From Claudia Morgado's interview with Jon Cooksey, writer/director of "How to Boil a Frog", about the intersection between art and climate change. We're posting his answers here in hopes of giving him some sort of credibitility as a mature adult, because god knows he doesn't act like it.
CM: Climate Change is one of the defining issues of this age with far reaching impact in all aspects of our lives and the natural environment. As a filmmaker and artist, what is your cultural relationship with science on the issues of climate change?
JC: I think we have a love/hate relationship with science now, fuelled by the kind of narcissism and ignorance that fuels all love/hate relationships. We expect science to provide for us, to feed us, to make us new and better iPods, to make the magical internet work, to make the lights go on when we flick a switch – but when it threatens to bring us into contact with reality, particularly the consequences of our wasteful lifestyle in the developed world (monstrously selfish in a global context), we revolt and start a Tea Party or the equivalent so we can collectively feel justified in disbelieving science. And as the Vancouver riots show us, people are willing to suspend their consciences in a collective situation in order to do whatever they please for a short while, if everyone is doing it. Thus denial of climate change – the ultimate act of disbelief in the face of overwhelming science fact – is naturally paired with the ultimate negative consequence of the “scientific revolution”, the amoral unleashing of technology to satisfy our immediate desires. They go hand in hand. They’re twins.
So my relationship to science, culturally, is to stop talking about science, and start talking about our resistance to it, our relationship to it – in other words, I deal with psychology, what we want from science (or from Santa), and what we project onto it. I think science fact is irrelevant to getting people to change their behaviour, though I do believe that being willing to face and accept the scientific facts of runaway global warming is one of the greatest moral duties of our time. So from psychology, I seem to have wandered into morality, and the two don’t mix well, because we have also projected our denial onto psychology, and want it to be a non-judgmental self-help book that accepts us along with our unsustainable consumption. But psychology, at best, is an understanding of why we’re afraid – or even physiologically incapable – of grasping the global consequences of our actions, and making a moral decision to join the indigenous people of the planet in saving some planet for the 7th generation to follow us.
CM: Do you think that your work can communicate/advise/suggest solutions and how?
JC: I think there are only a few ways to effectively communicate something as traumatic as climate change, the potential that it has to end mammalian life on earth, and the enormous change that it asks of us, in terms of consumption in the developed world. One is music, which seems to bypass emotional defences; another is images, particularly human faces, in which all but sociopaths read subtle emotions that evoke empathy; a third is story – fictional or non-fiction narratives that give a larger meaning to smaller events; and the fourth is humour. In making “How to Boil a Frog”, I tried to use all of those, but focused on humour as the marketing hook, because a movie can’t accomplish anything if people don’t go see it. Once I get past people’s emotional defences, then advice per se isn’t strictly necessary – people already can see where they’re off-base if they admit to the facts, however briefly – but offering solutions is key. I went out of my way to develop a set of solutions based on global overshoot, that is, solutions to the systemic disease (consumption/waste, amplified by overpopulation and technology) rather than symptoms like climate change.
CM: Do you see a positive collaboration between art (films, visual arts, etc.) and science that calls upon people’s awareness of the consequences of climate change?
JC: Absolutely. I’m just a self-educated citizen, though I was lucky to get a solid grounding in math and science in secondary school, which allowed me to wade through the science behind global warming, peak oil, deforestation, hydrology, etc. (Specialization has been one of the main causes of our current catastrophic state of affairs – we need generalists who understand whole systems – not specialists who only understand isolated parts. That’s how you end up with Nazi guards who were just following orders.) Once I understood the basic science, then I was free to come up with metaphors – preferably funny ones – that would let the average person grasp the basic issues in a very short time, because comedies move very fast. But artists will interpret and present science in all kinds of different ways, based on their chosen media, and that’s important, because there are all those different ways to get past the anti-science brain barrier, and different ways work on different people.
CM: Does your artistic/storyteller voice see a need to promote mutual understanding between art and science?
JC: Yes, in two senses. One, science needs to be brought in out of its isolation – a result of both its ascent into areas of specialty that common people could no longer understand, and of the ego of scientists who wanted to be gods – and reintegrated with everyday life, with emotions and the vulnerability of the planet, which does not specialize, but presents us with one interconnected system of which we are a single (though very unruly) part. Two, scientists themselves need to let down the barrier between their knowledge and their humanity. The truth is that many many climatologists – maybe most – are scared shitless about what’s happening, but very few will admit that in public (our own brilliant Andrew Weaver being an exception). If art is the expression of truth by other means, then scientists need to become artists, and learn to communicate with people in a way that they can hear. Foot-thick IPCC reports are obviously not the way to do that, and in any case will always be counteracted by the clever – artistic? – counterattacks of the denialists. Art can bypass that sort of intellectual argument, which is accomplishing little besides giving people something to argue about in internet chat rooms, and enriching those in the fossil fuel industry (not to mention the Denial Industry).
