March 01, 2007
A REVIEW OF THE DOCUMENTARY "What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire", by Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson
I didn’t say it would be easy; I just said it would be the truth.
Morpheus, from “The Matrix”
If anything is not easy to watch but absolutely the truth down to one’s toenails, it is Tim Bennett’s and Sally Erickson’s doggedly transparent documentary, “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire.” Nothing less than a 123-minute cat scan of the planet and its twenty-first century human and non-human condition, this documentary is indeed, “in your face” but with reverence, poignancy and solemnity yet sending world-class denial artists running to re-watch “Little Miss Sunshine” another one hundred times. While viewing it, I could see in my mind Carl Jung puffing on his pipe and pensively whispering under his breath, “Human beings can only handle so much truth.”
Divided into four parts, Waking On The Train, The Train And The Tracks, Locomotive Power, and Walkabout, the film begins with Tim Bennett’s personal saga of awakening in the eighties from lifelong slumber. Recounting the realities he has subsequently discovered is a tedious litany of human and planetary horrors that only those ready to awaken with him are likely to endure. To their credit, Bennett and Erickson offer no “happy ending chapter” at the end—no list of quick and painless fixes. Nothing about the world humans have created in the past several thousand years is painless, and nothing they might contemplate doing to remediate it could ever be quick. “What A Way To Go” is nothing less than two physicians presenting a diagnosis of terminal cancer to a patient who currently feels and looks “just fine”. Still another metaphor might be the one that Bennett and Erickson present in the documentary’s first chapter, namely, that of a suicidal individual standing on a ledge at the top of a very tall building, contemplating jumping to his death. It is an image to which the filmmakers return several times as the film progresses.
The issue of denial is addressed head-on as the documentary’s numerous interviewees name it and its consequences. Those individuals include: Thomas Berry, Richard Manning, Stuart Pimm, Ran Prieur, Paul Roberts, William Schlesinger, Richard Heinberg, Chellis Glendinning, Derrick Jensen, Jerry Mander, and Sally Erickson. Specifically, Derrick Jensen speaks of the energy that it takes to remain in denial, and how humans who stop clinging to it discover that as a result, an enormous amount of energy is freed up to do whatever work the planet’s terminal state calls them to do.
“What A Way To Go” names Peak Oil, climate change, mass extinction, and population overshoot, as the four pivotal and daunting challenges that humans must address and resolve if any species are to remain on planet earth. Equally terrifying, in my opinion, are two symptomatic offshoots of these four: nuclear holocaust and global economic meltdown.
So how do humans—that species which unlike all the others, is in the process of rendering earth uninhabitable—reverse the nightmare we have created? While for many of us, it may seem like a no-brainer, Bennett and Erickson emphasize that unless the issues are unveiled and talked about, no hope for solution exists. Given the documentary’s unrelenting reminders of the lethal trajectory to which the human race has committed itself, the filmmakers’ insistence on breaking one’s own denial system is a crucial first step to all others.
As an historian I particularly appreciate Sally Erickson’s assertion in the film that in order to begin addressing the issues, we must develop a historical perspective and understand how we arrived at this point in human history. This is exactly what I have attempted to do in my recently-published book U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook Didn’t Tell You. Americans in particular are loath to investigate causes and prefer to hastily “move on” to solutions; however, without understanding causes, it is impossible to construct viable solutions.
Especially validating for me was the perspective this documentary lends to the issue of Peak Oil in relation to climate chaos. While experts on hydrocarbon energy such as Richard Heinberg leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that Peak Oil is a frightening reality, those same experts, including Heinberg, acknowledge the gargantuan climate change monster that could surpass Peak Oil not only in its consequences but how quickly those consequences manifest the collapse of civilization and make the planet uninhabitable.
As for the tiresome “technofix” argument—you know, the one that says that because humans are the superior specie and have created such highly sophisticated civilizations, we will ultimately invent technology that will adequately reverse the “Big Four” pivotal challenges, Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and The Tales Of Adam, compares humans living in developed countries to people living in very tall brick buildings who every day go to the bottom of their building and remove 200 bricks and bring them to the top of the building. Obviously, such ludicrous behavior is unsustainable and will inevitably result in the demise of the building’s foundation and its collapse.
