Any which way you slice it, the world is currently at a critical juncture. Environmentally, politically, socially, economically, and otherwise, the systems we have built have long been crumbling with people — and the planet — beginning to slip through the cracks. Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox has told one of those stories in great detail with his two heartbreaking (and infuriating) Gasland movies which focus on natural gas fracking and its dire, if not deadly, repercussions.
In his new film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change, which premieres on HBO on June 27, Fox focuses his lens on the people who are coming together to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds in South America, Asia, Africa, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. The project lays it all out in gut-wrenchingly stark relief, while making sure to leave its audience with just enough hope to keep fighting the good fight … and dancing the good dance.
There are so many aspects to this film and the issues it presents that I want to discuss. Let's start with the fact that continuing to put short-term economic concerns ahead of long-term sustainability problems just doesn't work. And the presumptive nominations of Clinton and Trump feed right into that, don't they?
I don't want to talk about it morally … Well, I mean, you could. It's immoral. Hillary Clinton's policies are pro-fracking, all the day long. You quite simply can't be pro-fracking and be a climate change activist or even a person who is trying to address climate change. So the big issue is not, necessarily, morality … although there is a lot in that campaign that is immoral — voting for the Iraq War, supporting the crime bill that put millions of people in prison unjustly, and galavanting around with the fossil fuel industry at every possible turn. Hillary Clinton, in her State Department, there were conflicts of interest on Keystone XL pipeline. She went around the world selling fracking with the Global Shale Gas Initiative.
What concerns me, right now, is not that the American public has rejected that … Actually, the American public has rejected that. If you look at every primary that has an open primary — Independents plus Democrats — Bernie Sanders wins. What's happened is, these political parties have become country clubs that isolate themselves from reality. The problem is, right now, that the Democrats have pushed so many people out of the dialogue, that they're threatening to become a minority party.
But what's exciting to me is that this idea of non-violent political revolution and all the things that Bernie Sanders stands for have become the winning political argument in America, even if it means that they have to do all these shenanigans to exclude him from the process.
Yeah. Yeah. Even with all of that, and the people on the other side shouting “down with government,” it still feels like a lot of folks have the mindset that government or someone will swoop in, eventually, and solve it all for us?
Solve climate change?
Yeah. Like some technology is going to emerge.
There really isn't any solving climate change.
I know that, but …
There is only working on climate change in the same way that there's no solving the human condition — there's only working on it. We do have to radically change our energy systems. We have to radically change all our systems that are emitting a lot of CO2. That includes our food system, transportation system. We probably also have to radically alter our political system, because it's our political system that enables those industries to dump carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
But this film isn't about causes of climate change. It's about what we do as we react to climate change. Human beings can make climate change a lot worse or we can make our lives much better. Our current system, as Tim DeChristopher says in the movie, is based on greed and competition. To that, I would add violence and institutionalized racism and social inequality — the worst elements of our nature. If we want to get through the climate calamity that's coming, with any human dignity, we need to change our value system to more sustainable virtues — courage, resilience, community, human rights, love. These are the things we have to start to look to, so that's what the film focuses on. These are the things that climate can't change.
If you think about the old saw, “You can't control what happens to you; you can only control how you react to it,” that's part of this issue. We absolutely must control energy systems. I'm not preaching that we don't fight climate change. I'm saying we fight it harder than ever before based on current information about where we are right now. What does that mean? That means that we find a revolutionary set of principles to guide us.
For example, in Hurricane Katrina, when all the people in New Orleans were told to go across the bridge — the poor people, the Black people, the people from the inner city … “Go across the bridge. Get to safety. Your city's under water.” They went across the bridge to the suburbs only to be met by the racist white shotguns of the police force telling them to go back and drown. That was not, at that point, a climate change problem. When those police were there, that was a human problem. That was a breakdown of civil rights, a breakdown of American values. If we're not going to make climate change worse, we have to work a little bit on justice.
Both the DeChristopher part, which hit me hard, and the quote from the Zambian teen's notebook — “Freedom is meaningless, if there's poverty” — those two sections spoke to each other, for me. Renewable energy, as vastly important as that is … unless we curb the consumerism that demands so many petroleum-based products, it's all but meaningless.
I don't know if it's just about consumerism. I think it has to do with … I'll quote Tim again: “We can not solve our emotional problems with material needs.” We've been trying that. The film is saying that there's a radical politics of the spirit, as well as a radical politics at the ballot box. And it does some work to that issue.
The idea of the moral imagination … redefining success by folding some humanity into it rather than running on pure ambition …
I think of companies like Patagonia that have proved it is possible, at the corporate level, to do good and do well. Why is that the exception rather than the rule?
This is a creative situation. Our laws have been created to make corporations more immoral, to make sure there absolutely aren't any regulations or restrictions on what they do and how they operate. When industry says, “That will drive up costs!” all the politicians jump and try to make it as cheap as possible to do their business. We have to start thinking in different ways.
