Avi Lewis: ‘Grass-Roots Movements Are Changing Everything’

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This post first appeared at LauraFlanders.com.

In this video interview, journalist Laura Flanders and filmmaker Avi Lewis discuss his new documentary, This Changes Everything, a project that plays off his wife Naomi Klein’s book of the same name. Flanders and Lewis discuss how various activist movements around the world are using climate change as an opportunity to reinvent the capitalist system we often take for granted, and the role women play in leading these movements.


Laura Flanders: Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. This week on the show Avi Lewis, the director of a brand new film, This Changes Everything. Grassroots Movements are changing everything, says Lewis. All that and a few words from me on the women at the front of those movements. Welcome to our program.

I am here with Avi Lewis, dear friend, incredible filmmaker.

Avi Lewis: Hi Laura.

Laura Flanders: Congratulations on this next most amazing film, This Changes Everything.

Avi Lewis: Thank you so much. It has been a rather long labor, as you know.

Laura Flanders: And quickly, just remind us, it was inspired by Naomi’s book, Naomi Klein’s book.

Avi Lewis: It was a parallel process. We actually decided that to try to get radical ideas and new framings, new narratives into a very cluttered culture, as we look at all the different screens in our lives, we thought we should try to come out of as many as possible, so. Started the book and the film and a web/outreach/political pillar all at the same time and they developed in parallel over five years. Which is why we can’t really say that it’s based on the book. It’s my exploration of Naomi’s ideas in the world. But it’s confusing because it’s narrated by her and they’re her ideas so it is a Klein/Lewis joint product.

Laura Flanders: Alright, very good. Well let’s play the trailer. Take a look.

Trailer: “The majority of the human race does not see global warming as a serious threat. Celebrate!” [cheers] “Climate legislation is dead.”

“We, in the Global North, with less than 20% of the population, are responsible over 70% of global emissions.”

“We are drilling all over the place”

“On the other side of the world, those people who are most affected by climate change, most affected by environmental justice, have the least responsibility for creating this crisis in the first place.”

“The amount of fossil fuel that we’re composting year on year is growing. We’re going in completely the wrong direction.”

Naomi Klein: “I’ve spent six years wandering through the wreckage caused by the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.”

“That old paradigm will be forced to change. Either by the environment around us, or by us.”

Crowd: “We are all” “part of this movement”

“We see communities who are thrown into the front lines, we see the incredible transformation. They become stronger, they stand up.”

Naomi Klein: “So here’s the big question: what if global warming isn’t only a crisis? What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?”

“Change or be changed.”

“There are limits, let’s celebrate the limits. Because we can reinvent a different future.”

Laura Flanders: So the trailer ends there with this sense of opportunity. That the crisis of the climate isn’t just a crisis but the chance to remake the world anew. Is it?

Avi Lewis: Good, fair question, right? So first of all the “This” in This Changes Everything isn’t the book, or the film, or our idea, it’s a bombastic title but it isn’t – we’re not that soaked in hubris. Climate change changes everything. We are in for dramatic physical change to our world, one way or another. On the track that we’re on, we already have .8 degrees Celsius from what’s locked in from the Industrial Revolution until now, we’re headed for 4 degrees or more. Even 2 degrees if the world’s’ government finally came together to have a meaningful, binding deal, would still mean massive physical changes. The future is radical, one way or another. We have an opportunity to get off this path and actually move to a low carbon, post-carbon society in a way that serves the needs of justice, where people who got the worst deal in the old economy are first for the benefits of the next economy. And we have a way to address the fundamental problem of an economic system that creates inequality and suffering as the endless byproduct of wealth for the few.

Laura Flanders: And that’s really appreciated about your film and what made it so different from others like An Inconvenient Truth. Well, you say at the beginning of the trailer, you didn’t want to make another polar bear flick.

Avi Lewis: Yeah, and it’s finding – this was the kernel of Naomi’s idea when she started, before she had all of the arguments and evidence marshaled and before I had gone out and shot all the stories, she kind of helped put together, put the dots together to say – “The logic of the economic system itself is what’s driving this economic crisis. And that’s an opportunity because we know that logic and that system needs changing.” Just say to anyone, “Can we have infinite growth on a finite planet?” It’s like, “No. Duh.” Obviously not. And yet our entire world is fashioned on that premise.

Laura Flanders: It’s fashioned on a story, and one of the other clips we have has to do with exactly that, The Problem is the Story. Take a look at this.

Clip: Naomi: “Can I be honest with you? I’ve always kind of hated films about climate change.”

“What is it about those vanishing glaciers and desperate polar bears that makes me want to click away?”

“Is it really possible to be bored by the end of the world?”

