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High Profile

Camera, action!

Huw Spanner

Franny Armstrong is the independent film-maker who directed McLibel and The Age of Stupid. She is also the architect of the 10:10 campaign.1
Third Way met her over a working breakfast in north London.

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Some people say that 'catastrophic climate change' is the greatest threat since Fascism; some say it's the greatest threat since the Black Death. Your film The Age of Stupid seems to pitch it a lot higher than that.
Yep. Well, it's the biggest threat of all time, clearly, giv­en that it has the potential to wipe us all off the face of the planet, and most of the other species, too.

You see it as an existential threat to the human race?
It doesn't really matter how I see it; it's what the climate scientists say that we should be concerned about. They can't say for sure whether every last human is going to be wiped out or not, but they're now saying it's a 50-50 chance - no, no, the best-case scenario is 50-50 - that we will hit 2º [above the global average temperature be­fore the Industrial Revolution]: which is when we see runaway global warming and we go up to about 6º. By which time, most of life on Earth is over.

I've seen the film twice and I'm still not sure whether it is suggesting that by 2055 there could be only one man left alive…
There are scenes at the beginning, before we introduce Pete [Postlethwaite's character], of lots of other people in ref­ugee camps. But that's not so interesting, is it - whether 10 people or a million are left alive? The thing is: are we about to cause immense human suf­fering?

The reason I ask is that people have accused Al Gore (in An Inconvenient Truth) and others of exaggerating the threat in order to get people to take it seriously.
Both the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and the Met Office have said that the science in our film is bang on. You don't need to exaggerate climate change for dramatic effect: it's quite bad enough. I mean, ours isn't even the worst-case scenario, it's the 'high-medium-case' scenario.

But you told one interviewer that you and Mark Lynas, your co-writer, worked it out on the back of an envelope.
Yeah, we did - from the IPCC figures. We were trying to work out when we would hit 4º - at that point, no­body was guestimating it. So, we estimated 2045 to hit 2º, 2060 to hit 4º. And then in September the Met Office -

Said that its 'best estimate' was that the global average temperature could reach +4º by 2070, or possibly 2060.
Bang on! We were bang on!

Global-warming sceptics object to being called 'climate-change deniers' because, they say, it implicitly likens them to Holocaust deniers. From your point of view, I guess, if anything they're worse than that.
I just think we've wasted the last 20 years debating with these people. You know, I'm not interested in the opinions of some random person from Alabama; I'm interested in the latest climate science. That's the only thing that counts, you know? And now the science is agreed, the only thing we should be debating is how we're go­ing to get ourselves out of this nightmare.

Do you doubt the good faith of the sceptics?
The good faith of the people paid by the oil industry to deliberately scupper the climate talks?
It's not that I doubt people's good faith, it's that no­body wants it to be true and so it's extremely easy to confuse people, because we all jump on anything that might mean that it's not true. And so all sorts of vested interests cherry-pick little bits of science to make people think there's still doubt about climate change.
In 30 or 40 years' time I think there will be an environmental criminal court, in the same way that there's an international criminal court now, and they're going to be asking: Whose fault was it? I think the media will be on trial, and, clearly, the politicians; and also the oil industry. They've spent millions of dollars deliberately confusing the public, and hey! it worked.

In the film, the Archivist wonders why we allowed the catastrophe to happen and muses: 'Were we not sure we were worth saving?' Your thesis at university was titled 'Is the Human Race Suicidal?' Is that your judgement, that it all comes down to our species' low self-esteem?
No, absolutely not. Absolutely not.
The film doesn't have a single answer, because I do not believe there is one. There are lots of things about climate change and us as a species that make us partic­ular­ly bad at solving this particular problem. One of the biggest problems is the time lag, that we have to act now to stop something happening in 30 years' time. We can't do it. It's just as simple as that.
Really, I think it comes down to us - individually - not accepting our own mortality. I think it's the same reason why intelligent people can smoke, even though there is a 50-50 chance it will kill them. None of us really think that we're going to die, and so the idea that in 30 years something's going to happen…

Another factor, I guess, is the syndrome that means that someone can be assaulted in full public view and dozens of people just walk past, because everyone thinks, 'It can't be as bad as it looks, because if it was, somebody else would be doing something to stop it.'
That's very true. That's another aspect of it. There are so many reasons why people don't act: short-sightedness, selfishness… That's why we made a film that covered six different stories, because it's so complicated.
One of the key problems with climate change is 'free rider syndrome'. Everybody works out that 'there's no point' - in their opinion - 'me cutting my emissions be­cause Jimmy Bob next door is driving his car and flying on holiday six times a year.' Even a small child can work that out immediately. And this is what 10:10 tries to get round: we're committing to cut our own emissions of CO2 by 10 per cent by the end of 2010 in the context of everybody else doing it, so we know that our actions are part of something that'll actually work.
Some people must wonder: If leading scientists are so convinced of the severity of this threat, why aren't they beating down the doors of Congress and Parliament?
Well, James Hansen just got arrested!

