‘Gasland’ Director’s Latest Film Fights Against Climate Despair
With 13 straight months of record global temperatures, rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice, and searing droughts under way from California to Vietnam, it is easy to feel that the climate change catastrophe has arrived.
Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox faces that despair head-on in his newest movie, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, which after months on the festival circuit and a series of community screenings, will make its television premiere on HBO on Monday. From an impoverished New York City community grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to a flotilla of kayaks and canoes facing down an enormous coal ship in Australia, Fox takes viewers on a journey to prove that all is far from lost. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TakePart: At the start of the movie you pretty much pick up where your Gasland films left off. A grassroots campaign has averted a plan for fracking near your home in the Delaware River Basin. Then you come up against the wall of climate change—in the form of the dying hemlock tree by your house—and realize, “We’ve won this victory, but the war is still raging.”
Josh Fox: That's a great way to put it. When we won the battle against fracking in the Upper Delaware River Basin, it was very tempting to just stay home and say that's good enough. And then I see that my tree is dying because of climate change—I see that the whole hemlock forest is in jeopardy because of the parasites that are advancing up the coast as climate warms. And then Hurricane Sandy hits, and New Yorkers—people from my city drowned in their own homes because they were not prepared. It was so shocking to see the Atlantic Ocean emptying into the New York City subway system, whole neighborhoods underwater, $30 billion worth of damage. That made me realize that even though I could beat the fracking industry in my own backyard, we might lose everything to climate change. That was a real wake-up call. I realized I couldn't stay home. I had to finish the story.
TakePart: I was struck that you framed the film with the response to Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway, a beach neighborhood in New York City. It looks to me like you spent some time there, enough to know what a tough neighborhood it is.
Fox: The Rockaways are a very interesting community, right? Because you have on one side of that peninsula a middle-class community, you have on another side of the peninsula a very wealthy community, and in between you have an extremely poor community, poor and black. Everybody went underwater. Climate change in its immediate impacts didn't discriminate. But in its long-term impacts it certainly did. What we focus on in the film is this brilliant leader in the Rockaways. Her name is Aria Doe. She runs a place called the Action Center, a community center that provides relief to the other disaster, which is happening perpetually, the disaster of economic inequality and racial injustice and poverty. Those two storms do collide with Sandy, and we find incredible leadership.
It's clear that the relief and recovery of communities has to be sourced from within those communities themselves. Certainly in the Rockaways you have that New York City toughness and resilience and attitude combined with some very sobering reality about climate change.
TakePart: Unlike a lot of climate change films, you spend a minimum of time on climate science and a lot more with people who, despite living in places that are already being hit by superstorms or rising seas, or degraded by fossil fuel development, are organizing their communities to make their lives better.
Fox: It's the people that matter. Yes, New York City might get submerged. New York City is just a bunch of stuff, honestly. The people are what matter, how we treat the people and the people who have to get relocated. Those are going to be very important and great issues of justice, and how is justice done and how is justice dealt with. Climate change cannot evoke the impulse to buy an extra shotgun and another round of shells. Climate change has to be “We’re going to get ready the extra seat at the table. We’re going to get ready the extra bedroom. We’re going to welcome those in harm's way with brotherhood and with love and community.” That's the thing we have to do to transform our world.
TakePart: When you came to the end of this project, did you find that you'd undergone some sort of internal transformation yourself?
Fox: You see a lot of documentaries these days where it's very clear that they know exactly what they're saying from the beginning, and you learn the whole thing in the first 10 minutes and spend the rest of the movie rehashing what we just learned. My films are completely different than that. My films are cathartic, and they have an arc of knowledge and an arc of emotion. Because I'm literally going through a transformation, and I'm going through a question in a way that definitely impacts and affects the way I think, the way I feel, the way I move, everything.
I don't think of it as a documentary as much as I think of it as an action-adventure-philosophy movie. Think of all the things that happen in this movie: A 12-kilometer trek into this jungle in the Amazon. Having a battle on the high seas against Australian coal tankers with traditional hand-carved canoes from the South Pacific. Dodging Inner Mongolian foreign affairs police as they're trying to take our footage away from us while we shoot some of the worst pollution situations in the world, in China. It is an action-adventure movie.
And coming out the other side of it, what we want people to find is a place of positivity, a place of energy, a place of enthusiasm, a feeling like OK, we can do this. We can fix the climate. Or if we can’t fix climate, we can fix ourselves; we can move ourselves in a new direction.
TakePart: When people are talking about solutions to climate change, there's often attention paid to technology fixes. But you didn't do that here, even though you talk about how much carbon is in the atmosphere and how long it's going to be there.
Fox: The climate change problem is a human problem. A lot of climate change films, they’re so doom and gloom that you want to kill yourself at the end. You also on the other hand see a lot of climate change information in films that is all about “Just put up solar panels and wind turbines, and everything will be fine,” which is overly simplistic. Our system is based on greed and competition, violence and racism, and consumerism and individualism and fossil fuels. Of course we have to build a new system based on distributed energy, but that alone won’t solve the problem of greed and competition and racism and violence.
So the film addresses the roots of the problem and says, “Let's be honest. What makes human beings worth saving?” Love, human rights, democracy, art and culture, dance, generosity, courage, innovation, creativity. These are the things that make us worth saving. Political revolution is at the core of what we’re talking about in this film. Yes, the revolution will be solarized, but the revolution has to happen on values.
TakePart: The indigenous leaders featured in the film explain their activism—at least in part—as rising from their communal values, along with their spiritual ties to ancestral lands threatened by sea-level rise and fossil fuel development. Did you worry that this might romanticize them, in the minds of many mainstream viewers, as “Magical Native American” sorts of characters?
Fox: First of all, the voice of rejection of indigenous values is a sort of cynical, capitalistic, oil-induced voice in your head, and I think you shouldn’t pay attention to it. But also, what I think is remarkable about this moment—and you're right, the film goes from indigenous populations to very urban populations—is that whether they’re the inner-city folks in the Rockaways, the indigenous tribes in the Amazon, or the climate change scientists, they're all pointing towards the same things.
In a crisis, we have a choice. Like in the Rockaways [after Sandy], there were people who went out and looted. Then there were also people who did everything they possibly could to care for their fellow men and their fellow women, and the best in us came out. So the best in us can come out in a crisis, or the worst in us.
People think of indigenous values as, oh, New Agey or hippie-dippie or whatever. But this is not the case. These are innate human values that are emerging in the people who are working on climate change all across the globe. Whether they are the most erudite, overeducated climate scientist sitting in Harvard or Cornell University, or they are the people on the streets in New York City reacting to climate change as an urban resident, or they are indigenous people in a community in the South Pacific.
That's one of the things that I'm very proud of for the film. And that's why the film is so rooted in those values. They are shining through whether you are a Chinese solar entrepreneur or an indigenous climate warrior from the South Pacific.