“It’s not that I don’t care what happens to polar bears. It’s just that we’re told that the cause isn’t out there, it’s in us. It’s human nature, we’re innately greedy and short-sighted. And if that’s true, there is no hope.”

“But when I finally stopped looking away, traveled into the heart of the crisis, met people on the front lines, I discovered so much of what I thought I knew was wrong. And I began to wonder: What if human nature isn’t the problem? What if even greenhouse gases aren’t the problem? What if the real problem is a story? One that we’ve been telling ourselves for 400 years?”

Laura Flanders: Take us back to the moment of that story being told, because several things came together, right at that same time: the engineers discovering that they could harness the Earth’s resources in a whole different way, and economics changing too.”

Avi Lewis: Well you have this period of the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, all fueled – lots of parallel and unfolding historical processes but fossil fuels takes the existing colonialism, slavery, emergence of international trade and turbo charges it. And things go into hyperdrive for capitalism in this period of unfettered growth. But what this did for us as a species – and this is in the West – and we’re not talking about all humans here by any means, but it gave people in the Global North this idea that we really could decouple from nature. It didn’t matter – we could sail whether there was wind or not, before fossil fuels, factories had to be near rushing water, to power the machines, all of a sudden, you could put factories where there were pools of cheap labor, in cities. And so the explosion of capitalism, of colonialism, all got fueled by the technology of digging up fossil fuels and burning them. And that drove a story and that story still runs our world. We still act, globally, like we can harvest anything from nature, that we can extract anything from nature, that we can bend nature to our will and that there will never be any consequences. And the earth is screaming at us, that there are consequences, that this is not true, and we need a new story to understand our place in the world, our relationship to nature.

Laura Flanders: Now if I have my history right I think the steam engine was invented the very same year as the American Revolution.

Avi Lewis: Well there’s lots of —

Laura Flanders: Which makes this a very American story.

Avi Lewis:It’s a very American story. The version of the steam engine that really drove the industrial revolution also was commercialized in the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, so it’s a capitalist story. Fossil-fueled capitalism is still the system that we live in.

Laura Flanders: You have a lot of people in the film who talk about exactly that, but at least the first one that mentions the name of the system – “capitalism” says it with great trepidation.

Avi Lewis: Yeah [laughs], well we had a lot of conversations in our editorial process about the “c” word – Naomi’s book is called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, and I didn’t use capitalism vs. the climate in the film title because I didn’t want to create the expectation that this was going to be a film where people discuss capitalism, then you’re defining it, you’re having a debate, all of a sudden you’re making a talking heads film. I wanted to make a film that was rooted in personal stories, in lived experience, in communities in struggle. People who are changing the world in the face of great threat. And so the capitalism needs to be there, it’s the subtext of the entire thing. But the first time, and this was very intentional, is about 45 minutes into the movie. Naomi is interviewing a woman who’s one of the leaders of a community struggle against a Canadian gold mine in Northern Greece and she says “we have to get to the core of the problem before we can solve it,” and Naomi says “what’s the core of the problem” having no idea what she’s going to say and she says “well, it’s the economic system, capitalism I guess.” And she’s so sheepish, about saying the word and it’s just a stark reminder of how hard it is to name the system that we live in. To actually have honest conversations about the underpinning of our entire global economy. So I left that moment in because it just seems to reveal so much, to change the grand narratives, and yet, it’s at the center of everything.

Laura Flanders: So we’re going to come back to Greece in a second, but while we’re talking about capitalism, let’s talk about China. You report from China on one of the most stark crisises that’s also providing opportunities for change. You want to set up the next clip?

Avi Lewis: Well I guess for the last 10 years, until I really started studying what’s going on with climate change and pollution in China for this project, I kind of bought like a lot of us do, “you know, well isn’t China building a new coal fired power plant every week” and “they’re already the largest emitter” and “they’re consuming half the world’s coal.” And isn’t it China? It’s all about China now. Uh-uh. Actually when I looked into it, it turns out that China’s got a lot of serious climate policies and that things are actually changing there. And when I went there I found out something that I didn’t expect.

Clip: “Previously, environment issues are just peanuts – we can deal with it when we become rich enough. And then we had this historical moment of smog disaster. It totally changed the landscape of the environment discussion in China.”

You know when you wake up in the morning and you cannot walk out in the street, you cannot walk out because you can’t breath. People are asking, you know, this cannot be, this cannot be the way society and the world is supposed to be about.

“Air pollution has really become a very big topic in China and the rising middle class people in China, after their living standards in many ways have improved a lot, now start to ask, when can we buy clean air?”

Laura Flanders: Taking us to the next part of your film, some thoughts on China, are the changes that we’re seeing here, from the bottom up? Or the top down?

