JL Aronson

JL Aronson is a documentary filmmaker who lives somewhere north of New York City. His films include Danielson: a Family Movie, Last Summer at Coney Island, and Up on the Roof.

A Planetary Reckoning

Cinema—be it documentary or narrative—does not normally ask more of the viewer than a couple hours’ time, a degree of attention, and suspension of disbelief. Occasionally, a film will ask you to reappraise a situation or opinion. Of course, many filmmakers hope to inspire a change in behavior, such as greater tolerance, civic engagement, or a donation to a cause. Planetary, a new, ecologically-concerned documentary directed by Guy Reid, asks us to evolve.

Over the past couple of decades, concern over climate change has given birth to a sizable number of genres and subgenres in film. Think An Inconvenient Truth (PowerPoint prophecy) or The Day After Tomorrow (eco-disaster-sploitation). Precedents of such eco-disaster films go back to the 1970s. All of these titles, in one form or another, ask us to reflect on what we (or Monsanto or Dow Chemical or whoever) have wrought, and to seek practical remediation. With a mesmerizing score and groundbreaking cinematography, Planetary makes the same requests. However, like the astronaut whose lunar perspective the film evokes, it then proceeds to take a giant leap.

The kind of evolution that Reid and his collaborators have in mind is framed both as a progression and a return. The film, which features prominent activists and thinkers such as Bill McKibben, Barry Lopez and Mary Evelyn Tucker, starts off with a recollection of how the first pictures of Earth from space—taken by astronauts in 1968—changed the way that we look at ourselves. For the first time in human history, we were able to see our own planet and reflect on both our cosmic insignificance as well as our collective fate within the single globe-spanning ecosystem. However, as McKibben points out, those early images are now out of date. The intervening decades have brought terrestrial transformations so dramatic—from vast deforestation to desertification and monocrop agriculture—that they can be seen clearly from space.

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A familiar litany of Earth’s injuries follows. Creatures are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. The poisoned waters are rising. Carbon is filling our atmosphere. Externalizations cannot be externalized beyond a closed system. And our world is a closed system. The environmental crisis, in fact, proves a maxim central to many eastern philosophies: all of existence is intertwined. From goldfinches to blue jeans, look at any object or creature closely, and you’ll see a web of dependent factors running off in every direction. It’s wonderful and it’s precarious. A rising tide may lift all boats but it also subsumes everything that isn’t buoyant. Scientists—including a number of them in this film—have been echoing this sentiment for decades.

But it’s one thing to proclaim “We are one.” It’s another thing to absorb that message and apply it to every consumer decision and seemingly inconsequential action that one takes. Such an epiphany is recounted by several astronauts interviewed for the film. In the telling, their observations come off as a religious experience afforded only to the few men and women who have stepped that far out of the worldly realm. At one point, Dr. Mae Jemison, a space shuttle veteran, says, “The really wonderful thing that happened to me when I was in space was this feeling of belonging to the entire universe.” Ron Garan, who spent over six months on the International Space Station, says, “You can’t help but reflect on how we’re all one people.”

And yet, astronauts are not the only humans to have gone beyond the mundane and returned to share their insights with the rest of us. What I found most impressive about Planetary—aside from the inspired imagery—was the way Reid’s editor Steve Watts Kennedy (who is also credited as writer and co-producer) seamlessly makes this transition. The interview subjects move from astronauts to activists to philosophers to Zen priests and Tibetan lamas and finally to Native American elders. This impressive queue progressively makes the case that a new kind of consciousness is required of our species if we are to evolve past the myopic, egocentric, short-sighted ways that have brought us to the brink of self-destruction. The film maintains that a steady awareness of interconnectedness, as well as qualities like compassion, empathy and mindfulness, can only be cultivated through meditation and deep reflection.

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Planetary was released on Earth Day this year, both online and in theaters across the U.S. and England. It is also being shown at a handful of prestigious film festivals, which is how I happened to see it with a crowd of 700 one warm April afternoon in Toronto. Now, I should mention that I have practiced meditation myself for a number of years. So if the theory holds true, that meditation makes one a more responsible player in the cosmological order of things, I would hopefully be able to recognize that in myself. It’s a difficult thing to say with any real certainty. I can say this, however: the daily act involves disconnecting from one’s affairs and simply feeling what it is to be alive, to marvel, to desire, to suffer, to look away, to look back—all the things that cross the space of awareness when one turns off the devices and turns inwards. This practice—and it is a practice—nourishes and simultaneously depends upon the ability to stay present. Staying present and examining one’s choices and relationships—isn’t that what’s needed in order to really know who we are, where we are and how to heal?

