Looking for Tomorrow: Reasons for Hope in a Troubled World

Documentary Tomorrow : Finding our place in the world

A corrupted creation myth

Corrupted information tells the wrong story

The scientific debate whether we call our geologic epoch the Anthropocene is yet to be settled.

What is less debatable is the planetary-scale impact of human activity. As we posit throughout PlanetWatch, we live in the Age of Man. Our presence is felt in every corner of the Earth. Dominion over the Earth, what was once we imagined, an ageless myth, is our reality. We reap the benefits for a time.

Whatever word we use to characterize our times, or define the geologic epoch, we are responsible. The biblical blessing of “dominion” over the Earth implies stewardship and responsibility. We have taken our myth of creation and turned it into a narrative of plunder and exploitation. We are at the end of the viability of such a narrative; for ourselves and “all the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The atmosphere of the Anthropocene

Charting a course in the Anthropocene

Given the facile means with which we choose to divide ourselves, it may seem like our only choice is to accept our situation as hopeless or place false reassurances from ancient worldviews.

There is a better choice. One that, I argue, is the true meaning of the Genesis creation story: our place on this Earth comes with it the responsibility to care for it, all its creatures, the land, the seas, and each other.

Where can we find such a narrative? Does it exist? What does it look like? In 2012,  an expectant mother set out to find some answers to those questions.

The following review of the documentary film Tomorrow, based on her journey, originally published in TDS Environmental Media.

In search of Tomorrow

Tomorrow:  hope in a troubled world

Last month I spoke with Cyril Dion, a French filmmaker, writer, and activist. Dion co-produced the documentary Tomorrow with the actress, director, screenwriter, and musician Melanie Laurent.

Tomorrow won the 2016 French César for Best Documentary. After a successful release in more than 20 countries, the film made its U.S. debut in the Bay Area the weekend of April 14.  When we talked the following Monday, a tired yet determined-looking Dion said he was encouraged by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the film’s message of solutions and empowerment.

That enthusiasm continues. In a nation beleaguered by uncertainty and antagonism, Tomorrow has clearly struck a chord across the U.S.

As of this writing, Tomorrow is held over in  NY, LA, San Diego, and San Francisco, among other cities.

The road to Tomorrow

Shortly after Laurent gave birth to her first child, she learned of the  2012 Nature article, Approaching a state-shift in Earth’s biosphere.  Co-authored by Anthony Barnosky,  a paleobiologist, professor emeritus of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and currently executive director of the Stanford Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve, the paper’s stark warning of a rapidly approaching biological tipping point was an alarming awakening for a new mother in the 21st century.

We can avoid the severely – and suddenly  – altered world that potentially awaits Laurent’s child and the two billion other children expected on the planet by 2050. But the time to act, the article warned, is now. Waiting until after an ecological collapse to find viable solutions will be too late.

Fighting catastrophe fatigue

With that dire message, Laurent, Dion and a crew of four set out to tell a different story. We can imagine a better future for our children. If that sounds improbable, we need only look at what people all over the world are doing right now to shape the future of their families, communities, and the

The film acknowledges the urgent message from Barnosky’s work, and that of many others, but doesn’t dwell on the darkness. Instead, it focuses on active solutions.

“People feel helpless… that they are too small to do anything about it,” Dion says.

“I really wanted to make a tool to empower people. To show them that we can start where we are and we can also build a movement.”

People imagine solutions to make them possible

A better world, the film posits, can rest on four pillars, looking at each one in turn:

    • Agriculture:  For anyone living in the industrialized world and born after 1950, the idea of anything other than industrial farming is an esoteric “niche.” It’s hard to imagine that the exact opposite might be true.

    • Energy: A low carbon energy economy is the right side of history. A continued “business-as-usual” reliance on high-carbon, extractive energy sources is the wrong side of history. Everybody know that. Well, almost everybody.
    • Education: The chances of success for a single individual, and thus an entire society, rests on a good education.

    • Democracy: How we choose our leaders demands an informed and engaged citizenry (see above). Oligarchy is what happens when people don’t know or don’t care, allowing fear and emotion to dictate their decisions.

There are innovative solutions for each. Solutions not only “being tried,” but working and expanding.

A world reimagined

In another interview yesterday, Barnosky told me he remains optimistic. Messages like the one in Tomorrow are important, he says. It demonstrates  the groundswell of community action globally, suggesting a different narrative for a “global economy.” One that starts with people and communities, connected through a shared belief in their own power to effect change. Not by “saving the world,” but by working in their own communities, their own little plot of land. Think globally, act locally.

But it’s also about being present, here and now, and imagining the kind of future we want.

“If we can imagine the world differently,” says Dion, “it’s going to have an impact on the economic and political structure.”

“We are human beings, so we imagine first. We first need to change the vision, the narrative of the world.”

Tomorrow shows a world reimagined, but real.

Tomorrow – Trailer from Under The Milky Way on Vimeo.

The Failure of U.S. Climate and Environmental Policy and Why There is Still Hope

U.S. climate policy. Resist!

Writing to a  class of international students “Climate Change Mitigation in the Developing World” about “climate policy where I live”

It is, of course, hard news from the United States with Donald Trump signing his “energy independence” executive order.   Among other things, the order calls for a “rewrite” of former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP is (was) the cornerstone of the U.S. INDC commitment to the Paris Agreement.

