A review in The Ecologist called The Age of Stupid, the then new film from Fanny Armstrong, director of McLibel, a “fantastic achievement”. Here is a different view.
The Age of Stupid has certainly aroused much interest, not just for its message but also for how it was funded, shot and premiered.[i] The finance for the movie’s £450,000 budget came from many dozens of individual or group subscriptions. The crew gave their labour freely or for very basic pay. Few, if any, other films, include in the final credits a ‘carbon budget’, detailing its contribution from its making to global warming (minimal compared to most movies, not least the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow). Apparently it came to 94 tonnes of CO2, a figure equal to that generated by four average Americans or 185 patio heaters in one month.
Instead of the conventional ‘red carpet’ at the premiere, there was a green one, made from recycled materials. Also novel was the live link from London’s Leicester Square to dozens of other British cinemas to which the film streamed live over the Internet (“People’s Premiere”, March 16th 2009). Audiences in those other venues could text questions to Armstrong and her producer during the post-screening question and answer session. The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle where this reviewer saw the film, was packed, though, of course, many, many more thousands will go to see contemporaneous films like Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Unlike many other radical films, this one has explicit and quite specific campaigning goals, ones linked to the December 2009 Copenhagen international conference on climate change. The film’s star Peter Postlethwaite took the platform after the screening to propose that viewers pledge to take certain actions if the British government failed to make the right decisions about things such as the proposed Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. Labour minister Ed Miliband was there to hear Postlethwaite vow never to vote Labour again and to return his OBE if it gets the go-ahead.
Postlethwaite, Armstrong and Miliband with the Pledge
The Age of Stupid has a fictional linking device in which an old man (Postlethwaite) looks back from 2055 to the world of today and wonders why people did not take due action over climate change. The film starts and finishes with him, with the intervening documentary sections, conjured to life as he sits touching a computer screen. CGI is used to communicate what has happened in the decades before the 2055. Some sections also employ more traditional animation.
Postlethwaite’s character as narrative link
The contemporary sections, on which shooting started in 2005, feature the boss of a new budget airline in India; a former oil rig geologist from New Orleans whose house was washed away in Hurricane Katrina; villagers from the Niger Delta who live near oil installations owned by Shell; a wind energy developer and his family in Britain facing local opposition to his latest project in Bedfordshire; a young Iraqi refugee whose father was killed and whose cousin was badly burnt during the American invasion; and a veteran alpine guide from Chamonix in France who has seen the local glaciers just shrink and shrink.
Thanks to global overwarming and a bit of CGI, Sydney burns
Armstrong and her team have no doubt about the threat posed by climate change, with its potential to wipe out humankind, let alone a myriad of other species. Yet the film’s message is strangely muffled in other ways. Part of the problem is that it contains much extraneous material (the personal ambitions of the Nigerian women, the leisure habits of the American geologist, the war-scarred play of the Iraqi children and so on).
Indeed the narrative tends to wander here and there, losing some of its momentum, though the excellent performance by Postlethwaite does manage to hold everything together. It also attacks other targets such as political corruption and state repression that are not directly pertinent.
At times, it is not clear what the film is saying. Thus the American geologist is shown bemoaning the loss of his home and all his possessions. The point is made that rising sea temperatures, caused by global warming, will increase the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Yet the same man is to be heard praising the oil industry. He also says that he now appreciates the ‘quality of life’ much more than mere material things… as he roars around on his speedboat and motorbike.
Similarly, the film condemns Shell for oil pollution of local waters and the huge CO2 emissions caused by gas flaring. But it also attacks the corporation for not ploughing some of its enormous profits back into the construction of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals for local people. Yet those monies are the yield of the very oilfields that, if runaway global warming is to be avoided, would have to be shut down.
Armstrong clearly wants her film to energise positive action yet some viewers might feel quite the opposite reaction. This is because the inclusion of quite lengthy sequences about the Indian airline entrepreneur. Clearly he is tapping a huge potential market for cheap air travel.