CM: Is your intention as an artist/filmmaker to create a dialogue and to engage people in action and behavioural change?
JC: Definitely. I’m not sure anybody has ever made a mass-market movie and asked everyone to write him after they’re done watching. So that could get a little overwhelming if the movie ever gets popular. But people need more support than that, and the internet is a unique tool to make global issues local and personal. That’s why the movie ends with an invitation to go to The Pond, the part of our website (still under development) where people who are ready to learn more and/or take action can find one another, find resources, find fellow-troublemakers. I can’t talk to everybody, though I do try. The endpoint of all of it is action – behavioural change – on several levels: consuming and not-consuming, changing the way we relate to each other and the world, kicking corporate and government ass, and transitioning to a more resilient way of life before the shit hits the fan in a more obvious way in the developed world.
CM: How do you see your film/writing work as finding/shaping solutions to this global problem?
JC: It quickly became obvious to me that I couldn’t just cut together a bunch of talking heads, because no one person was suggesting a set of systemic solutions to overshoot. But they educated me in systemic thinking, and I put pieces together based on their knowledge and wisdom. So to some degree I was organizing, but beyond that also thinking through the implications of what they were saying on a personal level, an emotional level, a logistical level. Holy crap – do I have to live in a hut? How do I stop driving when I have three kids in soccer? Will I get arrested if I protest that nuclear plant? Is anybody else doing these things or would it just be me? So finding a palatable way to present the solutions was just as important as the solutions themselves.
CM: Do you think that artists’ involvement in Climate Change is consistent with the history in which artists’ involvement in social change and or education?
JC: I hope so. If we lose this one, we’re fucked.
CM: How do you think the language of your artistic expression contributes to the larger climate change dialogue?
JC: Well, Rex Weyler – a co-founder of Greenpeace International – refers to “How to Boil a Frog” as “the world’s funniest movie about global warming”. That’s how I’d like it to be known, not only so people will see it, but so that everyone – including artists – will remember that these things have to be presented with humour, or else everyone will just jump off a bridge before they take action. Bad for repeat business.
CM: Do you think the language (of emotions and associations) that you as an artist/filmmaker possess is powerful enough to engage and encourage behavioural change?
JC: Based on the reactions I’ve gotten from all over the world, from an audience that still probably only numbers in the thousands, I’d say it can have that effect, at least on people who are at some personal tipping point. As to whether it can work on the level it was engineered for – creating a global tipping point – well, we’ll have to wait and see. Buy a DVD and loan it to somebody and let’s find out.
CM: How has your perception of climate change motivated you to act on your art and in your daily life?
JC: Well, it got me to spend half a million dollars making a movie, which was definitely not on my agenda, and isn’t what I do for a living. And I did that specifically because I realized that making personal-level changes was necessary, but insufficient, to save my daughter’s life. I cannot save her without saving everyone – so I had to try to do something that would defend the global commons. Very few people have the potential means to do that. I was (maybe) one of them. So therefore I had to do it. That doesn’t mean I’ll succeed, but I couldn’t do anything less. And making the movie ultimately engaged my instincts for story-telling and how to reach a mass audience – specifically, I realized that the totality of our situation was so grim that nobody would ever pay to hear about it unless it was delivered inside of a comedy. As a comedy writer, that became an intriguing challenge.
Just because I’m trying to save civilization, of course, doesn’t mean I get a free pass in my personal life. I’m hardly a paragon of virtue – in fact, I lean on the fact that I’m a confused, struggling hypocrite to make sure people know that whatever I’m doing, they can certainly do too (and probably do it better). But now I take mass transit whenever possible and avoid driving my car, I don’t eat beef (and I’m eating less meat in general), I buy used stuff (clothes, books, etc.) rather than new if I can, I don’t buy gas from Exxon, I grow vegetables in my back yard, I’m constantly involved in activism and lending my talents to local and global causes where I can do some good, I communicate with people I’ve gotten to know all over the world, and I’m building a local community of friends largely based on great food, laughter and playing live music. So my life is definitely not the same as it was 5 years ago.
