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The Age of Stupid

Posted on 16 March 2009 | 8:03am

As previous postings have shown, I went to the premiere of The Age of Stupid with considerable interest and goodwill, and a belief that it would be a real changemaker.

It still might be.

It stars Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in 2055, alone in a world devastated by climate change, clicking his finger on a computer to look at old footage from today. The film’s message for today is that we still have the chance to save the planet – just. The message from the future is that we failed to take it.

Woven in amid news clips, interviews, stats and cartoons are the real life stories of an Indian entrepreneur setting up a low cost airline (boo hiss), a Nigerian community devasated by Shell (boo hiss oil), child refugees from Iraq (boo hiss oil, America, Britain and the war), a survivor from Hurricane Katrina, an elderly guide to Mont Blanc, and an ecofriendly West Country businessman trying to persuade a community in Middle England to allow wind turbines in their back yard. The scene where he loses the planning committee vote, by ten to one, is among the most compelling in the film, his emotions in such contrast to the ‘Yes But’ triuhmpalists who saw him off. As in yes, I care about climate change but no, we don’t want the turbines in our back yard thank you.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth showed the power of film, albeit of a very different style, to shift public opinion and to put pressure on politicians. Indeed, you could argue that on this issue at least, the former US Vice President has had more influence out of power than he had in power.

The Age of Stupid unashamedly seeks to make similar, and bigger, political waves, with a target for 250 million viewers, and the goal of turning them into environmental activists pre the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband was at the screening last night and, after the film was shown, he was warned he risked going down in history as stupid, then called to the stage to defend himself. Meanwhile a giant pledge card was brought out and Pete Postlethwaite became the first person to sign it. It said that if Labour went ahead with a new coal power station at Kingnorth, those signing would pledge to vote for anyone but Labour, take to the streets, take direct action to stop emissions at source and join a cyber shutdown of Number 10.

Then when Postlethwaite went off on one at Ed, and said he would give back his OBE if the Kingnorth decision went ahead, I don’t think I was alone in thinking the evening had shifted from argument and persuasion to manipulation and, dare I say it, spin. Ed said some very nice things about the film, but also delivered a few home truths – like the fact that if we told the Chinese they could build no more power stations, they would not even be in Copenhagen to make a deal. Another inconvenient truth. Governments have to face up to more than one.

That sense of being manipulated was confirmed when I was interviewed afterwards by the producer Lizzie Gillett. I said what I thought – that the film was powerful and compelling, in some ways not as effective as An Inconvenient Truth, and that I felt people needed to think through the logic of ‘vote anyone but Labour’ – it meant a Tory government led by someone who went green for short term political reasons and who has gone quiet on it since the recession began. She asked me to do it again, but only with the bits about the film being good.

The pledge card left a gap for one of our own. Mine, I told director Franny Armstrong, and Ed Miliband, was to help ensure we keep him in the job, and not some Tory who would never have brought in the Climate Change Act, and who would never – if Cameron’s leadership so far is anything to go by – face up to the difficult decisions that have to be taken.

When I said to Franny that the political logic of her position was a Tory government, she said if we went ahead with Kingnorth, it made no difference, because effectively we were committing ourselves to the end of the world. She said what we needed was a green government.

Fine, but if I may bastardise the Tory slogan from that short period of time when they were saying the environment was important to them, if you vote green, you get blue. Another inconvenient truth.

I wish them well with the film. It is an important piece of work at an important time. I wish Ed Miliband well too because just as the UK government played a pivotal leadership role at Kyoto, so they are likely to do the same again in Copenhagen. Public pressure is an important part of the process. So is public support.

  • dave hampton

    Alastair makes some good points, but isn’t it a bit rich for the king of spin to accuse others of manipulation.

    What runs deep through his review is an admirable loyalty to the red team! Leading to a ‘logical’ but rather unsatisfactory conclusion that we have to trust (and support!) the labour govt to get on with it, at their speed, because they alone realise why we can’t actually stop building coal fired power stations, runways, and roads QUITE yet (boo hiss politics)

    His review also discloses his patahlogical dislike of the blue team.