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But only very recently - after, as you've said, 20 years.2
Well, I can't speak for him but I think that for years everybody thought: 'We've got to get the science right, we've got to explain it and then governments will act and it will all be fine.'
But we're long past that now and governments are not acting and now people are getting desperate.

Do you think that Sun-readers will sign up to 10:10 as well as Guardian-readers?
I don't know whether it will work or not. All I know is that we're desperately short of time and nothing else has worked to date and 10:10 seems to be taking off. It's the best idea we could come up with. If somebody else has a better idea, then good!

The greens assure us that a zero-carbon future can still deliver a high standard of living. I can't help thinking of Winston Churchill, steeling the country to fight Fascism, saying: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'3 You yourself have said that 'the first 10 per cent'
is relatively easy but thereafter it's going to get harder. So, do you think the greens are being honest?
Churchill had Hitler's armies advancing and that made all the difference in the world. It was so much easier for him to sell [the war] to the people.
People tell us that Martin Luther King said, 'I have a dream,' not 'I have a nightmare.' But the people he was appealing to were living in a nightmare and he was ap­pealing to them to move to a better future. We are in a much harder position be­cause essentially the people we are appealing to, the normal people of Britain, are living in a dream and we're saying: 'You're going to have to change in order to avoid a nightmare.'
Do I think [a green future] will be better? Well, half the people in the world right now live in poverty. To me, that means that this system is a complete failure. Is the future going to be better if we create a new system? We only have to get less than half the world's people in poverty and it's better, from my point of view. Does it mean that everybody here in Camden Town is going to have a new mobile phone every year and a 36-inch TV and a car and four holidays, too? I think the answer to that might be 'No.' But I do think we could be happier. This society is not based on happiness, as you know: it's based on GDP.
A deep cause of unhappiness in any society is in­equality and the new society we've got to build has got to be more equal. We have to use a lot less resources, clearly, be­cause of climate change; and in order to raise the people at the bottom up we will have to bring the people at the top down. Will they be happy? A film is be­ing made at the mo­ment by a very famous comedian and its premise is: 'I'm rich and I'm successful. Why am I not happy?' I think that says it all, you know?

Some of your critics say that people such as you are like a watermelon: green on the outside, red on the inside.
Are you asking me: Am I a socialist?

The Age of Stupid is quite clearly anti-capitalist, isn't it?
Yeah. Well, as I said, this economic system has failed. I mean, we're on the brink of wiping ourselves out, half the people are in poverty and the thing has collapsed on itself. In what way has it not failed?

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So, it's not deregulated capitalism, or corrupt capitalism: it's capitalism full-stop that you object to?
There are some very interesting books, like Jonathon Porritt's Capitalism As If the World Matters, that ask: Is it possible to re-engineer capitalism to create an equitable and sustainable world or do we have to invent a new system? I don't know what the answer is. Certainly, in the short term, I don't see that we've got time to over­throw capitalism before Copen­hagen! But clearly we need a new system if human life is still to be here in a hundred years' time - and I don't mean two or three breeding pairs in the Arctic.

The BBC has decided to screen The Age of Stupid during the Copenhagen summit, and you have said that your aim is for it to be seen eventually by 250 million people. In effect, you have become one of the champions (so to speak) in the fight against man-made global warming. Do you ever ask yourself: Out of all the billions of people on this planet, why has this role fallen to me?
I don't know. No, I do not sit around asking myself.
You're not introspective, are you?
No. But one thing is, we worked bloody hard to make that film. Somebody who makes a BBC documentary might work on it nine-to-five for a year, whereas we spent six years on The Age of Stupid 24/7 - no holidays, no nothing. A hell of a lot more work went in­to it: more thinking, more researching. It's bound to be a higher-quality product, just for that reason…

You must have a lot of self-belief to devote six years of your life to it. Gore, for example, could be fairly confident that his film would get an audience…
Well, it goes back to McLibel. When I heard the story [of two British activists, a gardener and a postman, who were defending themselves in court after they were sued for libel by McDon­ald's], I was, like, so inspired I de­ci­d­ed to make a film. I had access to the necessary equip­ment and I thought the story was so brilliant that other people would be equally inspired. We just thought: 'This is a good use of a year of our time, to fight this case and tell this story on a point of principle.' But then, when it was done, 25 million people saw the film and loads of things changed: laws changed, eating hab­its changed, Mc­Don­­ald's changed.
Twenty-five million people. So, I knew I wanted to go for that minimum [for The Age of Stupid].

