In the beginning there was dancing. But before we get to that, we need to go back even further: In the beginning there was the Marcellus, a geologic formation of black shale that dates back to the mid-Devonian age and undergirds a wide swath of mid-Atlantic Appalachian terrain. Shale traps deposits of natural gas deep underground and it was this resource that in 2008 brought energy speculators to the rural homestead of Josh Fox. Eight years later, one can only wonder if the investors now regret having knocked on that particular door.
While considering the company’s offer to lease mining rights beneath his family’s property, Fox began an amateur investigation into the risks. He was already a theater director and fledgling filmmaker at the time, and whatever polish he at first lacked as a journalist and cameraman were compensated by great instincts and a storyteller’s gift. The resulting documentary went on to win major festivals awards and an Oscar nomination while transforming the national conversation on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas. Gasland, and its 2013 sequel Gasland II, exposed a deceitful, unregulated industry that had quietly infiltrated communities and public lands throughout the US, oftentimes resulting in poisoned water sources, methane leaks, and large explosions, among other risks.
The films—and Fox’s front and center personality within them—helped to propel him into iconic status within the anti-fracking and larger environmental movements. He became a full-time activist, regularly appearing at rallies and legislative events, especially in his adopted home state of New York. Fox’s latest film, How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change), picks up the thread of his life at this point. In his dry, murmur-y style, Fox explains at the film’s outset that Governor Cuomo’s 2015 rejection of fracking in New York was a high water mark for the movement, a vindication for Fox’s own efforts, and a cause for celebration— hence we find our host jubilantly dancing around his apartment in the film’s opening scene. But he knew it wasn’t the whole story of climate change, and the more he looked at the dire predictions of rising sea levels and the effects already being experienced throughout the web of global causality, the more he really just wanted to go on permanent retreat.
This sentiment—the urge to hide oneself in a bubble of safety and the conflict of the imperative to stay present in the fray— informs the remainder of the film. Fox sets out on a journey that crisscrosses the globe, chronicling the disruption and devastation that are harbingers of the wider suffering to come. From the hurricane-hammered housing projects of New York’s post-Sandy outerboroughs to oil flooded swamps deep in the Amazonian jungle, these are not whistle stops for the fainthearted. (He also has provocative conversations with an impressive cast of scientists and activists such as Bill McKibben, Van Jones and Lester Brown.)
At each destination he and his small crew encounter accidental activists who are seeking to expose the despoiling occurring at their expense. These are people from whom intimidated silence is expected by those in power. And yet, what we discover with Fox’s introduction, is a resourcefulness and resiliency of spirit that comes directly out of traditional cultures, even while it is informed by 21st century realities. They are fully aware of their own role in the global struggle against greed, indifference and stagnation and they are also aware of the media’s role in all this. In Ecuador, Fox’s hosts show him a fully modern video lab in what looks like a thatched hut. In China, an artist risks persecution by highlighting the danger of rampant air pollution. In rural Zambia, a tribal leader brings solar panels to his district, providing green electricity to inhabitants for the first time and green jobs for local women.
The dramatic high point of How to Let Go is a masterfully coordinated showdown between an alliance of Pacific Islanders and environmental organizations aiming to block a coal tanker from leaving New South Wales, Australia. Their tools? Battle cries and hand carved canoes. It was doomed to fail from the start. That is, if you actually expected the ship to stay in port and the fossil fuels it bore to stay unburned. (Though no one comprehends the meaning of “rising sea levels” better than Pacific Islanders, many of whom have already seen their ancestral lands disappear into the sea.) Their protest is, in fact, a demonstration for themselves and for the world that theirs is a culture of life, a culture of resiliency. They’re rallying cry, “We are not drowning! We are Fighting!” perfectly encapsulates the paradox of protest in the face of such odds.
Ultimately, Fox is humbled and inspired by what he discovers in these far-flung outposts of dissent. Even when the water’s rising, when the corporation/state is wielding its clubs, even when the world is on fire, some individuals and communities will find creative means of opposition. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to change much while sometimes gains are made. Either way, it’s an expression of humanity at its best and challenges the rest of us to find such a reserve within our own selves. And that’s something to dance about.
The film has already made waves throughout a grassroots, nationwide tour and it will soon find a wider audience with a broadcast on HBO. Some viewers might be put off by the film’s length or the oftentimes handheld footage, but these didn’t actually detract for me. I identified with Fox’s crisis of conscience and, frankly, I also am the hero of my own epic story (and villain and chorus and set decorator) right up until the moments where I, too, find ways to let go.
JL Hokyu Aronson, MRO lives in Phoenicia, NY.