A dialogue between two crewmembers on Spaceship Earth

Is the planet sustainable? Director Kevin McMahon and POV’s Marc Glassman engage in an epistolary exchange.

German Alexander Gerst looks out of the International Space Station.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

MG: Marc Glassman
KM: Kevin McMahon

MG: Kevin, Spaceship Earth shifts the standard trajectory of environmental films. The vast majority of films in any category tend to operate within the accepted limits of that genre: a noir is a noir; a rom-com always has its conventional laughs and tears and—closer to home—you know a verité doc when you see one. What you’ve done in Spaceship Earth is to rephrase the debate about what can be done about the environment. That’s an achievement politically as well as cinematically.

You had me—and you’ll have audiences—through your premise. Too many green docs just concentrate on their specific environmental concern, whether it’s about water or oil or climate change. You start off with the quote from Marshall McLuhan that inspires the film: “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” Words of wisdom from a Canadian figure who contributed so much to the philosophical debates of the 1960s. And then you hit us with the knockout punch by another ‘60s intellectual guru, Buckminster Fuller: “People say to me, I wonder what it’s like to be on a spaceship. And I say to you, you don’t realize what you are doing because everyone is an astronaut.”

Suddenly, the current debate about the environment, still shockingly present in the American Republican primaries, is placed in contrast to the great aspirations of the ’60s. Footage of Cape Canaveral, with a rocket launching towards the moon, placed in relief by the celestial soundtrack of Ohad Benchetrit and Justin Small brings us back to a time of more complex thoughts and greater hopes and dreams. The ruminations of astronaut Ulf Merbold, who saw an “earthrise” after emerging from the dark side of the moon, carry the thoughts of Fuller and McLuhan into the realm of autobiography: “Before you thought of the earth as so huge that it overwhelms your imagination. You just can’t perceive it as a sphere. And then all of a sudden you see the earth as a spaceship on which all of us are traveling through the empty universe.”

Creating this atmosphere of intellectual debate as the film starts affords you—and your viewers—the opportunity to look at our environment in a deeper, if slightly retro, way. By looking at the planet as another spaceship in the universe and humanity as the operators at the helm of the vessel, we’re reminded of the fragility of the Earth and our need to protect and nurture it.

Having set the scene, you people it with such articulate experts as anthropologist Wade Davis; popular science writer Jared Diamond; marine and atmospheric scientist Andrew James Watson; astrobiologist and earth system scientist Takafumi Matsui; climate change researcher and writer John Schellenhuber; cosmologist Martin Rees and Limits to Growth co-author Jorgen Renders. But that’s not all. You give us fishermen in Brazil, politicians in Germany, British utopian idealist Rob Hopkins and Icelandic promulgators for renewable energy.

We soon realise that some of these people are already navigators on Spaceship Earth while others are hoping to find solutions for on-going global problems.

You structure the film around this notion of the world as a spaceship. In a way, it becomes a bit like a sci-fi film. Perhaps it’s a spiritual remake of Kubrick’s special f/x expert Douglas Trumbull’s followup to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running. Do you remember that film, Kevin? A botanist played by Bruce Dern escapes from a space station and takes his scientifically created eco-system to another galaxy after Earth’s crops all die.

The structure of Spaceship Earth is logical and voluminous in content: The Fuel —now mainly oil; The Navigators —scientists and politicians: The Engines —the alternatives from hydro power to atomic to solar; The Passenger Cabins —how we’re behaving in terms of consumption and working with renewable sources; and The Crew —what we’re doing to change things.

These chapters allow you to provide us with an overview of what we’re doing to properly helm this earthly spaceship. It allows you to come to conclusions, some positive and some negative, while still leaving the future as a subject for future debate. And perhaps another film in a decade.

Greenhouse gas emissions.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

So: Kevin. I have a lot to ask you.

How did you come up with the notion for Spaceship Earth? You made a film about McLuhan; has this been brewing since that time?

You have a who’s who of characters in the film. Who were your favourites? Who surprised you? Did Schellenhuber, for example, stun you with his wisdom and demeanour?

You have so many positive stories in the film: in Iceland, in a small town in England, in Frankfurt, Germany. Are you feeling more optimistic about humanity’s future on this planet?

Can you tell me more about the film’s structure? How did you arrive at it? Does it work for you, now that it’s completed? Would you change elements in the film and reframe some of its arguments if you could?

Are there countries that you wished you had visited? Did some great stories or observations (or both) end up on the cutting room floor?

Kevin McMahon

KM: Thanks for the generous comments, Marc; I will take them as a tribute to the brilliance of the people we met making this film. All that is revelatory, shocking and inspiring in the piece came from their deep thinking about our planetary situation. In fact, Spaceship Earth is the product of a strange and massive collaboration.

