Avi Lewis’ documentary This Changes Everything looks at the narrative for civilization that allowed climate change to happen. Without preaching, the film takes a look at grassroots movements that are helping to mitigate climate change.
This Changes Everything is the rarest breed of activist documentary: one that doesn’t preach. It’s a film about the pressing worldwide problem of climate change that actually addresses the issue from a global perspective. Director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein, whose eponymous book the film is based on, examine how climate change is already having adverse effects on people around the world rather than focusing on abstract scientific facts and hypotheticals. This Changes Everything, presents a connected global system, and explains how worldwide wealth creation, economic production, and environmental degradation are interrelated.
Most climate change documentaries preach to the converted rather than informing the uninitiated. Films like An Inconvenient Truth and Merchants of Doubt focus on the science of climate change: what causes it, what that means, and how these facts are getting distorted by the mainstream media. These films often leave out important facts or focus too much on the U.S. to give an accurate picture of the problem. Racing Extinction attempts to explain the science, but it’s oversimplified, losing crucial details along the way. As Klein notes, that approach can be bleak and easy to tune out — especially when films focus on polar bears dying in the future rather than on how humans are already affected. Klein aims to change the conversation.
Klein keeps her argument grounded by focusing on how human activities are already causing environmental degradation. Rather than concentrating on the U.S. as Merchants of Doubt did, Klein starts the story in her home country of Canada before expanding her scope to encompass the whole world. By talking to the farmers, fishermen, and locals around the world who have been negatively affected by climate change, Klein paints a picture of how everything is connected. Global collaboration is necessary and in everyone’s best interest.
Klein posits that the problem isn’t a lack of scientific literacy, but a damaging narrative that we’ve been telling ourselves about how humans should treat the earth and its resources. The film opens by tracing the story we’ve been telling ourselves since the 1600s, that the Earth is a machine to be engineered into submission. Until recently, we depended on the Earth’s natural cycles for energy: we needed sun for light, and we needed the wind to sail. But ever since the industrial revolution, this dependence decreased as we’ve learned to burn fossil fuels. We needn’t build a house in the shade for it to be cool, because now we can cool it with air conditioning.
This way of thinking about the earth, Klein argues, is outdated. Four hundred years ago, the planet seemed like it was filled with infinite resources. New territories were constantly being discovered, and our technology wasn’t advanced enough to have devastating effects on the environment. But we’re now entering a new geological period caused by human intervention: the age of the Anthropocene.
Instead of learning how to harness environmentally sustainable, renewable energy sources, like solar power and wind power, we dig up fossil fuels and burn them for energy. We intervene with irrigation and fertilizers instead of just planting crops where they’re most likely to grow. We use large amounts of non-renewable energy on tasks that could be done more efficiently, because conservation has never been a priority.
Lewis repeatedly emphasizes that there are consequences to carelessly exploiting the earth’s resources for the sake of our comfort. When capturing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Lewis films luxury cars wheel-deep in water, a reminder that, in Klein’s words, “Nature can hit back”. Cinematographer Mark Ó Fearghaíl captures landscapes and industrial projects from afar, often from a helicopter far above, to reveal the sheer scale of this global problem. China owes much of its economic progress to coal power plants, which have left a legacy of air pollution that even the recent move toward renewable energy hasn’t reversed. Last year was the country’s worst year for smog. In most cities, every third day was, on average, a dangerous smog day, while places like Shijiazhuang experienced 264 smog days that year.
For years, climate change experts have warned the public that the poorest people in the world will be the most adversely affected by climate change. In This Changes Everything, Klein takes us around the world to show us the negative effects climate change is already having on people in poverty — and how they’re already fighting back. In India, fishermen whose livelihoods depends on healthy natural resources are protesting plans to build hundreds of new coal power plants, which are major polluters and major contributors to climate change. In the mid-western US, indigenous people and farmers are joining forces to combat big industry that’s destroying the environment and hurting small farming businesses. Slowly but surely, these protests are leading to real change.
Despite the devastation wreaked by climate change, This Changes Everything is ultimately optimistic. Klein argues that addressing climate change requires a two-pronged approach: grassroots activism, and broader economic and structural changes. The film illustrates how climate change is linked to a global economy based on consumption. Klein argues that we need to develop a new system for creating economic value that isn’t based on consuming natural resources. How we think about creating wealth and exploiting natural resources is flawed. Fix this system, and you’re on your way to fixing the problem.
This Changes Everything had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is now available to rent on iTunes and to stream on Amazon Prime.