There's a surprising amount of dance sequences in "How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change," at least for what you'd expect to find in a climate change documentary. But those unexpected departures are characteristic of director Josh Fox's methods.
Oscar-nominated for his anti-fracking documentary, "Gasland," Fox has a gift for side-stepping the gloom-and-doom that arises from most discussions about climate change to pinpoint the most unpredictable (and effective) ways to inspire people to action. City talked with Fox about the relationship between art and politics, cultivating change, and why preaching to the choir isn't such a bad thing. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
City: Your film covers a range of environmental concerns. Was your aim to make an all-encompassing examination of the climate crisis, or did it start with a narrow focus and expand as you went on?
Josh Fox: I think I chose to make a film about the issue of climate change, but didn't really know where I was gonna go with it. The film is a true investigation; it's not an essay. I think a lot of the time when someone makes an "issue" film, it becomes an exercise in rereading the contents of one's own mind. They know where they're going before they get there. I don't do that. I just pick a question that's really bothering me, and continue to ask about it. And if I run out of questions I stop, or I have to change the question.
This film starts off as an investigation into climate change and what we can do about it. And I quickly find out the information on climate change that I was seeking is so bad, and we are so far away from where we should be in dealing with this question. We should have been working on this 25 years ago. We've already gotten to a place where a lot of the things we think of as the worst elements of climate change, it's already too late to solve.
That's the moment when the film really sort of takes off. And what I realize is that we're in for some really serious, negative aspects of climate change -- that human beings are going to be navigating the most intense period of change that our species has ever encountered. Worsening extreme storms, worsening drought, worsening floods, 5 to 9 meters of sea level rise, the death of 30 to 50 percent of the species on the planet, mass migration of 800 million climate refugees, climate wars. These are things that are incredibly depressing and upsetting, and we ask ourselves, "Well, what are the things that climate can't change? How do we find a moral and ethical roadmap through these issues and through these problems?" And that ends up becoming the throughline of the film.
And those are our civic virtues -- our principles -- and we talk about them in different contexts as I travel around the world seeking people and communities who are leaders in this climate struggle worldwide. How does a person psychically absorb these issues that are so angering and so upsetting and still carry on without becoming numb but adapt a sense of humanity and grace?
A lot of what you describe is something I hear from climate activists a lot. That they care so much about this issue and work so hard on it, and they see the challenge that faces the world. Was it your intention to respond to what people call "climate burnout" or did it just sort of happen that way?
I don't know if it's burnout. It's very hard to work on something when there's no way to fix it. A friend of mine used to say, "If there's no solution, there's no problem." And I don't think I come at it with an activist point of view -- I kind of hate the word activist. I come from the point of view of a person who just works on the things that are in front of me. I'm a citizen; I'm a participant. I think most people define their lives apolitically because there isn't that sense of the duty of civic participation. So I think for those of us who do act, it's very, very tough. You're going to encounter a lot of things that are very challenging. So the film comes from that perspective. And it also comes from the perspective of a person who just had a major victory, but realizing that even with that victory against fracking, climate change can still destroy everything I love. So then what do you do? How do you walk forward in that way?
Essentially I think there's a big gap between people who know and understand what's going on with the climate in a deep sense, and people who don't. People who understand what's happening with the climate are in a universe where you see the consequences of our actions. People see that we are gonna be causing an enormous amount of upheaval, and it does become like an obsession of "How do we start to work on this and act on this in a responsible way?" And I think that's a lot to carry around; it's a heavy burden. So yes, in many ways I made this film for the activists and for the people who are most deeply involved, because that's sort of who I am. At the same time, I think that people who are not super involved in climate change can see what's going on in this film and become deeply inspired by the ways that people work in it. That's my hope, anyway.
Do you think your film is more likely to encourage people to work on adaptation or on addressing the fundamental issues that are driving climate change?
Well, that depends on what you think the fundamental issues that are driving climate change are. If you think what's driving climate change is carbon dioxide emissions, you're gonna act in one way, and if you think that what's driving climate change is the values that underpin our system, then you're going to operate in another way, you know? And I think for this movie we deal with both. I think people have to do what they're most passionate, and most enthusiastic, and most motivated by. Because if you do what you love, you do it for longer. You do it in a more enthusiastic and extreme way.
I think a lot of the climate dialogue has been based on science and kind of dry pronouncements from climate scientists, and I wanted to give this whole spin a human face. I wanted to say that this is not just about molecules of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this is about people. Climate change is not about polar bears, it's about people. And I wanted to show those human stories in a way that was going to arouse a sense of compassion and get people really fired up to act.
But moviemaking and political campaigns are two different things. We don't say in the film "This is what you must do to act," because art is about questions, and politics is about answers. And in the film, art is superior. A lot of people get that backwards. I don't want to be told what to do or what to think by a movie. I want to feel that arc of understanding that's both political and emotional at the same time. So I think the film will inspire different kinds of actions, and I think that's a good thing. I think it will inspire people to work with their local direct-action groups -- like 350 or Break Free. We have civil disobedience in the film as one of the core ethics. But I think it will also inspire people to go back to church and be more reflective. I think it will inspire people to go to their local Buddhist meditation center and meditate on these things. My hope is that it will inspire people to hit the dance club and work on their dance moves.
There can sometimes be a sense that the people who seek out an issue-oriented film like this are already inclined to support its message. Does that affect your approach? How do you ensure you're not only preaching to the choir, but getting your film and its ideas in front of more ideologically diverse audiences?
Well, I am preaching to the choir. But I want the choir out of the church. The truth is I don't mind preaching to the choir. The truth of the matter is that there's enough of the choir to fix the problem. My problem is when the choir stays in the church. I don't mind the choir singing, as long as they sing on the steps of the capitol building, or they sing at the concert for the protest. That's where the choir ought to be. The choir's our smartest, most educated, and most awake people. The challenge now is how that choir affects the situation politically. There's a reason we have a choir, because you've gotta sing. We want people to sing. I'm taking your metaphor a little bit far here, but there's something important about it.
So political change doesn't come from convincing Donald Trump that he's wrong, it comes from being more powerful than Donald Trump. And we are more powerful than Donald Trump. I truly believe that. Human virtue and common sense, understanding, community, and love. I think love will beat hatred every time. And the film has a lot to say about that. So I don't know if I agree with the whole mischaracterization of preaching to the choir as wrong. I think someone's got to preach to the choir, and the choir's got to sing back.