I’m not alone in this experience. Yesterday’s fringe is woven into today’s quilt. Mindfulness has gone almost mainstream of late. Everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Russell Brand touts its rewards. But the voices in the film are not just talking about the kind of de-stressing, relaxation techniques advised by physicians and celebrities. They refer to the kind of deep, reflective inquiry that is a hallmark of rigorous—even religious—spiritual practice. The Buddhist voices speak of a time-tested tradition of recognizing interdependence. Planetarys aboriginal representatives emphasize modern man’s self-narrative as one separate and superior to nature. And yet Planetary builds to an almost feel-good conclusion: The key is a sense of awe. Our civilization has lost that reverence. Meditation brings it back.

Most of the people who will wind up watching Planetary will already consider themselves to be environmentalists, or of an environmentally-concerned persuasion. But if viewers do not already feel a visceral connection to nature, practice meditation or engage in other deep spiritual work, will the film inspire them to do so?

The Guardian’s Leslie Felperin isn’t buying it. After admiring Planetary’s intentions and cinematography, she writes,

“[T]he film’s answer to our problems seems to rest on a lot of vague hippy ideas about getting people to mediate [sic] in nature or become Native Americans. Something like that. Worst of all, the unrelenting background score of droning yoga-class music becomes so intensely annoying it’s almost enough to make you want to go out and buy a Hummer so you can drive around the world throwing litter out the window while playing death metal at maximum volume.

So much for empathy. Dennis Harvey, in Variety, is more to the point: “The soft landing on a general note of ‘Be mindful’ lends all the spectacular images . . . less cumulative gravity than a more straightforward call to protesting action might have.”

To my mind, both these reviewers miss the point. In Felperin’s case, it seems like a willful cynicism that she expects will echo her readers’ own skepticism. For Harvey, there is no alternative to the documentary model—to incite incredulity, anger and heartbreak—that has hitherto yielded mixed results for the environmental movement. Wash, rinse, repeat. This attitude also seems to prevent him from hearing the philosophic observations made by several of the film’s voices: Physicist Peter Russell asserts we must “let go of this egocentric materialistic consciousness.” Joan Halifax, a renowned Zen teacher, reiterates the findings of mystics and physicists like Russell when she concludes, “There is no inherent separate self, we are coterminous with everything.” Activist Dr. Joanna Macy calls for “a transition from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society” and points out this is already happening in fits and starts. Thus, it is not merely mindfulness—the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s actions and their repercussions—that these speakers are calling for. It is a complete shift in attitude for the modern person, a shift that has only been reliably cultivated by those who have had a thorough engagement with contemplative traditions.

Finally, Daniel Eagen of Film Journal International writes

“While a less materialistic society might be better for the environment, not everyone can afford to abandon soul-killing cities to meditate in rain forests or on mountaintops. Despite its good intentions, Planetary speaks only to those who already agree with the filmmakers.

And perhaps this gets to the heart of my own wrestling with the film and its public reception. I am, after all, among the converted. But I wonder if perhaps the call to evolve only differs from other environmentalist strategies by degree. After all, environmentalism is concerned with how behaviors can be changed, if at all. If people can’t be convinced to bike to work, what makes anyone think they’ll be sold on sitting around doing nothing for a part of their day, every day? And yes, not everyone has the ability to cultivate a relationship with the exterior natural world, much less a relationship with their own natural interior.

Many pragmatists assume that people will only change their behavior when it is legally enforced or in their economic or social interest. That is why we speak of the environmental challenge as a matter of leadership. Most of us have given up on ourselves or our neighbors to make any drastic changes voluntarily. Meanwhile, Planetary and its narrative of widespread awakening take an argument rooted in faith and balances it, sometimes precariously, over the edge of pragmatism. The deep realization of our interdependence with all life has been experienced by many, but it remains an article of faith that can only be truly experienced subjectively. It is an inversion of the problem scientists have faced in convincing doubters that climate change is real and human-caused.

Will the last word be held by the critics, those keepers of the skeptic flame? They argue that even if the spiritual argument is true, not enough people will commit themselves in the absence of immediate financial and social incentives. But here’s what the critics overlook: our culture is already changing. Planetary is a distinctive entry in a movement that is taking place without the approbation or even recognition of cynics. As interdisciplinary economist Charles Eisenstein says in the film, “Normal has to seem unsustainable. . . . We have to plant the seeds of a new story.” That is already happening. And every time mindfulness and meditation are normalized in the discourse of modern life; every time a public figure talks about the natural world as their place of worship; and every time children are taught that they are made of the same material as every other person, every other animal and every other thing in existence, the number of those still calling themselves separate will have dwindled even more. At such a time, whose citadel of pragmatism will the naysayers be defending?