In the opening of his new movie, How to Let Go and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, director Josh Fox is celebrating the major victory for the anti-fracking movement that blocked gas drilling in the Delaware River basin. But his elation is short lived. As he sits appreciating the forest near his Pennsylvania home, now protected from fossil fuel companies, he notices the hemlock tree he planted as a child is dying.
The dying tree—infested by a pest that has moved north due to the warmer winters fueled by climate change—is a good metaphor for the hopelessness nearly every environmental activist faces eventually, inevitably. Fox’s movie Gasland may have helped win the battle to protect the woods near his home, but climate change often feels inexorable. It will win the war.
How to Let Go and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, which airs on June 27 on HBO and is screening in limited theaters around the country, is not your typical climate change documentary. Focusing on Hurricane Sandy and then showing a string of interviews with scientists and activists, the film does devote a requisite 30 minutes to both the dire fate of the planet already foretold by humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions to date—and how much worse it could get. Floods, droughts, migration, and disease are presented almost like an urgent spoken word poem, putting the viewer in a state of panic and gloom, which is exactly how Fox felt while filming.
But it’s not the science or even the activism that is notable in the film. It’s this emotional reaction to what it all means. Fox didn’t set out with this approach when he decided to make a movie about climate change to complete his Gasland "trilogy" (the second movie came out in 2013).
"I thought, I have to finish this cycle, and then you realize how dark and difficult this stuff is. It is more difficult than fracking in a lot of ways. You can ban fracking, but you can’t ban climate change," he told Co.Exist in an interview.
"I couldn’t make a movie that said it’ll be okay, if we campaign. I had to do something differently. I had to go through that window of despair and see how there’s denial on both sides of the equation and pop out the other side where there is a different set of conclusions that have to be drawn."
By denial, he means not only the politicians who deny the science of climate change, but even those who fully embrace it but have trouble grappling with the scale of the destruction the rising temperatures will bring.
This movie does grapple with it, through the stories of communities who are living the worst of climate change right now. He joins Pacific Islanders "warriors" who fearlessly blockade a coal tanker to protect their flooding communities, Amazonian tribes who are standing up against powerful corporate interests to prevent wholesale deforestation and oil drilling, and Chinese citizens developing renewable energy in the face of choking air pollution, government oppression, and relentless consumerism.
The moral of their stories, in the view of the film, isn’t that these little guys will necessarily save the world, but that by not giving into despair and hopelessness, they are underscoring the basic human values that the climate change can’t ruin: courage, creativity, innovation, love, and community (I’ve never seen a discussion about "innovation" bring anyone to tears, but yes, you can see that in the film).
"If we’re going to get out of the climate change catastrophe with any shred of our humanity, we’re going to have to live with a different set of values," Fox says. "It’s not just about power plants and curtailing emissions, it’s about the basics of who we are as a species."
The film ends again with celebration and dance. Fox’s emotional journey has come full circle. His childhood tree may be dying, but he has found that his hope doesn't have to.