The film, “What a way to go: Life at the end of the empire,” expresses this shock and sadness about the limit-pushing from the narrator’s contemporary perspective. The film lists the litany of signs that the natural systems of our planet have been pushed beyond sustainability: extinct and endangered species, pollution, garbage, greenhouse gases, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to defend against scarcity, and on and on. The film uses a metaphor to explain how we’ve built the empire: by taking bricks from the lower floors of a building to add height to the upper stories. The implication is that we’re destabilizing the spaces below us and that we can ready for collapse; the unspoken tragedy is that the lower floors were occupied by nature, by developing countries, by unknown and ‘unimportant’ beings and life forms are already being crushed by the weight of our culture.
This perspective is very, very similar to the writings of Derrick Jensen, a writer who wrestles with the questions that the narrator raises in “What a Way to Go.” The film interviews Jensen and borrows heavily from his philosophical framing about the choices we are making culturally. Anyone familiar with “Endgame: The Problem of Civilization” will see the similar ideas and descriptions about the issues facing our planet. However, Jensen directly advocates the dismantling of civilization, whereas the film concludes on a somewhat fuzzier and more ambiguous note about how to move forward from here.
Being “Here” is both a conundrum and an opportunity. The narrator recognizes the undoable contribution to resource consumption and unsustainability that he has created by expanding his family. The solution that he proposes for himself is to live in the world as consciously as possible. Under the premise that planetary destruction is unstoppable- and that his children (and we) already exist- the best we can do is find a way out of participating in the destruction and be ready to meet the new world that is being co-created.
Unfortunately, the film leaves off there. There is no roadmap for “getting off the grid,” or creating a different world. It leaves the viewer simply knowing that change is needed, but not really providing a “how to” of what the choices are. Many of the roadmaps we are given recreate the flawed system. For example, critics of Malthus show how his failure to account for technological innovation and a subsequent increase in the global food supply are evidence of the problems with his theory. This only accounts for effects to humans; absent from the equation is an accounting of the addition of myriad toxic chemicals into the environment, the creation of a fossil fuel dependent agricultural system, and the release of tons of greenhouse gases. The shortage of food has not risen high enough in the foodchain for us to feel it, but it is affecting other species already. If one looks at population sustainability as including non-human life forms, we haven’t escaped the boom and bust cycle that Malthus- and indeed, Darwin and Wallace- predicted.
The current “green” movement and the emphasis on reducing greenhouse gases is premised on human comfort/existence as well. Many of the current technological solutions- solar power, high-mileage vehicles- still have enormous environmental impacts and harm the long-term sustainability of human and non-human life on the planet. The footprint of these fixes doesn’t disprove Malthusian theory, it simply projects it outward onto other species. In that way, our technological innovations have already exacerbated the problem.
Perhaps the best solution in “What a way to go” was one that was completely unspoken: the narrator transitions from riding a train to walking along a road to walking on a trail to walking on an untrodden forest floor as he tells the story of his journey. Without being explicit, this move away from technology (and, by extension, away from optimism for technological fixes) reminds the viewer of the true direction towards sustainability: life with less material infrastructure, but a richer human and non-human community. There is no “how-to” for this type of life, just a moment-to-moment commitment to do one’s best.
Unfortunately, as Jensen points out, without a concurrent commitment to dismantling the system that created this artificial abundance, humans doing their best is not enough.
Jensen, D. 2006. Endgame, Volume 1: The problem of civilization. Seven Stories Press, Los Angeles.
University of California Museum of Paleontology. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/malthus.html Accessed 24 April 2010.