As you know, my journalistic preoccupations have always been nuclear weapons and the environment. Both raise existential questions, because no advantage that comes from having The Bomb or polluting the biosphere is equal to the risks. So considering either makes you think about planetary limits. Expressing that with the spaceship metaphor has a long history via McLuhan, Fuller and others, like Carl Sagan. Since 9/11, it’s become even more obvious. The global village has turned out exactly as McLuhan predicted it would, with electric technologies re-invigorating ancient tribalism.

So the metaphor has nagged me for a long time. The editor Carole Larsen, who cut a lot of environmental docs, said of Spaceship Earth: “this is the film every filmmaker I’ve worked with for 20 years wanted to make.” I’m sure she’s right. But we all know it would be pointless to cold-pitch any broadcaster on an environmental documentary this ambitious. So I never did. As fate would have it, the Japanese broadcaster, NHK, came to me.

For our colleagues at NHK, Fukushima was more than a national disaster, it was a turning point for civilization. Japan is an island with an old conservation ethic. The Japanese have long accepted climate change and, since Kyoto, have seen themselves in the vanguard fighting it. But they mostly intended to do that with nuclear power. The tsunami and nuclear meltdown swept that idea away. With massive electrical shortages and no easy solution, our colleagues were viscerally confronted with the existential challenge all earthlings face. They wanted to make a documentary series to
speak about that. But they weren’t sure how to frame it.

Weeks after the disaster, our colleague Takahiro Hamano came to Hot Docs and addressed the International Trade Forum, proposing an international project that broached the big questions. He asked us, at Primitive Features, to propose a conceptual framework. That was the moment the old spaceship Earth meme was reborn, fully formed. I wrote the treatment, with the structure as it exists in the film, in about an hour. Of course, it took two years of fundraising, three years of production and a ton of work by a big group of collaborators in Japan, Germany and Canada to fill out that structure.

Japanese tsunami rubble.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

Our wishlists for characters and locations were probably 10 times longer than our resources allowed. Moreover, the people we spoke to were so knowledgeable in their various fields that it was painful cutting them down. They all moved us. Maybe the two that effected me most were the geoscientist Dave Hughes, on fossil fuels, and David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist. From Hughes we learned that fossil fuels are already finished as a viable energy source for humanity, but replacing their role in our bloated lifestyles will be much harder than most people realize. From Sloan Wilson, we learned that certain human traits—like tribalism—were evolutionary advantages, but our technologies have transformed them into dangers.

As to the optimist/pessimist question….gee, I dunno…I’ve been including climate change in my work since 1988. Between Spaceship Earth and our TVO series The Polar Sea, about the warming Arctic, it has been my only subject for the last several years. After all that, I conclude that our children (not rhetorically speaking, but my and your actual children, who are in their 20s) face potential shit storms the likes of which are only imagined in the most apocalyptic firstperson shooters. I also conclude that humanity has the technological, political, cultural, ethical and legal knowledge to blunt the worst of
the coming disasters. I argue in Spaceship Earth that the collective force of our individual values will ultimately choose our course.

So is that optimism or pessimism?

Blue Lagoon geothermal pool, Iceland.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

MG: Optimism or pessimism? When we’re talking about the environment, neither is 100% appropriate, is it? Looking at the melting ice caps and the lit-up water faucets caused by fracking, you can’t help feeling appalled—not just pessimistic. But the latest Climate Change Conference in Paris and the numbers of young eco-activists I encounter allow us some hope for the future.

As you know, Kevin, I tend to be more optimistic than you. And Spaceship Earth does offer a bit of hope, which, for me, was nice to see.

But I must admit you have some scientists offer gloomy facts.

To wit, re: carbon dioxide, which will cause climate change and add acidity to our oceans, you show this in the film (measured in CO² parts per million): 320 in 1965; 345 in 1985; 380 in 2005; and 400 in 2015. Followed by this statement from Martin Rees: “One thing is completely certain and that is that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising enormously fast. That rise is primarily due to what humans are doing. No one doubts that. Also, it is absolutely clear that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produces extra warming. There is no controversy about that.”

And this from Rajendra Pachauri, former chair, International Panel Climate Change: “Nature has a certain order in everything that it does. As a result of warming, the bodies of ice will melt much faster. The oceans will expand because of the heat that they are absorbing and therefore you will get sea level rise. The worst case flood prediction between 2100 and 2300 is a six meter sea rise”

Or this from Dave Hughes: “You know my three favorite words in all of this are ‘beware of scale’ when you’re talking about alternatives. I think there’s not a chance that collectively renewables can replace current energy throughout.

“In 2011 primary energy was: 33% oil; 30% coal; 24% gas; 6% large hydro; 4% nuclear; and 1.59% non-hydro renewables. “And that includes wind, solar, geothermal and burning biomass. That’s where we’re starting from. The biggest piece of the solution is figuring out how to lower our energy throughput a lot without radically reducing peoples’ standards of living. Not going to be easy. It really needs a new paradigm.”