For years, electricity generation from coal has declined.  Most of that decline is from fracking and the plunge in the price of natural gas, not from any particularly heroic government assistance. That’s not to say the Production Tax Credit and other federal government incentives have not played an important role. It has been uneven and inconsistent.

Nonetheless, innovation in alternative energy generation is strong. The cost of wind and solar generation has fallen sharply.  The government’s own numbers from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) have consistently underestimated the growth of installed renewable energy generation capacity.

The executive order president Trump signed cited analysis done by private consulting firm NERA Economic Consulting. The research was funded by American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an advocacy group for U.S. coal producers. The assumptions used for the analysis is based on the EIA’s faulty projections.

Three other reports studied by Noah Kaufman rely on different assumptions, following the actual trend in the renewable energy sector. Two others, funded by pro-CPP advocacy groups, show the exact opposite from the NERA report. The one study done by the U.S. government’s  Environmental Protection Agency is the only one reaching a moderate  conclusion – that consumer energy rates will modestly rise and then fall as the CPP becomes settles into mainstream energy policy.

No good policy comes without transparency

The point for Kaufman is transparency:

“When modelers have a favored result in mind, it’s not so hard to take these models and produce the result that they want to produce,” he says. “It’s so important to find an independent group for these studies”

So it’s a problem and it exposes many of the powerful forces at play. Both here in the U.S. and globally.  If challenge is also opportunity, then we have before us a great opportunity. There are leaders, there are positive messages.

We have agency

Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel Indiana and active member of the Republican party, talks of the “conservative tradition” of his party. That’s why he has consistently disagreed with Trump’s climate, energy, and environmental policy. Especially now.

Lynelle Cameron, director of sustainability for Autodesk and board member of the Biomimicry Institute, sees the potential for solutions for modeling natural systems for human design. Tools are available for people with bright minds and companies vision. “People have agency,” she says.

This does not diminish the tragedy of the U.S. government abdicating leadership. The damage cannot be undone, but in business and local government there remains more coherent voices of leadership, sustained commitment toward a just and sustainable future,  and therefore hope.

Brainard and Cameron are two of many millions of others like them, in the U.S. and across the world. There is an ethic and core belief driving their work.

They want me to tell you that their mission hasn’t changed.

We move forward from where we are.

World Wildlife Day | Saving Our Own Humanity

Elephants of Africa - photo by Thomas Schueneman

The Peace of Wild Things - Photo by Gary Bendig

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry

World Wildlife Day

Today is World Wildlife Day. With biodiversity in decline and illegal poaching on the rise, it is a good day to reflect on what we truly value in this world. To poachers, a Rhino horn brought in over $60,000/kg in 2014, Elephant ivory about $2,142/kg. But what is the real value of these animals in our world?

Investing in extinction assures our own demise. That we could express the lives of these trophic species as items of economic weaIth is not only a crime of action but a failure of human thought, threatening our own survival and humanity. With each animal killed merely for sport, or power, or economic gain, we devalue our connection to the natural world.

The mysteries of the sea - photo by sara-santandrea

Message for World Wildlife Day

Change starts with awareness. As citizens and “consumers” we can bring about change in the choices we make and the actions we take.

In the face of such overwhelming global issues, anything we can do may seem like spitting into the wind. But as Robert Kennedy once said:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

We each have within us the power to stand up for a living planet and send forth a “ripple of hope.”

Wilderness and the Age of Man

The Age of Man: Wilderness in the Anthropocene

Jason Mark’s 2015 Satellites in the High Country asks an essential question:

What is wilderness?

Is there any wilderness left on earth? If so, where is it?

If it is true that a radioactive haze has settled across the globe, then indeed, there is no wilderness left; no place left untouched by the actions of one species.

The philosophical among us may claim that there is wilderness in every human soul.

That is a debate best left to those smarter than I.

I suspect attempting the self-reflection of our place in the order of things, for which we are given only a momentary glimpse, is fraught with bias. Even if well-intentioned.

All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

On the one hand, caution and skepticism are warranted before we assume we are or can impact Earth on a geological time scale. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, to paraphrase Carl Sagan.

Claiming we live in the “Age of Man” may seem antithetical to the beliefs of most spiritual traditions. But many offer a sacred reverence for nature and a sense of place.

And so, on the other hand, is the Precautionary Principle.

If there is any reasonable possibility that the fate of the planet – the world as we know it – rests in our hands, then we are, indeed, living in the Anthropocene – the Age of Man.

I argue that this is the case. There is, I believe, sufficient evidence to suggest current human activity is impacting, at an epochal level, global systems and cycles.

Living within boundaries


Living within limits: the nine planetary boundaries
Planetary Boundaries

The only desirable way forward is learning how to manage human activity within the physical limits of the planet. Within that framework cultivate, as best we can, social stability, equality, and human dignity.

If that is the task, then urgency-of-purpose must balance caution of action. Whether we like it or not, we must literally shape a new world. We are shaping a new world. It’s too late to back out now.

The longer we allow short-term accounting, manufacturing of doubt, and willful ignorance to dominate the narrative, the more time is lost. Caution thrown to the wind. Left only for future generations to ask why?

And then there’s figuring out what’s for dinner tonight.

After all, I’m only human.