Features

The Age of Stupid

A smart response to climate change

Director Franny Armstrong filming planes landing at the airport from a vantage point inside Mumbai’s biggest slum. / courtesy Spanner Films

“Once you really understand climate change, it would be ridiculous to work on anything else,” says Franny Armstrong, director of the new climate catastrophe documentary The Age of Stupid. “As long as I can stand—or as long as I can type—this is what I’m going to do.”

Given that she has spent almost no time in the past two years making films and almost every waking moment campaigning on climate change, it’s hard to disbelieve her.

A year ago The Age of Stupid was a new documentary about climate change to add to the pile. Now it’s the driving force behind a global campaign to get everybody to reduce their personal carbon emissions by 10 per cent (and has the support of all the British political leaders) in 2010, the titleholder of a world-record and the all-consuming focus of Armstrong’s entire life. She’s even said that on her days off she feels like she’s just “wasting time.”

With a recipe of four parts documentary footage and one part dystopic vision of the world in 2055, the film is explicitly designed to shock us all into preventing runaway climate change by showing as plainly as possible just how truly stupid our epoch is. By 2055, according to the film’s sci-fi premise, the world has been ravaged by climate change, civilization has fallen and all that’s left are melted ice caps, drowned cities, war, starvation and looming annihilation. What few humans remain on earth live in shanty towns of corrugated steel, a world away from the ruins of the crumbling Taj Mahal, the partially submerged London Eye, and the casinos of Las Vegas slowly being swallowed by the desert.

The Age of Stupid centres on Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor in the film, who plays the keeper of the global archive, a huge storage facility built 800 km north of Norway in what is now permanently ice-free stormy northern seas. Housing every art work from every museum, every book ever written, every study ever produced and two pickled specimens of every species stacked two by two, the macabre Noah’s Ark serves as the last great work humanity will ever produce.

To understand how we got there, he looks back at old newsreels and footage of the early 21st century, and in particular at six real-life stories: a French mountaineer who has watched the Alpine glaciers vanish; a British family trying to build wind farms but constantly thwarted by NIMBY protestors; an Indian businessman starting a low-cost airline to fulfil his dream of launching India’s poor masses into the skies; two children, a brother and sister, refugees from the oil-motivated war in Iraq, trying to make ends meet by repairing discarded American shoes and selling them on the streets; a Nigerian woman trying to make a living in an area afflicted by “the resource curse,” the paradox that leads to one of the most oil-rich parts of Africa remaining one of the poorest; and a “hero” of Hurricane Katrina, a middle-aged man who personally saved the lives of 100 people from their flooded homes with his motor boat in New Orleans in 2005. All six tell different sides to the story of our age: our intensive use of fossil fuels and the repercussions we reap.

“We could have saved ourselves, but we didn’t,” laments Postlethwaite. “It’s amazing, what state of mind we were in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off.”

***

We’ve known about climate change for more than 60 years now, and the science has been indisputable since the 1980s, and yet greenhouse gas emissions have risen steadily and the world has been glacially slow to act. “The situation we are in is desperate,” says Armstrong. “One of the problems is that scientists and politicians have never emphasized the worst case scenario at all. People need to know how urgent the situation is.” Which is where filmmakers, and the capacity to tell the human story and jolt us into action by inspiring our imaginations, come in. “If you want to change the world, make a documentary,” she says.

Armstrong has a singular mission: to screen the film to as many people as possible (with profit as the very last concern) and to get them to sign on to her “10:10” campaign, pledging to cut personal carbon emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Her campaign concludes in December, when the UN will meet in Poland to decide what may be ‘our last chance’ at avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Armstrong and her team have made a good start. With more than a million people in 63 countries viewing the film at once, the global premiere in September—centred in New York—set a Guinness World Record for the largest simultaneous film screening in world history.

Embarrassingly, Canada did not take part in the global premiere while Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone all managed it—Honduras too was set to stage one before the coup forced its cancellation. The largest screening, 5,000 strong, was in the tiny nation of Kiribati—a low-lying Pacific island that is one of the most at-risk places on earth due to rising sea levels.

Kofi Annan at the global premiere of The Age of Stupid in New York City / courtesy Spanner Films

The stars in attendance included UN Secretary Kofi Annan and NASA climate scientist James Hansen (best known as the whistleblower who revealed White House tampering of scientific reports on climate change). The carpet—green, not red—was made of recycled glass bottles.

