“State of the planet” film opens Rio summit

On the eve of Rio+20 – the UN’s largest summit to date – I got a call from the UN. They wanted the “state of the planet” film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which I had produced with Félix Pharand-Deschênes, to kick off the show. The audience: 188 heads of state and ministers. I have only known Felix for a year but the film is a culmination of our lives’ work. Here is my distorted version of events.

It is 2010. I am sitting opposite filmmaker Johan Soderberg in an über chic bar in Stockholm. He is explaining to me how to make a film about the state of the planet go viral. An epiphany strikes him.

“Justin Timberlake stares at the camera and screams: ‘We’re all fucked!’ Then his head explodes,” says Johan. I nod, thoughtfully I hope.

Johan directs videos for Madonna and U2. He is a master of mass communication. Johan advises that for a viral hit it is essential to use a star. Someone everyone knows.

I consider the mental image Johan has presented to me. An exploding Timberlake head is problematic. I remember the English director Richard Curtis’s ill-considered blood-drenched outing into communication of climate change. The director of Love Actually’s internet advertisement for environmental organization 10:10 was roundly attacked and withdrawn 24 hours after launch.

Photograph of famous person Justin Timberlake taken during the making of the Anthropocene – the epoch, not the film.

Photograph of famous person Justin Timberlake taken during the making of the Anthropocene – the epoch, not the film.

I was meeting Johan to brainstorm ideas for a short film I wanted to make for the UN’s Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. The Rio+20 summit is essentially Plan A for Planet Earth. My organization, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and others were organizing a science conference, Planet Under Pressure, in advance of Rio+20 so the film could be launched there. That was the vague plan at least.

I wanted less shock and more awe. Besides I work for a scientific organization. We don’t do shock tactics and exploding heads. We don’t do swearing, not publicly at least. We don’t do advocacy.

What we do is global-change research. In my mind I had an idea about doing something on a scale not achieved before. I wanted to create a short film that crystalized the science showing the vast scale of human civilization, the explosion in our impact since the 1950s, and the implications and risks for humanity and the planet’s life support system. I reckoned I had two or three minutes max before humanity lost interest. Johan said I had less than a minute.

The central feature had to be the Anthropocene: the concept that humanity has propelled the planet out of its previous epoch, the Holocene, and into whole new territory. This notion has gained traction among scientists since Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others proposed the concept in 2000.

With its data visualization expertise Google was the obvious partners for such a project. I tried to connect but hit dead end after dead end.

A breakthrough came in the summer of 2011. I contracted a data visualizer Félix Pharand-Deschênes to do some graphics for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. I’d been an admirer of Félix’s work for some time. He is a French Canadian anthropologist with a global perspective and a love of data visualization. For several years he’d produced some novel visualizations of global human impact. More recently he’d moved into animations of the global human footprint. Soon we were talking about building the first educational website on the Anthropocene and I started thinking again about the short film again.

By this stage we’d roped in Simon Torok from Australian research agency CSIRO and Sturle Hauge Simonsen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre for the project. We put the money in place for the Anthropocene website and started work. But I felt opportunity was calling. What if I could incorporate the short film into the website? The budget had no room for any extras We barely had enough for the site and were calling in many favors. But I argued it would be useful as a promotional tool for the site and so we agreed to make the film.

By February 2012 we had the basic narrative of the data visualization then started work on layering up the complex animated graphs and completing the voiceover. The challenge was to condense 250 years of history plus a monumental heap of data into three minutes.

But it was more complex than that. People respond to narratives not streams of facts. It was important we told a story. The story of how one species changed a planet. And, coming from research organizations we had to narrate a story without recourse to hyperbole or exaggeration. It had to remain independent, impartial and objective. Yet the film had to resonate with audiences everywhere. It had to engage. We needed a convincing narrative that went further than anything to date to capture the immense scale of the human enterprise.

