Days of Revolt: Letting Go of the World
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges interviews documentary filmmaker Josh Fox to discuss the catastrophe of climate change and Fox’s new film “How to Let Go of the World”, which showcases the role of art and culture in helping us embrace what climate can’t change
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, welcome to Days of Revolt. Today we’re going to discuss the inevitable catastrophe caused by climate change. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, temperatures would continue to rise 2-3 degrees from heat trapped in the atmosphere in the oceans. And how we are to respond to the consequences of climate change, not only as citizens, but as artists and the role of culture in times of distress. It’s vital. And with me to discuss this issue is Josh Fox, whose new film How To Let Go of The World and Love All The Things That Climate Can’t Change looks precisely at the role of culture and sustaining the human spirit in times of despair. He was one of the founders of Theaters Against War, which after 9/11 was 500 member theaters in the New York area. And the theater community in New York in particular after the war was maybe the only community that addressed the reality and horror of war and danger of hubris. He wrote, directed, and shot the very fine documentary Gasland, and his new film will open at the IFC Center in New York on April 20th, Earth Day and then go to LA on the 29th.
JOSH FOX: Well everything is on the 22nd, but it’s two days before Earth Day. But we run that whole week.
HEDGES: –started by Ralph Nader. I love the film, and I told you before we went on camera that what was fascinating is that it had so many parallels with my book Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. I open by laying out, as you do in the film, a very stark and frightening reality that we face. And maybe you can just begin by laying out what that reality is
FOX: Sure. This film opens with a victory against fracking. In the upper Delaware River Basin. The people who’ve seen Gasland know that that area is a very, very important ecological area, not just to me because I live there, but also because it’s the watershed for 16 million people. So communities and grassroots organizations rose up and won a victory against the oil industry that no one thought we would win. In 2011 the River Basin Commission takes the River Basin off the table, no fracking and no drilling, so it begins with a victory dance.
HEDGES: And you open and end with a dance. What is that the Beatles? What are you dancing to?
FOX: That’s what it is. And there’s so much music in the film, and music and dance and poetry play such a role in these films. That’s the most important part of it to me in some ways as a writer, and the reporting has to match that. So it opens with this victory. And then I realized quickly though, all I want to do is stay at home, like hang out the stream, enjoy nature, understand what it is to be in these woods which are now no longer threatened and then looking up and seeing that the hemlock forests are now being eaten all the way from Virginia, projected to go all the way up to Maine. As the climate warms this parasite called [inaud.] is eating these iconic hemlock forests and we’ll lose them, and that is something that is happening because of warming.
HEDGES: And we should say the percentage of hemlocks in terms of forests on the East coast is huge.
FOX: They are keystone species, so the rest of the forest depends on them. So what happens, we don’t have him like, so we don’t know yet and what happens to the rest of the ecosystem, we don’t know that. But we do know that they’re being eaten, and they’re being eaten because of climate change, and that’s a huge wake up call. And I realized that even though we can beat the frackers in our own backyard, we might lose everything we love about that area to climate and to the changing climate. Just a few months after that New York City gets hit by Hurricane Sandy, so it’s a double whammy that pulls me into this question of the climate. And of course when you’re working on fossil fuels issues and extraction, gas, oil, coal, you’re going to end up with [inaud.]. This is never just about our backyard piece of reality, fighting off an extractive industry because we don’t want it around us. No one is exempt from climate change. Everyone is in peril, and the first part of that film is a very very dark look at how too late it is. We always talk about it’s too late but just how too late it is.
HEDGES: You had a figure in there that I hadn’t heard, and it was that by 2020, if we do not stop 80% of carbon emissions, the Greenland ice sheet will disappear.
FOX: Yeah, it’s doomed to collapse, and that was Lester Brown. He’s one of the leaders in terms of projections on climate and in terms of renewable energy planning. 80% carbon reduction by 2020 or else we lose the Greenland ice sheet.
HEDGES: And as you do in the film, what are the consequences of that?
