What Happens When Cinema and Climate Change Intersect

‘Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman’/Image © Discovery

Al Gore is standing in the middle of Cordova Road. In cinema’s most mimetic moment of 2017, it is the same road I drove in on to arrive at the multiplex playing his latest documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” Only Al Gore is stuffed into rubber hip-waders as the road is flooded with seawater high enough to slosh over his boots and lap at the top of his jeans. A large fish swims past Gore and up the street. It is that moment one would turn to one’s neighbor and marvel, “Hey, look, that’s Cordova Road!” Except even though this is the week that the sequel to his 2006, Oscar-winning climate change documentary, which cleared a respectable fifty million worldwide, opens wide and it’s a primetime, weeknight showing, the theater is completely empty.

It could just be that this is a summer littered with “inconvenient sequels.” (The Pirates and Alien franchises both tanked.) Or perhaps in the intervening decade, audiences have grown weary of Gore and his roadshow of bar graphs and crumbling glaciers and need a more drilled-down, human face as their way into climate change. When Gore’s film premiered at Sundance in the winter of 2006, it minted that festival as the gold standard for where an environmental doc should premiere. But if “An Inconvenient Sequel” falls short on human interest, it’s not a mistake replicated by what could be thought of the rest of Sundance’s class of 2017.

While many films’ makers aimed high for their Sundance premieres, none stayed married to Gore’s old-school theatrical model, employing a mix of everything from theatrical to festival to community to on-demand in your living room, some even utilizing all at once. Vice’s cable arm, Viceland, premiered three episodes of its eight-part series “Rise” at Sundance, all dealing with American Indians and their resource struggles from Standing Rock to government-sponsored Apache land grabs, while National Geographic took on Californians’ water crisis and the greedy “water barons” that are driving it in “Water and Power: A California Heist,” both now available on-demand.

This year’s Sundance also hosted the Discovery Channel’s premiere of an adaptation of Miriam Horn’s book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, which looks at three of what Horn calls “conservation heroes of the American Heartland,” and it premiered on Discovery August 31. Preservation got a more controversial spin in the film “Trophy,” which looks at big game “conservation hunters” and whether we can save endangered species by hunting them. Orchard released “Trophy” theatrically on September 8 before rolling it out on CNN. Meanwhile, Netflix has been airing “Chasing Coral,” their doc on our disappearing coral reefs, all summer while continuing to trot it out on the festival circuit and for community-based screenings.

For “Trophy” co-director Christina Clusiau, who’s ringing up from Greece where she’s working on a new project about wingsuit flyers and base jumpers, it’s simply a matter of keeping people in seats. Her film is difficult to watch. It captures the hunt of many “big five” game – African lions, leopards and elephants, along with Cape Buffalo and rhinos – and if you make it past the sport of rich, white foreigners descending upon Africa to select which of the “big five” they want to slaughter from a pen, a la Red Lobster, before bringing them home to mount on McMansion walls, you’ll still have to endure them hoisting the kill’s head for selfies and, most incongruously, tenderly petting the corpse’s head. Almost all of the hunters captured here do it. And it’s a lot.

“To be honest,” Clusiau says, “it’s been quite challenging thinking about people not just walking out. I mean, any time you say that an animal is going to be hurt in a film, people are just like, ‘No, no, no.’ But you want to say if you really care about conservation and you want to accept a challenge and ask questions about your beliefs, this is a good way to go. That was our approach. Once we can get people to view the film, even if it’s hard, I think they come away from it with a lot more questions than answers and it informs a really interesting discussion. And I think hunters and non-hunters can meet at some point in the middle and try something else for a solution.”

“Poaching is definitely a problem,” Clusiau adds, “but so is the loss of habitat, human encroachment, and the changing of the earth. All of these things really affect conservation so I think, on a larger scale, this movie is part of a climate change movement. And people are very drawn to animal populations where they’re not necessarily so drawn to, you know, the changing of coral in the ocean. It’s very hard to have empathy for the coral, in a sense, and I think with animals, people have this innate empathy and compassion towards them so I can see how it’s much more relatable.”

