An Expansive Dream, or a Recurring Nightmare? Optimistic thinking in “2040”

This is a film review for the film “2040” dir Damon Gameau (2019). Share your thoughts and reviews on social media under the hashtag #ClimateFilms

An image of a floating 2040 Source: madmanfilms

It’s safe to say that in the year 2020 the world media stream has been incredibly bleak. From the deathly COVID-19 outbreak, a type of pandemic which is predicted to become increasingly more common as we lose biodiversity, to the proliferation of black death, like the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, mass societal unrest has been catalysed by horrific events. The ever worsening state of climate change, with seemingly unending wildfires, an increasing seasonal ice free Arctic Siberia and record high global temperatures still looms over us, so to find a rallying call to action based on hopefulness seemed like a difficult thing. At the Leeds International film festival, however, I was relieved to come across a film called “2040” by Damon Gameau, a manifesto of sorts for a truly viable future. Realistically, a film about the year 2040 could only then offer something either comically worse than the present, or a more hopeful window to a world much different than the one we currently live in. 

2040, follows filmmaker Damon Gameau on his journey to imagine how the year might look if global action was taken to mitigate our current carbon consumption. The documentary takes audiences to a possible future where Gameau’s 4 year old daughter can live in a radically different world as a young adult. Defined in the film as “Fact based dreaming”, Gameau discovers what climate solutions are planted now, and how they might mature and become widespread in 20 years time. The film is an exciting attempt to give us a positive outlook on what innovation already exists but still leaves a lot to be desired for many dreamers in our world. 

2040 review – an optimist's guide to saving the world | Documentary films |  The Guardian
Gameau and his family planting seeds for a different future. Source: The Guardian

Placing audiences into Gameau’s home in Australia, we are served a metaphor for understanding the effects of shifting weather patterns and the resultant breakdown, Gameau’s home a pressure cooker of animation and vibrant illustrations of climate change. The microcosmic metaphor is useful because it creates an accessible film for many audiences but it also ties us nicely to our next location Jote Shouda, Bangladesh. Here we meet Neel Tahmane, a decentralised energy specialist, showing a system of solar energy sharing, SolShare, in the city. In a microgrid system like SolShare, not only can households take control of their energy supply and depend less on fossil fuels, but it strengthens community links, as households without their own energy box can buy top ups from neighbours.The actual result of sharing is a transformed and vibrant nightlife in Jote Shouda, powered by solar energy. 2040 doesn’t just give us an imaginative outlook on the future, but it shows the wonderful actions which are already taking place, some more prototypical than others but all real nonetheless, which is incredibly inspiring. Climate Museum UK is no stranger to Gameau’s “Fact based dreaming”, and it resonates with Bridget McKenzie’s outline of “possitopian futures”. A possitopian methodology is about being able to consider the future as a temporary object, always subject to change, and that change can be made by present choices opening pathways to more viable futures. Whilst Gameau’s film is rooted in a soft possitopian approach to the future, the growth which is encouraged in green technological innovation has an extractive price attached to it. This is a fundamental limitation to 2040, the dreaming which takes place is often linear and lacks courage to really interrogate a system overhaul.

As Gameau darts between 2040 and 2020, we see a future home occupied by his daughter with smart devices, artificial intelligence home systems, and self-driven electric cars, his now 24 year old daughter wonders how the world ever ran using fossil fuels. But what is missing in that 20 year gap is how this green economy is assembled and produced. Will the minerals used to power electric cars still come from conflict zones? Will the workers assembling the parts to our smart kitchens and environmental dashboards be paid living wages? Will their working conditions be free from pollution with access to natural light and fair breaks? And will the children of those workers still be able to see their parents live fulfilling and joyful lives? 

The type of consideration is made as we meet agricultural experts, from organic farmers to scientists, who offer a carbon solution to food supply: sequestering carbon from the atmosphere through agricultural techniques. Returning to the house metaphor, we aren’t in the CO2 bathtub trying to stop the CO2 levels spilling over the edge of the bathtub. We are removing CO2 via the bath’s overflow. From using current subsidies used to supplementing such a polluting farming industry, we can retrain agricultural workers into more equitable industries and chip away at the set ideals which symbolically tie people’s status to their carbon consumption (from driving cars, to eating cow meat). 

Gameau meets with economist Kate Raworth and they discuss Doughnut Economics, a model for understanding how resource use is overstretched and damaging, to ultimately encourage regenerative systems that can be contained within the earth’s doughnut. At the heart of this story of economics is a willingness to go against a “take, make, use, lose” system of growth, and the 2040 hoped for in this film wants to take people out of the doughnut hole. But we should always ask for more those who are currently, or potentially, in the hole, how are they fell in the hole, and how they’re being pulled out of it.

Doughnut (economic model) - Wikipedia
Diagram of Doughnut Economic structure Source: wikipedia/DoughnutEconomics

I don’t expect the film to address every single inequality there is in the climate crisis, it just would not be possible, but the imaginary at the heart of this film has only a paper thin critique of the systems which are enabling climate change. It is important that we reinforce to children that an equitable world has to be a part of our new world, and that this work already exists in climate solutions discourse. Children and families deserve to imagine equitable futures, not simply green replications of what already exists. 

A film which centres the ever present problem of climate change and inspires and reinforces hope about what we can change and what is feasible and real. It matters even more that the films we watch simultaneously challenge us whilst we are inspired. The imagination we are relying on is not going to save all of us, but only save a select few. We need to be brave enough to imagine new systems, and new global relations. We cannot look to a technological revolution without addressing the work it takes to create the world.

At the heart of this film are the children Gameau meets around the world, giving their testimonies about the world they would like to see. This is who deserves a safe, happy and fulfilled future, and their children and so forth.  Embracing possitopian thinking means considering how we affect fellow humans laterally and over long periods of time. Imagining ourselves as good ancestors is enabled by hopeful people who go beyond dreaming and take meaningful actions. A true strength to this film is its permeability as a piece of media. Not only do we hear stories of meaningful climate action, but the website attached to the film creates an open resource for audiences to rejuvenate and continue learning from. People should watch this as a documentary which can momentarily fill one with warmth and hope, but also prompt people to ask for more, to provoke action which promotes justice for our climate and for our fellow humans.

by Antonia Lee

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