While the film articulates the scale of change, and the very real concern about the state of the planet, we did not want to dwell on catastrophe, we wanted to capture the great change for good too: the green revolution, poverty alleviation, eradication of several diseases, the power of global interconnections and communication technology, the improved wellbeing for many. The bottom line is: we now control the global narrative. We have shaped our past. We are shaping our present. We can shape our future. There is a message of hope.

Working impossible hours we completed the film for the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March this year. In 345 words and with jaw-dropping visualizations from Félix and UK film company Capture, the film takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride from the explosive beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the north of England to the incredible global interconnected society that rules our daily lives. Félix animated and composited hundreds of datasets with millions of data points – cities, roads, railways, shipping lanes, cables and pipelines, to arrive at the final landscape of the Anthropocene. The post-production company Capture layered up the Great Acceleration graphs. When I saw the first rushes I knew we were creating something completely unique. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” was born.

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After the launch we had a slow start before the film reached a tipping point online spreading like a virus. We appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times, BBC, Daily Telegraph, the Age, the Atlantic.

To date, we’ve had 700,000 hits on the Vimeo video sites hosting variations of the movie and countless blogs and websites have reposted it.

We had a minor hit on our hands. From the outset we had billed the film as 250 years of history to the Rio+20 summit. The ultimate aim was for it to be shown at the summit. After the Planet Under Pressure conference I contacted the UN and the Brazilian government to ask if they would consider showing the film during the summit. As the weeks rolled by we roped in more people and organizations to call for the film to be screened.

In the week before the conference we appeared on the UN’s radar. One day before the opening ceremony of the UN’s largest gathering in its history, I got a call saying Welcome to the Anthropocene would open the summit.

“What do you mean ‘Open the summit’?” I asked.

“UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will arrive on stage, make some opening remarks and then show the state of the planet film,” the UN responded. “How would you like the Secretary General to introduce the film?”

After the UN hung up my mind entered a state of discombobulation.

A large smile spread over the face of my colleague Reed Evans who had overheard the conversation. “What was all that about?” She enquired but she had already guessed the answer.

The summit is a once-in-a-generation event that brought together 188 heads of state and ministers along with 50,000 people. For months we had worried that science was absent from the agenda. We agonized over how to reach world leaders and opinion formers. How do we get them to hear about let alone care about the state of the planet and the implications inherent in the concept of the Anthropocene? And here we were, centre state at a historic moment in international politics. We could not ask for a better platform.

But perhaps it was not too surprising. The Anthropocene demands we accept a new responsibility, a responsibility for the Earth’s life support system.

The Anthropocene is the greatest story ever told. As a species we move more rock and sediment than all natural processes. We are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean. We are changing the global water cycle, nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle.

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Two thirds of the world’s most important deltas are sinking due to mining and extraction. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops. We use an area the size of Africa to graze our animals. Never have so many had so much. Entire countries go on holidays to other countries. But one billion remain malnourished. And we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction – the first caused by one species. We have the impact of an ice age or meteorite impact.

This is new. We have never been here before. When our grandparents were growing up they lived in a different world. A world we can never go back to. This is an enormous communications challenge.

In an interview somewhere online Félix says this project is the culmination of his life’s work. I know how he feels. My professional interest in humanity’s colossal impact on our planet’s life support systems began when I was a teenager.

At around the age of 13 or 14 a poster I’d ordered from NASA arrived in the mail. It was a composite satellite image of the Earth at night. In that pre-internet era I spent weeks poring over the poster. Tracing the cities along the trans-Siberian railway. Spotting the lights from Japanese fishing fleets coaxing fish to the surface. Circling the flare stacks atop oil rigs across the Arabian desert.

Later on, I almost became an anthropologist. Instead, I studied astronautic and aeronautic engineering. My interest moved to the planet as a whole and humanity as a whole. Plus, I wanted to go to space.

Back then I remember reading accounts of the astronauts’ amazement and wonder at the world they’d left behind. How inconsequential humanity seemed from those dizzy heights, they said. The only sign of our passing, they said, was the Great Wall of China and wakes of ocean-going ships passing between continents. But I knew that was only half the story. My job is to tell the other half.