It does lend itself to what Clusiau calls “the heart/mind problem,” something she demonstrates with a flashpoint for her film, the murder of a thirteen-year-old male African lion named Cecil by an American big-game hunter. “We always thought of this film in terms of the world before Cecil and the world after,” she explains, “and how much opinion has shifted the industry. After Cecil, airlines stared shutting down the transport of kill cargo. You can no longer import captured lions. All of these things were a direct effect of the human reaction saying, ‘No, no.’ No more of this. And I don’t know that that’s good for conservation.”

“People’s perception of a lion is either the zoo, a safari park, or the cuddly creature in ‘The Lion King,’” Clusiau says, “but then you go to Africa and ask people who are living next to lions and fearing for their safety, it’s a whole different conversation. You can’t really equate the two and that plays a lot. We view this idea of conservation from a very heart-driven perspective, especially in the west. These animals should be left alone and they’ll preserve themselves as they have done for millions of years, but the reality is that’s very utopian. It’s not really real because of all the changing factors. We’re already encroaching on what you would call animal land so you have to manage and conserve in different ways.”

“The aim of this movie was not to force our opinion,” she continues. “Conservation hunting is such a complex and polarizing issue. In one country, hunting works where in another country maybe photo tourism would work. The argument is that when you put an economic value on animals, people want to take care of them. In order to conserve these species, you need to look after them and people need an incentive for that. When you first see the economics of that, it’s not the heart and mind game anymore. This is actually a reasonable solution to try. And economic value either means photo tourism, in some areas that works and in some that does not, but in other areas that means hunting.”

For author Miriam Horn, the three human faces she selected for Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman were a way to combat the fatigue brought on by what she calls “the pile-up.” She explains, “It’s that moment in Al Gore’s latest film where what was coming ten years ago when ‘Inconvenient Truth’ was made is here. But that’s also reflective of how this crisis is intensifying, it’s happening now. The intensity and extreme weather that Justin, the farmer in my film, is dealing with in Kansas has gotten so extreme that the agricultural community is directly addressing it in every possible way. Sometimes they use the word climate change and sometimes they don’t, but it almost doesn’t matter. They’re really stepping up to be more resilient. They need to keep more carbons in their soil and not in the atmosphere. That’s also why it’s coming down to these individuals, they’re feeling it increasingly in their lives.”

Horn rings up from the airport en route to Boseman where she’ll show the film to a group of what she calls “collaborative conservationists,” or about 150 farmers who are “really directly involved” and have become “a tool for social change.” It’s a world she’s inhabited at least since the film’s Sundance premiere when she left the festival to bring her film to a group of farmers in the Midwest. “From the glamour of Sundance to a wheat field in central Kansas,” is how she describes it, but goes on to say, “It was incredibly moving to show it to these farmers that are dedicated to farming in a way that protects the soil.” She also feels like these community-based screenings have a “more abstract purpose,” namely, “pushing back against this idea that conservation is a liberal elitist issue. It’s anything but. These are deep red states and conservative families and they hold environmental advocacy ideas as deeply as anyone I know.”

And if it is Cecil the lion that looms large over Clusiau’s film, it’s another species entirely that marks Horn’s. “We premiered at Sundance on Inauguration Day,” she recalls, “and when we were making this film, we never anticipated the world it would enter into, but it was electric in that room. And it feels like it has created a hunger for the film because these are stories of people who still believe in their power as citizens to shape the world. They still believe in government as a potential force for good. My rancher was working through the federal government. He got a federal bill passed to protect his landscape. These guys still live in Frank Capra’s world. They still believe that a citizen has a voice and that’s a message that really resonates.”