Avi Lewis: I mean, in China, it’s obviously both. So there is no democracy there, but in a weird way, the Chinese government, fearing revolution. The Communist Party of China fears another revolution, they’ve had them before there.

Laura Flanders: If you can’t take your children outside.

Avi Lewis: So they’re seeing that the environment is the #1 issue in China. And people are literally choking on growth. This galloping growth has produced an atmosphere that people cannot breath in. And so there’s this upwelling in Chinese society, there’s a lot of protest about environmental damage from industrial projects and they’re trying to keep a lid on it but they’re also letting these protests take place, at the government level. So people, weirdly, I think the Chinese government, when it comes to environmental damage, may be more responsive than democratic governments because they really fear that it could boil over and challenge their power if they don’t clean things up. And so they’re moving fast. The last coal plant in Bejing is being retired, this year. Last year was the first year this century where coal use declined in China and the explosion of renewables in China has lowered the price of solar technology for the world by 75% in 6 years. So there’s a lot going on in China that gives us up, it’s not in any way a model.

Laura Flanders: Yeah.

Avi Lewis: It’s an important battleground. We have to know what we’re talking about before we let ourselves off the hook because China’s the problem.

Laura Flanders: Another battleground in Greece – You mentioned it before but going back to that struggle you happened to be reporting on the climate fights in Greece while the anti-austerity fight was happening. Where do things stand now? And then I want to ask you about this question of “yes” because there’s a fabulous guy in your Greek segment who says “we have to say no, before we can say yes”

Avi Lewis: Yeah.

Laura Flanders: And I want to know what people are saying yes to.

Avi Lewis: Well this is critical. I mean, so this battle that we document in the film is over a Canadian gold mining company in this beautiful sensitive ecosystem in Northern Greece. And it’s a community struggle to stop this gold mine. But the extraction in Greece, whether it’s gold or the fact that they’re trying to open up oil drilling in the Aegean and Ionian Sea like “what could go wrong?” Right? One of the most, beautiful, storied oceans on earth — is all being brought in because of the crisis. Which we know is largely invented, and profited on, and imposed, by European and other financial powers.

Laura Flanders: The financial crisis.

Avi Lewis: It’s another expression of the financial crisis of 2008 as it’s pushed around the world by the great financial powers, so people in Greece are being punished with the most brutal austerity ever seen in Europe and they’re cracking open these resources. They’re selling all the ports and privatizing everything and they’re also forcing extractive projects so people who are resisting this gold mine are actually resisting austerity and everything that’s being shoved down their throats in it’s name. And they actually understand that there are sustainable ways to continue their economy that don’t require massive cuts to social programs. That don’t require gouging the earth and gouging the people. And so, they want local control of their natural resources because the people that live with the resource need to rely on it for generations and people that come in from another country, dig it up, sell it and leave, leave a desert behind as they say, have no stack in that place and so these place based struggles , I think, that’s what Teo says in the film, this is the no before the yes. And the yes is something much bigger. Local control of resources so that people can steward the land and not just extract it.

Laura Flanders: Which gets to the question of whether growth per se is the problem? Is it growth per se?

Avi Lewis: There’s a great de-growth movement in Europe. Naomi and I have our qualms with it because actually if you think about moving to a truly post-carbon economy, there are huge sectors of the economy that need to grow. And as a matter of fact, there the exact sectors of the economy that have been most brutalized under neo-liberalism. So when I talk about green jobs, and in Canada we have a program called the Leap Manifesto, we’re starting to articulate the policies that could get us to a better country and also off fossil fuels at the same time. We talk about green jobs not just as guys in hard hats putting up wind turbines, all the caring professions are the existing low carbon economy. Teaching, healthcare, caregiving, day care, the arts — this is all low carbon activity. And those are the very sectors that have been so savaged in the last 30 to 40 years of neoliberalism globally. Those are the sectors that we need to build back.

Laura Flanders: Your film ends on a really positive not – about blockadia, grassroots movements all over the world and the country, connecting and resisting. I want to believe, I do want to believe, you know I’m an optimist right up there with you. But I look at the news of the last few weeks and months, and I look at the way that the Greek anti-austerity party was really muscled into submission by the lenders. I look at how Obama’s EPA emissions rules on coal plants was put into suspension for years for electoral reasons. The only reason Shell seems to be leaving Alaska is because of the practicalities of drilling and the cost of it in the current economy.

Avi Lewis: If we believe Shell.

Laura Flanders: Well talk to me, I mean, is it people or is it the market?

