Review: ‘2040,’ starring Damon Gameau, Neel Tamhane, Genevieve Bell, Paul Hawken, Brian von Herzen, Kate Raworthy and Tony Seba

June 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Velvet Gameau, Zoë Gameau and Damon Gameau in “2040” (Photo courtesy of Together Films)

“2040”

Directed by Damon Gameau

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world, the documentary “2040” interviews a racially diverse group of people (white, black, Asian and Latino) in examining practical solutions to helping the environment by the year 2040.

Culture Clash: Environmentalists face systemic resistance from big industries (especially those in the business of selling fossil fuel and plastic) to make more environmentally friendly changes.

Culture Audience: “2040” will appeal primarily to people who want a simple and relatable guide on environmentalism.

Damon Gameau and Brian von Herzen in “2040” (Photo courtesy of Together Films)

If the documentary “2040” were a book, it would be the CliffsNotes of environmentalism. The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau (who’s also the film’s narrator and on-camera interviewer), skillfully takes a complex subject and explains it in a way that even children can understand. Although environmentalism is not an original topic for a documentary, it’s told in a unique way in “2040.” Gameau dedicated the film to his daughter Velvet, who was 4 years old when the movie was filmed in 2018, and the concept of the movie is to look at present-day, practical and attainable solutions to the environmental crisis, so that by the year 2040 (when Velvet will be in her mid-20s), the world will be in a much better position to deal with the crisis.

“2040” premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, and the movie has since been well-received in Australia, where “2040” was released later that year. Gameau takes viewers on a journey around the world to find answers to environmental issues, from the perspective of someone who isn’t a scientist and admittedly wasn’t aware of a lot of environmental problems and solutions until he made the documentary.

Some of the solutions discussed in “2040” include increasing solar-powered houses and decentralizing energy sources, so that entire neighborhoods won’t have to rely on one big energy grid that’s run by a national government. Instead, each household would have its own portable, affordable grid operated by solar batteries. Energy can then be shared or traded with other households, according to what each household wants to share or trade.

Gameau travels to Bangladesh, where this concept is already working, and he interviews energy Neel Tamhane, a manager/designer for SolShare, a startup company that makes these solar-operated energy microgrids available to households in Bangladesh. The profits for the energy would stay within the community, Tamhane says. But therein lies the biggest obstacle: Big energy corporations want to squash this technology because it would put them out of business. The documentary mentions that these microgrids are illegal in many countries.

One of the running themes in “2040” (and in almost documentaries about environmentalism and climate change) is that for every solution to help the environment, there are giant industries that are doing everything in their power to resist change. Gameau somewhat naively expresses surprise when he finds out that fossil-fuel companies have poured billions of funds to lobby government officials to vote against options for solar energy and electric energy. He also mentions that these companies use the same tactics in their propaganda that tobacco companies use to try to prevent smoking bans or legislation that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products.

Gameau travels to the United States to examine what the auto industry can do to help with solutions to the environmental crisis. Electric-energy transportation, self-driving vehicles and high-tech public transportation are all presented as realistic and practical solutions. RethinkX founder Tony Seba, author of “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation,” is interviewed in this segment. However, because the majority of cars are still operated by petroleum gas, most of the auto industry does not want to switch to making electrical cars, which are still out of the price range for most auto consumers.

And the resistance to change isn’t just with the auto manufacturers. Although people hate being stuck in traffic, most people would still prefer an individual car over public transportation, if the car will get to the destination faster. And most people do not want to pay for an electric car if it’s costs a lot more than a non-electric car with similar abilities.

Australian National University anthropologist and technologist Genevieve Bell points out  this important sociological reality in the documentary: Most people just don’t want to have a lifestyle where they don’t own a car and have to take public transportation or ride-sharing options, because the advertising industry has done an excellent job of marketing car ownership as a status symbol, based on how many and what types of cars people own.

As for the argument that making the fossil-fuel industry obsolete will put people out of jobs, the documentary predictably points out that people can be re-trained for jobs in electric energy and solar energy. The film singles out Sweden as a model country that is taking these steps already. But what the documentary tends to ignore and gloss over is that countries with varying sizes, needs and forms of government aren’t going to be readily accepting of these changes if it means big expenses for taxpayers in the short term.

For example, Gameau says in the documentary that if people started using more public transportation and owned less cars, unused parking lots can be turned into urban food farms, or that decommissioned oil rigs can be turned into employee housing or tourist sites. A more journalistic-minded documentarian would’ve then asked, “And who’s going to pay for all of that?” The biggest letdown of “2040” is that it doesn’t properly address who’s going to bear the greatest financial burdens in funding these changes. Until these necessary monetary issues are addressed, all of these environmentally friendly options sound like hippie-dippie solutions to critics of these ideas.

