of kayaks and traditional boats.

Fox’s focus is not on the effectiveness of these various forms of activism — many of them seem to be enjoying very limited success — but on the human spirit embodied by the activists themselves. We see huge cooperative efforts, acts of altruism, and a series of communities that are coming together to fight the good fight even if doing so is like “trying to stop a wave”. The interview with Tim DeChristopher features him talking about “carrying despair” and “making a place for despair” in his heart, two ideas that Fox expands upon by asking us whether we can use our despair to anchor ourselves in the coming storm of climate change. I found this idea — that we need to really just sit with our despair in order to not become paralyzed by trying to avoid it — to be the most compelling idea coming out of this film.

The film ends kind of in the same way that it ends, with dancing. But instead of dancing by himself in his safe-for-now little haven, we are treated to a montage of Fox dancing with the people who are fighting to survive in the face of massive environmental changes. And as the credits rolled, Fox himself danced down the aisles of Higgins Hall, compelling many in the audience to do the same. After the dancing settled down we got to hear Fox’s own take on the movie and on activism in general. It’s clear that he is both deeply excited by the successful activism that has been spurred by his films and deeply concerned that large, powerful, entrenched interests will prevent needed change.

After Fox was done speaking I participated in a panel discussion with colleagues Todd Ayoung, Carolyn Shafer, and Carl Zimring. We had been asked to discuss how we might increase the sustainable impact of our campus community, and each of us gave a little reaction to the film before we dived into a discussion led by questions from the audience (most of whom were students). What became really clear to me was that the people in the room were those who really care about these issues, but that even these students were struggling with how to be activists at Pratt. Even the encouragement to incorporate sustainability into the art and design work that our students do is spotty and inconsistent across the campus. But spending time on the big, activist projects that are needed to fight climate change? Most Pratt students are not even allowed to think about such things because we maintain such a culture of work — particularly studio work — on campus. This saddens me, because a big part of my own undergraduate experience was having the time to work on a variety of community and activist projects that turned out to define a lot of who I would become. There is a coming “workload reduction” in the Pratt degree, and I hope this reduction will allow students a little more time to become active in environmental issues.

Although I love all the sustainable design work that goes on on Pratt’s campus, I appreciated that Fox’s film provoked at least some of us to consider where we might become more active outside of the usual activities of campus. The recent divestment decision by Pratt’s Board of Trustees is a good example of how an outward focus can make more substantial changes than simply looking at “sustainability on campus”. I think that perhaps one of the issues faced by designers — from filmmakers to architects — is that they are used to making something amazing happen on their own. Sure, the architect needs the construction crew to actually create the building — and most big films are made by a sizeable team — but there’s this great power of creative direction in the hands of the designer. I don’t think that this is how activism works. Activism works because people start walking, together, sometimes without any plan but certainly without a plan designed by some central leader. That’s a messy world that I can see would be scary to our students. It’s a messy world that’s scary to me. But that’s the world we need to be in; we can’t just stay within the boundaries of our “safe-for-now” campus.

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