Film and TV

Last Night's Screening of Plan B Was Pretty Scary

Last night The Progressive Forum, an organization "dedicated to enriching our democracy and culture," presented a screening of the documentary Plan B, along with a panel discussion, at the Sundance Cinema. The panel included Plan B's producers, Marilyn and Hal Weiner, as well as local environmental attorney Jim Blackburn. The documentary focuses on the work of Lester Brown, an "environmental visionary" whose mission is to warn the world of the damage we are causing to the planet, among many other things.

Before leaving for the event, I caught the last few minutes of the laughable reality show Doomsday Preppers, which is about crazy families preparing for the end of the world. I laughed slightly as a rugged dude taught a group of kids how to make clean drinking water from urine. No one needs to know how to do that!

Fast-forward to my viewing of Plan B...

The documentary, narrated by Matt Damon, is basically a cautionary tale of what Lester Brown sees as a quick unraveling of our ecosystem. We have all heard that the polar ice caps are melting, but they seem so far away. Brown never discusses the polar ice caps but rather the ice caps of the Himalayan Mountains, which are not as far away when you think that these and the surrounding mountains provide the necessary water flow for the many rivers in China. Those many Chinese rivers are necessary in providing the country's food supply. When we think about the melting ice caps, Brown asks us to think about the effect differently: melting ice caps = no food.

Much of the documentary focuses on not just the environmental factors to the rising levels of CO2s but on the economic factors as well. As is said during the documentary by one of the talking heads, once you start talking about money, people start to listen. Brown links the ecological changes with a term he describes as "failing states." We have seen a rise in these failing states in the past few decades -- Afghanistan, Haiti -- and while Brown agrees that government is at fault, it is his hypothesis that their troubles are also food-related. They don't have enough of it, so they lash out against the government, riot and join terrorist organizations. The theory is a fascinating one, and Brown has done a substantial amount of research, with current failing states and ancient ones, to back up his ideas.

Much of the film takes place during the course of several weeks in which Brown travels Asia preaching his Plan B. The "plan" itself is not so simple and is quite aggressive. Brown wants the world to cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent in the next eight years. This seems rather speedy to most world leaders, who are gunning to get them down by 2050 at best. Brown is defiant in his charge: If we don't reduce emissions within the next few years, the Earth, which is already on a highway to the danger zone, may not be able to bounce back.

So what is Plan B? For big industries it's investing in renewable sources, it's stopping coal-fired power plants, it's replanting forests, using public transportation and cutting back on waste. So, all things we've heard before. What the documentary does, however, is scare the hell out of you into wanting to make a change. We aren't always given facts, or rather we selectively expose ourselves to not receive them. Much of the documentary had "no way!" moments, such as how much of the rain forest has actually been depleted, how 25 percent of Denmark's energy is wind and they are planning on ramping that up to 50 percent in the next few years, how Texas is the number one provider of wind energy in this country (yee-haw!) and if we can harness the power of geothermal energy, a.k.a. volcanoes, we might just be able to stop the bleeding.

The documentary itself is standard for this type of production. I found it somewhat jarring that the talking heads were placed against green-screened backdrops of nature settings, making their floating heads look ominous and even cartoonish at times. The ending struck me as sort of cheesy. Matt Damon gives a stirring diatribe about saving the world with pictures of bright-eyed, starving children. I thought for a moment Sally Struthers might come out and ask us all to make donations. As a whole product, the film was quite effective, although certainly propagandistic in nature. Its message is grave yet hopeful. If you have one of those friends/coworkers/uncles who still don't believe global warming exists, this would be a good film to show them.

The evening concluded with the panel discussion. To bring the conversation a little closer to home, there was much talk about extreme weather. We in Houston can attest to the severe nature of hurricanes and tornadoes. Blackburn gave a brief overview of some of the important research Rice University is doing on extreme weather. Linking melting ice caps and food shortages with our city's innate fear of bad weather was an excellent tie-in.

Someone in the audience asked the question that always gets asked yet never seems to get an answer: "But what can we do?" Brown ended the documentary urging residents to stand up for the environment, elect officials who care about these efforts and, oh yeah, if you aren't recycling by this point, you suck.

Driving home (without my a/c on), I recalled the episode of Doomsday Preppers I had so easily mocked and decided what I could do to help is learn how to start a fire out of two sticks. It's on my electronic list to do this weekend.

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig