I just managed to view the video “What a Way to Go:  Life at the End of Empire.” It does deal with the subjects of peak oil and climate change, so I thought it might be an obvious candidate for our issues discussion series. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it at all.

It touches on essentially the entire horrendous list of problems we face with sustainability. It does not focus on any of them. Consequently, it does not produce any sense of relative importance, causality, history or any sort of useful analysis. The film is far more concerned to develop a mood of despair than to suggest any practical method of dealing with any of the issues it mentions.

Near the beginning, it recounts a recurring dream of leaving a drive thru window with a coke, burger and fries in hand. The coke is suddenly spilled in the narrator’s lap as he finds himself driving toward the flash of an atomic bomb exploding on his city. What a way to go, he thinks; thus, the title.

It ends with a long soliloquy while the narrator walks along a country road, first paved and then gravel, ending at a beach where the narrator is joined by the ghosts of many others. In my humble opinion, it does not matter what the narrator says in this soliloquy. By the time we got to the beach, I was long past caring what the narrator had to say.

Insofar as there is a narrative in between the bomb and the beach, it is about the power and the wrong-headedness of our culture, and the need for an individual to break free of that culture. The film’s representation of culture is as superficial as its listing of sustainability issues. Culture seems to be a set of commercial messages that you can buy happiness by buying the right stuff and plenty of it, that you don’t need to worry about anything else, and similar shallow ideas. Breaking out of that culture is not a unique achievement. It should be done by every person who becomes an adult.

Whiny children are used to illustrate some vague point about the importance of having rules, or training for authoritarian social structures, or something. Animations represent the industrial market and factory production of war materials, not in a clever or humorous way, but as a somber reminder of alienation and mass violence. Children and cartoons are appropriate for the film’s simple-minded and heavy-handed evocation of a mood of despair.

You won’t learn anything from this film. If you don’t know about various issues before seeing the film, you won’t have much more than some notion that the issues exist when you’re done. If you do take in the mood of despair – if you let it wash over you, as one reviewer quoted on the cover recommends – you won’t even have any motive to find out more about any of the issues. What would be the point of more technical knowledge if, as this film says, the important thing is to discover and admit how you feel about things? Another blurb quote says, in part, “… it will leave you with no easy answers.” This is correct, as far as it goes. Not only are there no answers here, there’s a very muddled idea of what the questions are.

Part of the idea is that TV and movies do not help us learn how to think critically, or to think for ourselves at all. They transmit images and messages for our passive consumption, and reinforce behavior consistent with the culture of the marketplace. That’s the culture from which we need to free ourselves. For his effort to help us do so, the narrator – has made a video for us to watch. How’s that for cognitive dissonance? Oh well, no matter, so long as it helps us to feel what we are supposed to feel.

I believe we have to introduce some big and scary issues into our public discussion series. There’s no point in offering responses if there are no issues to which we need to respond. I do not think we will have a canned “solution” ready for every issue. Local food production, energy conservation and community building may well prove to be insufficient to prevent wars, collapse or other disasters. We are not offering a total solution, we are just advocating some steps that should help us cope. Saving money on food and energy, getting some exercise by biking and walking, discussing sustainability and working with our neighbors are not harmful steps even if we are completely wrong about the issues our society faces.

Art Myatt

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