Sitting in the back of a Doubletree Hotel courtesy van, exhausted, I fielded questions about why in the world I was in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Tom, the driver, was relentless with his inquiries. I was there for the Bonnaroo Music Festival. No, not for fun, for work. Oh, I work for an entertainment company. What does that have to do with Bonnaroo? I’m showcasing a documentary…A documentary about spin doctors. Well, about how spin doctors create doubt about and therefore delay action on, um, climate change.
I could only see Tom in profile, since I sat in his back seat, but I could see that he had one of those necks that looks like rough paper collapsing around brittle, stick-like muscles. He had gaps between his teeth and wore a stretched out, too-big Doubletree company polo shirt and a dirty baseball cap. I remember him chewing on a toothpick, but it’s possible that the toothpick is a detail I invented to complete the image of an old Tennessee driver. It might as well have been a piece of straw. I considered him from the back seat, like a foreign artifact I needed to handle with care.
I didn’t want to talk about climate change — that would be my job for the next three days. I was tired and didn’t feel like convincing someone of what I knew to be true. But my fears about where the conversation might head if I revealed the purpose for my visit materialized. Tom thought that the idea from the documentary — that political operatives use dissenting opinions about science to confuse the public — was interesting. But he was skeptical about the need for alternative energy like wind and solar power, and about the urgency of global warming.
“What we really need,” he said, “is clean coal.”
I sputtered and tried to explain that there was no such thing as clean coal, it was another bogus term made up by the same people who created doubt about climate science. I told him to go to a website, and threw out some numbers about CO2 parts per million and the harmfulness of mountaintop removal mining, and eventually capped off my spastic monologue with “you should just go see the movie. It’s really good.”
Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, premiered last week, just over 10 years after the release of the original An Inconvenient Truth. The sequel essentially takes the conceit of the first film — that we must convince people about the urgency of global warming, and take action to save the world — and turns it on its head. Now, it argues, the need to convince people about climate change is largely semantic, because climate change is already underway, as evidenced by the increase in extreme weather events, drought, sea level rise, and population migration. We are already reaping what we sewed, and it is terrifying.
But Gore displays a silver lining in his new film: with the effects of global warming underway, so too are the solutions. The rise in alternative energy is unstoppable because it is too economically profitable. The “leapfrogging” of clean energy systems in developing countries over traditional fossil fuel-powered grids means that our global output of carbon will slow down. The future is looking brighter, as long as the active obstructionists don’t stand in our way. So now the job of those seeking to save the world is to stop the obstructionists, i.e. Mitch McConnell and the Trump administration. Or, as Owen Gleiberman writes in Variety, “the force of Trump turns this movie into an impassioned answer to the force of Trump.”
The new film ends with a call to action to “fight like your world depends on it” and “pledge to #BeInconvenient.” A visit to the film’s website reveals that this means signing up for updates, downloading information packets, and contacting various representatives and government agencies demanding action on climate change.
My visit to Tennessee was a part of a similar campaign, one of many that I worked on for other documentaries produced by the company that made An Inconvenient Sequel. Though I no longer work for the film company, I do believe that powerful storytelling can and does inspire meaningful action and change for the better.
But when it comes to global warming, and using entertainment as a form of activism, there is a glitch. Global warming is such a big problem that any proposed solution in a “10 days of action” campaign like the one supporting the film feels like a drop in the bucket. Calling your senators after witnessing on the big screen the flooding of Miami or the mass graves of Karachi is like environmental blue balls: you feel shortchanged and powerless. You’re left wondering if you can actually help at all.
In her review of An Inconvenient Sequel in the New Yorker, Michelle Nijhuis explains the “fear principle”:
Fear is very good at getting our attention. It’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful.
Who has the time or energy for that sort of undertaking on your way out of a movie theater? Some critics, such as the Chicago Sun Times’ Richard Roeper, criticized An Inconvenient Sequel for being a piece of activism instead of journalism, and likened it to an “infomercial.” But if it is an infomercial, the product it aims to sell — a solution — is unclear. Perhaps, for a problem as incomprehensibly catastrophic as global warming, film as entertainment is a flawed delivery method for making change.
It’s summer movie season, which means that outdoor film screenings of old favorites abound. As I prepared to settle in for a viewing of Office Space, a guy in a green t-shirt came up to me and asked if I wanted a free cushion to sit on. The ground was hard, I was enthusiastic.
He then asked me if the energy bill for my apartment was in my name, and if so, if in exchange for the cushion I would consider switching my energy source from the standard Con Edison option to renewables, via his company, Green Mountain Energy.
At that point, I really nerded out. “Yes! For sure! I’ve been dying for a way to do this! I thought there were no other options, but now I guess there’s an option!” Thrilled, I issued some word vomit and accepted his offer. Now, I still get my energy through the grid, but my apartment is powered by renewables instead of fossil fuels or natural gas. And I couldn’t be happier — I have, after all, seen An Inconvenient Truth.
Switching to renewable energy via an iPad at a film screening was the perfect sort of small-but-impactful solution that the fear principle incites. I might not have been drawn to do so if there wasn’t some sort of incentive to catch my eye. And I wouldn’t have encountered the possibility if I hadn’t gathered to watch a movie with a large group of people. Entertainment will always be useful as a way to bring people together. But for problems like climate change, it’s what you do with that audience that counts.
I’m reminded of the stark difference between the interaction I had with the energy company representative, and the conversation I had with Tom back in Murfreesboro. I failed in my interaction with Tom because I immediately judged and looked down upon him as a hostile interlocutor. I reluctantly set about changing his mind, but my only tools were facts and figures, websites, movies. I offered nothing more than an urge to go see a film that would just double down on my message without providing any way that Tom could counter the spread of “clean coal.” Changing his mind shouldn’t have been my goal. Having an actual conversation, and then providing a real way he could act on the information I was giving him, should have been my priority. And all the while, I should have known that it was a privilege to actually have an opportunity to empower someone with tools to make the world a better place.
We can’t get lost in the attractive, self-righteous “need to convince” if we’re going to actually fight climate change. As Gore and countless scientists have pointed out, global warming is a fact, and both the problems and the solutions are very much already taking place. As David Wallace-Wells points out in New York Magazine, meaningfully halting our climb up the global thermometer will require scientific and political moonshots like geo-engineering or carbon taxes. And we must continue to demand our political representatives pursue these massive shifts, or else individual action will certainly not be enough.
But for individuals, I think we want the rewarding feeling that comes from taking direct action; and if we comprehend the catastrophe of global warming, it might feel like a moral imperative, too. After watching the first An Inconvenient Truth, and then witnessing Trump roll back the progress promised by the Paris Climate Change Agreement, demanding progressive global warming policies from our leaders is not actually a hard sell that requires two hours of images of toppling glaciers and cracked earth landscapes. But outsourcing outrage is not an equal-but-opposite reaction to the threat of global warming. Which is why offering something small, meaningful, and immediate is important to keep individuals actively engaged in the fight against global warming, rather than overwhelmed by the problem’s scale.
Maybe, a group gathering around, say, a beloved film, accompanied by a straightforward conversation, and easy access to one of the many impactful solutions already out there, can be a potent form of activism on an individual, day-to-day level. Like switching energy providers, opting for reusable grocery bags, signing up for carbon offsets, or donating to organizations that are pursuing game-changing lawsuits. I think, at this point, people are thirsty for a way to take action on climate change even absent another global warming documentary — all they need is a low-barrier way to help.
And hey, if actually talking to someone offering a solution is the first step to making a change, a free, recycled-plastic cushion definitely couldn’t hurt.