Gameau admits that one of the biggest problems in changing lifestyles to become safer and friendlier to the environment is that people think it will inconvenience them and that it will cost them more money. “We’re going to have to transition, and it’s going to be a little bit awkward,” he says in the film. For example, in the documentary, Gameau admits that he had to take many plane rides to make the movie. These fossil-fueled plane rides, where drinks are served in plastic cups, contradict the pro-environmentalism message of the movie.

But when people need to make trips across oceans or thousands of miles of land, most people aren’t willing to go through the inconvenience of “boycotting” planes, just to make a statement about saving the environment. What can be done instead? The documentary commendably offers an option in its epilogue. To offset the carbon emissions that resulted from making this documentary, the filmmakers planted a “small native forest that could drawdown a further 90 tons of carbon by 2040,” according to a statement in the epilogue.

The documentary also presents other environmental solutions that people have heard many times before, such as using less plastic; committing to more recycling and composting; switching to more plant-based diets; and feeding farm animals more natural ingredients instead of processed ingredients. Where the film falls a little short is presenting realistic steps on how these changes can be made into laws.

At one point in the documentary, Gameau asks, “Wouldn’t it be terrific if new leadership emerged who could navigate us to a better 2040?” But why wait and hope for new leadership, when the whole point of the film is to present solutions that can be done now? The documentary could have delved a bit deeper into the activism that needs to take place to pass some of these solutions into law. The anti-plastic movement is a perfect example of making progress in getting single-use plastic items banned in several cities and places of business, but “2040” completely ignores how this movement was able to bring about these legislative changes.

A significant portion of the documentary discusses the importance of seaweed in preserving and protecting the environment. Dr. Brian von Herzen, executive director of the Climate Foundation, takes Gomeau on a boat to talk about how seaweed is vital for the ecosystem, and that more governments and business need to invest in a marine permaculture.

An interesting angle to “2040” is that the documentary presents the idea that gender equality is better for the environment. Dr. Amanda Cahill, CEO of the Next Economy, mentions that studies have shown that in societies where people of any gender have equal access to education, there is better family planning, which leads to less environmental strain on that society.

On a more local level, “2040” points out the benefits of places such as schools or places of business having environmental dashboards—computerized video monitors that show images and statistics of environmental changes and news in the area, so that people in the area can be more informed and feel more invested in their local environment. Gameau traveled to Oberlin, Ohio, which has implemented these environmental dashboards to great success, according to Oberlin City Council member Sharon Pearson and Oberlin College professor of environmental studies and biology Dr. John E. Petersen.

Other talking heads interviewed in “2040” include Project Drawdown senior researcher Eric Toensmeier, author of “The Carbon Farming Solution”; Helena Norberg-Hodge, author of “The Economics of Happiness”; Australian farmers Colin Seis, Fraser Pogue and Leanne Pogue; and economist Kate Raworthy, author of “Doughnut Economics,” whose explanation of how the environment has a “doughnut” effect on the economy is illustrated with eye-catching graphics in the documentary.

“2040” also has snippets of commentaries from a racially diverse group of children (who look like they’re in the age range of 4 to 7 years old), talking about what they want the world to be like in the future. Is it a cutesy gimmick? Yes, but it works. According to the documentary’s end credits, the children interviewed were from Australia, Singapore, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Interspersed throughout the interview footage, Gameau has occasionally amusing scenes with actors portraying what life for his daughter Velvet will be like when she’s in her teens and mid-20s. (Eva Lazarro plays the older Velvet, while Gameau and his real-life wife Zoë Gameau portray themselves, wearing  makeup and wigs to make themselves look older.) The scenes include Damon Gameau’s wishful-thinking portrayals of what technology and environmental changes will exist in the years leading up to the year 2040.

For example, for a picnic scene with an adult Velvet and her friends, there’s a bio-degradable plastic container made of seaweed and a cooler made out of mushrooms. One of the picnic attendees is wearing sneakers made out of spider silk, and there’s a skateboard made out of fishing nets, while the beer rings on a six-pack are made out of brewing byproducts. And there are composting stations around the park.

Going back to the present day, the world is experiencing more climate-change disasters, such as record numbers of hurricanes, disappearing environments and species, and polluted water that causes health problems passed down through generations. “2040” is a wake-up call to people that this crisis isn’t something that’s a “scientist problem” to deal with hundreds of years in the future. It’s a major problem for everyone on Earth right now, and there will be dire consequences if the problem continues to be ignored. By putting this important issue in the context of showing what life could be like for today’s children when they are adults, “2040” effectively demonstrates the urgency of what can be done to address the environmental crisis before it’s too late.

Together Films released “2040” in U.S. virtual cinemas on June 5, 2020. The movie was already released in Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland and Germany in 2019.