How To Let Go Of The World: Written and directed by Josh Fox. Starring: Josh Fox. Running Time: 125 minutes.
Almost as soon as I saw the How To Let Go trailer, I realized I’d been desperately wishing for a movie like this. For all the positive news in the fight against climate change, there is still such a long way to go and so many ways things can go wrong that it is impossible to completely avoid moments of despair. I am certainly no stranger to feeling despair over the future of our world, and I know many others are as well.
Josh Fox begins his latest work by describing the moment when he fell into this seemingly intractable despair- after celebrating the triumph of his hometown over efforts by the fracking industry to develop nearby forests (which inspired his Oscar-nominated work Gasland, he was shaken out of his reverie when he found out a tree he’d planted years before as a child was now dying, victim of a particular type of woody adelgid, whose destructive range has been spreading North thanks to the effects of climate change.
Rattled by the implications of this, he begins a series of interviews with climate experts of various stripes and backgrounds, and the overlaying descriptions they provide of the many thousand small ways that alterations in the climate are rapidly building into a truly global catastrophe for both the natural world and human society leaves him feeling, in his own repeated word, “overwhelmed,” completely at a loss as to how to grasp the scope of the disasters unfolding. If it’s already too late to avoid losing much of what we love in the world, how can we even begin to grieve?
Upon hitting this rock-bottom, Fox’s first instinct was to stay home and just shut it all away. His second ran directly counter to the first- if he’d hit such a miserable low contemplating the coming tidal wave of climate change, there must be others who’d reached the same point. And he resolved to go out into the world, find them, and find out if and how they were able to pick themselves back up and keep going, in spite of all they stood to lose.
His journey eventually encompassed over 12 countries and led to his meeting an astounding and inspiring variety of people from every background imaginable; independent locals in the Amazon who work to track down the latest oil leaks, boatsmen from various Pacific Islands who banded together to literally stop an Australian coal tanker in its tracks (while shouting “We aren’t drowning, we are fighting!”), community organizers who stuck around after Hurricane Sandy to provide for New York and New Jersey locals abandoned by the authorities, a mother working to raise awareness of smog pollution in Beijing, a local African chief using small solar panels to light up village schools after dark, and many others.
Much of this film’s power is its acknowledgement of the fact that these are all small people, taking small steps. And it might be too late, and even if more people did stuff like this it could still end up being not enough. But there is something powerful in the effort. For Fox, it’s a reminder of the parts of us and our societies that can never change, no matter what happens with the climate. Familial love, the power of community bonds, and the importance of helping each other out when in need, are the sort of things that we are always capable of, and there is an importance in that.
As the title suggests, this is a film that’s partially about go of all that’s beyond our grasp. Not that it sugarcoats it, or makes it out to seem easy; it’s hard to let go, especially of something as wonderfully diverse and majestic as the Earth. Seeing a recent study estimating that up to half of all bird species in North America would become either extinct or endangered as a result of severe warning produced something akin to tearing sensation inside of me. How could I possibly accept raising my children in a world where they can only experience half the forest sounds I did growing up?
There is, perhaps, one possible path to salvation. One Chinese activist, speaking with Fox atop the Great Wall, speaks of the “moral imagination-“ the times in history when human thought has taken a leap beyond its time and produced ideas about what the world should be like, providing a beacon for people to work towards. The moral imagination is perhaps the key to realizing our potential to take advantage of these times and change for the better.
It’s often been the actions of individuals or small groups that have gotten the ball rolling, and with modern technology, the individual and the small can be amplified like never before. The capacity of the governments and the large to silence dissent weakens with each passing day. Is the power of the moral imagination where hope for Earth and civilization is to be found? It HAS happened before, despite all the odds, and maybe it takes all of us doing very small things for it to happen again.
This is a powerful piece of documentary filmmaking, and an absolutely necessary part of the conversation taking place about how to salvage what we can from the wreckage of human shortsightedness. Positivity and optimism are key, but we equally need the capacity to feel, experience, and acknowledge our fears despairs, and worries if we are to be clear-eyed enough for the challenges facing us.