Written by Valentin Lucet
I have been wanting to write about the documentary Anthropocene, the human epoch for a little while. I had the chance to go see the movie at the student theatre at the Université de Montreal with a few other grad students. We had just been through six hours of multivariate statistics. The movie was a questionable choice, given our level of collective mental exhaustion. For me, it was a really rough ride, one that put me into a bleak mood for weeks, and an inability to write down how I felt about it for a whole month. Only now, when the emotions have faded, and only a vague, odd feeling remains, can I really start to explain what I saw and felt.
Anthropocene is the product of the collaboration between famed photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is not their first rodeo, the three of them having already produced two other documentaries together (Manufactured landscapes and Watermark). The three movies explore how humans have extensively modified landscapes in an “extractionist” endeavour. Extractionism is not a common word; I could not find a proper definition on Merriam-Webster. It qualifies capitalist activities like mining or forest clearing: an enterprise whose success and profits rely overwhelmingly on the mere extraction and distribution of natural resources (such as coal, rare metals, oil, etc.). “Extractionism” used to convey the lack of sustainability in such endeavors, it is meant as a blunt, unflattering designation. Extractionism has been contributing to climate change as extractionists industries are the dirtiest of all: they emit massive amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The movie is a companion piece to an exhibit currently showing at the National Gallery of Canada, which Lindsay has already shared her thoughts on. Now, I have not seen the exhibit, nor the other two movies. I cannot speak for how Anthropocene fits within the body of work of the three artists. I can, however, explain why it made me feel like not leaving my bed for two weeks after seeing it.
I knew what I was getting into; I knew the movie was going to be about how humans have damaged landscapes to make them manageable and unrecognisable, how we have made something foreign and new out of them, and how their novel aesthetics can be sadly pleasing. What is beauty? What is part of nature, what is part of culture? That is what some of the movie is about. I was also expecting to see depictions of the injustices that capitalism inflicts across the world. Meager and silent faces, laborers with broken backs living off the crumbs left behind by decades of extraction. This one spends her days picking up plastic bottles to sell every kilo for a few cents. This one risks his health in lithium pools. Image after image, as my “expectations” were more than fulfilled, I kept feeling more sadness, desperation and guilt.
And yet, that was no foreign state of mind. I had felt the same watching An inconvenient truth. I felt the same during Before the flood. Same deal with Chasing corals. But something about Anthropocene was different. The cinematography is truly, breathtakingly appropriate for the topic. The movie takes a landscape approach to the environment, a remarkable method. It reminded me of Home, a documentary by Yann-Arthur Bertrand, quite well known in France: the same aerial shots of the landscape, the same attempt to capture how humans and non humans can, or cannot, coexist. Nevertheless, I think that The Anthropocene is unique. And the thing that contributes the most to this uniqueness might very well be the ending of the movie.
I will not reveal the final scene here but will spoil the final message of the movie. The last few images are hopeful, in comparison to the rest of the movie: they express that things are slowly improving in the way we go about treating and valuing our environment. But the tone of the narrator is chilling: although it can be shown that we are improving… it just might not be enough. The credits roll, and “making progress” from the group Rheostatics, plays:
Right now, we are making progress
We are making dreams come true, just like we discussed
And our most recent letters, communiques, measures,
Of memories and treasures, kept in bricks and mortar
And I won’t last forever, I won’t even try to
I’m just making progress, I don’t know what else to do
Our hammers fall in silence, knocking down forest
Exploding all around us, and I’m committing treason
Cause I’m in love with reason
This is where we step into pure speculation, but to me, the choice of this music to roll the credits, given the tone of the ending, cannot be fortuitous.
I see two possible meanings in the lyrics, which reflects the film’s messages. The first meaning echoes the optimistic ending: we are, undeniably, making progress. These are the first words we hear once the narrator is done talking. The other possible meaning is revealed shortly after in the song, and echoes the ambiguous tone of the narrator, with regard to how much hope we should have in our environmental progress. Humans “are making progress”, read, pursuing a different kind of progress, one we could call technological progress. We are “making dreams come true, just like [they] discussed”, just as planned. Indeed, they “don’t know what else to do”. We are “knocking down forest” and “committing treason” against the earth, because we are “in love with reason”.
I would most certainly love to ask the makers of both the song and the movie, if they had environmental concern in mind when they wrote the lyrics. Here I choose to treat the movie and the song as conveying the exact same meaning, and that might very well be completely wrong. But bear with me. This is the whole movie in a nutshell. The movie asks the hard questions: is it too late? We know, that objectively, it isn’t. There is still time for us to prevent the world from warming above two degrees. And there are signs of environmental progress, but for every sign of such progress there are thousands of signs of technical progress in the opposite direction.
The film left me questioning many things. First, who is “we”? If “we” is the set of extractionnist western societies, maybe the way the west goes about environmentalism is wrong. We think that individual actions will amount to something. We eat less meat and buy electric cars. But we know this is not enough. The patronizing narratives of personal responsibility in climate change is outdated: we know that unless larger organizations (companies and governments) get involved, we won’t go very far. And how well is the implication of such organisation in de-carbonisation progressing? Maybe it is not going fast enough. Maybe something bigger is needed. Maybe the west needs a revolution.
So, is the movie/song a call for revolution? An ecological civil war, a fight between the powerful and polluting classes ; and misrepresented, non-polluting classes? I do not think the movie goes that far. The song actually tells us it doesn’t matter, that even that would not be enough.
What good’s a revolution?
A rising and a setting sun, a trip around the bright one
Lets you off where you started from
So what is the take home message of the film? Maybe it is about narratives. Although climate change is real, the way we go about communicating climate change can impact how people perceive it. Humans experience narratives all the time: culture itself could be said to be a complex narrative. The way you have learned history in school is a narrative; one version of a story.
The narrative of Anthropocene is different from previous movies of the same genre. We know for a fact that alarming narratives about environmental degradation usually do not work as well as optimistic narratives to spark change and awareness*. But Anthropocene takes a different approach. It is not alarmist, it is not dramatic, it is visually factual and, simply profoundly realistic. Right now, if we were to estimate the probability of “saving the planet”, it would be low, because we have come this far in degrading it.
And maybe this is what we actually need to “spark change”. No alarmism, no optimism, but the cold truth: times are bad, and some progress is being made, and you can see it wont be enough unless we seriously get on it. And maybe this is not at all what we need to spark more environmental progress. Because maybe this is just pessimism in disguise: the cinematographic equivalent of your pessimistic friend to whom you keep saying to stop being so pessimistic, and who replies to you that he is actually being realistic, not pessimistic.
I can sometimes be this friend who lies to himself about his own pessimism. This is why the movie left me completely lost. What am I supposed to think now? Which narrative should I believe in? I still do not know. These are important questions for me and I think they matter to anyone who feels as strongly as I do about global anthropogenic change.
I end this post with few answers, and many questions. If you have the courage to face them, go watch Anthropocene, the human epoch, this both dreadful and beautiful movie is really worth it.
* The work of Andrew Revkin is a good starting point to explore the science of communicating on climate change.