Yet think of the impact of all those intended flights. Then add to it those from similar developments like the new, ultra-cheap Tata Nova cars that are set to flood onto India’s roads (Delhi alone already registers some 1,000 new cars every day). It might be reasonable to conclude that there is actually no hope. Hardly an empowering message!
The reply might be made that the film is trying to show ‘flesh-and-blood’ people and be even-handed. But the last thing we need is yet another dose of BBC-style ‘balance’. What is required is robust, engaging polemic. In this sense the film is surprisingly apolitical. Perhaps all the time given over to the airline magnate and to the ‘padding’ in other sections might have been better given over (employing the rather good animation and CGI techniques) to forceful rebuttals of the ‘denialist’ brigade who mock the global over-warming thesis (see, for example, Melanie’s Philip’s tirades in her on-line column on the Spectator website). The film might then have been a more effective tool for winning over non-converts.
Quite a bit of screen time is also handed over to protestors against a proposed wind farm development on an old airfield in Bedfordshire. They are caricatured as selfish not-in-my-backyarders and the film gives them a sort of come-uppance by pointing out that the area not long ago suffered bad floods that probably owe something to the growing impact of climate change.
Wind farm developer who faces local opposition in the film
Yet there are serious questions about the efficacy of wind energy (net energy yield, variability, reliability, pollution at factories producing turbine magnets, bird kills, salt-water corrosion of offshore turbines and cables). Even with the most generous assumptions, such energy sources could never underwrite anything remotely resembling the dominant lifestyle of countries like the UK. Veteran campaigners like Teddy Goldsmith put their cars on the table with books with titles such as Deindustrialising Society. Other authors such as Ted Trainer and Ernest Callenbach have painted detailed pictures of what a sustainable society would be like. It is not obvious whether The Age of Stupid team has a clear vision of just what we will have to give up.
Far worse, the team cannot see the realities of human overpopulation. Like the vast majority of documentaries and other media products, even including many publications from the ‘world development’ movement, The Age of Stupid virtually ignores the population ‘elephant in the room’. The growth of human population over the century is briefly mentioned but its significance is ignored.
Thus the section on Nigeria ignores the fact that the country has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Apparently women there typically say that 7 is the ideal family size (men 10).[ii] The country is expected to have more than doubled its numbers to more than 300 million people by 2050. This trend is a recipe for disaster but the film focuses instead on poverty, and pollution by profiteering oil companies. These are all good causes but utter ruination can be the only result if the country’s exploding numbers are not curtailed.
Contrary to a widespread belief, the overpopulation crisis is not a problem just of poorer countries. The birth rate in the USA reached record levels in 2007. The biggest growth is amongst recent immigrants who now have higher living standards than they had in their country of origin and parent more children than otherwise would have been the case if they had not migrated.
Yet groups like Oxfam, who have actively dismissed the population factor, have always clung to the fallacy that affluence is the best contraceptive. Clearly it can also stimulate child-bearing. Such growth can only increase the USA’s overall contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, while making just about every other environmental problem not just worse but harder to resolve.
The population of the UK too is growing. Prior to the economic downturn (usually a bigger contraceptive effect), its growth had been at its fastest rate since the 1960s, increasing by 2.5% between mid-2001 and mid-2006, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fertility rates are at their highest level since 1980. The British population is now 61million and is set to pass 70m by 2028. Will land become less scarce, water shortages ease, housing shortages grow smaller, pressure on transport systems, schools, hospitals, and other services congestion diminish, biodiversity losses decline… and greenhouse gas emissions go down, as a result of that growth?
Governments are not only bailing out failed bankers but handing out baby bonuses in countries where birth rates are ‘stagnant’. They are seeking to kick start renewed population growth, as if the countries were not already overpopulated. Such policies will only make it harder for them to cope with what Professor John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientist, recently predicted as a “perfect storm” of food shortages, water scarcity and insufficient energy resources by 2030.[iii]
Immigration is a related issue, pregnant with adverse ecological consequences. But, true to type, the film has nothing to say. Yet current migration patterns are quite unsustainable. The problem is not just movement between countries but also within them. The population of the NW of the USA, for example, has grown at a rate of 1.9 p.a. since 1990 with over two thirds of that growth caused by people moving into the region.