Even before the global premiere in September, the film was breaking new ground. In May, Armstrong and colleagues launched a program for independent screenings in the UK with an automated system that allowed anybody to purchase the license to screen the film and use the money they made however they wished—charitable or profitable.

More than 700 screenings saw the Stupid team earn £61,000. “That’s more money than Drowned Out [Armstrong’s last documentary, released in 2002] ever made, even though it was screened internationally, was on TV and then DVD. With the old system, the filmmaker makes a fraction of the profits, but with indie screenings 100 per cent of it comes back to us—it’s a bit of a revolution,” she says.

And even before the indie screenings, even before a frame was ever shot, the Stupid team took an unorthodox path with funding. The film was financed by crowd-sourcing (initially a necessity after legal headaches following Armstrong’s previous documentary, McLibel), which saw the producers raise £450,000 from 228 investors, from small community organisations to high-flying financiers.

***

The Age of Stupid started seven years ago with no money and an idea: to do for oil and climate change what Traffic did for the drug trade and to show as many sides of the story as possible and lay bare the links between producers and consumers, profiteers and victims. But unlike the drug trade, not a single person on the planet is unaffected by these issues.

The most important line in the film could in fact be the very first, the disclaimer put in stark white print on a bare black screen: “The future climate events portrayed in this film are based on mainstream scientific projections.”

As grim as the future they paint is, it is not beyond the bounds of plausibility. “This is science fact, not science fiction,” Armstrong bristles, when the sci-fi label is brought up.

At the time that they made the film, Armstrong and her producer Lizzie Gillett chose to portray the worst-case scenario—an average global temperature rise of 4C by 2055—based on peer-reviewed scientific climate models and with the help of a scientific advisor. “But now that worst-case scenario has become the medium-case scenario,” says Armstrong, because each subsequent report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which synthesizes scientific findings into a moderate consensus) has predicted ever higher rises in carbon dioxide and global temperature and even quicker rates of climate change.

Al Gore was widely attacked for daring to suggest in 2005’s An Inconvenient Truth that sea levels could rise by up to seven metres within a century as IPCC reports had set the plausible boundary at 18cm to 55cm, but now more and more scientific reports, including NASA’s James Hansen’s (perhaps the world’s most famous climate change scientist), are finding that a sea level rise of several metres is perfectly within the bounds of scientific plausibility.

By stressing the worst-case scenario, The Age of Stupid is likely to face even more criticism than the Academy Award-winning film but Armstrong “couldn’t care less.” By having Postlethwaite’s archivist remark that “the conditions we are experiencing now were actually caused by our behaviour in the period leading up to 2015,” the main point of the film becomes obvious: not just to educate (the main drive behind An Inconvenient Truth), nor to infuriate (such as Who Killed The Electric Car), and not even to terrify, but to motivate: the responsibility to avert global catastrophe lies squarely on our own shoulders. We have never before been so certain of the consequences of our actions, and yet so capable of averting them. For good reason, the opening credits list “and you” among the actors.

Two teenagers in the year 2055 were the film’s initial narrators. That structure bombed at initial screenings, “because people didn’t want to hear two brats from the future lecture us about using up all the world’s resources,” she says.

So Armstrong and her producer went back to the drawing board. They decided the story should be narrated by somebody from their own generation (who would therefore be born right about now)—middle-aged, regretful and sad.

Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite interacting with the futuristic interface designed specifically for the film by designer Taiyo Nagano / courtesy Spanner Films

Enter Postlethwaite: Shakespearean, regal, classy and sombre, he was a perfect fit. Though it took considerable effort to track him down and ask him to take part in the film, the actor has now taken his part in the film far beyond mere stardom. At the film’s big London premiere in March 2009, he threatened to give back his Order of the British Empire if the government went ahead with plans for a new coal-fired plant. And in October the government agreed not to construct it after years of campaigning by British climate change activists—proving that victories can be scored.

The film’s future projections with Postlethwaite distinguish The Age of Stupid from all other documentaries that have dealt with peak oil, resource wars, clean technology and climate change over the past ten years. Another key defining element is the handful of animated sequences created to illustrate concepts they couldn’t portray with personal stories, such as how our economic system inherently leads to resource depletion and climate change. “We certainly weren’t paying a big animation studio thousands of pounds; these were all boys working in their bedrooms,” she says.