So: my next line of questioning for you, Kevin, is how can the world—well, really, the wealthy in the West and in parts of Asia—be persuaded to change their thinking? Can a paradigm shift occur? Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis are advocating for such a philosophical change in the book and film versions of This Changes Everything. Other people are talking about it. Nettie Wild’s new film KonelĪne: our land beautiful is less about confrontation and more about celebrating the land. People like the Indian economist Amartya Sen, the Austrian architect Christopher Alexander, the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton believe in making changes in progressive steps. Heck, even Gordon Ramsey and Rachel Ray would like the world to shift into eating more organic food—though admittedly high-end fare.

Behind the science, which clearly has to be the text of your film, isn’t there a subtext? Where are the politicians? You offer us Marina Silva, the former Brazilian environment minister, who is amazing, and the Frankfurt Deputy Mayor Rosemarie Heilig, who is clearly a “green” advocate, but where are the big guys? I note that your two best examples are women, which is no surprise.

Are there really so few examples of alternative practices taking place in our world? Must all of your best examples for peaceful, renewable communities come from the only truly sustainable, fuel-effective country, Iceland and a rather underground movement called Transition Town Totnes, which is trying to make things right, one English village at a time?

From one member of the Spaceship Earth crew to another, Kevin, can you offer some more hope for a paradigm change? And if not, what are we looking at having the Earth become in the next few decades?

Earthrise seen from the Moon by Jim Lovell in 1968.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

KM: The hope question always reminds me of two people. There’s physicist and peace activist Ursula Franklin, who talks about her earthworm theory of social change. You need worms working the soil to make it fertile, yet, on the surface, you’d never know they are even there. In Spaceship Earth, we could only fit a few examples. You mention Totnes, where the transition movement began. It does seem obscure, in a mainstream media sense, but there are thousands of transition communities in 44 countries. Woodstock, New Brunswick and Huntsville, Ontario are official transition towns. Who knows what they can achieve? My brother-in-law, who works in rural Malawi, has just helped a village, which had no electricity, light up with 100% clean power. Tesla is now building house batteries which have the potential to cut our electrical generation needs in half.

All of those efforts will add up to a paradigm shift eventually. Will it happen quickly enough? We could be pleasantly surprised. In 1987 I went to see the British historian E.P. Thompson, a fierce anti-nuclear weapons campaigner. I felt the same despair about the Cold War and nuclear arms race that some now feel about climate change. I was doubting the worth of our fight. Thompson had grown up with parents who fought to get Britain out of India. He said: “It didn’t happen and didn’t happen and didn’t happen and then, one morning, it just did. You never know.” Two years after our chat, the Berlin Wall fell. That did not eliminate nuclear weapons, but it smashed the paradigm of a bi-polar world which had, in 1987, seemed indestructible to everyone, including world leaders.

Several of our global operating paradigms are already crumbling. They may look solid, but they are not. In Spaceship Earth, New York Times writer Andy Revkin says: “50 years from now things are not going to be the same in a big way.” It’s a given. The real questions concern how we’ll control the changes, whether they’ll be improvements and how evenly their effects will be spread.

We’ve established, for example, that the fossil fuel economy will end.

But it makes a world of difference whether we make the transition beyond them quickly or slowly. Will we delay change and just flush our remaining carbon stores into the atmosphere, thus making mammalian life impossible? Or will we wisely hoard them so that future Earthlings will have wonderful things like steel, plastics and helicopters? My guess, and Andy’s too, is the latter.

He points out that we ought to remember and appreciate our amazing good luck at discovering the global environmental crisis in time to do something about it. We could very well have been chugging away in internal combustion engines for another century, clueless to the consequences, because we had yet not invented either the spaceships or computers that we need to accurately observe our atmosphere and predict its direction. We all owe NASA huge thanks.

A close-up of ants.
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

Our species could have died blindly, like the dinosaurs. Humanity may yet die, but it will, at least, be a conscious act. It won’t be by “the force of nature.” It will be suicide, or mass murder, depending on your point of view.

That’s why, as Andy also says, this is the best time in human history to be young. Never before has the whole ship undergone such profound change while populated by sentient beings. We not only realize what’s happening, we also understand our ability to influence the future. How amazing is that? If you are a bright 20-yearold—whether in science, law, engineering, politics, art or many other fields—you really can help to change the world. Every generation has thought itself capable of that, but it’s never been so true.

Where are the politicians, you ask, especially the “big guys”? Well, the most important politician (and woman, and scientist) in the film appears only by reference: Angela Merkel. The energy transition she started in Germany is incredible to behold. In a decade, the Germans built the infrastructure to supply one third of their power without fossil fuels. And they have done it in a way that widely spreads the benefits. Nonetheless, Mrs. Merkel faces significant carping, at home and abroad, from an establishment that is losing money and power. And it is easy for those old big guys to foment discontent. As Rosemarie Heilig says, new technology alone will not save us—we need a new paradigm of human values. As you discern, Marc, what really matters are the ways in which we think and talk about the world.