“People need to care about people,” Horn continues. “People have to be emotionally invested before you can get them to move on anything. I was falling in love with these characters. And I wanted my readers to fall in love with them because then they would be invested in what became of them and realize that all of our futures depend on these resources. They would care about these people and care about the resources that sustained them and all of us. These people don’t see nature as a museum that you protect a little bit, like a national park, they don’t see it as a thing apart. As one farmer said to me, ‘Nature is the economy. It is everything.” And that type of interdependence is a very American tradition.”

So What You Can Do?

Both women I interviewed were no strangers to journalism. Horn spent fifteen years as a journalist at outlets like US News and World Report and The New York Times before taking on her day job at the Environmental Defense Fund. Clusiau met her co-director Shaul Schwarz a decade ago when they worked together at Time Magazine. Both pepper their interviews with that advocacy journalism catchphrase “call to action.”

Clusiau suggests that just making it all the way through her hard-to-watch film is a political act while Horn broaches the subject of shopping for items like grass-fed beef or fish bearing the Gulf Wild label before admitting that terms “small,” “local” and “organic” don’t really mean much anymore. Even Al Gore spends a good chunk of “An Inconvenient Sequel” showcasing his Climate Reality Project, which churns activists into its leadership corps without giving viewers the foggiest notion of how to join.

So it was with great interest that we perused eco-minded entrepreneur Paul Hawken’s latest book, Drawdown, a collection of environmentalist essays by everyone from Pope Francis to Michael Pollan mixed with a robust to-do list a citizen can use to achieve drawdown, literally the drawing down of carbon from our atmosphere or that red-letter day when greenhouse gases begin an annual decline. The book’s heady subtitle – “The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming” – kind of says it all, but we cherry-picked our top three as something you can do on your way home from the theater and certainly in your living room:

One: Who Run the World?

Hawken finds himself in full accord with Beyoncé when he leans on Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren’s IPAT equation, which assigns human impact on the environment to three factors: population, affluence, and technology. Hawken finds no shortage of the latter. The affluent set have embraced the extreme minimalism movement wherein the goal is for all of one’s belongings to fit into a backpack while the book is littered with technological solutions to fossil fuels, but it’s this first variable that remains controversial. And like most solutions in the book, Hawken goes straight to the source, claiming only our baby-making population can pump the brakes on baby making. He suggests this will come about through educating our girls. And he doesn’t see family planning as something dystopian out of The Handmaid’s Tale, but rather suggests that the clearest way to revere human life is “to ensure a viable, vibrant home for all.”

Two: Who Run the Lights?

Parking your car is not just for those in Harvard Yard. It’s something we can all do right now. But Hawken finds that with emerging economies comes emerging automobiles; however, he sees the modal shift as very possible, pointing out that cars really weren’t ubiquitous until after World War II and don’t hold much sway with the younger generation. With transportation gobbling up twenty-three percent of the emissions pie, this would be an easy greenhouse number to reduce. It’s something New Yorkers have known for a long time and Hawken includes this lyrical musing from The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik to keep us on track: “A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination.”

Three: Who Run the Bulls?

Hawken opens his chapter on a plant-rich diet by name-checking history’s notable vegetarians from Tolstoy to da Vinci, but it’s foodie Michael Pollan who is given the last word with his: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” axiom. “If cattle were their own nation,” Hawken writes, “they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses.” In addition to the health benefits and sidestepping ethical issues, Hawken turns up some new ideas behind eating lower on the food chain suggesting tasty treats like Beyond Meat’s pea protein-based Beastly Sliders, Impossible Foods Umami Burger and New England Patriots “almost vegan” quarterback Tom Brady. If it’s good enough for Gisele, there’s nothing from stopping you easing in with “reducetarian” strategies like VB6 (vegan before six o’clock PM) and Meatless Mondays. Worst case scenario, you’ll need the occasional B12 shot if you basically turn into Morrisssey, but everyone else will enjoy reduced health and grocery bills along with better juju from their pets.