This Changes Everything

“Is it really possible to be bored by the end of the world?”

This question, in the opening minutes of Avi Lewis’s film This Changes Everything, reveals the paradox at the core of the climate change challenge. Faced with increasingly dire scientific warnings (that we’re approaching “sudden climate brake and steering failure,” in the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), we continue living as if nothing has changed.

Lewis tries to challenge this perplexing apathy by taking viewers on a tour to the ugly front lines of the “fossil fuel frenzy”—mining tar sands, fracking for natural gas, and building coal-fired power plants. In settings from Alberta’s bogs to India’s rice fields, aggrieved local activists are shown pitted against rapacious and ruthless multinational conglomerates.

The story line is all too familiar. This Changes Everything might easily have been a formulaic “David and Goliath” film that served only to stoke the righteous anger of committed activists. What saves it is an unexpected take on the climate crisis: hope.

Rather than depicting global warming as a terminal diagnosis for humanity, the film asks “What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?”

How exactly could the prospect of climate upheaval become a “catalyzing force for positive change?” The answer is elaborated in Naomi Klein’s well-researched book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. (Canadian journalist Klein and her husband Avi Lewis created their companion works in tandem over the course of several years.)

Klein is convinced that “it’s not too late to avert the worst,” but we have to move beyond viewing climate as just another political issue—like taxes and health care. Rather, we need to see it as a “civilizational wake-up call.”

The film calls for a fundamental shift from the dominant mechanistic view of humans as engineers and architects of Earth, extracting and exploiting natural resources. We are now at a point, Klein writes, where our planet requires “contraction in humanity’s use of resources,” yet our economic model demands “unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

Both book and film illustrate the devastation wrought by “extreme capitalism,” the decades-long push to privatize the public sphere, deregulate corporations, eliminate trade barriers, and lower corporate taxes. These policies have eroded basic human rights (a theme Michael Moore portrayed in the 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story) and poisoned the ecosystems on which we depend (illustrated in Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland).

Now, Klein writes, we face a momentous challenge: “the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

The film illustrates how nascent resistance efforts are sprouting up, trying to loosen that stranglehold. Lewis speaks not with titled experts but with ordinary people motivated by a love of their homelands and a desire for just treatment, rather than a political or economic ideology.

“This is a no that has to be said before a yes,” as the film puts it: “the yes is much bigger.” The “yes” is not just to protecting our atmospheric commons, cutting greenhouse emissions deep enough and fast enough to hold the world below the critical 2° C. threshold of warming. The “yes” is to a renewal of democracy, and a more just distribution of resources—closing the chasm between the uber-rich and the rest of us.

Governments will not shift to a new economic model, Klein suggests, “without huge pressure from below.” When Lewis interviews Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment in India—a nation still planning many coal-fired power plants, she calls for a “million pollution mutinies.”

The book cites examples from around the world of “how to get far-reaching decentralized climate solutions off the ground with remarkable speed, while fighting poverty, hunger and joblessness at the same time.” In Maine, such efforts are underway and multiplying—building up from individual and household commitments to more systemic changes within communities, workplaces and the State House (like stronger solar incentives, fossil fuel divestment and tar sands bans).

This Changes Everything reminds viewers that each of us has a role to play in combating further warming and building a more just economy. It’s a limited-time offer: act now.

© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.