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 www.ageofstupid.net and I encourage you all to watch the film, and show it to others too.