Take warning

Pub date September 15, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


The forests are in flames, the desert is advancing, the glaciers have vanished, and in a solar-powered facility towering above the ice-free waters of the Arctic, some 800 miles north of Norway, a solitary older man (Pete Postlethwaite) roams the hallways of the Global Archive, a warehouse sheltering banks of data-storage servers, a civilization’s worth of art and invention, and a Noah’s ark of extinguished species. From this lonely outpost, he gravely explores a stomach-churning inquiry: "We could have saved ourselves. But we didn’t. It’s amazing. What state of mind were we in to face extinction and simply shrug it off?"

Good question, and one that Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, a hybrid merging documentary material and a fictional frame tale, forcefully suggests we start addressing like we mean it — immediately. That is to say, before runaway climate change makes its debut and some or all of its widely forecasted ecological consequences begin to manifest, along with resource shortages, food and water riots, and massive societal collapse.

Delineating the complex global network of climate-change causes and effects, The Age of Stupid interweaves real-life documentary footage from the lives of six present-day subjects in New Orleans, the French Alps, Jordan, southwest England, a small Nigerian fishing village, and Mumbai, India. Interspersed is real and faux (future) archival footage depicting and predicting the environmental consequences of humanity’s bad habits. And all of it is presented as the digital artifacts of a dying-off civilization, preserved for uncertain posterity in the Global Archive. While covering similar terrain to that of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the film serves as a kind of "No, but really, folks …" in the face of frighteningly incremental gestures toward sustainability — and continued shortsighted resistance — at the levels of national, state, and local government as well as citizenry.

The film’s opening sequence begins with the big bang and hurtles via countdown clock through billions of years, flying past the earliest stages of evolution, past dinosaurs, past the industrial revolution, and past the present day, the titular Age of Stupid, so fast that we barely have time to notice ourselves on the screen before it’s 2055, the Age of Too Late. The message: in the grand scheme of things, we have about a nanosecond left to kid ourselves as we refill our metal water bottle and press the start button on our Energy Star-qualified washer-dryer or Prius — or to find a way, at the level of populace, not green-minded individual, to radically swerve from our current path. According to Armstrong and her cohorts in the Not Stupid Campaign, the film’s companion activist effort, our fate will pretty much be decided by December’s climate talks in Copenhagen. (The film, which premiered in the U.K. in March, has its 50-country "global premiere" Sept. 21-22.)

So then, do the canvas bags, travel mugs, energy-saving appliances, clotheslines, CSA memberships, cycling, recycling, composting, and other ecologically minded efforts of a smattering of well-intentioned individuals matter at all? Or matter enough — in the face of factories, factory farming, methane-emitting landfills, canyons of office towers lit up 24/7, a continent-sized constellation of plastic detritus in the Pacific, and millions of trips cross-country at an average elevation of 30,000 feet?

Colin Beavan, the subject of Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s No Impact Man, is banking on yes, being of the "be the change you wish to see in the world" school of thought (admittedly in good company, with Mahatma Gandhi). Taking its name from Beavan’s book project and blog, No Impact Man shadows the NYC-based writer; his wife, Michelle Conlin, a senior writer at BusinessWeek admitting to "an intense relationship with retail" and a high-fructose corn syrup addiction; and their toddler daughter, Isabella, during a year in which they try to achieve a net-neutral environmental impact.

This entails giving up, in successive stages, with varying degrees of exactitude, packaged food (hard on a family whose caloric mainstay is take-out), nonlocal food (hard on a woman who drinks multiple quadruple-shot espressos a day; impossible, as it turns out), paper products (magazine subscriptions, TP), fossil-fuel-dependent transit (airplanes, elevators, and even the subway), electricity (i.e., the refrigerator), and, to a large extent, trash. The idea is to learn empirically — and demonstrate — which behaviors might be permanently ditched and which are virtually hardwired.

There are, predictably, certain criticisms –- from irritated environmentalists, from semianonymous blog commenters, from the New York Times Home and Garden section. There is the matter of giving up public transportation rather than championing it, and the issue (raised by a community gardener who takes Beavan under his wing) of Conlin’s laboring for a high-circulation publication that trumpets capitalist virtues antithetical to the project of tapering off consumption and waste. And Beavan sometimes comes across, particularly in the book, as well-meaning but stubbornly myopic in his focus on self-improvement.

Then again, the guy and his family gave up toilet paper, electric light, motor vehicles, spontaneous slices of pizza, and many deeply ingrained habits of wastefulness for a year while most of the rest of the country got up each morning and brushed their teeth with the water running. What impact the No Impact project might have on, for instance, the mounds of trash-filled Heftys that line Manhattan’s sidewalks each week remains to be seen. But as the Age of Stupid winds down, it’s probably a waste of time to fault anyone’s attempts to forestall the Age of Too Late.

NO IMPACT MAN opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.

THE AGE OF STUPID plays Mon/21, 8 p.m., SF Center. Visit www.ageofstupid.net for additional Bay Area screenings.