The Age of Stupid

2009-10-21

in Films and movies, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Metal steps

The Age of Stupid is a poignant and timely film, based around the conceit of sending a warning to people today through fictional retrospective, based on real climatic science and the consequences of continued inaction. It forcefully conveys the point that climate change is the overwhelming moral and political issue of this era. If we deal with it, other things will have importance; if we allow runaway climate change to occur, it will eclipse any other failures. The film is a good example of climate change art, and should especially be watched by those who basically accept the science of climate change but don’t feel the level of motivation necessary to produce real change. It’s not about using fewer plastic bags – it’s about pushing for a new energy basis for human civilization. We need to take personal responsibility – and agitate for systemic change – in ways that go beyond the symbolic and the trivial.

The film makes a number of key points in a convincing and accessible way. Climate change must be managed internationally in a way that respects the importance of poverty reduction in the developing world, as well as the vital point that the pattern of fossil fuel-fired development followed in the West cannot be repeated (contraction and convergence). It stresses how lags in the climate system mean we need to take decisive action long before the full consequences of our choices become visible. On one critical point, the film is both clear and correct: we simply cannot burn all the remaining fossil fuels. There is a maximum level, corresponding at the very most to the lower threshold of runaway climate change. We need to work out what that amount is, and then find a way to divide it among all of humanity, cutting to zero before we exceed it.

The film also stresses how air travel really cannot be part of a sustainable future, when one long flight represents three years’ worth of of acceptable total emissions for a single person, at the levels that need to become ordinary within the next few decades. Especially in the states where per capita emissions are highest (and where the deepest and fastest cuts must be made), we all need to be moving towards lives that do not include such extravagances.

The film also effectively conveys how foolish ‘Not in My Backyard’ (NIMBY) resistance to renewable energy projects really is. People who resist wind farms because they fear their views would be spoiled are completely failing to understand the scale of the challenge we face. While the film doesn’t make the point, the same might be said of those who have a knee-jerk hostile response to big dams, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, etc. Indeed, it seems inevitable that people fifty years from now would watch this film with interest – either deservingly patting themselves on the back for having achieved a historic transition to zero-carbon energy, or ruefully kicking themselves after being reminded that the consequences of humanity’s selfishness and failure of think at scale were predictable in 2008.

One neat little detail capped off the presentation for me. During a montage showing a succession of years, overlaid with sound and video describing runaway climate change emerging and taking hold, someone around 2030 is quoted asking whether climate change is really happening or not. It is truly frustrating that the understanding of climatic science within the general population is so poor, and has been so effectively confused by the status quo lobby and the failure of individuals to show imagination and empathy.

The Age of Stupid didn’t leave me any more confident that humanity will be able to deal with this problem, but it did re-affirm my commitment to pushing for a sustainable outcome. That would be one that forever replaces the energy basis of our global society, shifting from one based on dwindling hydrocarbons – the by-products of which are wrecking the climate – to one that we can maintain forever.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tris October 21, 2009 at 11:50 pm

There is certainly a kind of air travel that could be part of a climate change mitigating future:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Challenger

Milan October 22, 2009 at 10:06 am

The Solar Challenger had a maximum speed of 64 km/h. Want to go from Toronto to Vancouver in one?

The simple fact is that flying quickly takes way more energy than the sunlight hitting the wings and fuselage of a plane can provide.

Milan October 22, 2009 at 10:07 am

What you need is the sunlight that plants converted into biomass millions of years ago, and which subsequent processes turned into petroleum and then kerosene.

Sasha December 6, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Just watched this with my roommate. I found the bit with the British wind-turbine farm resistance very bizarre.

Overall, good film, relate-able and informative.

Milan December 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm

A 1989 film had a similar message and approach: After the Warming.

It is on YouTube.

Antonia February 1, 2010 at 10:33 am

Apparently in the UK there are now ever more strident calls that for ‘certainty’ legal standards of proof must be applied to scientific findings –
Lord Lawson has called for an independent inquiry into global warming predictions.

Arguments and conclusions that can resist detailed cross-examination by a skilled lawyer are much more likely to stand the test of time than conclusions approved by peer review.
… it is not enough to leave them to the scientific community.

(Admittedly from a letter in the Telegraph
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/7104596/A-hole-in-the-evidence-that-puts-the-value-of-the-Chilcot-Inquiry-in-doubt.html but summarising the stupid line of reasoning that predictions of risk should be assessed by the standard of proven actuality. )

Milan February 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

The role of lawyers is to represent one point of view, come hell or high water. There are already plenty of people playing that role in debates on what should be done about climate change.

It is not a role that has any place in the scientific process.

. November 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

And that is the focus of the film: the inability of our present society to join the dots between fighting climate change and wanting cheap flights, or hating wind farms. It is a moving and at times darkly amusing film, but the apocalyptic framing which grabs your attention also proves somewhat distracting, since the full devastating effects of climate change are left largely unstated. There is a brief discussion with Mark Lynas (author of the widely-read Six Degrees) and a couple of other hints (passing references to food riots, for instance), but the shape of the threat that could conceivably lead to the archivist’s world is largely unspoken. Perhaps this was for the sake of time, or perhaps to avoid the charge of fear-mongering, though I think that a rational discussion of the genuine threats identified in the scientific literature is far more responsible (even if initially more terrifying) than a few apocalyptic images and a heavy dose of post-apocalyptic regret.

Once again, the film was stronger on the diagnosis of the problem than on offering plausible paths to how we might indeed “save ourselves”, or (what might now be more realistic) offering healthy ways of salvaging what we can from a disaster that is now unavoidable, but whose effects can still be significantly reduced.

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