Award winning Canadian documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon has worked on his climate change documentary Spaceship Earth for thirty five years.
He has seen firsthand the effects of climate change in the Arctic and traveled the world to speak with scientists, futurists, intellectuals and environmental warriors.
His acclaimed ten hour film The Polar Sea set the stage for him to move further into the study of our changing environment in Spaceship Earth. It’s a sobering, no-nonsense, no holds-barred battle cry to save the only planet we can call home.
McMahon makes the point that the earth has sustained itself for millions of years but since the industrial revolution humans have nearly undone it. We spoke with McMahon in Toronto.
Spaceship Earth tells us hard truths. We’ve helped to destroy our planet by using up its resources, poisoning the environment and are at a tipping point. If our record on preventing climate change stays as dismal as it is now, and we carry on as we are, could it lead to our extinction?
It’s not inconceivable to me having worked on this for thirty five years. I was really interested in global issues as newspaper journalist. I wrote about nuclear weapons and understood that system; I filmed in nuclear silos and interviewed those guys.
We are at considerable risk from that but certain risk from climate change. When you talk to scientists it’s clear that they think there is a possibility of extinction in 50 years.
It’s hard get people to watch his film. They are moved but they don’t want to see it.
How could earth look in fifty years – desert?
I don’t think a desert is likely. You have to assume that people want to survive, most do. The remarkable thing on climate change is that we are in 2016 and people like me in environmental journalism, we’ve understood it for less than twenty five years.
Most people in the public don’t get it. The pollution, save-the-earth thing was the spark of the environmental movement in 1968, but it seemed vague and amorphous.
We’ve had decades to work on climate change, but things are worse. How do your account for that?
When Al Gore was talking about it, people with property in Florida thought “Oh, no, we’ll be flooded”. Or people in Bangladesh said “Oh no, we’re fucked”. Scientists didn’t even understand it, and didn’t know that species could become extinct.
Before this I did a ten hour documentary series for TVO and Germany called The Polar Sea and the American ambassador held a reception for us in Ottawa. Ten hours of climate change in the Arctic. You can live stream it on TVO.
We’re discussing it at the dinner table and a diplomat from Europe, and this is a year and a half ago, says “So it’s going to get warmer. I like warmth”. I said “If you look at this table and place settings, that’s what a biosphere is. Each one is a creature. And someone is pulling out the tablecloth and everything is going to be smashed.” I don’t think people understand this.
Many still refuse to believe in climate change.
Ten years ago we started thinking about this, and even earlier in 1992. Scientists, bureaucrats and governments knew but the public didn’t until ten years ago. It didn’t sink in.
Ten years later here we are and every single nation met in Paris six months ago and agreed to change it. It means completely changing technology and economic systems from the way we’ve been doing things for three centuries. How rapid that is! In ten years!
To get everybody to agree, knowing what chaos it’s going to cause, how much it’s going to cost, and that some industries will be out of business. It has to be done. The internet helped us get to this point, but a reasonable argument is that it can also hinder us, by allowing communities to connect but not weird isolated tribes, that is a problem no one can have foreseen.
In the meantime, the testimonies about the diminishing Arctic ice and permafrost and how it affects the people and wildlife are tragic. You’ve seen it.
I’ve been going to the Arctic for thirty years and at first I didn’t know what I was seeing and neither did the Inuit people who were with me. There was less ice, and when we saw the breaks and weakness we thought it was a fluke. Now we know it’s a pattern and there are plenty of scientists studying it.
The movie reports that oil production peaked a while ago, that we have used half of what is in the earth. Then what?
That’s another interesting thing; I don’t know then what, as if we didn’t know that using the other half is going to exterminate us. Okay, supplies are running down but we have enough to last for our lifetime. So weirdly we may find ourselves by 2050 in a much more egalitarian world. Naomi Klein makes that point. The fossil fuel problem isn’t about t oil companies acting evil, it’s not their fault.
It’s not like the evil ways of the nuclear industry who know what they’re creating and that they’re doing something bad. But regarding fossil fuels you can’t blame anybody. It developed over a long time and now it’s going to be unwound fairly quickly. So the title Spaceship Earth is apropos. We’re not just running out of oxygen, we’re running out of fuel.
This is really unsettling.
We have to think in optimistic terms or we’re screwed. My children are all in their twenties and the funny thing is I find myself in this position of convincing them that they’re living in a great time. Things weren’t better in the 70’s or 80’s.
And as it’s said in the film, we know that by 2050, thirty five years from now, things are going to be way, way, way, way different.
There is no question about it. When I was twenty the world had its problems with violence, terror and wars and shit and it’ll always be like that but in fact we can’t sustain the way we live now. It is a fact you must change.
What about the desire to change?
The most important thing that I say to students is that I feel that we are at a real fabulous moment, the most fabulous moment ever in the development of the human species. We know were facing this terrible thing and we know we can fix and if we do there will be side benefits and we’ll get to carry on.
In that sense we are lucky. We have technical and ethical knowledge. It’s darkest before dawn and it looks bad now. You look at Donald Trump and Islamic extremism and these things are the entry into the death spasms of the old age and birth spasms of the new.
Will you show the film in schools?
This is the most ridiculous of ridiculous projects in the history of projects. There are multiple versions of this thing. This one showing on History narrated by Roberta Bondar which was designed for television. Then there is a two hour version narrated by Sarah Polley which showed at Hot Docs Festival, and in theatres. And through these showings I have had requests from Norway, Mexico, Africa and India.
So it’s getting out there. Also there is a much longer version that plays in Germany and Japan. We’re doing our best to get it into schools. The whole thing was really to get the meme out there in the old Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan space ship earth. To look out and say yes, that’s the sky and it is endless.
Spaceship Earth airs tonight, July 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HISTORY in Canada and is narrated by the first female Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar.