I went to the Age of Stupid premier yesterday, a documentary-film about climate change that asks, why is the human race committing suicide? Pete Postlethwaite acts an archivist in the year 2055 looking back at footage from 2008 to understand why at the start of the 21st century, when we knew what the consequences would be, we did not act to stop climate change. A series of documentaries are at the heart of the film: a young woman in Nigeria whose village has been polluted by Shell’s oil drilling, refugees from Iraq selling our discarded shoes in Jordan, an oil company geologist whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a businessman setting up a low-cost airline in India. The stories are presented without narration (we don’t hear any interviewers) but the contradictions in the individuals’ lives are powerfully felt. The geologist calls himself an ecologist. The Iraqi children whose father was killed in the war play shoot-out games in the street.
The footage from Nigeria was perhaps the most devastating. We see a ruined building that Shell had promised to build into a health centre in a village near their oil wells, but left to collapse as the villagers die of cholera and typhus; the polluted lake that no longer feeds the population as the fish have been killed by spilled oil; and pipes continually burning off gas right beside the people’s homes. This gas is trapped with the oil and could be used to produce energy for Nigeria but the companies aren’t willing to pay for the infrastructure (they aren’t interested in paying for Africans to have electricity) so they simply burn it off. The gas flares in Nigeria burn the equivalent to 25% of UK gas consumption. Gas flaring in Nigeria contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined, and yet it contributes nothing to the country’s economy. Instead it damages the people’s health by spreading asthma and bronchitis.
Unfortunately the film is full of stories such as this, justifying the title. It’s powerful and humane with a vital message. It also avoids calming us with token gestures like light bulbs and recycling – the makers know we need serious action by governments and corporations, and that probably means large scale public protest is more important than lifestyle choices. One disappointment for me was that the film was promoted as drama to a significant extent through the emphasis on Postlethwaite’s role as the future archivist. His part in the film is really just a device for the documentary footage and there is in fact very little about the future and nothing of the archivist’s story. This is understandable when today’s experiences are so devastating, but it does mean the film is another documentary rather than a narrative exactly. This will affect how people react. Some will find documentary, with its truth value, more powerful but we have already seen other similar films. The Age of Stupid is the best climate change documentary so far, but there’s still a clear need for drama. Personally, I became serious about this issue after reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It's hard to understand why today’s mainstream novelists, directors and artists are not putting everything into this subject.