Avi Lewis: As we’re playing the “hope poker”, I’ll see your Obama’s EPA regs and other things — look at the explosion of response to the pope – what’s he talking about? Climate change and inequality. In America. Look at the tens of thousands at Bernie Sanders rallies. What’s he talking about? Climate change and inequality. Look at Hillary Clinton, saying that she is opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. And when she was in the State Department, she couldn’t wait to rubber stamp that thing and Obama held it back. Now she’s looking at polling and it’s overwhelming that half the country that votes Democrat – those people don’t believe in TarSands going through the United States. So I think we do see tremendous victories on the movement side.

We’re not winning. We’re losing. Emissions are going up, we are hurtling in the wrong direction as a global society but there’s amazing momentum in the climate justice movement. To be here in New York, where one year ago there were half a million people in the streets in the People’s Climate March and to see the explosion of the divestment movement. Now there’s 1.2 trillion dollars of capital that is pledging to divest it – sell it’s investments in fossil fuels. There are victories, and we need to remember to celebrate them without you know drinking the Kool-Aid because there’s a lot of work to do.

Laura Flanders: Alright, Avi, thank you so much. The director of This Changes Everything, we’ll go out on a final clip on Blockadia: the global movement.

Clip: Hey you guys, we have completely encircled The White House

[crowd cheers]

Naomi: “All around the world, people aren’t just writing to their politicians politely asking them to do the right thing, they are taking direct action, demanding it.”

On the front lines, they call it Blockadia – the idea behind it – we’re in a hole, and before anything new can grow – we have to stop digging. As the drilling rigs and pipelines criss cross the Earth, so does Blockadia – connecting communities along the way – the metal pathways of dirty energy confronted by this new web of resistence.”

“So [exhales] it’s the first night being in this pipe.”

[radio chatter]

[machinery beeping]

“And I’ve noticed something else, at the forefront, are the people from the sacrifice zones – the very ones who have been written off for hundreds of years – the keepers of that other story”

“If this pipeline goes through – your government will further assist in the raping and pillaging of the lands of my ancestors – [crowd jeers] then they’ll promise to give us back what was never theirs in the first place [crowd jeers] Don’t be fooled by their ideology of what reclamation is – reclamation is me standing here with the 99% [crowd cheers]. We’re here today to say we never went anywhere and nor do we plan to. [cheering]”

“When you see communities who are thrown into the front line because of an environmental or political or economic issue – imposed on them – you see the incredible transformation that happens.”

[Crowd chanting]

“They become stronger, they stand up, and they’re like ‘isn’t this incredible? isn’t this the society we want?”

Laura Flanders: Towards the end of the new movie, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein, author of the book that inspired the film, notices something about who’s leading the charge for change.

They come from sacrifice zones, the very same places the powers that be have written off for environmental or ecological devastation. There’s another thing about them too. From Beijing to Montana to the Alberta Tar Sands, those in the front lines of resistance are female.

In one stirring scene, Indian grandmothers plant themselves in front of the filmmaker’s car, refusing to let it pass until they’re absolutely sure it’s bound for the village not the nearby coal mine. In another, a Chinese filmmaker asks her daughter if she’s ever seen blue sky and the film of their encounter attracts millions of viewers in a week.

There’s Naomi, too, of course. In her book, she touches on her struggle to get pregnant and her suspicions about pollution.

My point though, isn’t that female biology explains female behavior. I don’t believe that. But women’s experiences are relevant.

I think women are in the forefront of the struggle against sacrifice zones because women know a thing or two about being sacrificed. Take right now. Every armed force from ISIS to the United Nations seems to agree that women’s bodies can be sacrificed for war. So too, women’s work. A new study from the Kinsey group reports that women are still doing 75 percent of the unpaid work around the world. In the U.S. alone, that adds up to $1.5 trillion sacrificed.

All too often our lives and life-chances are just too inconvenient to mention. When Pope Francis on his visit to the US, met for a moment with an opponent of marriage equality – it caused a firestorm. The fact that for his entire trip the Pope was surround by men and an institution that opposes female equality – was met with a respectful hush.

“Women,” as the artist Barbara Kruger so famously said, “your body is a battleground.” So It’s no surprise women know a thing or two about sacrifice zones and about fighting back.

To tell me what you think – write to me and thanks.

Laura Flanders is a best-selling author and broadcaster. After many years in public and commercial radio, she founded The Laura Flanders Show/GRITtv in 2008 to serve as an online channel for in-depth conversations with forward-thinking people from the worlds of politics, economics, business and the arts. A primetime, daily broadcast, GRITtv with Laura Flanders aired for three years on Free Speech TV before moving to KCET/Linktv and teleSUR as a weekly program. Follow her on Twitter: @GRITlaura.
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