What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire
A film by Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson

After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination
by Kirkpatrick Sale
Duke University Press, 200 pp.

Hope, Human and Wild: Three Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth
by Bill McKibben, with a new afterword
Milkweed Editions, 232 pp.

On a freezing night last November, a crush of concerned citizens packed into the General Store Café in Pittsboro for a special screening by Chatham County documentarians Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson. What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, a bleak, relentless, ecological horror film, played to a rapt house. While most Americans shrug off global warming as somebody else’s problem, at this film’s conclusion the viewers sat in a circle to discuss the inconvenient truths it raised. If Bennett and Erickson were recruiting fellow foot soldiers in the battle for our planet’s future, we were a Coalition of the Willing. But after the show the practical obstacles to saving the planet were all too clear: We all strapped ourselves to thousands of pounds of steel, fired up noxious internal combustion engines, and drove off into the night.

Judging solely by the increased media attention, people are finally starting to confront the implications of a damaged planet (global warming was even the cover story of the March 12 issue of Sports Illustrated). On Feb. 2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most strongly worded warning to date, telling us that it is now a near certainty that human activity is responsible for the rise in world temperatures.

The greater American populace is ready to respond to the panel’s increasingly dire warnings the same way it’s responded in the pastby doing absolutely nothingand with few exceptions, our brave leaders are also poised to spring into inaction. For those who actually care about the plight of the natural world, the film screening in Pittsboro, with its disjunction between good intentions and effective action, illustrates the staggering odds stacked against any chance of meaningful change in our society’s consumption patterns.

Even if our hearts and minds are in the right place, it’s our bodies, what with all the eating and schlepping around, that are taking us, environmentally speaking, to the other place (16 percent more efficiently in a Toyota Prius!). Since practical solutions at a scale that would effect real change are almost impossible to imagine, much recent environmental thought has focused on simply diagnosing the problem.

The well of anxiety tapped in What a Way to Go is finding many outlets, including Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and in new books. One such tome is Kirkpatrick Sale’s After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, in which he examines the archaeological record in search of the pivotal events that sent us on our destructive path. Earlier philosophers have cited the rise of civilization as the crucial moment, and, indeed, civilization is a prime culprit, with its established pattern of turning harmless bands of wandering apes into plunderous, continent-spanning ant colonies. Surprisingly, Sale places the turning point 60,000 years earlier, while people were still hunting and gathering for their supper. In the popular imagination, “hunter-gatherer” is a catch-all term for pre-civilized peoples, whose ostensibly diverse modes of living are fundamentally alike; by contrasting late-period homo sapiens with its ancestor homo erectus, Sale argues that one hunter-gatherer is not like another.

Sale’s story begins 70,000 years ago, with the eruption of Mount Toba, a huge volcano on the island of Sumatra. Notable eruptions of the last few centuries, like Mount St. Helens, Pinatubo, Krakatoa and Tambora, were all puny compared to the apocalyptic Toba event. The invention of writing was still many millennia in the future, so we can only imagine the eruption’s terrifying effect on the people who lived through it, people whose anatomy and intelligence were identical to our own. Temperatures plunged and the Earth fell into a persistent volcanic winter, decimating animal and plant populations around the world. Most of our ancestors are thought to have perished. The survivors were forced to find new sources of food.

Where before people had hunted and trapped small game and scavenged for lions’ leftovers, excavations from this period show dramatic improvements in weaponry and a change in the animals brought home for dinner. Capable now of bringing down fearsome big game like rhinos, elephants and the giant cape buffalo, this was the moment, according to Sale, when man first imagined himself atop the natural order, separate from and superior to his fellow creatures. Large mammals, their populations already devastated by the Toba event, had a new enemy to contend with, a superpredator. The Sixth Extinction was underway.

Sale, a historian and self-described neo-Luddite, author of a dozen books on a variety of subjects, is careful to point out in the preface that he’s not a scientist. He relies on the latest findings of archaeologists and anthropologists, but his assertions are broader and more speculative. His central point is that the prehistoric “advances” celebrated in the first chapters of history textbooks were not inevitable steps on the road to greatness; rather, they were crisis responses to environmental pressures, each one a lamentable stumble in a long decline. Along with big-game hunting and agriculture, Sale disparages the taming of fire (which enabled “farming with fire,” and the ability to rapidly affect ecosystems on a large scale); cave art (those lyrical images at Lascaux and Altamira were actually sinister signs of dissociative magic); even language (symbolic thinking led to the distinction between “self” and “other,” which validated conquest and social inequity).

Sale’s most speculative hypothesis concerns early human psychology. Prehistoric “advances” undermined the mental health of our ancestors, he argues, by alienating them from their life-giving habitat, leaving their descendents with a psyche that’s “delusional, and can be maintained only by tortuous ideas of self-importance and wrathful practices of self-enhancement.” Our only hope of redemption is a return to the Eden of the title, which refers to the long, peaceful reign of sapiens’ immediate forebear, homo erectus. In its 1.5-million-year stretch on Earth, eight times longer than our own, erectus lived in harmony with its fellow creatures. Our survival, according to Sale, depends upon recapturing the primal erectus consciousness we still possess.

While After Eden is a thought-provoking attempt to understand the rapacity that is now so clearly characteristic of homo sapiens, too much of its argument consists simply of turning traditional notions of progress on their heads; progress becomes regress, triumph is recast as failure. It’s a reductive, dogmatic primitivism: In vilifying beautiful cave paintings, and in assessing the mental health of Cro-Magnons, Sale makes his ideology do some heavy lifting. Finally, his solution to the present ecological conundrum, a return to the erectus mindset, is an appealing idea, but he admits that, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t all run off and become erectus-style hunter-gatherers. It’s hard to visualize practical next steps to take to reclaim our erectus mentality.