Deus Ex Machina

Factory workers

Factory workers

Two thousand years ago the Greeks coined the phrase Deus Ex Machina – God out of the machine. This perfectly captures the moment we now inhabitat: from machines we have become as gods. Indeed, for better or worse, several commentators have described humanity’s new power in the Anthropocene as God like.

But the Greeks created the phrase Deus Ex Machina for a reason. A reason that will be familiar to readers of the Harry Potter novels. Deus Ex Machina describes ridiculous plot devices whereby the hero or heroine is rescued from the jaws of death by some magic trick or ridiculous contrivance. Aristotle did all he could to hound this literary device from serious literature.

As the implications of the concept of the Anthropocene take hold the Greek phrase becomes ever more significant. The Anthropocene demands humanity shoulders a new responsibility for the world in which we live: we now control the narrative. It may be unwise to rely on some unexpected plot twist to rescue us.

A speech for humanity on the eve of Rio+20

On the eve of Rio+20 it is worth remembering the role of leadership as a catalyst for change and Robert Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation address on 6 June 1966: “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This lies at the heart of the conundrum facing those in Rio de Janeiro as they prepare for a summit to put our planet on a sustainable path.

We have squandered 20 years since the last major Earth summit in 1992. Without major progress the world risks multiple catastrophes. The Rio+20 summit is undoubtedly important.

Politicians blame inertia in our global political and economic systems for failure. This is rubbish. These systems can change overnight, just look at the digital revolution, the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, the global financial meltdown or the recent food crises. A case in point, the internet, barely existed in 1992. Now it has changed everything.

Indeed, through the internet we have become a giant interconnected global system. Large interconnected systems confer remarkable stability but are also prone to rapid change. We need to correct the narrative. Inertia is not the norm. We embrace the new. But we must create space for change. We need catalysts. Explosive energy results when visionary leadership connects with grassroots support around a simple idea.

Perhaps clues to new thinking and fresh approaches can come from the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.

“The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present…who prefer the illusion of security.” So said Robert F Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation address to the National Union of South African Students in Cape Town on 6 June, 1966.

The rhetoric of this landmark speech applies equally to challenges facing Earth’s life support system and the long-term sustainability of our societies. This is hardly surprising. The Civil Rights movement demanded social, cultural, political and economic upheaval.

Kennedy saw young people as the solution. “You, and your young compatriots everywhere, have had thrust upon you a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.”

But he listed four obstacles to progress.

The first is futility. We throw our hands in the air before we begin. We accept the battle cannot be won. For this he advocated strong leadership.

The second expediency. Hopes and beliefs come a poor second to immediate necessities. For this he advocated idealism.

The third is timidity. Nations fold under fierce opposition. People buckle under the wrath of society. For this Kennedy argued for courage.

The final obstacle is comfort. The temptation to go with the flow is overwhelming. It is too easy to follow well-worn, familiar paths.

After centuries of inertia and against the odds, Kennedy and other leaders helped create the right conditions for a rapid transformation. Ultimately, they succeeded.

Strong leadership is a phenomenal catalyst for change. It can whip up a powerful groundswell of support. It can energise and mobilise. It can break new ground. It can rip down barriers to progress.

As we approach Rio+20, a landmark event to create momentum, leadership is the missing ingredient. Sure over 135 heads of state said they will join. But the US can make or break the summit.

It could be that the most powerful catalyst for action is missing: Barack Obama. The signal he sends by his presence has the potential to change the course of our future development for the next decade. Yet it seems off his radar.

As global emissions continue unabated, as sea levels rise, as the world warms, as species die, we are sleepwalking to catastrophe. Brazilian climate scientist turned civil servant Carlos Nobre told the Rio+20 science and technology forum that the Amazon rainforest could be lost if temperatures rise 4 degrees. Summer Arctic sea ice is destined to disappear sooner rather than later if we continue on our current trajectory. These are major changes in state of major parts of the Earth system.

Kennedy concluded his Day of Affirmation address, “Everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.” This is as true now as it was in 1966.