    I wonder if he was someone who often picked last, by the two captains, for the sports team at school.

    As Franny reminded him, the stakes are bigger than party politics as usual.

    Alastair has missed the opportunity to raise his game (or learn a new one) and just reminded us all how good he is at his old game. Supporting the Labour party.

    I’d prefer him to support the kids planet.(party).

    Finally I predict that in the run up to December, a lot of old-fossil politicans will be stealing the policies of the Green party and of the greener wing of the Lib Dems.

  • Gareth

    “if you vote green, you get blue. Another inconvenient truth.”

    Nope, don’t see anything wrong with that!

  • alison

    Dave, I don’t think he is saying there is only one way and that it all gets taken on trust, but that you do need to bear in mind the different pressures on governments who in the end have to take the decisions. the ‘not in my back yard’ issue is important too. on the one hand we all think there should be more renewable energy, but we also think local people should have a say. And sometimes they are in conflict

  • Rupert Read

    Good for Franny! This is an epochal moment in human history; it calls precisely for a sudden political switch, to the Green Party, much as in earlier generations the Labour Party (before it became corrupted by the likes of Mr. A. Campbell and co.) sprang onto the Parliamentary scene from almost nowhere, and ended up giving us things like the NHS.
    What utter nonsense, for you Alistair to claim that voting Green Party lets the Tories in. Look at Norwich: Here we have 13 Green Party City Councillors, and our growth has as it happens been primarily at the expense of the LibDems more than of Labour. Meanwhile, the Tories are still languishing as the 4th Party on the Council, also-rans.
    Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that the next big elections are the Euro-elections, in June: and these areby proportional representation. A great opportunity for the Green Party to get voted in…
    C’llr. Rupert Read, lead Green Party MEP candidate for Eastern England.

  • Kevin Simpson

    I am all in favour of activism, but one of its dangers is an inability to see another point of view. It seems to me the Greens who are responding are accusing Alastair of the very thing they are indulging in when it seems to me his views about the film are measured, supportive if not hero-worshipping, and his analysis of the politics realistic at a time the economy is centrestage. (which incidentally explains why Cameron has gone quiet on being green).

  • dave hampton

    One more quick comment, for anyone reading AC’s blog who is aware that they were not there (!) – bear in mind that AC’s account may not actually be entirely accurate!

    The slur that hugely demeans Alistair is this:

    Pete P did not ‘go off on one’

    (“Then when Postlethwaite went off on one at Ed, and said he would give back his OBE if the Kingnorth decision went ahead”)

    That didn’t happen. Pete Postlethwaite (OBE)’s words were in truth calm, dignified, reasoned, humble, honourable, courageous and generous.

    They were delivered with HUGE authentic power (that’s why Campbell tries to rubbish Pete) and the people will go with Pete P any day.

    Pete P for PM I say.

  • AC

    We can quibble over words Dave, but to my mind setting up a minister to he has to stand up there and get told he risks going down in history as stupid, that the decisions he is taking are wrong, that he had to be ‘ambushed’ as he was because it is the era of spin, and then shown a petition that says he is not fit to represent Britain unless he does everything asked of him from one perspective only, and then get all the stuff about OBEs, the Queen and never voting Labour again .. I don’t think ‘going off on one’ can be denied. it is possible to go off on one and still be calm, truthful, honest etc. I think it is important in any debate to try to see complextities as well as simplicities and all I am trying to suggest to you is that if you are going to achieve your goals you need people like Ed Miliband batting from you. You might be interested in my fourteen year old daughter’s view. As the film ended I asked her what she thought. Really good, she said. Moving. Scary. Makes you want to change things. After all the politicking, she was much much less sympathetic. I think that is worth a moment’s thought.

  • dave hampton

    Actually I admit there is truth in what you say there, and i thank you for saying it. And I love your daughter’s words. The film speaks for itself, and I am delighted – sincerely – you attended with your daughter and that she enjoyed it.