FOX: Well, there are many, many projections. Some people say that we hit 2 degrees, that the window to keeping climate change at 2 degrees closes in 2017. So some of those projections are even earlier than 2020. But basically once we hit 2 degrees we enter into an unstoppable process where we bring about 5-9 meters of sea level rise.
HEDGES: I just want to interrupt–you in the film point out that it’s not like we stop at 2 degrees. That becomes essentially, once we hit 2 degrees, it just begins to accelerate.
FOX: The problem is we’ve already warmed the Earth by about a degree Celsius over pre-industrial times. We have enough heat and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and methane in the atmosphere now to bring us to definitely 1.5 degrees and perhaps beyond. Some of the projections for this year even bring us to 1.3 degrees, and we’re talking Celsius. Doesn’t sound like so much. But if you think about your freezer at home, if you take it from 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 34 degrees Fahrenheit, everything starts to melt and everything starts to spoil, which is what’s happening on the planet Earth right now. Everything that’s supposed to stay frozen is melting and that has created feedback loops and all the things we know will continue to accelerate.
HEDGES: Explain feedback loops.
FOX: So at the top of the Earth and at the bottom of the Earth, there are these poles which have white snow and ice, and white reflects heat and light and black absorbs it, right? So that heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space, because it’s reflecting off of the poles. As the poles shrink as we melt them, then all of a sudden there’s even less reflectivity. So that’s one feedback loop. Another feedback loop is that as we melt the permafrost, there’s all sort of methane trapped inside the permafrost that creates even greater greenhouse gas emissions. These things start to accelerate and spiral.
HEDGES: You also talk about the animal agriculture industry, which many people avoid, but is a major contributor to climate change.
FOX: Of course, there’s so many contributors. Not just oil and gas and coal but yes, animal agriculture and deforestation is another major cause because trees basically bring carbon into them and exhale oxygen which we need to survive. So the more we cut down the forest, you get less oxygen and you get more carbon dioxide. What was most startling to me is the sea level rise projections. When you 5-9 meters of sea level rise, that’s basically say goodbye to Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore.
HEDGES: You show in the film what it will look like. What these cities will look like when huge sections of these cities are gone.
FOX: In New York it’s always interesting because whenever we show that map to people in New York, you see the Lower Eastside get eaten, you see Williamsburg, Red Hook and The Rockaways. And people always go, “Well, I live over here in Park Slope. I’m on a hill.” I’m like “Okay that’s cool. Yeah you’re right, you know. The Brooklyn Bridge won’t be under water but the [inaud.] will be.” Now you won’t be able to take the subway. It’s so funny how we think these things aren’t going to happen to us and yet, that is extraordinarily startling.
So what does this mean, this 2 degrees? Basically what it means is if we’re already for all intents and purposes are at 1.5 or beyond, there is no scenario in which New York, Baltimore or D.C., Miami, New Orleans stays above water if we continue to develop and drill for more fossil fuels. And just today, the oil and gas industry had a huge auction in the SuperDome in New Orleans to ten more years of oil and gas drilling offshore. We’re talking about frack gas expanding. We have proposals right now for 300 frack gas power plants throughout the United States and people are battling them every single place we go. They’re battling the pipelines, they’re battling the power plants. Hillary Clinton speaks of natural gas as a bridge fuel. So does Barack Obama, by the way. What that bridge means is 30-40 more years of dependence on fossil fuel, the worst fossil fuel that there is for climate change. That’s not responsible action, that’s not what is says in the [inaud.] courts. You have an incredible contradiction right now among this administration that saying, “We wanna take on climate change. We wanna keep climate change well below 2 degrees,” is what they said in Paris. And yet you have FERC permitting all these pipelines.
HEDGES: Another thing you point out, when you look at the climate change conference in Paris, that there is, of course, all this rhetoric that acknowledges the problem, but the reality of Paris was that it was a huge step backwards.
