Josh Fox has gotten bad news. And it's not that he, like, got a parking ticket or forgot to pay a bill. This is dire stuff: The major cities on the East Coast will likely be underwater in the next few decades. Roughly 40% of the planet's species are on track to go extinct. Ravaging fires and droughts and floods — they're all coming.
In the midst of making his latest documentary about climate change, Fox — the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated "Gasland" — learns that, basically, we're in a lot of trouble. Leading scientists tell him that even if society were to make drastic and immediate lifestyle shifts, the Earth's temperature is already on target to rise 2 degrees. That may not sound like a lot, but it would lead to all of the scary things listed above.
"I just felt like giving up. Walking away," Fox says in the film, "How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change," which premiered last week at the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival. "Quitting this mission. Becoming just another dot on the landscape. Insignificant. Unable to do anything. Just let it all go."
It's a sentiment, no doubt, that filmgoers here often experience after watching harrowing documentaries. Over the past decade at this Utah festival, viewers have seen how challenging it is to get legal abortions ("After Tiller"), be married as a gay couple ("The Case Against 8") or infiltrate the drug war ("Cartel Land"). Nonfiction films often deal in heavy subject matter like this, and they can leave viewers feeling paralyzed — like things are so bad that we're all just powerless to make a difference.
And yet many of the documentaries that have premiered at Sundance have gone on to inspire real change, and often those films tend to center on the environment. In 2013, "Blackfish," a film about the plight of killer whales in captivity, enraged audiences. And just two years later, SeaWorld saw its stocks tumble and announced that it would phase out orca performances at its theme parks.
In 2009, "The Cove" revealed how thousands of dolphins were killed in an annual Japanese slaughter. Today, dolphin killings have dropped from 23,000 to 6,000, according to the film's director, Louie Psihoyos.
And in 2010, Fox's first film, "Gasland," showed the connection between natural-gas drilling — commonly referred to as fracking — and the pollution of our water sources. Since then, fracking has been banned in New York state, France and Scotland.
For the Record
Feb. 1, 12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that fracking had been banned in Los Angeles after the 2010 release of the film “Gasland.” Hydraulic fracturing is legal in California, but state lawmakers approved stricter regulations on that oil extraction practice in 2013.
"With fracking, we were not dealing with some abstract issue. This was, literally, are you going to be able to continue to live in your home? Will it have any value? Will your kids be safe?" recalled Fox, 43, sporting his trademark hipster glasses and Yankees cap. "When you have that dawning consciousness, there is no choice. There is no freedom possible without a clean environment."
In "How to Let Go of the World," which will debut on HBO in July, Fox grapples with his own despair over climate change. Though he admits he's tempted to hide out at his home on the Delaware River Basin, watching cat videos on YouTube, he decides to travel around the world to see how those faced with imminent environmental disaster are reacting.
It's a journey that takes him from the Amazon, where locals are cleaning up an oil spill in the heart of the rain forest, to Beijing, where air pollution is so bad that children have to bring inhalers with them to the playground. Ultimately, the film tries to get viewers to move past the overwhelming facts and find comfort in the things climate can't change — values like innovation, creativity, love and community.
"These are the virtues we must base our society on going forward if we're not going to have total chaos," said Fox. "Inside of human beings, there's a crisis management impulse that can be extraordinarily virtuous. We have to start to exercise that. We are going to be navigating through the most intense period of change that humanity has ever seen. But there's more to fight for because of that."
Fox is trying to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter to go on tour to get the word out about these issues — the kind of grass roots campaign he engaged in after "Gasland" came out, when he screened the film in 350 cities. And is perhaps another reason why documentaries about the environment inspire action — their filmmakers become activists.
Screening your social-action film at Sundance means "you're only halfway there," said "The Cove's" Psihoyos on a panel last week, where he sat alongside Fox and husband and wife Beverly and Dereck Joubert, the filmmaking team behind "The Last Lions."
"It's not just the film, it's the campaign, and I think filmmakers are becoming more savvy to that," Fox agreed. "The spotlight is put on you, so you become a leader and you have to go on Twitter or Facebook, you organize rallies — or at least you show up to speak at them. That responsibility is thrust on you to go out there and make it happen."
After "The Cove" was released — and went on to win an Oscar for documentary — Psihoyos and his team sent the film to Japanese embassies, investment firms and consulates. People must hear about an issue six or seven times before it registers, he said, adding that at least 10% of the public has to know about an issue "until it becomes part of the lore."
Of course, "The Cove" also hit theaters at a time when public attitude toward animals was shifting. At Sundance this year, there was even a documentary about a lawyer arguing that animals should be considered people so that they have legal rights — "Unlocking the Cage." It was one of three environmental docs at the fest, including "When Two Worlds Collide," about the clash between then-Peruvian President Alan Garcia and an indigenous Amazonian tribe trying to protect its land from being pilfered for oil, minerals and gas.
"When I started working on behalf of animals in 1980, people thought of animal lovers as little old ladies with tennis shoes who would fill their house with cats," said Steven Wise, the lawyer at the center "Unlocking the Cage," which will also air on HBO this summer. "Now, there's a lot of scientists studying animal minds and cognition, so we begin to have a huge amount of scientific evidence that backs up the idea that they're really smart, autonomous, and can feel. So it's become more legitimate to express our compassion for animals."