There are moments that verge on cliché: the film could have done without children’s voices narrating an animated sequence explaining how capitalism and our economic system encourages constant growth and thus inevitably leads to climate change. It comes across at best as simplistic and guilt-tripping, and at worst patronizing and manipulative. The use of “I Just Can’t Get Enough” to background a montage on consumer culture feels a bit predictable. The animated sequences in general run the risk of sounding preachy to some.

But most of the time, the film is undeniably balanced. Jeh Wadia, the founder of the new airline in India (and a tyrant over his employees) still comes across as a sympathetic character. “Everyone is here for a purpose and you need to realise what your higher purpose is and how to fulfil it—mine is to eradicate poverty,” he proclaims. The road, as we know, is always paved with good intentions.

And there are also moments that are deeply profound. The title of the film comes from Alvin DuVernay, a Southern white American employee of the oil industry who worked for thirty years looking for oil reserves beneath the waves of the Gulf of Mexico and analysing sediment samples for traces of fossils and the oil that may lie underneath. Introduced as the hero of Hurricane Katrina, who saved 100 lives, the revelation that Alvin does in fact work for “the bad guys,”—flying out to work on an oil rig in a chugging chopper with a hardhat branded with the Shell logo—comes as a surprise. He considers his profession to be noble; oil is after all the stuff of everything that made the last and this century what they are: vinyl records, blood bags, semiconductor chips, solar panels, and the very film that Armstrong’s crew used to shoot The Age of Stupid.

“In my opinion, maybe arrogantly so, it’s a pretty high calling to do that—to take apart time itself,” he says. “But our use and misuse of resources in the last 100 years, I would rename that something like the age of ignorance—the age of stupid.” And he is completely justified in saying that as well. Rather than saving polymer plastics for medical equipment, scientific instruments and immortalising music and art, we waste 40 per cent of it on disposable packaging. Rather than using what remains of the world’s oil to fuel a global conversion to renewable (and presumably permanent) means of harvesting energy that could keep us going when all the oil runs out, we waste it on two-hour commutes in gas-guzzling cars and short haul flights we could easily manage by train.

His most profound statement, however, wasn’t even a comment on climate change, but on the experience of living through the hurricane. “You stare mother nature in the eye. Usually she’s fairly benign, then she comes along, methodically, ruthlessly, then she stands toe to toe with you and dares you, dares you, go ahead, get your best equipment out, let’s dance.” He was speaking about Katrina—but he could just as easily be speaking about our effects on the climate over the past century.

***

There are of course always bits that have to be left out. One thing Armstrong wanted to explore in the film but was unable to capture was the inside story of a politician working on climate change (for obvious reasons). If she makes another film in the future, she says, it might be a fictitious one that would focus on the inside dealings of politicians brokering deals on climate change. She may, she adds, write the book about the experience of making the film, an ordeal she describes as “inspiring.”

But in reality, she says, Armstrong and the entire Stupid team have no plans beyond the UN conference at Copenhagen in December: they want to have the film seen by 250 million people by then, and at the conference itself they will stake out a place in the city for 12 days to have their voice heard as much as possible.

Regarding The Age of Stupid, “I’ve done what I set out to do. It’s profoundly fulfilling—the film says everything I wanted to say. I no longer have that burning desire I used to have to say all these things—I’ve said them,” she says. The only thing left is to embody the message she broadcast: to do everything she can to spread the word and help us before we all destroy ourselves.

So would she ever consider taking the next logical step—moving into politics and actually working on the decision-making process herself?

“No,” she says emphatically, “I’m rubbish at committees. I just want to make decisions on my own. I think I have the character of a filmmaker—the last benign dictatorship on earth.”

So perhaps one question remains: is the human species suicidal, as she postulated in her undergraduate zoology thesis (which was, to put it mildly, not warmly welcomed by her professors). Will we avert a global catastrophe or will we destroy ourselves?

“Are we suicidal?” she ponders. “We’ve got the noose around our necks—and we’re going to find out over the next few months whether or not we jump.”

Zoe Cormier is a freelance writer with a background in zoology who specializes in environmental issues. She has been shortlisted for the Canadian National Magazine Awards twice, and credits include a regular column on ecology and environmental science for The Globe and Mail.

View all articles by Zoe Cormier »