Review: Years of Living Dangerously

This evening, I was lucky enough to catch the DC preview of Years of Living Dangerously, James Cameron’s new climate change documentary show. (I was not lucky enough to realize in advance that the preview took place during the World Bank spring meeting, so I was a little underdressed, but never mind that.)

I was a little trepidatious, because I’d heard that the show focused entirely on the scariness of the crisis, without mentioning possible solutions or reasons for hope. When I mentioned this to my family, they told me that I shouldn’t be surprised: it was James Cameron, after all. The first act would all be nothing but doom followed by more doom; there would also be evil corporations, running through corridors, and a last-minute save that came at great cost.

Having now seen the first episode, I actually feel happier about the balance of doom and hope than I expected to. There’s certainly a lot of scariness, but there are also a lot of heroes, and a lot of discussion of what needs to be fixed.

One of the first segments is on palm oil, which is a good choice since it nicely balances a connection to viewers’ everyday lives (it’s everywhere in your grocery store) with adventure in less familiar locations (evil corporations are illegally burning down Indonesian rain forests). And of course, Harrison Ford holding an orphaned baby orangutan.

Harrison Ford With Orangutan - screenshot from Years of Living Dangerously

Harrison Ford is holding an orphaned baby orangutan. Your arguments against climate change are irrelevant.

The “solutions” part of the segment focuses on what corporations are (and aren’t) doing to improve their supply chains. It’s obvious that the viewer can do something—buy fewer products with palm oil, demand that companies improve their sourcing—but equally obvious that the major onus is on the companies who provide, and purchase, the stuff in bulk.

I wonder if communication experts haven’t been neglecting the importance of James Cameron’s direction. From the first shots of NASA planes trick flying through canyons to get air samples, to the hypercompetent female scientist solving the mysteries of El Nino, to the final shaky-cam runs through a battle in Syria, the whole thing is framed as an action movie—or as multiple mini action movies that build up to the full picture. In an action movie, even when things seem hopeless, viewers know there is hope. I wonder if Cameron isn’t doing something very clever here: by depicting climate change in this way, fighting it—however slowly, however steadily—becomes a heroic act, and one that we can feel confident will eventually have results.

It could make a real difference to give viewers that kind of script for the small, sometimes frustrating, actions that could save the world.

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