Hello, we just had World Environment Day. It was instituted by the UN in 1972, and has been celebrated every June 5th since 1974, when carbon in our atmosphere was at 332 parts per million. Today, it’s at 416ppm. (We probably need to be no higher than 350ppm if we want to save our pleasant climate.) The Amazon rainforests have been denuded over those 50 years. Wildlife is disappearing at a horrific pace. Glaciers are retreating faster all the time. So we see what good World Environment Day has done.
If you’re tired of bullshit commemorative days that don’t do a damn thing except give globocorps a hashtag on which to hang their latest attempts to convince us they’re not supervillains, here is a dash of optimism, a positive vision of the near future to counter the doom-and-gloom… which I admit I find very easy to succumb to. 2040 is a much-needed mindset refresh, offering some hope to hang the future on and some proactive actions we can support in all sorts of ways.
Australian actor turned director Damon Gameau made his documentary debut with 2015’s That Sugar Film, a smart, funny, terrifying look at how unhealthy even “healthy” processed food is. He was prompted by the then imminent birth of his daughter to investigate the problems of how we eat in the modern world. For this, his second feature, Gameau was again inspired by his daughter, now four years old, to wonder what the world could look like for her in the year 2040. It’s a year that might sound science-fictional, but so did 2020 in 1999. (2040 debuted at festivals and in Australian cinemas in 2019, so that’s the same time gap.)
After a quick and simple but spot-on explanation of global warming and why it’s a problem, Gameau engages in “an exercise in fact-based dreaming” as he looks at a slew of terrific ideas with real power to transform everything about how we live for the better — not only for our environment, though that is the primary focus here. The absolute best thing about 2040 is Gameau’s wonderful anti-gimmick: All of these ideas are ones that are already working somewhere on a small scale. Nothing we see here is invented or imaginary: we only need to take the example they offer and run with them.
And so we discover how tiny remote Bangladeshi villages are building decentralized solar “microgrids” that connect home to home and village to village, generating electric power that is shareable or buy- and sellable… which means whatever money does change hands stays local instead of disappearing into the coffers of a faraway corporation. (This is a thrilling concept, seemingly easily deployable almost everywhere; I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before.) We discover regenerative farming, grazing, and marine practices that can reinvigorate arable land and heal damaged oceans, partly by drawing carbon back down into the soil and into underwater plantlife. We see the possibilities of urban networks of self-driving cars to transform our cities, not least via all the land we could reclaim from parking lots for parks, gardens, and other green public spaces. And lots more. (The film’s official site is a tremendous resource for getting involved with ramping up these projects and others.)
Gameau is an enormously engaging dreamer, deploying lively animations and galvanizing imagery of greener futures. He imagines his daughter as a young adult and how her life could be happier and healthier than ours, while also having less impact on the planet than we do; he also imagines himself as a goofily embarrassing late-middle-aged dad that she will roll her eyes at. The filmmaker’s easy charm and self-deprecating humor encompasses an acknowledgement of the difficulty of trying to be more ecologically conscious right now, and the inevitable hypocrisy of it, because the world is built to run on fossil fuels. There’s no escaping it… but that makes his message more powerful. He’s not scolding us, and there’s nothing greener-than-thou at work here.
Perhaps most affecting of all is how he connects the desire to fix our mistakes and save our world before it’s too late to his best hopes for his daughter’s life. He makes more explicit something that has rarely been depicted, and never so lovingly: “The earth is our collective home,” Gameau reminds us, one “that we’re actually renting from future generations.” And the rent is long past due.