CM: You talk about yourself as a storyteller, what are the important stories about climate change that need to be told and why?
JC: Principally two, I think. One, the Nightmare Scenario of systemic collapse needs to be told in every way possible – that’s where we’re headed if we don’t take a sharp turn now in consumption, population, and waste. That’s a very dark future, with unimaginable population collapse in this century. And two, the Positive Scenario needs to be visualized for people – the sustainable future we CAN have if we make changes now. My friend Vandy, who did focus groups for years on various products, points out that very few people can visualize something they haven’t seen before. That’s what artists can do, at least potentially. So we have to lay out all the positives of a sustainable future, and I don’t mean by saying it’s sustainable – that motivates approximately nobody. I mean we have to show that that future means people are back in community and out of isolation and loneliness, that they feel their lives are meaningful and important to others, that they’re having fun, laughing, eating healthy food they feel good about, consuming in a way that they know everyone (including their children and grandchildren) can consume in (not just a privileged few at the expense of the many), having great sex in the afternoon, and so on. People have to be reminded that, yes, their present has a lot of neat stuff in it, but they’ve also lost some things along the way that are apparently more important to their happiness than the iPad, based on the number of anti-depressants people are taking.
CM: What is your relationship to the scientists that are documenting climate science?
JC: I’ve interviewed a few along the way, and sent rough cuts of the movie to others for comment. My relationship has always been very positive. I love scientists, especially when they get cantankerous and swear.
CM: Has your relationship with scientists changed before and after your documentary?
JC: Yes, in the sense that before that, I didn’t know any. But maybe more importantly, I think I looked at scientists – and journalists – as infallible purveyors of truth. The picture, of course, is much more complex than that. Climatologists, as a group, are some of the best human beings we’ve ever produced – they’re meticulous, dedicated to not saying more than they know, dedicated to the public good (often at great personal cost), massively cooperative across disciplines – but they’re also, generally, wonks. They’ve been boxed into a scientific culture that says they can’t talk about their feelings, because then they wouldn’t be objective. Of course, 99.9999% of humanity couldn’t care less about facts – ALL they hear is feelings. If 98% of climatologists came out and said “Holy shit, we’re about to go over a fucking cliff and these bastards who say we’re not are just lying greedy assholes who are trying to kill you for one last buck before the collapse! Let’s stop putting out CO2 right the fuck NOW before we all end up burning in a hell we made ourselves!”… Well, I think people would pay more attention. Did I mention I like it when they swear?
CM: Do you perceive yourself as an active audience of the contemporary issues of climate change?
JC: Maybe too much so. The danger of diving into this particular abyss is that there’s such an attraction to keep reading articles that say the same things over and over. “See? I KNEW we were fucked that way!” So, as my friend Anita told me at one point: “You know enough.” At some point you have to realize that you’re reading instead of acting, because reading is easier, and doesn’t take any commitment.
On the other hand, once I became global-warming literate, I began to see the web of systemic causation that binds so many different news stories and cultural issues together. Food shortages, extreme weather, loss of indigenous cultures, income inequality, resource wars, widespread depression and anxiety – these and many other big issues are bound together by climate change, and in the bigger picture by global overshoot. So the world stops being a confusing mass of bad news to be avoided, and starts to look like a global system having a logical response to really shitty input. That calms me down, in a weird way, because it gives me some focus in terms of what I can do to make things better. I don’t have to give to a million different causes. I can just take action on solutions to global overshoot, which is what I present in the movie.
CM: Do you think that you must know scientific facts about climate change to make climate change art, films, stories?
JC: No. I think some of the most powerful art in the world on this subject will probably be made by people – indigenous or developed world – who just intuit the truth, and present it emotionally through their chosen medium. They could potentially reach the most people because they’re bypassing completely the scientific debate clusterfuck that has everyone stuck in their recently-evolved forebrains, rather than taking action from the limbic system that we’ve relied on for millions of years to save our asses.
CM: How can the artist avoid the anxiety of a changing global phenomenon?
JC: It would be a disservice to humanity to avoid that anxiety. It’s our job as artists – and I include everyone in the world in this statement – to experience and process that anxiety, and then transform it into action and community-building through the alchemy of our own psyches.
CM: Where do you see your artistic endeavor in the broader climate change dialogue?
JC: I am the court jester of global warming. I’m just trying to tell the truth without getting beheaded.