FOX: Yeah, well in Copenhagen in 2009, when we set the target at 2 degrees, we at least said that that was 2009. The current INDC’s which are the commitments that nations have made to reduce emissions, lead us towards a data path of 3.5 degrees Celsius so actually many analysts said this is actually a step back from Copenhagen was regarded as a disaster. So when you have what the scientists are saying–James [inaud.] just came out with a record breaking report talking about sea level rises accelerating faster than we think, and you have someone like Lester Brown coming out and saying, “Yes, there are the numbers,” or Bill Mckibben with his Do The Math Tour that I was on with him saying, “These are the numbers.”
HEDGES: You interview some of these people and they tear up. Colbert wrote The Sixth Great Extinction and that’s quite moving. Then in the film when you lay out the inevitability of so much of what’s coming and the failure on the part of the elites to respond rationally to what’s coming, you have this moment where, you know, you’re overwhelmed.
FOX: Well it’s called the overwhelmed section, and it is overwhelming. The thing with this movie is that we wanted to try to make what would be a whole climate change movie in the first 35 minutes, not the normal cycle of “we’re doomed and this is why.” Because the point of the film was not to tell people what they already know, which is a lot of this, but then to say, “What do we do now?” and “How do we move through this?” I feel like we get trapped in this sort of tennis match between denial and despair. On the one hand you have despair that says this is the worst news that you can possibly get. We’re going to lose the major cities, 30-50 % of all the species on the planet go extinct at 2 degrees.
Elizabeth Colbert, unbelievably despondent in her interview about the species and it shows and we showed the emotion. We don’t leave the emotion out of this movie. This isn’t a dry film. This isn’t a scientific essay. This is an emotional roller coaster ride. So what do you do with that? And on the other hand, you can’t just deny it and forget about all of this stuff. So I believe in the power of catharsis. I believe that when you go through the feelings of these things and you allow yourself to feel it, there is something on the other side of that, and that is where the real information is. So the film, we started off like Gasland, like we just won on fracking, how bad could this be? And you walk in like Forest Gump, kind of naive about it and that naivety comes crashing down very very quickly and you realize, “What do we have left to fight for? What are we fighting for?” That’s the second part of the title, which is,All the Things that Climate Can’t Change. The voice over, my question is, “What are the things that are so deep inside of us that no storm can take them away?”
HEDGES: So what are those things?
FOX: Those are our civic virtues.
HEDGES: Explain that.
FOX: Well, in times of crisis, the worst in us can come out and the best in us can come out. In the Rockaways, you saw, which was hit by Hurricane Sandy, a huge problem caused by climate change–or worsened by climate change–you saw looting, you saw gangs ruling the night, so that was the worst in us in a lot of ways. And the best in us was you had community centers that rebuilt their communities out of just sheer gumption and going out there and doing that work.
HEDGES: Well, you had church basements. Everyone was bringing in food and diapers and cleaning equipment.
FOX: It was remarkable. Occupy Sandy, 20,000 volunteers a day. So our spirit towards community, generosity, human rights, democracy, courage, innovation. These are the things that are so inside of us that climate can’t change. If we’re going to look at a world which starts to spiral out of control in terms of the climate, we simply can’t have humanity spiral out of control along with it. During Hurricane Katrina, when you saw all those people on the bridge trying to get out of flooded New Orleans and then on the other side of it, the cops with shotguns trying to hold them back, this wasn’t a climate change problem. This was a humanitarian problem. This was man’s inhumanity to man. Our civilization right now is based on greed, competition and on violence, and if we continue to have those as the [inaud.] of our system, we’re going to see incredible calamity with the rising seas and all the things that are coming. So we have to start thinking about different sets of value structure that’s based on creativity, based on community, based on human rights, based on love.
HEDGES: Well let’s talk about those disciplines that grapple with those values. Poetry, dance, music, and you go to indigenous communities and it’s quite moving, where they find that spirit of resistance with the Pacific Islanders. But I think from the film, they’re sustained by their culture, their tradition and their art.