That’s the hardest thing to change. For such materially clever creatures, we are painfully slow to alter our mental paradigms. I mean, what the hell are Catholics and Protestants or Muslims and Jews still arguing about after all these centuries? The absurdity of their disputes is matched only by their persistence. So the wisest politician in the world is always up against the wall of our emotional and intellectual conservatism.

On the other hand, consider this: global warming is a brand new discovery. Most scientists knew very little about it in 1990. But a few influential ones did, and they alerted a few influential political leaders. By 1992, we had an international conference about it. The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. Of Kyoto, Al Gore said it was the start of a new relationship between humanity and the Earth. So everyone there knew it meant massive, total change. Still, average folk did not really understand the issue until An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006. (Yes, a documentary can change the world!)

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, all nations officially agreed with the premise that warming should be held below 1.5 degrees centigrade, which requires quickly eliminating fossil fuels as a common energy source. So, in 30 years, we have gone from almost total global ignorance to global agreement that the whole world must be retooled. Now, we may not achieve that. But our leaders have agreed, in principle, to pursue structural changes that will inevitably require everyone in the developed world to radically change their lifestyles and accept less convenience, power, and luxury. And the richer you are, the more you will have to give up. You could argue, as the activist community does, that the sanctionless agreement is useless. Or you could be hopeful that, conceptually at least, we’re moving in the right direction.

I think global political leaders, and certainly their bureaucracies, are far ahead of the public on this. Leaders get proper briefings from real scientists. John Schellnhuber told me that the reason Germany is in the midst of its great “energy transition” is because Angela Merkel is a physicist. She actually understands what is happening and what then must be done. Canada now has a Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Yet Catherine McKenna has “admitted” (as the papers like to say) that many Canadians are only “a little bit there” in understanding the threat. The blame for that lies with mass media.

The only briefing most of us get is in the mass media’s coverage of science, which is so thin and so bad that it would be comic if this were not a matter of life and death. And what is much worse are the systemic flaws that lead to things like the mainstream “questioning” whether global warming is real.

All the scientists in Spaceship Earth are committed to helping humanity understand what is physically happening to us, which is obviously important. But they all agreed that knowledge itself, or even regulations based on it, will not save us. Our survival ultimately rests on changing human values and particularly on humanity maturing beyond tribalism and mindless acquisitiveness.

You cannot overestimate the degree to which mass media are failing us in all of this. And it is a big problem, because it is structural. It’s not just that most media outlets only speak babytalk. And it’s not just that they promote the short-term interests of their corporate owners and advertisers, though they do. More importantly, it’s that conflict, consumerism and the relentless validation of individualism are built into the DNA of electric media as it has developed since the mid-20th century.

Sunbathers in Central Park, New York City
Courtesy Kevin McMahon and Primitive Entertainment

So, of course, we have a hard time getting climate change stories on TV, because TV is mostly paid for by automobile manufacturers. But, the more crucial issue is that we have executives, even in public television, who value the “debate” about global warming over the truth about it, because they think the argument makes “good TV.” And we have the entire apparatus dedicated to fanning our insecurities and flattering our vanities. Because, above all, the bias of mass media is to be liked. And if all you want is to be liked, you will say whatever you think your audience wants to hear. We have known all of this for a long time. Newton Minnow gave his “vast wasteland” speech in 1961. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1985. The Internet has altered some things, for better and for worse, but I think the tropes promoted by mass media still dominate the global psyche.

Obviously, within media organizations, there are individuals who are smarter and braver than most. If there were not, most documentaries would never get made. But those folks struggle within a paradigm that is outdated and inherently destructive. Again, McLuhan was right. We shape our tools and then they shape us. We need to reshape our discourse into something that actually affirms life. And we need to do that fast.

We are in a race between darkness and light, in every sector of society. It’s easy to imagine, in the long run, both success and failure.

You ask about the consequences of failure over the next decades.

As you know, a very credible scientist in Spaceship Earth raises the possibility of total global extinction within 50 years. What keeps me working is my belief that the worst need not happen. We can save ourselves—and have a fun time doing it—if we simply muster the courage and reason to embrace all the obvious paradigm shifts that are implied in the meme “Spaceship Earth.”

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV and senior programmer at the Planet in Focus environmental film festival.

Kevin McMahon has directed nine feature documentaries. He wrote and co-directed the ten-hour The Polar Sea and has produced many hours of non-fiction television. Kevin has had a retrospective at Hot Docs, received the Earth Prize from the Tokyo Film Festival and been named a Canadian Eco Hero by Planet in Focus.

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