Ultimately, “What A Way To Go” meanders into the root causes of our planetary nightmare: our disconnection from ourselves, each other, and the earth; the cultural stories that have been forgotten and replaced with newer, self-destructive ones about growth, domination, and hubris; the systems we have created and the addictions that feed those systems, and of course, our denial.
In Part Four, “Walkabout”, we are given not hope, but the challenge of creating options, the first being, the decision to grow up, forsake our denial, and become adults. Richard Heinberg reminds us that, “We have been so infantilized by civilization that we can no longer survive without it. As all of this starts to shift and change and disintegrate and collapse there’s the opportunity, in fact, to come back to ourselves. To grow up, fundamentally, as people and as a culture.”
Both Erickson and Bennett have incorporated their own children into the documentary with brief comments from Erickson’s daughter and Bennett’s son. Erickson herself states that in terms of future generations, “I think they’re going to look back and shake their heads and say, ‘What happened to those people? How did they lose sight of such basic things.’?”
Earlier I used the analogy of two physicians announcing to a patient that she/he has terminal cancer, and it is appropriate here to ponder what cancer actually is, namely, the growth of cells out of control, thus the more archaic reference to a cancer as a “growth.” Growth has become for Western civilization a cancer that is destroying its inhabitants, the ecosystems, all other forms of life on earth and the planet itself. Or as the author, William Kotke notes, “Civilization is a mental/material world of culturally transmitted illusion.” Growth must cease, and it will cease, whether we choose to participate in that process or whether we don’t. Civilization will collapse, and that collapse offers opportunity as well as crisis. It may occur suddenly, or it may transpire as the economies and infrastructures of developed nations are hollowed out over time.
Appropriately, Bennett and Erickson have chosen the subtitle, “Life At The End Of Empire.” In his recent book Nemesis, historian Chalmers Johnson notes that an empire and a democratic republic are inimical to each other. Where one exists, the other cannot. If a nation chooses empire, its democratic republic will dissolve and ultimately perish. Should it choose to retain democratic republic, it must forsake empire; it cannot have both. The United States has chosen empire, and its citizens are allowing the shredding of its Bill of Rights and the evisceration of its civil liberties. All empires inevitably collapse, and everyone reading these words is living that collapse in this moment.
At this writing, world financial markets are reeling from yesterday’s sell-off bloodbath in China and Europe. The day before, a U.S. government auditor warned that U.S. debt to other nations is spiraling out of control. Virtually every project of Western civilization is unsustainable, especially its debt. An equally frightening but enormously important documentary that every thinking American must see is “In Debt We Trust” which illumines another locomotive out of control, imminently headed for a bottomless chasm. While I don’t wish to prognosticate that this week’s plunge of financial markets is the beginning of that economic train wreck, I know that the centralized financial systems which manage the United States government are behaving like the individuals mentioned above who carry the bricks from the bottom of their building to the top of it, leaving the foundation in peril of collapse. The fundamental difference is that when the American people behave in such a manner, they remain in the building and will be victimized by the collapse, whereas members of centralized financial systems have helicopters waiting at the top of their buildings which allow them to abscond with the bricks, turn them into gold, and deposit them offshore.
While no one wishes to jump off the ledge like the one on which the man at the beginning of “What A Way To Go” has perched himself, there is a sense in which all of us must either jump or have something far more momentous than our physical existence annihilated. The documentary quotes Andre Gide:
One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
In the final moments of the documentary, Bennett offers an invitation to the viewer: “Let’s jump off the train and build a boat…a lifeboat, an ark, a galleon of adventure and imagination destined for unknown lands. Build it now. The ice is melting. The waters are rising. We’re going to have to let go of the shore.”
Bennett concludes the documentary by stating that he doesn’t know if he will survive the collapse but that he is committed to showing up in the world and telling his truth. It’s almost as if his physical survival is much less urgent than that commitment—in which case, I must concur with his and Erickson’s message: What a way to go!