Now opens with a number of young people explaining how and when they became an activist. It’s a strange question, as if being an activist is a career path. For some, I guess it is. One said she gave up being an architect to campaign against plastic, and others seem to have found some work for NGOs or as paid speakers for campaigns.
Good luck to them, though the majority of largely unheard people that we see in the film are the millions who have attended demonstrations in defence of the climate in the past few years. Watching pictures from a range of international countries – here, mainly in the Global North – it is quite astounding how quickly such a massive movement has emerged from virtually nothing.
Greta Thunberg features of course, which is great with me. The recent documentary I am Greta confirmed just what an articulate and perceptive young woman she is. We get some rarely seen footage alongside some of the old hits. We also see her and others marching in their hundreds of thousands in the international day of action for climate justice towards the end of 2019 (2019 was so different, wasn’t it?).
Now is angry, and while it offers a variety of voices from inside the movement, it’s not afraid to name the guilty. A German activist explains how she used to worry intensely about her climate footprint before realising that German industry polluted so much on her behalf that she could never stay within the acceptable limits. An academic asserts that the problem lies in capitalism and built in obsolescence which ensures unnecessary waste.
A couple of famous talking heads are rolled on to represent the older generation. Patti Smith is great – obviously still active, her daughter is leading an ecological initiative in France. Wim Wenders, on the other hand, wishes the new generation well, but seems to have given up on activism himself since some people turned to violence. Now I guess he thinks he’s changing the world by hanging around with the despicable Bono.
The one thing that is missing from Now is a strategy – or rather, we are offered several strategies – from using less plastic to growing more trees, which seem thoroughly inadequate compared to the size of the threat. A slightly older woman is asked how she responds to a speech by Thunberg. It’s great, she says, but it’s unclear what she can do. She planted a tree in her garden last week. Most of us don’t have the gardens to do even that.
So, on the one side we see the marvellous demonstrations, but even these leave themselves open to be co-opted by the enemies of the climate. Even neo-liberal German foreign minister Heiko Maas is rolled on to say all the right words saying that people Greta Thunberg have taught people like him to think differently. When they inspire you to act differently, you can get back to us, Heiko.
Some of the people interviewed are suing the US government. Others are delighted that the UN invited youth delegates to address a sitting. These are fine as publicity stunts, or as ways of building actions which target the big polluters, but for a problem as systemic as climate change, a believe that the courts or the UN will be able to bring lasting change is ultimately demobilising.
The dilemma is acknowledged by many of the interviewees. The problem that they are fighting is so systemic, so built into a neo-liberal society which privileges Big Oil, that without confronting capitalism, you’re left appealing to the UN. There is a totemic scene in the film where Thunberg tells UN delegates that they’re part of the problem, and they applaud her to the rafters, obviously oblivious to hat she is saying.
Some of the young activists react to this by throwing themselves into single issue campaigning, and good luck to them. Others seem to be moving towards a more NGO-orientated approach, where what they are even allowed to campaign on is restricted by what their financial backers deem to be uncontroversial enough to win donations or tax relief. And yet this is a problem which requires an utterly controversial solution.
There was a cliché about left wing arts journalism which denounces any film that doesn’t call for the building of a revolutionary party. It’s a cliché, but it’s often true. Just this once, though, we have a film that suffers for not making this call. Now is great at explaining the problem, brilliant at showing the mass response, but woefully inadequate at letting us know what we can do about it.
I hope that people are inspired by Now to join the climate movement and to attend (better still carrying on attending) the demonstrations. And yet the film shows that this movement needs an urgent discussion on how it can actually win. Although some of the problems are raised here, it is way too short on answers.