And, yeah, there are a couple of corporations that might think about sustainable virtues. But, to be honest, we're going to be impacting the planet. And we've impacted the planet. I'll go back to the virtues again: The biggest problem right now is not that there's social and economic inequality. The biggest problem is that we have social and economic inequality to the point that our system caters to draining wealth to the top and giving everybody else nothing. That situation of unfairness and oligarchy has everybody scrambling and that destroys the other human systems — health, the environment, education — so we don't make correct decisions.
That quote in the notebook of the kid — “Freedom is meaningless, if there's poverty” — I think what that means is, if you have no food, if you don't have a clean environment, if you're living in a situation that's difficult and dangerous, there is no freedom possible in that atmosphere. If we look at the social stratification right now — the violence of fracking, the violence that is inherent in this system — that is an act that deprives people of freedom in its own way.
I've long said, until we solve economic justice, those people can't care about the environment or civil rights or anything else. They are just trying to survive.
Well, they do care about it and they work on it.
Some of them, yes, absolutely.
Actually, I've seen an enormous amount of progress. Right now, we are in a place where there's a rising tide of movements worldwide — anti-fracking movement, climate change movement, the movement for LGBTQ rights, Occupy. There's a lot changing. The movement to create renewable energy. The movement to elect Bernie Sanders. I could go on and on. The movement for Native American rights. Black Lives Matter. These are responding to where we're at right now because things are so bad, in terms of the control that people have over their lives has diminished in the face of this economic, political, social, and environmental injustice and inequality.
At the same time, that means people are participating more — are awake more — and we stand a chance of pushing our agenda more. Of course, it seems like, no matter what we do, there's going to be some kind of manipulation of the very electoral system that changes these things at the government level. And that's an increasingly corrupt and complex system defending itself in increasingly corrupt and complex ways. We have to expect that, for us to be stronger than them.
If we had followed Jimmy Carter's lead 40 years ago, where do you think we'd be right now?
I don't know if it's possible to speculate. I do think, obviously, yes: Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House. Jimmy Carter emphasized sustainability and conservation. If we'd followed those principles, then I think we'd be in much better shape because the United States has a huge impact on what happens worldwide, so there's no question.
But I fear that your question comes from nostalgia and regret, which is inactive, rather than looking at what we've got, right now, in front of us. Let's be honest: If Jimmy Carter were running for president right now, he wouldn't win.
No. He wouldn't.
Because the times have changed. And Jimmy Carter, who's an incredible figure in American history that we can look to who I loved and who I think is incredibly inspiring and amazing so we have to pay homage, but we should be listening to him now! You know what Jimmy Carter's saying now? He's saying the whole system is broken and out of control and makes no sense!
And the truth is, we have allowed that to be what we make America and we're fighting back against it, trying to address the entire system. I've never seen a campaign that did that better than Bernie Sanders by talking about this idea of the political revolution. And I think that Bernie Sanders' political philosophy has won the day. If you look at the elections where the most people vote — the biggest section of the American electorate, Independents plus Democrats — he wins every time. That means that Bernie Sanders' political philosophy, which is far more energized and active than Jimmy Carter ever was when he was in the White House, we're in a time right now where actually Americans know what's up and know what we should do. If we could only have the political system address that, then I think we would see a lot of change.
Seeing as this is the Bluegrass Situation, I would be remiss to not mention how your banjo saved your ass twice over in China.
[Laughs] More than twice! If the banjo wasn't in the first movie, Gasland, I don't think it would have been nearly as popular. There's something about that instrument that changes the air and changes the conversation. I think it's because it's impossible — or, rather, a bad idea — to take it too seriously. [Laughs] You take it too seriously, then people start to think of you as a weirdo.
The banjo playing in this movie is in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, which is pretty simple, mostly clawhammer style. It makes you really happy. It's a great traveling companion.
What do you mean two times? What was the first time?
In China, hiding the footage inside it, but also busting it out at that diner.
Oh, yeah yeah yeah.
But it's not just the banjo, right? That's just one little piece of it. It is the whole tradition of music and culture and folk activism that I'm invoking there. It's not just an instrument for a song. It's the fact that we have this really rich tradition in the United States of combining music, art, and culture. And we need that in the climate space, as well.
And so do all the people around the world. They have those same traditions, just their own takes on it.
Yes! And that's in the film, as well. But you know, I think, for whatever reason — and I don't know the reason — I think climate change activism has had less organic art and culture come out of it than, for example, the civil rights movement or a lot of the other movements that we think about as very important movements. And I think that that's too bad.
And I think that I'm doing my small part to try and change that by bringing the banjo and by the music in the film. I have music in this film from every tradition … from the Beatles to Radiohead to Tune-Yards to John Coltrane to classical music to noise music … it's an incredible musical journey you take with this movie.