The train scene in Children of Men, the idea of total global meltdown when the masses realize it’s all over for the world, is hard to shake, isn’t it. I must admit to being guilty at times, in the constant inner struggle with climate anguish, of also assuming this to be the default mode of human nature.
Filmmaker Emmanuel Cappellin, though, is having none of it. No, sir. Instead, he has made a bet, that as it dawns on people everywhere that climate change will, indeed, crumble the hopes and dreams on which we have pegged our identities and sense of future, plus the resources that sustain so much of life, the reaction will be quite another.
“I’m betting that when recognizing our shared and sometimes not so shared vulnerability, people will actually come alive, come together, and will be courageous, not just at the family or community level, but beyond.”
And so Once You Know was born — well, not yet, since he’s still giving birth to this first-of-its-kind documentary, shooting for a Spring 2019 release. But just looking at the trailer suffices to provoke the deepest reflection on what it means to know.
The potential of this film to catapult what is now a movement at the margin of society, that of a new hope for humankind as climate change moves from bad to worse to unthinkable, is not lost on Cappellin.
The key, he believes, is to reveal once and for all the fundamental falsehood of the paralyzing Children of Men scenario.
“The reason we’re not having a more open discussion nationally or internationally is because our leaders, the informed ones at least, in government, NGOs and in general, are making the exact opposite bet,” he surmised.
“They’re betting that if people recognize an approaching collapse, or a hard [planetary] limit on the human experiment, it’s going to be every man for himself and panic all around.”
Signs of the alternative, transformative promise, he assures, are all around, including the southeastern French Alps village, population 1,200, which the Frenchman has called home for seven years now.
Saillans made headlines in 2014 when it launched a notable exercise in participatory democracy, where residents collaborate on issues and regulations that include the environment and climate. The featured photo above is from the 2017 Festival Curieuses Démocraties, where leaders mobilized for the 2020 election cycle.
Such collective action reminds Cappellin of the Earth-love movement of the 70s, which spawned the broader sustainability movement we see today to save the planet from a 2ºC temperature rise and certain economic and ecosystem disintegration — a fight now widely acknowledged as lost even by the drafters of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Many in Saillans have moved on to a different, more resilience-focused transition, guided by a vital intuition, Cappellin explains, because neither they nor anyone can know exactly what the future will bring.
The thing to do, therefore, is come together, focus on collective solutions, and simply comfort and accompany one another in the face of whatever unfolds.
“Some of us here share the same goal, trying to be true to our intuition, and that’s very exciting, to know you’re not alone. That’s one of the first things I’m pursuing with this film. There are many people who are suffering or having to deal with this individually and are looking for ways of holding that tension, and community is a huge part of it.”
The poetry of home
Which brings us back to what they know, and what to do once you know — once you know that “we’re in history’s biggest bubble, and [this time] it’s not a stock market bubble. It’s an everything bubble, because everything is part of it,” and it will produce a permanent end to civilization as we know it when it pops, assures Richard Heinberg in The Interview below.
The author of 13 books, most on energy and climate, and Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, is one of four experts and scientists featured in Once You Know. The others, all influential contributors of the IPCC reports that fueled the Paris Accord, are: Susanne Moser of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting in California, Saleemul Huq of the International Institute for Environment and Development in Bangladesh, and Hervé Le Treut of the Pierre Simon Laplace Climate Institute in Paris.
Along with becoming fully aware of what awaits us, now that we will overshoot 2ºC, is knowing, as Cappellin recalls about his own journey and ultimate reckoning, “that whatever you’re doing isn’t enough. Then what do you do? Do you give up or turn to other solutions?”
Following environmental studies in Canada and film studies at Berkeley, Cappellin answered the question by going back to Europe and embracing a renewed “relationship with the present, its poetry, its beauty, its people, its peace.”
This personal search for roots in the present “is what gives the film its more universal dimension. In that space, between the present and an increasingly scary future, is where we navigate once we know.”
From the ashes of uncertainty
That is, in fact, the Big Bet, that most people will avoid despair, paralysis, hysteria and conflict, and instead choose the spirit of Saillans and other like-minded transition communities blazing this new, thrilling trail around the world.
To Moser, the juncture represents a grand historic opportunity, to seize the coming collapse to finally realize the full potential we have yet to tap into as a human race.
“If it is life we want, then what is it that we can bring forward out of our human nature that is conducive to life?” she says in The Interview.
We have certainly experimented fully with our “nasty side.” Now, “there is this other side we can do a lot more with. That is the true hope of how going through this very difficult time might bring us to a life worthy of a livable and feasible future, and an exciting one at that, a creative one. That would be amazing.”
Indeed it would be, the unlikeliest of ironies, in fact, to become most whole, not when conditions are best, but precisely when they become most trying. And most painful.
“What I know is unbearable,” Moser says in the trailer, adding in The Interview that “it is incredibly difficult knowledge to hold, because there will be lots of suffering involved, especially for many, many people who had none or very little contribution, comparatively, in creating this situation, and it pains me greatly to think of the injustice involved in it.”
And behold, for that is but one dimension of the discomfort once you know. Another stems from the inescapable tension and uncertainty that comes with acquiring what Heinberg calls “this toxic knowledge.”
To Moser, it is actually a healthy side effect of the times we live and the inevitability of ever more people coming into this new, challenging, yet transformative awareness.
“We always interpret uncertainty as something negative, and I think it’s fabulous that we’re already uncertain. It means we have already lost grip of the certainty that the old is good and the old is worthy and the old is fine. You have to let go of these old convictions to be open to exploring something different.”
It’s like holding to a tension, she adds, “the tension between the old that we know and something we don’t know yet. We don’t know what is the right, new emergence after that. What is our new stance? What does it actually mean to live in a more harmonious synergy between the two? What new things does that demand of us, what new behaviors, what new policies, what new institutions will we need? The not knowing, not having the answers to that, that is a reductive uncertainty. I love that we’re uncertain. It’s uncomfortable to the point of being unbearable.”
“What do we bring back from our daily mind-travels to the future?” asks Cappellin. “Who do we become once we come back to our present –– present family, present community, present political discourse and structures?”
Within the tension, the beauty and the pain, the internal and external struggles of this new moment, therein lies the life-altering choices we must make, be you a parent, city manager, corporate or NGO leader, citizen. It’s what will determine whether Cappellin “wins” his epic bet. What will come out of your nature? What will you do once you know?
Here is Emmanuel Cappellin, Susanne Moser and Richard Heinberg in the most enlightening hour you will spend today.
So sit back, grab a glass of French wine — the one thing we failed to do in our conversation — and welcome to the most consequential transition the world has ever experienced, where you get to live the tension your way and choose another hope and sense of self and future. May it be more bearable for thou, and may you align more with the people of Saillans than the Children of Men.