Take warning

Inconvenient truths abound in eco-docs The Age of Stupid and No Impact Man


The forests are in flames, the desert is advancing, the glaciers have vanished, and in a solar-powered facility towering above the ice-free waters of the Arctic, some 800 miles north of Norway, a solitary older man (Pete Postlethwaite) roams the hallways of the Global Archive, a warehouse sheltering banks of data-storage servers, a civilization's worth of art and invention, and a Noah's ark of extinguished species. From this lonely outpost, he gravely explores a stomach-churning inquiry: "We could have saved ourselves. But we didn't. It's amazing. What state of mind were we in to face extinction and simply shrug it off?"

Good question, and one that Franny Armstrong's The Age of Stupid, a hybrid merging documentary material and a fictional frame tale, forcefully suggests we start addressing like we mean it — immediately. That is to say, before runaway climate change makes its debut and some or all of its widely forecasted ecological consequences begin to manifest, along with resource shortages, food and water riots, and massive societal collapse.

Delineating the complex global network of climate-change causes and effects, The Age of Stupid interweaves real-life documentary footage from the lives of six present-day subjects in New Orleans, the French Alps, Jordan, southwest England, a small Nigerian fishing village, and Mumbai, India. Interspersed is real and faux (future) archival footage depicting and predicting the environmental consequences of humanity's bad habits. And all of it is presented as the digital artifacts of a dying-off civilization, preserved for uncertain posterity in the Global Archive. While covering similar terrain to that of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the film serves as a kind of "No, but really, folks ..." in the face of frighteningly incremental gestures toward sustainability — and continued shortsighted resistance — at the levels of national, state, and local government as well as citizenry.

The film's opening sequence begins with the big bang and hurtles via countdown clock through billions of years, flying past the earliest stages of evolution, past dinosaurs, past the industrial revolution, and past the present day, the titular Age of Stupid, so fast that we barely have time to notice ourselves on the screen before it's 2055, the Age of Too Late. The message: in the grand scheme of things, we have about a nanosecond left to kid ourselves as we refill our metal water bottle and press the start button on our Energy Star-qualified washer-dryer or Prius — or to find a way, at the level of populace, not green-minded individual, to radically swerve from our current path. According to Armstrong and her cohorts in the Not Stupid Campaign, the film's companion activist effort, our fate will pretty much be decided by December's climate talks in Copenhagen. (The film, which premiered in the U.K. in March, has its 50-country "global premiere" Sept. 21-22.)

So then, do the canvas bags, travel mugs, energy-saving appliances, clotheslines, CSA memberships, cycling, recycling, composting, and other ecologically minded efforts of a smattering of well-intentioned individuals matter at all? Or matter enough — in the face of factories, factory farming, methane-emitting landfills, canyons of office towers lit up 24/7, a continent-sized constellation of plastic detritus in the Pacific, and millions of trips cross-country at an average elevation of 30,000 feet?

Colin Beavan, the subject of Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's No Impact Man, is banking on yes, being of the "be the change you wish to see in the world" school of thought (admittedly in good company, with Mahatma Gandhi).

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