An ongoing issue in the peak oil world is how to tell the story of declining non-renewable resources in a way that’s accessible to a wider audience, while remaining credible to experts. To reach out without dumbing down.
Most experts on energy and the economy have already made up their minds on the financial crisis, global warming and peak oil and no one documentary is going to shake the faith of these stalwarts.
But the public is a different story and there’s plenty of room there for building awareness and enlightenment on how today’s economic and ecological conundrums fit together.
And, as we’re always saying here at Transition Voice, however compelling evidence may be in a white paper, chart, graph, or long lecture, if it doesn’t succeed in communicating the problem and possible solutions to the problem in a way that engages people, it can end up being of little use except in obscure research or as a footnote somewhere.
That’s why we were excited to review a new documentary out of the UK, The Crisis of Civilization, by filmmaker Dean Puckett. In the trailer it looked like the newest, most accessible peak oil film since The End of Suburbia. And once we watched the film, we weren’t disappointed.
Based in part on the work of international security analyst Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, the documentary tells of the converging problems brought about by the fossil fuel era, from the population spikes that oil’s largesse has spawned to the fouling of air and water, all leading to the inevitable downfall of the modern way of life that must arise from the finite nature of oil and other fossil fuels.
Ahmed, present throughout most of the film as a sort of narrator-lecturer, provides a voice of reason and credibility as he explores the converging crises, asking if they’re real or not. And if they are real, what do we need to know about them and what is the most pragmatic way forward in the face of them?
What’s great about Ahmed is that he’s young and hip looking on the one hand. On the other, his presentation makes it clear that he also have the cred to back up his claims about the gravity of today’s challenges. Not being another old, bald guy (sorry old, bald guys), he ends up being a much more sympathetic figure to the very people who most need to hear this story — the young (whether bald or not).
Each time the camera cuts back to Ahmed, he’s sitting in a room surrounded by art, photos in frames, banners and other clutter from the age of mass manufacturing, looking like he’s in the attic of the last century. The room is cast in a glowy golden-pink, which is easy on the eyes. So while Ahmed is patiently relaying how we got to a point of critical resource strain, and entertaining differing views on the viability or non-viability of such a civilization for the long haul, he comes off as just chatting you up, without any hype or aggro vibes. James Howard Kunstler, he’s not (though we all love you, JHK).
Ahmed synthesizes an immense amount of information from a variety of academic disciplines without coming off as pedantic or pompous. And yet, his deadpan urgency avoids skidding into the judgmental or sarcastic-ironic-tragic.
But it’s what’s woven around Ahmed every time the film cuts away from him that really makes this movie fun, funny, engaging and ultimately a powerful call-to-action.
Ahmed continues his voice over, but almost all the rest of the film is either stock footage, much of it vintage kitsch, or else original animations by artist Lucca Benney.
In other words, the film is a remix, and its style is tailor made for today’s audiences hooked on rapid cuts and contrasting images.
And it works beautifully. (See a trailer, here).
Ahmed and Puckett’s main contention is that critically converging issues can’t be looked at in isolation, or through a particularized lens, if there’s any hope to address the manifold problems arising and hitting at the same time. We have a systemic problem, argues Ahmed, and it can only be addressed through systems thinking. As he says,
When policymakers see things like climate change, peak oil, the economic crisis, or the fact that we’re reaching limits in food production, they try to deal with them in isolation instead of recognizing that these crises are fundamentals of a failing global system. Because of this ideology, because of these subliminal ideas, we’re straightjacketed, and we’re unable to respond in the way that we need to. Recognizing that, we need not just tinkering, but transformation of the system. But the question is, How do we do that? My view is that we need to go back to each of these crises, understand how they work, and how they’re so fundamentally interconnected.
It helps then, that such a big dose of bitter medicine is followed by space age music and footage of a cool car traveling up a windy road at night only to stop in the face of some unknown but powerful obstacle.
At once we’re confronted with the enormity of the challenge Ahmed articulates, able to comprehend how wholly unknown it is to us, and yet, through creative sci-fi archive footage, we’re able to keep it at a comfortable enough distance that it doesn’t immediately overwhelm us.
In this way Ahmed and Puckett avoid the trap of hammering home a point of view without considering who opposes that point of view. Keeping a little creative doubt in the mix is engaging for the believers and disarming for the skeptics.
Ahmed says he’s looked at data on climate change and peak oil and has also looked extensively and fairly at what skeptics with counter positions have advanced. But in the end, he argues, the data is overwhelmingly clear. Still, spooky alien music keeps his conclusion from coming off as didactic which, oddly, makes Ahmed sound more believable.
Benney’s startlingly simple animations are rendered in almost childlike fashion, but to great effect. Not only do they achieve precisely the kind of authenticity that defines cool these days for young and old, but they also help tell the story in a creative yet straightforward manner. Her work helps explain who the intellectuals are who are referenced in the film, from historian Samuel Huntington, whose theory of the inevitable “clash of civilizations” (eg, Islam vs. the West) obscures the real problem of resource wars, to climate scientist Jim Hansen, who says the world has already passed the safe limit of greenhouse gas emissions.
Unlike some other recent films that have also used simple animations, Benney’s use of color, her playful compositions, and the manner and pace at which her drawings build upon themselves gives her work a stronger position not only in telling the story, but within The Crisis of Civilization as a whole, as an equal partner in the film making process.
Refreshingly, while the film looks at whose interests are served by a fossil-fuel dependent economy, including the GDP of disasters, Puckett doesn’t make Big Money the sole boogeymen.
Through the consumer society we’re all found guilty, though Puckett soft-sells the finger-pointing with outtakes of mid-century housewives in luxury homes and at the grocery store as examples of consumer glut in action.
Sure, we were all simply born into the existing paradigm, and so achieving consciousness of its ill effects and extracting ourselves is not easy. But there’s ample information already out there about what’s not working, a body of knowledge to which The Crisis of Civilization contributes. If only we’d really listen for a change.
As Ahmed says, “If we’re going to deal effectively with climate change, then we’re going to have to more thoroughly understand our addiction to fossil fuels.”
The film goes on to tell the energy story in the same jaunty, campy style, all to a kind of Hanna-Barbera cartoon score, an eerily happy tune that morphs to foreshadow doom. Explaining the basics of peak oil and peak resources in general leads to a pretty blunt conclusion in The Crisis of Civilization: it’s all got to stop.
Tying industrial society’s ecological overshoot to the notion of unlimited, endless economic growth, the filmmakers explain how people will need to adjust to step down gently if we’re to avoid an ugly and painful crash. Mostly, they suggest moving en masse to a distributed clean energy and localized organic food production paradigm.
The difference is, instead of advocating growing food ‘cuz it’s fun, or hobby-ish, or greenie, the urgent message of peak oil gives us a reason to take up these practices quickly and in earnest. This isn’t a trend. It’s a new way of life, coming soon whether we like it or not.
Most of all, by watching the movie, you can confirm that indeed you’re not crazy, and that yes, many people the world over are working on the issues of peak oil, climate change and economic crisis and are doing their damnedest to get the word out in a way that works.
For my money, a remix film is totally the way to do it. And with all the artifacts of the fossil fuel age to supply us, we’re fortunately not likely to reach peak kitsch anytime soon. That’s good news for storytelling, and for Dead Dean Films, which invites you to make and share your own remix of The Crisis of Civilization.
Clearly we’re all in this together.