The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
“There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. As long as the choir members go out into the world and sing.” – Josh Fox
The above quote is how Josh Fox responded when asked if his new film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All Things Climate Can’t Change, was aimed at those who were already convinced that climate change is a problem. In a theatre packed with well over 200 people, many of whom stayed for the Q&A after the film, the question carried the concern that the movie would not reach the ones who need to hear the message about the climate crisis. Fox’s response reminded us that the message of the film cannot stop at the door to the theatre.
I am one of the members of the environmental “choir” who has been vocalizing about climate change issues for many years. As a Christian ecotheologian and pastor who has written an entire book on this topic, I know exactly what he means about “preaching to the choir.” We wonder – will our work have any consequence beyond those who already share our concern? Happily, while I saw the “regulars” in our community who faithfully attend meetings, marches, rallies, films, and other events about environmental issues, I also saw many, many people I did not recognize. The free screening of the film at Lewisburg, Pa’s Campus Theatre sponsored by RDA, the Bucknell Center for Sustainability and the Environment, and the newly formed SusquehannaValley Climate Action Network drew in a substantial crowd on a Monday evening in June that ranged from young children to elders; people from all walks of life; and, presumably, from different political orientations. I have viewed Josh Fox’s previous two films, Gasland and Gasland II (for a review of the second, click here), and tried to see this one not just as a choir member, but also from the perspective of those who may be new to the climate change issue.
There was a sense of energy in the air as the director took to the stage and serenaded us with his banjo before the film began. Over the next two hours we were taken on a ride that began by dropping us into the depths of despair. The first part of the movie deftly and compellingly catalogued the ways in which our planet has been damaged due to climate change and continues to careen toward a 2 – 4 degree increase that will alter life on earth in horrific ways we are only beginning to fathom.
In the theatre a few seats away from me sat a grown man. Two times during the film I heard him crying, sniffling softly. Once was when Fox (intrepid investigative reporter that he is) brought us into the Amazon jungle in South America and showed us two things – an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline that had coated a beautiful jungle forest in black slime; and another part of the jungle that was completely destroyed from clearcutting. His new cinemagraphic toy for this film is the drone which he uses to great effect, taking us up to a bird’s eye view to see what man hath wrought. And yes, it is enough to make you cry.
Another time of quiet weeping was after all the experts had been interviewed about the myriad ways in which climate change has already destroyed coral reefs, forests, glaciers, island nations, and human settlements. The sobering realization that 40 – 60% of all species on earth are headed for extinction – even if we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow – was a moment that left every expert without words. Fox wisely let the silence of each of them speak for itself. The lament was palpable.
But as Fox contemplated giving up and retreating to his idyllic childhood home in the forests of northeastern Pennsylvania, he experienced a second wind – one which carried him and the viewer through the second half of the movie. In Christian parlance, we call this the Holy Spirit, blowing through our lives, refreshing us, lifting us to hope, and driving us to take action. The stories of those people and communities that are actively resisting the powers that profit from the destruction of people and the planet were at times heart-breaking, but also inspiring and motivating.
From a religious studies perspective, there were several moments in the film that resonated with biblical and interfaith themes. The motif of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” was invoked by one of the experts interviewed about the ways in which climate change is bringing about cataclysmic effects. He was referencing the book of Revelation in the New Testament in which four figures on horses symbolize war, famine, pestilence and death. It was an appropriate and sobering description of what our world is facing. This reality was also chillingly captured by Fox in the Amazon jungle when they encountered a worker’s ghostly latex uniform hung on a cross warning of the toxic environment they were about to enter. I have used the term “eco-crucifixion” to describe the environmental crisis on this planet, and this image confirmed what people, plants and animals are subjected to daily at these places where sacrifice is deemed necessary by the fossil-fuel empire.
But the film also drew on biblical images to frame the positive work that is being done around the world to resist the empire. For example, the heroic efforts of Pacific Island warriors paddling out in their hand-made boats to stop a coal tanker from leaving port in Australia was described as David facing Goliath. Even as their island homes are disappearing due to sea level rises from climate change, they chanted relentlessly:
We are not: drowning!
We are: fighting!
The spiritual aspect of this work of resistance was also evident in the interviews with tribal peoples who described the trees and jaguars and parrots as having spirit, connecting with human beings on a profound level of being. And this connection is one that transcends money. “I’m a poor man,” said one of the tribal leaders, “but I am rich because I live on this land. I have my freedom.” But it is others’ desire for wealth that enslaves him, his tribe, his homeland, and the ecosystems ravaged by the bulldozers, pipelines, and carbon dioxide leading to the heating of the planet. Nevertheless, the climate warriors across this planet are actively and creatively engaging with each other and with their communities to mount massive movements of education and awareness, activism and nonviolent resistance.
I talked with a mother who had brought her two young boys to the film and asked how they responded. While her younger son felt fear that moved him to cuddle into his mother’s arms, it was the movie's message of hope and action that came through loud and clear to her older son. “He told me he wants us to put up solar panels at the church!” she said. Indeed, out of the mouths of babes.
How to Let Go is a film that will make grown men cry and cause little children to crawl into their mothers’ laps in fear. But it will also inspire brave little boys and girls run out into the streets, to their schools, their houses of worship with the message: We must DO something. Like Casey Newton in the film Tomorrowland refusing to succumb to despair even in the face of mounting bad news about the state of her world, Josh Fox’s film shows us that more and more people are rising up to shift our society and values toward the principles that matter most.
Whether you are a member of the choir, just beginning to learn about climate change, or even a skeptic about the climate crisis, the film is worth your time to see. Because it is a story about what it means to be our best selves when faced with the worst circumstances. And it has the potential to activate the resilience, creativity, courage and love that is exactly what we need for this time and this planet.
Note: In 2-Minute Ecopreacher: What Can A Person of Faith Do About Climate Change?, I include some of the action steps that Fox encouraged every person to take as a result of having their eyes opened about the seriousness of the problems we face.
Leah Schade is author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching (Chalice Press, 2015), is an ordained Lutheran pastor who has served three congregations, and will begin her new position as the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky, on August 1.