Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In his 2019 documentary, 2040, Damon Gameau put forward a bold, hopeful vision for a sustainable future. Less than a year later, thanks to an enormous outpouring of public support, a small part of that vision might already be coming true.
Damon Gameau’s 2040 is a documentary about hope. Tired of the mainstream media’s doom-and-gloom narrative when it comes to the climate crisis (in fairness, there is much to be gloomy about), the Australian filmmaker decided to flip the conversation on its head, and encourage people to focus just a little more on the solutions to the issues we’re facing.
Damon, who you may remember as the director of 2015’s wildly successful That Sugar Film, refers to 2040 as an “exercise in fact-based dreaming”. In filmmaking terms, this basically means he’s taken initiatives and technologies that exist today—community solar grids, electric vehicles, urban farming and more—and imagined a future world (2040) in which these practices have been adopted and rolled out at scale.
Some might call Damon’s vision, which was four years in the making, idealistic. But since the documentary’s release in April 2019, one of the featured projects—a seaweed permaculture solution that could help draw down carbon from the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate—has pulled in over AUD $600,000 (USD $412,000) worth of funding and counting. That’s $300,000 worth of donations, with $300,000 matched dollar-for-dollar by The Intrepid Foundation, the charitable wing of Intrepid Travel (and parent company of Adventure.com).
The trial platform will be built in 2020; a collaboration between the Climate Foundation and the University of Tasmania in Australia. And while seaweed alone won’t fix our climate problems, the example clearly illustrates the difference that can be made when people are presented with tangible solutions to rally around. And that’s not all: In September this year, the film was also screened at the official opening of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, in front of leaders from around the world.
To find out more about Damon’s vision for a sustainable future, what he’s learned along the way, and how the next generation might help us out of this hot mess, Adventure.com called the filmmaker on his cell phone.
Oliver Pelling: What made you want to flip the narrative and focus on the positive with 2040?
Damon Gameau: I love the quote by Raymond Williams that goes: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” We know the alarm bell’s being rung, but if you ring the alarm and don’t show people where the exits are, you’re going to have trouble. I thought that narrative—around what people can do with all this energy and frustration—was missing.
It felt like the right time to shift the spotlight onto those people who aren’t being paralysed by fear, and who are rolling their sleeves up and making good things happen.
Given the whole 2040 project, and everything you know at this point, how optimistic are you?
It fluctuates on a daily basis. Depending on what’s happening at any given moment, it can be hard not to feel hopeless. But I don’t dwell too long on that. I acknowledge it and I think it’s important for us all to feel the reality of what’s going on. Once that’s been accepted, it clears the space for us to focus on solutions.
Constantly banging people over the head with how bad things are is disengaging. It’s paralyzing, and people are disconnecting and thinking, “Well, what can I do about it anyway? I’m just going to keep living my life.” I think that’s a dangerous place to be in.
I call 2040 an ‘exercise in fact-based dreaming.’ It’s about the possibility for discussion—unless we show people what it might look like on the other side of this crisis, we’re not going to get them to move forward. And when people get fearful, they lean towards authoritarian leaders, build walls, all the rest of it—that’s the danger for the alternative 2040.
Let’s talk about the seaweed project. We have the opportunity to have these giant kelp platforms in the ocean that can help draw down enormous amounts of carbon, right? Talk us through it.
There’s been a version of it in Bali and the Philippines, but the first actual platform—led by the Climate Foundation and the University of Tasmania—will be in Tasmania. I’m so proud of our community—we’ve just raised AUD $600,000 (USD $412,000) to build it through donations. It’d be the first prototype in the world.
What’s exciting is that we’ll get to see how it works, then we’ll have the first Global Seaweed Symposium next year to bring in the best engineers, ocean experts and impact investors. If we’ve got the testing right, we’ll then talk about how we can scale this up to the level required over the next 10 years. There’s a long way to go, a lot of testing to do, and the ocean is a hostile environment, but I feel so excited by that.
When it comes to the potential of the ocean, whether it’s seaweed platforms or sea agriculture, some of the stats are phenomenal. I understand we’ve been scared to go near it because we’ve damaged everything else, but these are regenerative practices. What I love most about these ideas is that they’re biological solutions, they’re not high-tech or anything. It’s just about using what nature has already given us.
