Three documentaries describe the fall of empire

I haven’t watched television for years. My brain’s in bad enough shape without the brain-cell-destroying intoxicants of alcohol or delta waves, so I’ve foregone both for quite a while. Long enough, in fact, that I’m starting to feel as if I’m obsessing about them, so I suppose I should get back on the wagon to see what I’ve been missing.


Despite my aversion to canned (or bottled) entertainment, I’ve shown three documentaries in my honors course during the semester that’s about to end: End of Suburbia, Power of Community, and What a Way to Go. We watched them in that order, because that’s the order in which they were created and because that’s the logical order for people new to the notion of the fall of empire.
End of Suburbia is a nice, non-threatening introduction. It’s funny in places, and it’s easy to grasp the concepts, but it doesn’t overwhelm with the doom and gloom.
Power of Community is hopelessly optimistic. There are thousands of reasons, large and small, that we will be unable to power down as peacefully and productively as did the Cubans. For starters, it rains there. And they have soil. And a government that gives a shit about its people. The students figured it out right away, recognizing that the happy talk of this film doesn’t match — and cannot match — the American shitstorm on the horizon.
Yesterday we finished watching What a Way to Go. As with the other two documentaries, this was my second viewing of this film. The first time, I viewed it like a newspaper, or like the nightly news (back before the media were co-opted by corporations on the radical right). This time was a little different: I found it hilarious is places and, in the end, very uplifting.
Most of the students had a different reaction.
“It doesn’t provide solutions!”
“Where’s the message of hope?”
“It’s so one-sided!”
Sorry, kids, but there are no solutions. At least not at the level of society. There are options for individuals, but society cannot be salvaged. At least, not this particular society.
As if that’s a great loss.
And hope? As I’ve said many times, we’ll have to generate our own hope, one person at a time. Want to feel hopeful? Stop waiting, wishfully, for somebody or something to save your sorry ass. Get off your butt and do something. Nobody’s going to save you, except maybe you.
And I agree there are two sides to every story. More, in fact, for most stories. Let’s run down the four themes covered in What a Way to Go: peak oil, runaway greenhouse, extinction, and the explosion of the human population.
Yep, there are two sides to the peak-oil story: the side we go up (which ended a couple years ago), and the side we go down. We’re on the downhill side of world oil supply, and the slope’s about to get a helluva lot more slippery.
There are many versions of the runaway-greenhouse story. Unfortunately, all of them end badly for us and the myriad species with which we share the planet. We could have stopped it. But we didn’t. Next?
Extinction? Who needs all those darned species, anyway? Well, we do, for starters. Never mind the hubris, as we knowingly, willingly, purposefully cause the extinction of several hundred species each day. Again, we could have stopped it, a long time ago. But we didn’t, and apparently we won’t, at least not until we have no options. Looks like we’re almost there.
Finally, there’s the story of population explosion. Malthus had this one figured out, but we’re a little slower to learn. We’ve “enjoyed” exponential growth of the human population since the Industrial Revolution. It’s a finite world, with finite resources. Oil is the master resource. At some point, finite resources will limit growth of the human population. Are there other sides to this story? Sure. There’s the side of the animals, the plants, the fungi, the atmosphere, and so on. Guess what? They’re all screwed, too. But unlike us, they didn’t deserve it.
I don’t think I’m gloomy. Rather, I think I’m a realist, and a pretty damned funny one. And I think What a Way to Go is hilarious and realistic. So if you don’t think my blog is funny, I wouldn’t recommend What a Way to Go. If that’s the case, perhaps you should stick with television and alcohol.

Comments 3

  • Hi Guy,
    Thanks for these movie titles. I’m putting together my syllabus for that Spring 2008 Con Bio course and they sound like great candidates to be on the video reference list.
    I just got finished teaching a global environmental issues class. I think I did a pretty crappy job at motivating the students to get up and do something. I may teach it again this summer. So I will try to do better.

  • Great point and very interesting food for thought. I’m not sure I have any clients I can replicate this with, but will bear in mind for the future. Regards