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New Documentary Explores the Spirit and Songs of Climate Activists

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The Environmental Film Festival is opening this week in Washington, D.C., and there is at least one movie playing that I strongly recommend.  It is filmmaker Josh Fox’s new documentary, which has the comically unwieldy title: “How to Let Go of the World and Learn to Love all the Things Climate Can’t Change.”

Fox was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for his first documentary, “Gasland.” It was an edgy work of investigative journalism into the hydraulic fracturing industry that featured infamous footage of people lighting their tap water on fire.

Fox’s new movie is radically different in both its tone and scope...

  He is now an investigator of the human spirit. He journeys around the world and explores how people – often poor and powerless, living on islands in the Pacific Ocean; or on the New Jersey shore shattered by Hurricane Sandy – can motivate themselves to fight against a destruction of their environment by fossil fuels.

The subject matter – climate heroes, trying to figure out ways to save their planet – might strike some as preachy and overly emotional.   Some of the scenes are crushingly depressing – for example, of wrecked homes in New Jersey, destroyed by rising sea levels; or of graveyards next to coal-fired power plants in Beijing. 

But Fox – an accomplished banjo player and artist with a camera – is remarkably successful in his film because he deploys music, dance, and fantastically innovative angles, along with his own goofy and endearing personality, to illustrate how people’s hope and creativity can overcome calamity.

For example, he tells the story of the Pacific Climate Warriors – islanders being flooded from their homes by rising sea levels.  They launch an outrigger canoe to try to block massive coal barges leaving Australia. Their canoe sinks. But they repair it, and get in the way – and somehow manage to halt coal shipments.

“No other coal ships left port that day.  A huge victory,” Fox says in the film.  “Ten coal ships decided not to jump into the fray.  578,000 tons of coal was stopped from leaving port – at least for one day, by the Pacific Climate Warriors, who were not drowning, who were fighting.”

Fox interviews Tim DeChristopher, a West Virginia native who managed to preserve 22,000 acres of scenic federal land in Utah from oil and gas drilling. He bid $1.8 million himself for the mineral rights on the land – although he had no actual money.  He spent 21 months in prison for that deception. But it also prompted the federal government to change its mind about leasing the land for drilling.

In China, Fox sees the air thick with pollution and children wearing breathing filters because of the growth in the burning of coal.  He interviews an advocate for community-based solar power, Ellla Chou.  She argues that people around the world need to think differently about energy and money and what they should do with their lives.

 “I believe there is something called moral imagination,” Chou said. Fox talks to her at length about what this means, and concludes:  “…Moral imagination designed and built the first solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal power plants. It is technology paired with an ethical will.”

Heady stuff.   But mostly, I love this movie because of its original music.  Fox reinvents music as a beautiful weapon in the environmental war – one that inspires people, lifts spirits, and ignites mass action for the common good.

It’s a song worth listening to, and a movie worth seeing.

For the schedule and locations of the Environmental Film Festival in Washington D.C., visit: http://dceff.org/

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.