Across in Australia, the New South Wales government two years ago instructed Sydney’s councils to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people within 25 years, such is the rate of both natural increase and net migration. In recently fire-swept Victoria, there are plans to increase the state’s population by one million by 2025. On current trends, the country’s population will reach 42 million by 2051. By the end of the century, it will pass 100 million.[iv]
Poorer countries face disaster still sooner. Population growth again plays a decisive part. Uganda’s population, for instance, is expected to double to 55 million in the next 20 years and, if unchecked, will reach 130 million by 2050. The woes of the Palestinians have many causes but they will not be eased by the surge in their numbers. The population of Gaza was 1 million in 1950. It is now 3.1 million and on line for 9 million by 2050.
Indeed in many areas there is a large pool of young men, with few opportunities, economic or sexual. It will be the perfect breeding ground for even worse terrorism, let alone even more unsustainable pressure on local ecology, where water in particular is already scarce.
Fanny Armstrong on location
Contrary to what might be complacently assumed from so-called Demographic Transition theory, the middle class in poor countries is the fastest-growing segment of the world’s population. While the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion, with 600 million in China alone.
Members of this burgeoning middle class not only consume more meat and other ecologically profligate foodstuffs, but also buy more clothes, medicines, refrigerators, toys, cars, computers and the like. China and India, with 40% of the world’s population, most of it still very poor, already consume more than half of the global supply of coal, iron ore, and steel. It is sheer myopia not to see the ecological catastrophe inherent in such trends.
Of course the Age of Stupid team are not alone in suffering Overpopulation Denial Syndrome. George Monbiot frequently uses his Guardian column to sneer at those who recognise the threat from human numbers. In the week the film was screened, The Journal, the daily paper in Newcastle where this reviewer lives, published a feature headlined “Mum’s battle to deal with climate change”. That she was a mother of 4 was mentioned with no hint of a possible contradiction.
It might be noted in passing that the wind energy developer and his partner featured in the film have three children. They clearly have done much to ‘green’ their lifestyles. Yet the biggest single thing they could have done is to have stopped at two children maximum.
It might seem too personal and indeed quite impertinent to make such comments. But population growth is nothing but the product of many, many private decisions. It is everyone’s baby and, as Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, has been arguing in the media recently, the time to face the fact that numbers do count (and multiply the effects of consumerist overconsumption and of unsustainable technological choices) is long overdue. Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, was billed as a participant in the premiere’s post-screening discussion. In the event, she did not appear but it would have been interesting to see if she would have mentioned the dreaded ‘P’ word.
Total ecological crisis
The Age of Stupid may be making another mistake by focussing so much on climate change and the calamities it will bring. Its case is certainly cogent, though, rather oddly, it does not spotlight one immediate and already disastrous consequence of fossil fuel burning, the acidification of the seas. Yet there are still many uncertainties and, perhaps, never-to-be-knowns. A volcanic eruption tomorrow might trigger cooling effects, for example. Yet, all warnings about the threat from global warming were to turn out to be nothing but intellectual hot air, the overall prospect would not alter due to the size and severity of many other forms of ecological ruination.
Soil erosion and aquifer depletion, for example, will pull out the rug from beneath contemporary society just as lethally, albeit more slowly and less spectacularly (which is why movie makers persistently ignore them). Nonhuman species are being wiped out already by activities that often have nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions (habitat clearance, fragmentation of surviving habitat, introduction of invasive alien species, overfishing, overhunting, other forms of pollution etc.). The film does touch upon ‘peak oil’ but its significance is not integrated into one coherent picture of the total ecocrisis.
Additionally, global warming is largely treated as the product of the accumulation of just one gas, carbon dioxide. This may encourage a one-sided focus on issues like “carbon footprint” and pseudo-solutions like “carbon trading” and “carbon sequestration”. In reality, global warming is driven by a variety of gases (including methane which is largely impervious to any sort of ‘capture’). Furthermore, it is driven not just by such sources but also by the loss of ‘carbon sinks’ such as wetlands and forests. The changing albedo (reflectivity) of areas like the ice caps is also a discrete contributory factor.