    I took all my family (ages 9-18) and was similarly inspired by their reactions to the film.

  • David Phillips

    What Postlethwaite, Gillett and others should realise is that you can’t just switch off a source of energy which currently contributes one third of Britain’s electricity source. The way forward is almost certainly through carbon capture technology or to put it another, using Green coal. Interestingly, E.ON has just said that it wants the UK government to help it fund carbon capture technology which it would use at its proposed Kingsnorth coal power station. This would be a good use of taxpayers money, creating jobs, encouraging new technology and reducing the carbon footprint. That’s not Stupid, it’s Creative!

  • ben

    People can judge for themselves if Pete P ‘went off on one’ by watching it on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5RCHXLW93E

    I’m not sure he did, but it’s a subjective point.

    On whether or not the Age of Stupid team are right to say they would never vote for Labour if Kingsnorth is consented, it’s an entirely logical position to adopt. The NASA director James Hansen says Brown and Miliband have the future direction of the world in their hands with the Kingsnorth decision, and he’s right. You could make a case for saying it is more important even than Iraq. And right now Labour is on the wrong side on this issue.

    Does AC even know the Tory position? No, he is just refelxivly hostile to it. In fact the Tories have adopted an Emissions Performance Standard that rules out unabated coal. Will they stick to it. Maybe not. Will I ever vote Tory? Nope. But AC, Labour can’t consistently be on the wrong side of the greatest issues of our day – ones that will define our age – and hope to attract the support of young people by pointing at the Tories and saying ‘yaa boo’. I’m sorry, but this shit is too important.

    Check out this lead op/ed from The Observer from last week. It explains the point better than I kind in a brief comment:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/08/activism-climate-change

  • Alina Palimaru

    Alastair, you are right that this is a very delicate policy and political issue (domestically and internationally) and the pressure of cheap populism is not meaningfully contributing to the discussion.

    Good point about the Tories reneging on their initial commitment… What was that term again… flip-flopping?

    I would love to analyze the Tories’ policy proposals on this matter and see how inconsistent they are, but I’m caught in meetings all day… perhaps another time…

    But, AC, right on!

    Alina

  • Julian Todd

    Postlethwaite went “off on one” because he said:

    “I’ve had enough of promises. We tried to get Mr Blair not to go to Iraq and he went to Iraq. Two and a half million people walked in the streets of London and we weren’t heard. We’re not having that again and we’re not going to lie down.”

    AC is always — not surprisingly — going to be pretty sensitive when anyone brings up the subject of Iraq.

  • dave hampton

    What David Philips and others need to real is that ‘Clean Coal’ is a product of the PR department, and not of Physics of Engineering.

    The Coen brothers have produced a video to help us understand this better:

    http://www.facebook.com/ext/share.php?sid=58585847471&h=Raqep&u=b2bLe&ref=mf

  • Tony

    Alastair

    I think one of the reasons you see long-term Green advocates acting like Postlethwaite is that the solution(s) to the climate change problem will not look like they had imagined they would.

    When you’ve had to shout at the top of your lungs just to get your issue onto the (inter)national agenda, you can sometimes lose sight of what exactly it is that you’re after.

    We’re seeing a fair bit of this in Australia at the moment – certain elements of the Green movement have lost sight of what winning the climate change battle means. They’ve focussed on implementing processes (like mandating renewable energy production), rather than legislating for the outcome – capping then reducing greenhouse gasses.

    This is focus on process (in your case, no new coal-fired power) means that people can be blind to the opportunities and realities that our political, environmental and economic leaders face. This can creating a feeling of being betrayed, and produces the anger that leads to those ‘anyone but Labour’ sentiments.

    I think this means progressive governments have two debates to win – one with the voting public (who need to be convinced of the case for action), and one with the Green movement (who are already convinced about the need for action, but need to be convinced that their long-term hobbyhorses will not be as effective as they think they will).