You studied zoology at university. Did you originally have a different career in mind?
Well, I was playing drums in a pop group and that was my career, but it just wasn't full-time enough for me - like, rehearsals were at three, you know? And so I just thought: I'll do a degree on the side. I did zoology just because I'm obsessed with evolution.

And why a career as a drummer? Did you dream of being rich and famous, or did you just like playing the drums?
I was bored of school and I like being in a gang and I like doing something creative and something different and I love playing music, so I joined a group and then it all took off. I was going on tour and making records even when I was at school.

It all sounds slightly frivolous compared with what you have done since. Did you want to spend the rest of your life doing that?
I'm not a 'spending the rest of my life' kind of person.
I did also volunteer with Greenpeace when I was 19 and went on one of their anti-whaling expeditions.

You have said that the penny dropped when a teacher at school told you about the greenhouse effect. Were you already receptive to that kind of concern?
I guess so. My dad is a film-maker who worked for the BBC for 20 years. He did a series called 'Global Report' in the Eighties, which was basically the news behind the news, the news you didn't normally hear. It was all stories of kids in Africa living on the streets…

So, were you already politicised through him?
With his films I was more interested in seeing his name in the credits. My sister and I used to sleep through them and then he would wake us up at the end.
I was more politicised by going vegetarian aged 11, when my mum took us on holiday on a farm (because I wanted to be a farmer, briefly) and then our favourite cow was killed [because it was uneconomical to get a cut treated by a vet]. That was when I first understood that these animals were commodities, reared for profit. Un­til then, I'd believed the myth of happy farm animals.

You have said that you belong to the generation that was told its destiny was to watch television and consume and then die, and that you were excited to discover that actually you have got something important to do.
I can hear the cynics saying: 'There you have it! That is why people like Franny Armstrong bang on about the end of the world: it makes them feel important!'
Jeez, look, we're trying to save - we're trying to stop the species getting wiped out. It doesn't matter what a few random people think of me.
 
If tomorrow new evidence came to light that showed conclusively that global warming is not happening -
I'd be ecstatic.

You wouldn't think, 'Damn! That means there's nothing for me to do but watch TV, consume and die'?
Are you crazy? Are you crazy? If we found out tomorrow that a billion people are not going to die, it would be bloody brilliant. Absolutely bloody brilliant.

The cynics say that the greens are just 'miserablists' who want to impose their misery on everybody else; but you come across as very cheerful and very positive -
I am very cheerful, yeah. Very chipper.

And yet you've got the gloomiest message in history.

Lots of my friends work on climate change full-time and we've noticed that we are all happier than people who don't. And our amateur-psychology explanation is that, even though we are dealing every day with the horrors of climate change, we also know how big the threat is and where the hope lies, you know - whereas everybody who's ignoring it and pretending that life can go on as normal has this huge monster over their shoul­der, and that's a very unhealthy position to be in psych­ologically - like being in the war but not taking part.

You must also be more conscious than most of how much time is being wasted. Doesn't that dampen your spirits?
No, because I see all the positive things that are happening. When you hear of the government of the Maldives holding a cabinet meeting underwater, for example, [to draw attention to rising sea-levels,] it's fantastic. Those are the pioneers, those are the people who are leading the way - and I'm much more interested in the pioneers than in all those who are bringing up the rear.
I'll tell you why I'm so happy. I'm happy because it is profoundly fulfilling to say what you wanted to say. Once we'd finished the film and I'd watched it the first 10 times, I felt: 'That's it. I've done what I set out to do. I've contributed something useful. I could die tomorrow and I would be fine.'

Would the Earth be better off without humankind?
No. No - just because we're the most intelligent species ever to have evolved. Somebody told me the other day that if we wipe ourselves out, there isn't time, within the life­span of the Sun, for intelligent life to evolve on this planet again. So, if we wipe ourselves out, that is it - nobody will be able to write music, nobody will be able to, you know, make films, ever again.
I mean, we're so unbelievably lucky to have evolved the char­acteristics that we have: just the ability to com­municate, the ability to empathise… It was so vanishing-­ly unlikely that it would happen but by various quirks of evolution it did. And for that to be lost… And nobody else will ever appreciate the world like we can… Even though we don't appreciate it at all and are completely destroying it…
We need a completely new approach to all of life on the planet, including our own.


Franny Armstrong was talking to Huw Spanner on October 21, 2009.

 

1  See http://www. 1010uk.org.
2  Professor James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified to Congress about the threat of climate change in 1988. He was arrested last June in West Virginia during
a protest against coal-mining.
3  In fact, he continued: 'We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask: What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs … however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.'