Like After Eden, What a Way to Go! builds its argument from a survey of experts. Alternately personal and political, Bennett intersperses his family’s home movies, campy stock footage and interviews with friends and family with comments from an assortment of authors, scientists, visionaries and cultural critics he and Erickson met when they circled the country by train in the fall of 2005.

Their choice of conveyance was apt, as the film’s most memorable image is an extended metaphor that likens our civilization, on its inexorable, self-destructive hurtle, to a runaway train. We’re riding to our doom on the rails of peak oil, climate change, mass extinction and population overshoot. The engine is the collection of cultural myths that perpetuate a way of life that’s profoundly out of balance. So far the ride has been smooth enough to lull most of the passengers to sleep. It’s the dark tunnel ahead that has the filmmakers worried.

Bennett and Erickson certainly did their research. No fewer than 20 experts populate the film, including anarcho-primitivist authors Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) and Derrick Jensen, local environmental scientists like Duke’s William Schlesinger and Stuart Pimm and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Douglas Crawford-Brown, and other eco-luminaries like Richard Heinberg, Jerry Mander, Richard Manning, Chellis Glendinning and Thomas Berry. With so many experts speaking on so many subjects, the filmmakers decided to organize the film with title pages of topics and subtopics, which gives it the flavor of a PowerPoint presentation. Those already up on their science and well-versed in the tenets of deep ecology won’t find much they haven’t heard before; but for the average concerned citizen, it’s a broad and comprehensive summary.

Sustaining a single, unvarying note of earnest despair for most of its two-hour running time, the compounded effect of all the bad news begins to feel numbing. But it also builds a powerful momentum as one expert after another distills a great many vital and disturbing issues to their essence. Perhaps, in light of the monumental challenges we face, our first reaction should be despair. As Bennett solemnly intones, “I have read many books about the world situation, and I have noticed a curious thing: the happy chapter…. I don’t like happy chapters. They’ve lulled me back to sleep. They suggest that somebody, somewhere, somehow, is handling it. I can just go on with my life.”

For those willing to do the hard work of changing deep-seated cultural habits, there’s a crying need for the far-sighted to show the way. One such is Bill McKibben, author of the 1995 book Hope, Human and Wild: Three Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth. (On Wednesday, April 18, McKibben will appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. See Calendar Spotlight on page 34.) In that book, which has just been reissued with a new afterword, McKibben describes three examples of what the cover promises: “True stories of living lightly on the Earth.”

McKibben’s first true story is of his adopted home, the Adirondacks of upstate New York, and the remarkable resurgence of forests and wildlife in the Eastern United States. The area was almost entirely cleared for farmland in the early centuries of American settlement, but now, with the farmers long gone westward, the woodlands are returning, at a rate of a million acres a decade (an area larger than Rhode Island) in New York State alone. McKibben’s two other real-life cases are about a pair of peculiar Third-World locales: the Brazilian city of Curitiba and the Indian province of Kerala.

In Curitiba, a series of chance events in the early 1970s resulted in the appointment of 33-year-old Jaime Lerner as mayor. Lerner is an architect and planner whose rare combination of idealism and pragmatism made him one of the most effective and visionary mayors in the world. Under his watch, though Curitiba’s population soared like those of Brazil’s other large cities, newcomers were better integrated than in the endless, filthy slums of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, and the city remained pleasant and livable. The transportation system is one reason for this, and it’s the city’s most notable success. With an efficient network of dedicated express lanes for buses, some of which carry up to 300 passengers, the Curitiban system is essentially an above-ground subway, at one-hundredth the cost; as a result, citizens of Curitiba use significantly less fuel than the average Brazilian, even though they’re more likely to own cars.

Kerala is another example of people doing more with less. Its per capita income is one-seventieth that of the United States, typical for India; yet its life expectancy, literacy levels and low birth rates are equivalent to America’s, far better than the rest of the nation. The people are well-educated and healthy, and they take an active part in the political life of the state. While in many respects Kerala’s impressive statistics are an aberration in the Third World, McKibben is quick to point out that Kerala, like Curitiba, is no utopia: Unemployment is high and the economy is stagnant. What it is, most importantly for Americans, is a counterargument to the pervasive idea that a high level of consumption is necessary for a high quality of life.

In the new afterword to the 2007 edition of Hope, McKibben relates continued positive developments in Curitiba and Kerala (the news from the Adirondacks is mixed); even more promising, some of their innovations have spread to other parts of the developing world. Ideally, we in America could learn from their examples as well. “The lesson,” he writes, “is that some of our fears about simpler living are unjustified. It is not a choice between suburban America and dying at thirty-five, between Wal-Mart and hunger…. The average American income is seventy times the average Keralite onethere is some latitude for change.”

The question of whether we humans have damaged our habitat has been definitively settled. Now the question is whether we have the will to change. Can we eat more sustainably and locally? Can we plan our cities on a human scale? Can we do without so much stuff? For the first time in human history, we have proof that the local insults we’ve perpetrated on the natural world have accrued to a global ledger, with unknown consequences for the planet and every living thing on it. Each generation likes to think it occupies a special place in history. The 6.5 billion souls currently drawing breath may have the strongest claim yet.

For information on What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, visit www.whatawaytogomovie.com. Author Bill McKibben will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit quailridgebooks.booksense.com.