Review: The Age of Stupid

This post was written by Jacob on July 28, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Communities,Economy,Environment,Film,Human Rights,International,Reviews,Television

It’s extremely easy to criticise the politics of cultural products if you don’t agree with absolutely everything they say. If you consider your understanding to be more nuanced, it is very easy to say that a book, a film, or an article doesn’t go far enough. The point is that not every great film is like a glass slipper to each Cinderella viewer, but regardless of this fact these sorts of cultural products can be hugely valuable in changing consciousness and changing the world. It feels a bit silly to preface my review of The Age of Stupid with this, but I am all too wary that whilst I am writing a relatively critical review, I see this film as extremely important, and something that really should be disseminated as widely as possible. Or as Ken Livingstone has put it “Every single person in the country should be forcibly sat down on a chair and made to watch this film.”

The film is set in 2055, in a world in which almost all life has ended on earth. Pete Postlethwaite stars as an archivist, who looks back to the early 2000s, seeing how we got to a state in which the environment caused the collapse of civilisation. He follows a number of stories from different continents around the world ranging from a mountain guide in Chamonix watching glaciers melt, to an entrepreneur setting up a budget airline in India. The main political focus is on inaction and how we (the Western viewers) can do more to cut carbon emissions, and ultimately on how we must lobby in advance of the meeting on climate change in Copenhagen at the end of the year, which will decide on an international strategy on carbon emissions for the coming 15 years.

There are some powerful arguments here, and the film attempts as best as possible to be scientifically accurate, or at least as scientifically accurate as one can be with these sorts of projections. Real changes are shown, along with some of the realities of abject poverty and misery caused by both the use of oil and the industry that maintains its production. The message is loud and clear: if we do not act now, it will be too late.

The problems come, then, in the political messages of the film, or rather what is lacking in the political messages. We are told over and over again that the problem is consumption. Consumption on a scale we’ve never seen before. Consumption so large that it somehow alone makes people poor. Only once is capitalism ever mentioned, and the film-makers are far happier to rely on the rhetoric of consumerism. The problem is, though, that what makes people poor is categorically not in the field of consumption. Yes, over many decades this may be the case, when we exhaust the world’s resources, but there is a fork in the argument: why is it that when we are producing more than ever, when we are pumping trillions of pounds into the market that people are still poor. The point is that poverty is completely inadequately explained by consumerism, and that we need to look at production. A little is said of the so-called curse of resources, but this is never explained in any depth.

I can understand why the makers of the film stay away from this – add a bit of Marxist economics to your environmentalism and your world leaders are less likely to accept it. The trouble is that in ignoring this important debate the arguments for how we can transform the world, and avert crisis, disappear. If we found a clean way to run capitalism (that’s environmentally clean, of course, capitalism is never morally clean), then it is perfectly possible that global poverty would be worse rather than better. Well I mean people would be poor rather than dead, but we can’t be accepting this as a solution.

The film concludes with an argument for people to live in a way that is as close to carbon-neutral as possible. This suggestion seems aimed solely at the Western middle-classes. No advice is offered to, say, the Chinese about how despite rampant growth improving living conditions they should probably curb it a little. In fact there is no challenge to the consciousness of people in the developing world, which ultimately is about them demanding better quality of life, and often this isn’t a very green process (although it has been sometimes – I think back to Chico Mendes and the struggles of the rubber-tappers in Acre in the 1980s.) We can all do our own little bit, but in reality the redistribution of carbon emissions can only happen alongside the redistribution of wealth. Quality of life is not simply relative, and cutting standards of living in the West will ultimately not help people in the most oppressed regions of the world feel better about how they are forced to live.

Despite these difficulties, and the rather fluffy economics of the film, it remains important. We must act now, and the Age of Stupid is proposing a way forward. It’s a shame that the dissemination of the film is not as wide as it could be – I can only assume that there are rights issues that stop it being put up on Google Video or similar. Needless to say, there’s information about the campaign and screenings on and I encourage you all to watch the film, and show it to others too.

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Reader Comments

I agree that the redistribution of carbon emissions has to happen alongside the redistribution of wealth. We, in the West, should be doing all we can to reverse the damage that we have caused. But if we are to avert a crisis, it is imperative that rapidly developing countries, like China and India, pursue a green path of development. This will cost them more for fewer economic returns. That is why it is the responsibility of the West, and particularly America, to begin a fund firstly to compensate the poorest nations, like Bangladesh and Bolivia, that have been disporportionately affected by a crisis not of their making; and secondly to ease the financial burden that will be placed on rapidly developing nations.

Written By Salman Shaheen on July 29th, 2009 @ 12:46 am

This film and this review are absurd. To suggest the world will come to and end by 2055 due to AGW is not only irresponsible , it verges on criminal. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory. We are constantly told the world is going to end if we don’t do this or we don’t do that. Does anyone recall the ozone scare? The threat of aliens invading from Mars that caused dozens of people to kill themselves in the early thirties? I’m sorry. I just can’t put into words the lack of intelligence when this topic is discussed. So Ken Livingstone is now a Climate scientist??? Dear god.

Written By kevin on November 16th, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

Who let Kevin out of his cell? Come on, there’s a nice warm straight jacket waiting for you…

Written By Salman Shaheen on November 17th, 2009 @ 2:10 am


Between consumerism and capitalism is only a distinction without a difference. If what you’re proposing instead is Soviet-style communism, it’s essentially state capitalism w the same materialist reductionist anti-nature mindset and an inadequate view of human psychology, individual, collective, systemic or ecological. ‘What’s behind it?’ is the question. We have to look at the psychology that causes all the isms.

The movie can’t go into that in depth; it’s just trying to describe the problem for corporate persons/trolls and the millions who have been fooled by right wing corporate lies into disbelief of scientific truth–like Kevin. Despite the shortage of time (maybe 10-15 years before it’s too late to save future generations) we have to take this one step at a time for those who are coming along a little slower.

Written By J4zonian on February 10th, 2010 @ 4:55 am

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