A lot of our success for the future is going to depend on getting through that apathy, that fear, isn’t it?
Absolutely. I spoke to an environmental psychologist very early on in the film, and that was one of the main things she talked about. When the only information you get makes you feel fearful, it shuts down the parts of your brain that help you think creatively and problem-solve. It’s important we get through that. And we have to address the hypocrisy—none of us can do the right thing at the moment. I think a lot of people feel like it’s too hard. That’s when the guilt can kick in.
You can see it happening everywhere—people are very quick to score moral points. On social media, we’re really quick to call people out and chastise them for not doing the right thing, or not being full of 100 per cent integrity—that’s stupid and dangerous. We’re human. We’re fallible. We’re complicated and messy, and no-one can do it perfectly. The more we accept that, the better chance we have of getting the job done.
I mean, I made a film, I flew round the world, I’m burning carbon—I’m guilty. Lots of our jobs, and our daily routines, will be burning carbon. We’re still stuck in that system. But there’s that great meme going around at the moment saying that the inventor of the lightbulb did it by candlelight, and the inventor of the engine did it while riding a horse. You can’t help but design the next stage within the stage you’re in.
Short of any political revolution, we’re most likely stuck in our current economic and governmental systems for the time being. That in mind, how important is it for us to use the tools, industries and ideas currently at our disposal, and begin affecting change from the inside out?
In an idealistic way, I’d say we definitely need to move away from our current system—which is based on rival groups and competitive relationships, and causing untold problems—and more towards inter-connected and symbiotic relationships. But that’s not going to happen by 2040.
The worst thing we could do right now is burn the whole thing to the ground. As we’ve seen throughout history, whenever a system collapses, it usually creates a vacuum that gets filled by something just as bad, if not worse. It would be chaos—we’ve got to be smart about it. We might feel instinctively that a rebellion is the way to go, but the only way we’re going to get through this is to acknowledge we’ve got this system, and make this system serve us better in its current form.
The first step is to put a cap on where we’re at now, and work with all of these organizations to shift their finances towards initiatives that can start regenerating the planet. That’s phase one. Phase two might look like a wellness model, so instead of measuring success by GDP, we bring in other things we value—environmental wellbeing, mental wellbeing, equality, whatever it might be—and we measure our success using those markers instead. Some countries, like Bhutan, are doing that already. Examples of ways we can curtail the system already exist.
How important do you think the younger generations are going to be when it comes to making a positive impact on our collective future?
They’re so savvy. We showed 2040 at the UN Climate Summit in New York recently, and some of those conversations were really interesting. You had huge organizations, like Mærsk, a huge Danish shipping company, who’ve just declared that they’re going to be carbon neutral by 2050, because the kids coming out of university don’t want to work for them, because they’re a company based on fossil fuels. And they weren’t the only company saying that—it’s happening all around the world.
And certainly, when we start introducing certain blockchain technologies over the next few years, you’re going to have full transparency over the food supply. So if you buy a product, say meat, you’ll be able to scan it and see exactly the type of soil it came from, whether it has any chemicals or antibiotics in it, how far it traveled—all that information is going to have to be laid bare, and that’s going to be transformative in terms of consumer power.
It’ll force more and more companies to go down the road of B Corp [a certification businesses receive for meeting the highest ethical, social and environmental standards].
When it comes to getting ‘back on track’, a lot of the things we need to do are actually things we used to be very good at, like looking after the land, nature and what sustains us, focusing more on community. I first heard this term while talking to a First Nations elder in Canada, but there’s a lot of ‘re-indigenizing’ to this, isn’t there?
It’s the archaic revival. We’ve gone off the tracks for a long time, we’re getting feedback from the planet, and now we’ve got to try and get the train back on the track. And a lot of these practices coming back are very simple, things we were doing for thousands of years, and people are starting to find them again. That’s the way forward. We had our experiment, it didn’t work out, and now it’s time to revert back to what we know works.
Whether it’s upcycling, regenerative farming, more of a sharing economy—the things our grandparents and ancestors would say, “That’s what we always did, you idiots”, they’re becoming trendy again, and that’s a good thing.
Watching 2040, and scenes like the solar grid in Bangladesh for example, it’s easy to see how beneficial that’d be for communities. But then you think about what’s stopping those kinds of initiatives going mainstream in countries like Australia, the UK and the US—and the answer is our political system. Lobbying, Big Energy’s influence in the political sphere, all of it. How can we move past that?
