A Survival Guide for the Global Crisis

Our conversation with director Matt Anderson on his exploration of the origins of the coming global catastrophe and the attitude changes that could avert it.
By: /
April 25, 2013
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There is growing consensus that the world is facing huge, interlinked environmental, economic, and social challenges. The public debates over how we arrived at the current juncture are dominated by certain narratives, which are often focused on laying blame. In the film Fall and Winter, director Matt Anderson takes us on a journey across the United States to meet individuals whose experiences and expertise give them unique insight into the matter of responsibility for the parallel crises of politics, population, and pollution, but also practical ideas on how to address them. We talked to Mr. Anderson about the experience of making Fall and Winter and the message behind it.

You’ve referred to your film as “a survival guide for the 21st century.” Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that?

The reason for calling it a survival guide is because of the questions I had when I started the project. It seemed to me that our civilization could not continue to survive in the way that it has so far, and that we needed to figure out a different way to survive going forward, which made me want to find out when and where things started to go wrong on a global scale. The more people I talked to about this, the further back it went. I realized that the core problems have been developing for the past ten thousand years, even if we haven’t had to face them until today. What we’re seeing today is the culmination of long running problematic trends.

The idea behind the project is that we’re going to have a catastrophe on our hands if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, so we need a new strategy, and one that involves facing these problems from the individual and community level on upward. In that sense, I call it a survival guide not apocalyptically, but proactively.

 It felt like you were on a roadtrip to create a roadmap for each individual.

Yes, the film offers a guide on a very personal level. It delivers the kind of basic knowledge that each of us needs if we are going to individually and collectively try something new, as well examples of people actually doing things differently.

There is a sense that we are being guided from despair to hope as we watch the film. We hear from all of these experts and activists about the vastness of the problems we face before being introduced to innovative, micro-level solutions that seem full of promise. Does this progression reflect the evolution of your own attitudes toward the global crisis and our capacity to deal with it?

My attitude most certainly changed over the course of the project. Before I really got into making the film, I went attended a conference called the Global Catastrophic Risks conference in California, where all of these scientists were meeting to discuss the different ways the future of civilization could be threatened. They were approaching the idea of the global crisis in a very systematic, academic, data-driven way. That focused my attention on figuring out the origins of the current crisis.

Which you seem to shift away from in the second part of the film.

The more time I spent on the road, the deeper my understanding became that we each have a responsibility here, and so I grew more interested in how our individual attitudes are going to need to change. A lot the debates about the crisis tend to project the idea that the problems are due to someone or something else, whether corporations, governments, minorities, ethnic groups…really just anyone but us. But the reality of the problem is that we are all collectively participating in creating it. My realization that there will have to be more taking of responsibility by individuals, and more individual-based solutions, is what comes through later in the film. I wanted to emphasize that the only way we’re going to succeed at changing collective behavior on a global scale is if we look at how we think about this crisis as individuals.

The broad scope of your film distinguishes it from others about the global crisis, which tend to focus on the environmental dimension. Did the research you did into global catastrophic risk inform your decision to look at interlinked crises rather than one particular aspect? 

Absolutely. Learning about global catastrophic risk drove home how interlinked these things are, and how we have to look at the problems and the solutions holistically. Nick Bostrom, who is at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, pioneered the study of existential risk and was initially going to be one of our interviewees. We didn't end up doing the interview, but his ideas provided context for us. The kind of research global catastrophic risk theorists are doing makes clear that you can't just talk about poverty or just about nanotechnology because all of these things, problems and potential solutions, are linked. Appreciating that there are a myriad of problems is key to understanding what we’re dealing with.

That your film opens at the United Nations, a truly global forum, encourages the sense that you’re examining issues of universal relevance.

Exactly. That opening was meant to be very symbolic of the idea that we need to have a global collective discussion because these are complex global issues.

I also wanted the film to have the tone of a meeting of the elders like the one who addresses the UN in the opening scene. That’s why you’ll find that pretty much everyone in there is around 50, 60, or 70 years old. I wanted to interview the last surviving Hopi elder. I want to see what he had to say. My approach was to ask a few questions, and then just let them explain. I wanted the audience to feel that I was just a vehicle for anyone with a broad or general question, looking for answers that are thoughtful, well researched, and come from a position of great experience.

The film asks globally relevant questions, but actually filming is limited to the U.S. Did the project narrow in scope at any point?

Definitely. As the term ‘global catastrophic risk’ implies, the plan was to make this a global film and go everywhere. And then I realized how ambitious that was for my first documentary, and how expensive it would be. So we eventually decided to make the United States our starting and ending point. But that limitation actually became really valuable, as by exploring a global problem at the local level, we could ask big questions while staying grounded in practical realities. We were able to keep a broader focus by continuously asking, “What are the issues humanity faces? How are the problems we are creating in the U.S. affecting other people elsewhere?” while keeping sight of what individual people are doing on the ground.

Within your U.S. case study of the global crisis, was there one particular story that really captured for you how interconnected these problems are, and how holistic the solutions will need to be?

To a certain extent, the story of everyone we met captured that reality. But I think a good example is Marily Woodhouse, the environmentalist in California who noticed that the area around her house was being logged. She had to go to court alone and face off against all of these powerful logging companies. The more she told us, the more the interconnectedness of the industry and political bureaucracy in failing to manage the effects of logging became clear. The detrimental effects of logging are far-reaching—less wildlife, less rain, warmer temperatures. Since filming, the area where they logged has been ravaged by fire because the forest was dried out from lack of rain. So now there is a desert in Northern California where there had previously been a lush ecosystem.

One factor many of the interviewees in your film talk about when discussing the global crisis is technology. Most are quite critical of technology in a vague way. Does this reflect your personal views? Isn’t technology critical to your ability to share the message of your film with a wider audience?

I was not trying to offer a searing indictment of civilization, corporations, or of technology. I didn’t make this film to play the blame game, nor do I think technology is universally bad – and I think that's an extremely immature view. But I also don’t think we take enough responsibility when it comes to technology. We tend to do things just because we can, like drilling miles below seal level, with little thought for the consequences until they start to negatively affect the way we live. That kind of casual attitude is what leads me to be a critical observer of how we develop and use technology. I think the members of the cast that talk about technology capture that tendency to lay blame, but also the real value of being more critical and self-aware.

There is a glorious and amazing aspect to technology too, of course, and it’s basically our only hope to get off the path we’re on. So we have to utilize it responsibly. The power of technology for documentary filmmakers in getting their messages out is amazing, which means we need to be extremely conscious of the messages we’re spreading. This film that I’ve made could theoretically be put on the Internet, where anyone could watch it for a few bucks. That changes the game...it’s like the Wild West right now, and it’s exciting.  Voices that are typically not given a microphone - like the elders in Fall and Winter - can now share their wisdom with more people than ever.

Check out Fall and Winter at Hot Docs: April 30 at 8:45pm at the ROM, May 2 at 12:30pm and May 4 at 5:30pm at Toronto Bell Lightbox.