The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Community. Directed by John Ankele and Anne Macksoud. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2014. 56 minutes.
A Burning Question: Propaganda and the Denial of Climate Change. Directed by Paula Kehoe. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2012. 53 minutes.
How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change. Directed by Josh Fox. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2017. 127 minutes.
How do we teach in the face of climate change? The world is confronting hothouse earth (a chain of self-reinforcing change, leading to very large climate warming and sea-level rise), and those with the least culpability are hardest hit (e.g., global climate change refugees such as those from the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean). Scientists and politicians can debate the question of whether the planet is “running out of resources.” Social scientists and humanists focus on the social and economic systems that exacerbate environmental abuses, unsustainable extraction of nature, and inequalities. Both matter, and the problems are immense. The United States has much to do with the present state of the world characterized by environmental racism, injustice, and climate disasters—a world that relies on the exploitation and cheapening of nature and peoples. Therefore, this country has unique culpability and responsibility in a whole range of environmental and social inequalities and has much to account for in its reckoning with planet earth.
Put another way, how can we, as teachers in the global North, face the calamity of human-induced disruptions in our present and future in way that doesn’t immobilize and drive ourselves and our students to despair? Three recent films take on the task of presenting the problems of climate change and how to move forward in the face of corporate greed and government inaction. A Burning Question: Propaganda and the Denial of Climate Change, The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Community, and How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change all vary in their approach to these questions. They are all also dated, if only because filming took place before the most recent presidential election and the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. Thus, watching and teaching these films necessitates updating with the most recent political and scientific news.
Although all share certain features, such as documenting the scale and scope of the problems related to climate change (including certain experts like Bill McKibben), they differ in their narrative approaches and tone. Each offers different pathways into the problem that would work in a wide array of classes. A Burning Question is a short, accessible account of why and how climate change denial functions. It intersperses interviews with “people on the street” who believe that cold winters mean climate change is not real, media accounts sowing doubt about the science of climate change, and academic experts in climate science, media, and human rights. Part one asks some basic questions: How do scientists measure global trends vs. weather conditions? How do scientists respond to the view that climate change is a natural process? Why has the warmth of the earth accelerated in the last century? What happened to the ozone layer, and how was that problem resolved? What can scientists tell us about climate change in the deep past? It answers these questions with care in order to explain to the average person, rather than assuming that “scientific consensus” is an adequate answer. The film also covers the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and its three findings: that global warming is unequivocal, that it’s mostly human caused, and that the impacts are severe.1 Part two addresses the politics of risk and how corporations encourage doubt and denial, focusing on Ireland in particular. This film is best used as a primer in a generalist classroom, which might have students of all majors, including international students. The first half is particularly useful in providing an overview and shared framework for further exploration in a number of different classes. The second half lends itself to studies of ideology, consumerism, and historical/sociological analyses of scientific/policy debates. The archival footage of how the tobacco industry sowed doubt about cigarettes causing lung cancer is particularly effective for demonstrating how ideologies change over time, impacting policies and creating new norms. It can be taught with Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, a 2010 nonfiction book by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.2
The 2014 documentary, The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Community, covers much of the same ground as A Burning Question. It differs, however, in a few key ways. It elaborates with much more detail that the human-caused effects of climate change will be, as what one expert calls, “a crime against humanity.” These violations include intensifying conditions of drought, flooding, wildfires, and water acidification, as well as the wide-scale death of ocean life, coral reefs, etc. The consequences are massive, potentially leading to global movement of populations, increased violence and war, and so on.3 This film also emphasizes the role of art, beauty, witnessing, and suffering in the face of pain. A literary quote—“perhaps it’s beauty that will save the earth”— frames this documentary as a non-naïve response to the calamities of climate change. Some of the interviews present the theory and practice of radical hope in the face of climate disaster. Experts interviewed include noted ecofeminist Joanne Macy. And although women in particular are impacted as small-scale farmers, water carriers, Macy and others note that the larger feminist issue is one of connection and relationality, especially with indigenous solidarity movements. This film is thus particularly useful in an upper-level feminist or environmental studies class where it can be paired with other readings on traditional ecological knowledge and environmental justice.4 Environmental studies scholar Janet Fiskio explains that “on an affective level… students [are] in the presence of the unbearable grief of climate change, and I resist their attempts to break out of this ‘unbearability’ by turning to technological optimism or environmental education.”5 This film pairs well with such an approach, which explicitly highlights the limits of current ideologies of sustainability solutionism and resonates with the statements about bearing witness and avoiding despair.
The most recent film, Josh Fox’s 2017, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, is the most high profile and polished. His 2010 HBO documentary, Gasland, was nominated for an Oscar, and he has been a highly visible target of the natural gas industry.6 Thus, Fox is a central character in the film (he opens with a dance to celebrate victory fighting fracking in his own community), but he is self-aware enough to decenter his position while maintaining his voice in the various struggles he documents. And there are many: Hurricane Sandy, Pacific Islands being washed away, crude oil spills in Peru, hazardous air pollution in China, among others. But with these accounts he accompanies and bears witness to the activists fighting their particular issues (including harrowing encounters with the secret police in China).
For Fox, the film’s central question is “What can climate change NOT destroy?” His answers—creativity, civil disobedience, resilience, and innovation—go beyond buzzwords with the stories of the struggles he recounts. He also focuses on the human rights and psychological abuses of climate change and pollution. He notes that “joy requires deep breaths, singing, dancing.” Here is the film’s greatest contribution. He talks about emotions in a way that is inspiring and that does not presuppose any particular perspective as a starting point: “Climate change is about not giving up, helping others even through struggle. When you know what you have to do in the fight, it’s like falling in love. It twists and turns; to turn away from it is a kind of death.”
Like The Wisdom to Survive, Fox’s film foregrounds beauty and bearing witness. Part of its success is its far greater scope and length, more sophisticated production, and less reliance on experts. This film is a great hybrid for the generalist and the specialist audience, but as a generalist, it needs both more class time and discussion time to provide context and history for the content.7 It is not an information-delivery device, but, rather, raises an important question, different than the one that began this essay. Rather than “how to teach with climate change,” his film in particular (though all to some degree) asks how can we live and love with climate change. Teaching, watching, processing, filming, writing, and talking are part of that “living with,” with purpose, power, and conviction.
1 See Justin Gillis, “Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come,” New York Times, March 31, 2014.
2 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).
3 Matthew Taylor, “Climate Change ‘Will Create World’s Biggest Crisis,’” Guardian, November 2, 2107; Environmental and Energy Study Institute, The National Security Impacts of Climate Change (Washington, DC: Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 2017).
4 Giovanna Di Chiro, “Acting Globally: Cultivating a Thousand Community Solutions for Climate Justice,” Development 54, no. 2 (2011): 232-36; Giovanna Di Chiro, “Sustaining Everyday Life: Bringing Together Environmental, Climate, and Reproductive Justice,”
Different Takes 58 (Spring 2009): 1-4; Kyle Whyte, “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes 55, no. 1-2 (2017): 153-62;
Kyle Powys White, “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu? Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice,” in Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledges, Forging New Constellations of Practice, edited by Joni Adamson and Michael Davis (New York: Routledge, 2017), 88-104.
5 Janet Fiskio, “Building Paradise in the Classroom,” in Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, edited by Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie LeMenager (New York: Routledge, 2017), 101.
6 Gasland, directed by Josh Fox (New York: New Video, 2010), 104 minutes.
7 Amy Harmon, “A Sense of Duty to Teach Climate Change,” New York Times, June 28, 2017; Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie Lemenager, eds., Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (New York: Routledge, 2017).