TV: Living Dangerously

Showtime
Executive producers: James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, et al.

Reviewed by Rusty Pritchard

Years of Living Dangerously tells us up front that it’s big. How big? It’s “the biggest story of our time,” according to the television series’ website. I’m inclined to believe them, though I’m primed to be sympathetic. My acceptance of the climate science consensus took about 15 years to develop, and the Showtime series is only nine episodes. I wonder whether it will have the popular effect the producers are hoping for or if it will merely deepen the convictions of the already-converted. Mostly, however, I wonder if the filmmakers will be able to handle the epic and spiritual nature of the story they are trying to tell. From the first episode, it looks as if they are willing to try.

I screened Episode 1 of Years of Living Dangerously with students at Houghton College in upstate New York. We watched it in an intentional community house on the college campus, and most of those present were students concerned with social justice, not environmentalism. That was perfect, I thought, since each of the three stories in Episode 1 are about people—as opposed to polar bears or the loss of coral reefs (although those stories have social dimensions as well).

In one story, “Pray for Rain,” actor Don Cheadle explores the plight of a young Texas woman who lost her job when a prolonged drought caused the local meatpacking plant to close. She’s part of a lively Christian fellowship unafraid to pray for rain (even in front of video cameras). She believes that the drought must be God’s will and has never entertained the thought that it might be caused or made worse by climate change. By the end of the episode she meets evangelical Christian and climate scientist (and Time-magazine-declared influential American) Katharine Hayhoe, who is convinced that our carbon dioxide pollution has very likely contributed to the drought and that there are good theological reasons to believe this.

Interwoven with that story is “The Last Stand,” in which Harrison Ford explores the destruction of rainforests for oil palm production. The loss of forests is significant for biodiversity, but the burning of biomass is the tip of the iceberg when talking about carbon emissions from deforestation—the real story is in the soil. The dispossession of native peoples is the nasty underbelly of a land-use conversion that adds to climate change and wrecks the rain forest.

Finally, the cameras accompany New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the Middle East, where he uncovers the possible role played by drought and crop failure in the bloody uprising in Syria. We see that there are multiple reasons for the conflict, but the viewer is left with the impression that climate change added plenty of tinder for any political spark to ignite.

My fellow viewers seemed like the type to watch a lot of documentaries. I confessed that if I were channel surfing I would have opted for Phineas and Ferb reruns over a gloomy one-hour climate-impacts show, but they were more curious than I.

We shared some discomfort. Video is an incredibly manipulative medium, as you give over control of time and storyline to a director and editor who can give you their best cuts. One student was very uncomfortable with the implication that climate change caused the Syrian conflict, although I thought the directors were pretty subtle in describing the possible connection. Most conflicts are merely exacerbated by climate changes, which is why the Pentagon considers them a “threat multiplier.” The filmmakers admitted the complexity but then made the climate-conflict connection repeatedly and without reference to any alternate hypothesis.

The western Texas story also caused some pushback among the students, but at least this was reflected in the story on the screen. People actively resisted framing their drama in climatic terms, but their stories were merely juxtaposed with the narrative provided by Hayhoe. She is obviously meant to be (and in fact is) a disarming, even charming, expert who dismantles the “natural cycles” hypothesis and the theological objections to blaming climate change on humans. The other stories would have been more credible if they also had highlighted alternate hypotheses and allowed an expert to sort through them systematically.

Not explored is why people are so eager to frame their drought story in spiritual terms—humans in the hands of an all-powerful God whose nature reflects divine will and not our mismanagement. It is not just a question of science—or of the rhetorical strategy of laying the severity, if not the existence, of all natural disasters at the feet of climate change. Those issues of fingerprinting can be sorted out eventually, and, frustratingly, they revolve around probabilities and not certainties.

The real question to be resolved by these stories is one of meaning-making in the face of adversity. Humans find their identities shaped as community members resisting natural disasters and coming together for solace and solidarity. Searching for what God is trying to tell us seems to be fundamental to the human experience. Why are we suffering? Is it somehow disturbing and demeaning to discover that our struggles come at the hands of fellow humans who bear us no ill will, that our problems are entirely incidental to the attempts by fellow citizens to provide for their families and to be productive? Would we rather suffer at the hands of an enemy—or fall into the hands of an angry God—than be mere unwitting collateral damage in the innocent endeavors of others? Does it make us too passive, too vulnerable, unable to be the masters of our destinies?

Trying to press the real life experience of local people into a scientific narrative about climate change misses the story people really want to tell, about how with grit and determination and a plucky spirit they are able to rebuild and renew what was lost, or about the injustices of forest conversions, or about the horrors of war and the wrongs of political enemies. Those stories are more personal, more social, and more spiritual. The climate debate seems to be about abstract science, big governments, faceless corporations, and bureaucratic global agreements. Somehow the local stories need to be woven into a global narrative that feels more cosmic and heroic. Christians already know that story.

In reality, we do see the work of an enemy in the stories told in the Showtime series. We see, if we look with spiritual eyes, that sin now taints every aspect of creation, like tares among the wheat. An enemy has done this. It is depressing to see. It would be nice to live in the best possible world, but we don’t. Every aspect of sorting out the damage will cause some additional damage. We do have the promise that God the judge will come and at the time of harvest will put the field aright. But in the meantime can we try to stop sowing more tares?

The producers are right. This likely is the biggest story of our time in its scale and in the scope of possible human suffering. What narrative can Christians provide for the change we are wreaking on creation? For the perverse climate system in which our loving provision for our own children causes anonymous, significant impacts on other children? For the fact that every action to combat the change seems to bring its own costs? What theology can we marshal to help us understand our position in this narrative, to interpret the data shared in this television series? How does the biggest story of our time fit into the greatest story ever told?

That’s a question that won’t be answered by watching the Showtime series. But it’s one we do well to ask ourselves, because climate change is a story we’ll be telling for more than a century to come.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), a ministry that equips Christians to engage the world of environmental science and action.

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