Middle-class parables

Submitted by martin on 27 March, 2009 - 11:21 Author: Robin Sivapalan

Review of The Age of Stupid

This latest public-safety warning film on climate change was seen by thousands at 65 cinemas across the UK on Sunday 15 March, breaking a world record for the biggest simultaneous screening of a premiere.

Viewers were all satellite-linked to the low-carbon centre stage at Leicester Square. This involved watching b-list stars and politicians, including Ken Livingstone and David Stern, being interviewed as they strolled down a second-hand green carpet surrounded by a gaggle of generic environmentalist-professionals and fixers.

Speakers from local campaigns had been asked to introduce the film and speak about activism in their area afterwards; I spoke at Harrow for the Climate Camp about the G20 protests and the capitalist crisis.

The film is set in an apocalyptic 2055 or thereabouts, with Pete Postlethwaite sitting behind a computer terminal of the main surviving archive tower in the Arctic sea, a morbid Noah’s Ark of the earth’s history which he has constructed seemingly as a monument to human stupidity. As one of few survivors of global climate catastrophe he is compiling a communiqué for whoever might hear it and be interested in the rapid oblivion of a "suicidal" species that knew about climate change but did nothing about it.

Apparently people were moved to tears — UN diplomats, no less. It has been supported by the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and cheered on by every kind of mainstream worthy. And a white middle-class audience bravely migrated from North London to Harrow, tickets having sold out on their doorstep.

Our archivist, choosing from of all of human history in the run up to 2055, weaves together footage of six real-life protagonists from our times: a tenacious woman from the Niger Delta whose aspirations to become a doctor amount to little but a thwarted life of poverty; two likeable Iraqi child refugees in Jordan with terrible stories of the US invasion; an offensively comic Indian entrepreneur committed to alleviating poverty through cheap flights and exploitation; a glowing middle-class family and their chickens, headed by Piers, a wind-farm developer; an affable mountain guide in the Chamonix valley who has watched the glaciers recede over his lifetime; and a offshore Shell worker who braved hurricane Katrina and saved over a hundred lives with the strength of his ego.

The basic drive of this campaigning film is to popularise the standard NGO model of addressing climate change: frighten and moralise to enough people to force their governments to sign up to one of the “cap-and-share” models at the December Copenhagen climate summit to reduce global CO2 emissions in time. This film tries to vaunt some radical political commitment, with passing animations which identify that "capitalist growth" is the problem, with a short clichéd montage of historic struggles introduced by chronically confused eco-journalist George Monbiot.

After the film, the real stars of the show, the director and producer, launched the Not Stupid pledge, in the presence of Ed Milliband, the Environment Minister. The pledge offered a number of options for people to sign up to, to threaten to the government if they go ahead and build the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, including appealing to the Queen to dismiss the government… radical democracy at work!

Pete himself, in the presence of his free-range family, personally vowed that he could not continue as an Officer of the British Empire if the Queen allowed new coal, nor vote again for the Labour Party. The Iraq war (or the British Empire) was evidently not deterrent enough.

In a conversation afterwards with a group of students from North London who had been impressed by the film, I did my best to puncture their enthusiasm and present a socialist class perspective, taking the view that this film is just another example of political mis-education about climate change. It ticks a lot of boxes, which would make it roughly acceptable to even radical networks such as Climate Camp, who have been promoting it. Through such disparate narratives, it seeks to pose climate change as a challenge for "all of us".

It’s the white middle-class dream, to have a struggle to champion in their own name, motivated by images of dark people suffering aimlessly or acting stupidly, and the brave efforts of white people who get to speak more directly to the audience. The director herself humbly aspires to nothing more than to retire to a farm to cultivate leeks because this is not (even though it is) a political issue; it’s an issue for everyone who cares about our joint prospects of survival.

So why did the film-makers did not foreground any sense of collective struggle against climate change? Why just these exceptional individual efforts? Probably because the director and producer are self-styled entrepreneurial heroes and can only relate to the notion of personal moral struggle rather than real collective democracy. In Jordan, in Nigeria, the US, India, Britain and France, there are apparently no working-class struggles worthy of featuring.

This film will do little other than bolster belief in dead-end middle-class agency; it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than the type that flocked to it finding anything in it to relate to.

Am I being churlih? Is this film just an "accessible" popular initiation to the problem of climate change? No, I don’t think so, and at any rate, anything that is learnt through this film will need to be challenged by a completely alternative paradigm, which is not based on the capitalist ideal of individualist pioneers and heroes, but on the capacity of democratic working-class action to overthrow this system and replace it with rational collective and ecological economy.

This film, released during a global crisis of capitalism which has been met by a surge of working-class protest around the world, acts against such a oneption of struggle. Our middle-class heroes’ low-carbon parables are probably a waste of energy... or worse.

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