This is why we’re getting so much pushback from [Australian prime minister] Scott Morrison and his mates in the mining council. They all know that this transition is going to happen, so they’re fighting for every last dollar they can get from this current system. That’s why they’re kicking up such a fuss: They know.
I’ve heard CEOs from international oil companies admit they put a carbon tax on themselves a few years ago, because they knew this would happen, and they knew they’d need to put money aside to invest in the next phase. They can carry on with the denial—but they know, and they’re just playing this ridiculous game.
I do feel that the change, when it does happen, will happen very quickly. We just need to make sure we have all the solutions ready to go, so when things start to fall apart, these ’radical’ choices will feel like common sense. We just need to plan so that people don’t get left behind during the transition. How can we re-train the workers? How do we re-skill them? It’s about treating each other like human beings again.
Our current system strips the humanity out of us—it rewards people for being a little bit sociopathic, and climbing their way to the top. It’s ridiculous.
And people get to the ‘top’, and they’re miserable, and depressed, and anxious, and have all these problems anyway …
That’s a good point. We know we’re using double the amount of resources than the planet can replenish, and we’re on track for three times that amount by 2050. So people say, “How are we going to fix that?!” But they don’t consider that GDP growth does not equate to happiness …
Look at places like Costa Rica or Northern Europe—Costa Rica’s GDP is a fifth of North America’s, and parts of Northern Europe are a half. But the people there report much happier lifestyles and better physical and mental health. Being happy just doesn’t equate to having more stuff. The more we can get that point through—that we don’t have to just grow to meet some arbitrary targets—the better.
What about other ideas and initiatives you discovered while filming 2040? What else got you excited?
I’d say regenerative agriculture—that’s a big one. There’s not much nuance in the discussion at the moment. It’s either ‘meat or no meat’. I understand where that comes from, and a lot of the studies, on cattle for example, have been based on really intensive farming practices and feedlots and whatnot. But what else is emerging, which people need to learn about urgently, is these regenerative practices, where ‘it’s not the cow, it’s the how’—it’s the way the animal is used on the land.
When they’re carefully managed and rotated, and when they mimic ancient patterns of grazing animals across landscapes, they can actually pull huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Of course, it doesn’t mean everyone can keep consuming as much meat as we do, especially with our growing population, but animals can certainly play a role.
Then there’s the role of educating girls and empowering women. Obviously that’s something we should be doing anyway, but the impact on the planet is huge. As we say in the film, there are 100 million girls around the world who don’t get to complete their education—not just in poorer countries, but wealthier nations too.
But when they’re taken out of school, they’ll have on average five children. If they complete their education, and have access to reproductive health services and work opportunities, that number of children comes down to two. The UN says that’s a difference of 1.1 billion people by 2050—which would have an enormous impact on resource use and, obviously, climate change.
What about any lasting messages or lessons?
The biggest thing I learned was around metaphors, and how we perceive the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been separating ourselves from nature and see ourselves as being different from it, probably a little above it. We felt we were the masters, and that we could extract from and take what we wanted. But if you go to most cultures before that time, their metaphors and stories and how they connected to nature were very different.
Aboriginal Australians, for example, called themselves the ‘custodians of the land’. The Chinese had a beautiful phrase where they said they were ‘reverent guests’ of the land. Those cultural stories were really different. A big challenge for us is how we get those metaphors back right now, and start seeing ourselves as part of our environment again, instead of being completely disconnected. With kids having more screen time, fewer people spending time outdoors, more living in cities—we’re just not being exposed to the world around us, so it‘s less likely that we’re going to want to fight for it.
Education is crucial there, especially with kids. Kids have that understanding already—so how can we keep nurturing that in them? That’s our biggest challenge, and that’s where hope lies. There’s a great quote by H.G. Wells in which he says: “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.” And I think this is the moment that we’ve got to make sure our kids are educated, and that they’re taught to value what nature has to offer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Damon’s 2040 is available to rent or buy through the iTunes store, or YouTube Movies. You can read more about Damon’s vision for 2040 here, and learn about (and donate to) the seaweed permaculture solution over at The Intrepid Foundation.