FOX: But so are we. What is America without the art, without the culture. The truth is that we have to strengthen those virtues and those values. Those are not answers. You’re right to say that they’re mysteries. What does this mean to get good at creativity? What does it mean to be good at community? What does it mean to strengthen our generosity, our ability to innovate and how do we do that? I believe in a future where knowing your neighbors is going to be more important than your property line because these things will start to break down and when that crisis comes, we have to start to be better.
I think the film absolutely gravitates towards the people who have no choice, who never say die and yeah, the indigenous environmental monitors checking kilometers into the jungle to find oil spills that no one is reporting on. The Pacific climate warriors, blockading the port of Newcastle, the largest coal port in the world, in Australia with hand-carved traditional canoes up against boats that are the size of the Empire State Building. People speaking out in China about the pollution and the human rights catastrophe there even at pain of them losing their own civil liberties. These are the people who you have to look to, the communities that are on the front lines about how we organize ourselves going forward.
HEDGES: And what role does, and we see it in the film, something as elemental as dance which I see you play a lot with in the film.
FOX: Well, I did a dance sequence to begin the movie as a joke. And then everybody loved it, then all of a sudden I can’t get out of it. But it ended up being one of the most profound things in the film because we ended it with the dance, also. And every time we showed this movie out on the road, and we’re in the middle of a tour and we’re doing it in theaters, but we’re also touring to all these places that are in the middle of a Grassroots fight against fossil fuels. So that’s the Let Go and Love Tour and we’re taking it to places that are fighting power plants in LNG terminals and pipelines. At the end of the movie we get the whole audience dancing with us. And when the audience gets up and starts dancing and we finished it and there’s a round of applause, not just for us, but for everybody, I say to them, “You feel that blood pumping in your veins? That’s the movement.” And it’s a double entendre because it’s the movement that got you that way but it’s also that’s what we mean by we’re the movement.
HEDGES: I end my book the same way you end your film, which is we must empower the imagination, the human imagination, the moral imagination, in order to envision another way to relate to each other and to the ecosystem. One that doesn’t cater to the dominant vices of culture which you mention: violence, greed, exploitation. And my youngest son is 8, and when we took him, about 3, to see The Nutcracker for the first time, he broke down and wouldn’t leave the auditorium. It was just my wife and he’s sobbing, going “I want to be a dancer.” And it was like being struck by lightning. I enrolled him in a local ballet school and he hasn’t stopped. And so like you I’m very cognizant of what’s coming and struggle with despair, and yet I find myself with my 8 year old in a ballet studio day after day, and I was there not long ago and everyone left the studio and he was alone and suddenly he started leaping and spinning, you know the way, he told himself to spot where you turn your head at a faster rate than you turn your body, as dancers can do and I watched him spin all the way around the studio and I thought, “It’s people like my son that are going to save the world.”
FOX: Like I said, these are the things that climate can’t change. You get so down the road of, “Oh my God, flood and famine and refugees.” And, yes, these are things that we cannot deny and the film doesn’t pull its punches, and if you really look it in the face it’s a dark, dark picture. At the same time, these are the things that can bring us back together and bring us back to center, and this is what we have to celebrate. You got to ask yourself if you look through our evolutionary history, you have dinosaurs, you have the Ice Age, what makes humanity worth saving? It’s not the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, it’s not the Walmart down the street, it’s certainly not our political system in the way that it’s currently being manipulated by all this huge, big money. It’s not fascism, it’s not totalitarianism. It’s music, it’s art, it’s generosity, it’s culture, it’s community. These are the things that make us something worth keeping on this planet.
HEDGES: It’s like Leon Staff and the [inaud.]. We needed poetry in some ways more than bread.
FOX: It’s a part of justice.
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Producer – Kayla Rivara
Associate Producer – Dharna Noor
Technical Director – Ryan Porter
Audio Engineer – David Hebden
Camera – Adam Coley, Matt Boenning
Lighting – Chris DeMillo, Ryan Porter
Editor – Sebastian Pituscan
Graphics – Oscar Leon