So far the film rather simplifies a complex matter, perhaps as a result of a one dimensional framework in which everything is blamed on the big, bad energy corporations. In reality humble paddy fields and farting cattle play their part too. Those businesses only thrive because many millions of people want cheap petrol and the like, resenting any attempts to curb their profligate ways.
This is the fundamental reason why mainstream politicians are so reluctant to act. But The Age of Stupid functions within a populist framework: perish the thought ordinary citizens may play an active, willing and indeed wilful part in the destruction of the Earth’s life-support systems: The Age of the Human Lemming!
The Age of Stupid is also guilty of other crude simplifications. There is the rather one-sided view of imperialism in the animated sections. Basically, history is reduced to very bad white imperialists stealing from non-white victim nations in what used to be called the ‘Third World’. Yet many non-western civilisations committed ecological suicide without any help from European/American imperialists, as books like Clive Ponting’s Green History of the World document. The fact that the destruction of Amazonia has speeded up under the supposedly radical Lula government shows the same pattern at work today. Again it is doubtful whether the film’s level of argument will win over sceptics.
Its analysis of the Iraq War beats a similar drum. The film fails to rise above that vulgar leftist analysis that Nick Cohen effectively dissected so well in his critique What’s Wrong with the Left. This is not to say that Cohen’s position is correct (specifically his views on Iraq). Rather the point is to recognise the sophistication of what he says and counter it with a much more nuanced response than is evident in this film … or only mention the issue in passing.
At one point in the post-premiere discussion, The Age of Stupid team seemed to be utterly naïve or quite dishonest. It was claimed, on the basis of the combined membership of bodies that have made noises about global warming, a sixth of Britain’s population is already demanding strong action.
These organisations ranged from the Church of Scotland to the National Trust. In the latter case, its members probably join to get cheaper entrance to country houses and the like for a ‘nice-day-out’. To claim such people as supporters is a bit like the leftist self-delusion of thinking that statements by Trades Councils are the voice of the local rank-and-file working class.
The political weakness of the film is shown in other ways. It leaves open the door the to the illusion that salvation can be found by new technology. So, in The Guardian (March 18th) one of its columnists Jonathan Freedland argued that the government must embrace so-called ‘green cars’. Leaving aside the daunting ‘rate and magnitude’ problem for any such technological rearmament, ‘clean’ is often far from ‘green’.
In the case of all cars, conventional, hybrid or electric, more damage is done at the stages of raw material extraction and manufacture than in their use and final disposal. Electrically powered ones would still need sources of fuel, production lines, storage compounds, roads, traffic lights, car parks and garages, all of which come at unsustainable ecological cost.
There is also a issue of good tactics. The film and post-screening discussion were totally geared towards the December 2009 Copenhagen international conference. It was depicted as ‘make-or-break’. In other words, if it doesn’t agree a global deal to act decisively, then we are all doomed.
Yet the outcome is more likely to be some sort of fudge, a mix of some good initiatives coupled to other failures to act appropriately. In that event, the Age of Stupid team and their allies in the Stop Climate Chaos coalition would seem to be suggesting that we should pack our bags and go home. Yet nothing is so clear cut as to warrant such decision. Perhaps too many eggs are being put in one basket.
Such shakiness over core issues allowed Labour minister Ed Miliband to score some unnecessary goals at the post-film premiere question and answer session. The movie team seemed to have no effective rejoinders to his arguments about economic growth and the need for nuclear power. Of course he is a practised politician while the film-makers were — quite rightly — enjoying their night of triumph too much to engage in a bare knuckle fight with him. But the thought lingers that perhaps The Age of Stupid rest on some shaky foundations.
An Inconvenient Truth[v] was not the film the crisis demands but there is still a need for one that really does paint a full ecological picture. Of course there are limits to the story any film can tell. Yet rather weak ecology, overly populist politics, and too much laxity in the editing suite have led The Age of Stupid team not to make the most of their opportunity.