    Cheers,
    T

  • Alina Palimaru

    Tony,

    Interesting point about having to convince the voting public about the case for action… Here in the U.S. that case was largely made by framing the issue as a “national security” matter (Alas, it seems that every policy from abortion to food systems has to be framed that way in order for Americans to digest them).

    Do you think something similar must be done in the U.K.? If fo, what framework might be optimal?

    Alina

  • Alan Quinn

    What annoys me is that we have massive amounts of wind and do little with it. The UK dosen’t have a home grown wind turbine industry, we have to order most of them from Germany and Denmark, we could order thousands tomorrow but we’d be in a queue, waiting. In this recession we could set up our own production facility, even make them under licence and get people in work producing things that are wanted. GB should set up a “star chamber” to fast track planning applications and get the things wired up to the main grid in months rather than years.
    The Greens can’t have things their own way either, they complain about rising levels but are mostly against the Severn Barrage because of the damage to the wetlands. If the sea rises they way they predict they’ll be no wetlands!
    We need to get away from imported energy, we have 400 yrs of coal underneath us but still won’t build a clean coal plant with carbon capture. Build one. If it works,open up the pits, get people in work and we have energy security. If it dosen’t then move on.

  • Tony

    Alina

    Locking in public support (and political mandates) for long-term action is usually a battle to re-frame the public debate on an issue. One of the ways progressive parties in government can protect their long-term policy goals from potential backsliding under future conservative governments is to make sure the narrative frame for policy is deeply embedded in public psyche.

    An example of this from the conservative side is enduring influence of the Thatcher/Reagan free market frame on both elections and progressive governments (which seems to be coming to end).

    In Australia the argument was won when it was framed as an economic issue (jobs, more specifically), which is in many ways the equivalent of national security in the US. I’m not sure what the required frame would be in the UK, but I’d take just about any bet that the argument can’t be won in an environmental frame.

    While it’s true that the worst drought in 100 years pushed the issue to the front of the public mind during the 2007 election campaign here in Australia (and the subsequent flood in Queensland and fires in Victoria have kept it there), the argument for action – both at the ballot box and on policy – wasn’t won until the debate wasn’t really about the environment any more.

    The downside risk is that unless you take those already committed to the environmental frame with you as you reframe, you can end up alienating those with an existing public voice on both sides of the do something/do nothing debate – something you can see here in Australia as the Government tries to pass its carbon trading legislation.

    T

  • Alex

    Alistair,

    As much as I hate David Cameron, in truth they supported the Climate Change Bill a fair bit before Labour did. You may say it was positioning, and it may be true, but if they were in government there’s nothing to say they wouldn’t have been so quick to see the way things were going and position themselves thus accordingly.

    Still hate them though. 🙂

  • dave hampton

    Just one more post, if i may, to say a few of the things I should have said first: I sincerely applaud you Alastair, for being there, and with your daughter, and for what you said, before and after. Thank you!

    I applaud David Cameron for helping the Tories see greener pastures years ago, although their true colour remains untested, I thank him and brave green Tories for helping create the space in which Labour raised their game.

    I applaud Ed Miliband, and David M, Colin Challen, and many brave folk in the Labour party, for sitting in that ‘stretch’ position – stretch between corporate greed, party funding, and the possible. Between real old world and real new world. Between old labour, new labour and green labour. I hope the latter group grow and grow. They deserve to. They are the future. Brown needs Green.

    This isn’t (just) about compromise, intellect, strategy, spin and quick wits. It’s about doing the right thing, and staying true to the children.

    If that involves “going off on one” now and then – I’m all for it.

    This government HAS my full support – if it acts courageously on my kids behalf – and shows true leadership. I hope Gordon has watched, (and maybe borrows!) the speech from the President of the Maldives.

    This government also has my full pressure brought to bear on it. If it doesn’t lead, and cut the carbon, then its not a Government worthy of Her Majesty’s name, but acting more like an asset stripper at a closing down sale.

    The kids deserve better. And millions in UK will see they get it.