The Shape of Things to Come
A filmmaker documents environmental and economic collapse—and wrestles with the future of civilization.
2011 was a frightening year.
A tsunami swallowed Japan, wreaking havoc at the country’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Tornadoes flattened whole towns in Missouri and Alabama. Earthquakes rumbled in unlikely locales, and tropical storms doused the Eastern seaboard. Famine killed thousands across East Africa. The European Union teetered, while the Occupy movement spread from city to city.
Evidence of our planet’s peril is piling up. But it didn’t start last year. Environmentalists have issued warnings since the Industrial Revolution. Think back to Thoreau’s Walden. Modernity, alas, has its pitfalls. In his debut documentary, Fall & Winter, filmmaker Matt Anderson carries forward the age-old concern, surveying what he calls “the promised land of total consumption.”
I met Anderson on a visit to Los Angeles in early 2011. Standing a little over 6 feet tall, the 30-year-old looks the part of a California creative professional, with long, curly, reddish hair and a beard. Most days he works from home in shorts and a T-shirt. “I began making a documentary about conspiracy theories,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “My intention was to explore various themes in the world of conspiracy as modern mythology.”
Anderson discovered that conspiracy theories are often dismissed for the same reasons that scientists’ warnings about global warming are ignored, indigenous perspectives are whitewashed, activists aren’t taken seriously: They represent dissent. Anderson’s subjects are not conspiracy theorists, they are individual activists who live differently than most people. They have been preparing for environmental crisis and working to dismantle societal illusions that enable people to ignore looming threats. “The people I ended up interviewing are largely unpopular voices,” Anderson says. “They are iconoclasts who are marginalized by mainstream media and culture.”
He traveled a winding path to reach those people. Anderson began by interviewing scientists in Silicon Valley at a small conference called Global Catastrophic Risks. He learned about nuclear and pandemic threats, the fragile global economy, the risks associated with developing nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, the worldwide addiction to fossil fuels. “It was at this point,” he says, “I knew I wanted to try to understand what is happening on the global scale.”
He set out across the country to ask environmentalists, philosophers, and off-the-grid die-hards two important questions: “What is wrong, and how did we get here?” In Fall & Winter you won’t see survivalists preparing for the end times. “I think the connective tissue here is the idea of being biologically adapted and responsive to change,” he tells me over drinks in his backyard. “As diverse as the various people in the film are, they find common purpose in restoring the original human condition and cooperating with nature. Those relationships and connections can exist, and when they do, communities and ecosystems cooperate, breed diversity, encourage each other, and survive catastrophe. We should face this ‘economic meltdown’ as a liberation.”
Anderson and his team filmed at Redwoods National Park, at the tent cities in Fresno, at a Monsanto factory in rural Idaho. They talked to locals in Grand Isle, Louisiana, still recovering from the BP oil spill. They slept on a Hopi reservation. They stopped in Taos to interview architect Michael Reynolds, whose “earthship” structures are models of building efficiency. Reynolds has made dozens of trips to help with postdisaster reconstruction, teaching survivors to rebuild sustainable homes using local materials.
The crew was granted access to the Cob Cottage Company in southern Oregon, where visitors learn to build dwellings with earth and straw. Ianto Evans, the director, became the film’s unofficial mentor. Evans spent decades traveling the world teaching people how to build high-efficiency, low-cost rocket stoves, which are useful for cooking and heat in off-grid locations.
Anderson made sure to include urban environments as well. In Detroit, he interviewed Grace Lee Boggs, the legendary activist who at the age of 96 is still active in promoting urban renewal. In 1992, she founded Detroit Summer, a youth-empowerment program designed to address “the conditions of life and struggle in the postindustrial city.”
In an attempt to document the roots of some of our worst problems, Anderson contacted a number of power plants, requesting permission to film on site. He was denied every time.
“We drove through countless places with the van door open, picking up shots from the car and driving off,” he says. “We never trespassed or broke the law, but we’ve been followed, kicked out, and even questioned by the Department of Homeland Security simply for trying to document a world in crisis.”
Anderson grew up on an unserviced island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. “We had a one-room house,” he tells me, “which collected rain water and was powered by solar panels and a generator. This is where a deep and primal bond between myself and the natural world formed.”
In Fall & Winter, we take a trip back in time 10,000 years, to roughly when sedentary societies began. Humans had been experimenting with growing crops for a long time, transitioning out of the last ice age. According to Anderson’s film, the current crisis of civilization began with the inception of industrialized agriculture. The domestication of nature set up conditions that led to environmental degradation, famine, and war.
“What is crucial for me is not bashing agriculture,” Anderson says. “I just think we need to look at and understand that the way in which we grow food necessitates the way we live. I understand that a lot of the solutions offered in the film look small-scale. What is needed are new methods to grow food which don’t destroy our land.”
The film is not yet finished—last spring Anderson launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to edit it. He set his goal at $25,000. Thirty days later, Anderson and his team had raised more than $28,000. He’ll soon begin submitting the final film to festivals. They hope to debut at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2012.
The last time I saw Anderson, we sat down to watch a 32-minute cut of the film, which opens with throaty tribal music and the calming voice of William Kotke, author of Garden Planet, a book that anticipates the collapse of modern civilization and calls for a new age of ecological living: “Once we lived in paradise. The human species lived as forager-hunters on this planet, in a relatively peaceful state, for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Anderson cuts to scenes of lush greenery and majestic skies on a mountainous horizon. Environmental author and journalist Robert Manning’s voice comes in: “We forgot that there was a fundamental human condition before agriculture.” To restore that original condition, Manning continues, “we have to meet up, in groups, face to face, to get over our dysfunction that allows us to engage in this willful ignorance. We have to engage the political system, not attack the environmental system.”
Fall & Winter is a call to arms for those who are ready to face the uncomfortable truth. “This will require the formation of resilient communities,” Anderson says, “which cooperate and learn from the changing earth.”
He takes this idea, in large part, from Rebecca Solnit’s 300-plus-page study A Paradise Built in Hell, which documents what happens in the aftermath of a disaster—using examples from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. The book illustrates the notion that when faced with overwhelming challenges, human beings rise to the occasion, and do so with joy. Solnit posits that “these spontaneous acts, emotions, and communities suggest that many of the utopian ideals of the past century are not only possible, but latent in everyday life.”
“Those who are in power, using media especially, profit from us perceiving [disasters] as bringing out the worst in humanity,” Anderson says. “It’s a mechanism to keep us fearful of what might happen if we don’t feverishly prop up the current systems. If enough of us can stop, focus, and begin pushing us back on course, we can maybe just bonk against the iceberg, rather than ram into it at full speed. Either way, we’re going to have a situation on our hands. We’re all in this together.”