There are people who live dangerously because they can afford to, and then there are those who live dangerously because they can’t afford to live any other way. If you believe that those who live recklessly as a luxury shouldn’t be lumped together with those who do so out of necessity, I’m on your side. Those distinctions must be made, especially when defining “danger.” And when the stakes are as existential as the habitability of our planet, we better be taking the hardest look at the culprits who are actually driving the crisis.
Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously—a nine-episode documentary series that premieres this Sunday—is an ambitious attempt at illustrating the many ways climate change dangers are surfacing across the globe, and the obstacles to solutions. In each episode, viewers are guided by narrators we’re familiar with from popular movies, TV and media: Don Cheadle, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Friedman, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, Chris Hayes and America Ferrera are just a few of these. Creators of the show, which lists James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger as executive producers, hope the celebrities will draw a broader audience to the problem.
“It was really important to make sure we had reach with this series, so we decided that we would find well-known figures who are passionate about environmental issues, but not necessarily experts,” said David Gelber, a co-creator and executive producer of the show.
In the first two episodes made available to the press, we follow Cheadle, Ford, Schwarzenegger and Friedman to various locations that are either feeding climate change through unsustainable practices, or are being fed upon. Friedman travels to Syria to learn how climate change helped fuel droughts that led to civil war. Cheadle goes to the small town of Plainview, Texas, to examine how droughts have destabilized jobs there. Ford lands in Indonesia, where uncontrolled deforestation has released tons of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Schwarzenegger visits Montana, where mother nature has her own deforestation project in the form of uncontrollable wildfires. While individual instances of extreme weather can’t be directly attributed to climate change, climate scientists stress that the planet’s warming is exacerbating all manner of natural disasters such as these.
Schwarzenegger dealt with plenty of fires in his own state, when he was governor of California. It’s why he understands the true threat to the future, despite his Republican affiliation. Explaining why he decided to be an outlier in his party, Schwarzenegger says in one episode, “Climate change is not political.”
The show goes on to paint a different truth. Politics is a part of it, as viewers will see in these storylines. Yes, extreme temperatures can deepen poverty. In part of Friedman’s storyline, UN Ambassador Susan Rice explains to him how climate change has created conditions, like food and water scarcity, that have driven communities and nations into economic insecurity. But politics began forming poverty long before we realized we were forming a hole in the ozone. Racism, no doubt, exacerbates it all. Viewers will get a strong sense from these early episodes, though, that government itself is the major culprit behind inaction on climate change, by either failing to create the laws needed to stem the problem or failing to enforce existing ones.
But some of the responsibility falls on us non-government civilians, as well. The show is strongest when it shows the celebrities in far-flung locations, out of their comfort zones, making genuine connections with people by learning about their lives, culture and values. The message sent is that in order to communicate or activate around climate change, we first need to be willing to communicate clearly with one another, no matter what our station is in life. It makes sense that this might be more effective than simply blasting public policy prescriptions and blaring off action alerts at people.
If you give a damn about climate change, the series seems to insist, then you first have to give a damn about the people it will affect, which means you treat them as neighbors rather than subjects.
“We wanted them to ask questions on behalf of the audience to drive that connection as concerned citizens, and they’ve done it spectacularly well,” said show creator Gelber.
I wouldn’t extend that “spectacular” tag to all of the stars, however. Cheadle, Schwarzenegger and Friedman all stripped themselves of their highlighted profiles, acting rather as curious children for the show. The same can’t be said of Harrison Ford, who clearly didn’t get the memo to leave his Hollywood persona at the ranch. Instead, Ford shows up in Indonesia as a cowboy, shooting and asking questions of his villains in broad, fell swoops. Unfortunately, he gets the most airtime in these episodes.
Through Ford’s story arc, we learn that deforestation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 20 percent of them globally, the same percentage as transportation sources. In Indonesia, most of its native peat reserves—which make up the ground of the country’s ancient forests—have been destroyed to make room for cultivating palm oil. Palm oil is used for a variety of products found in our bathrooms and kitchens today, like margarine and Dove soap.
When peat is burned it releases tons of carbon dioxide. Despite the Indonesian president’s moratorium on deforestation, and the Minister of Forestry’s calls to stop it, outlaws continue burning peat lands and building “plantations in the ashes.” These vigilante planters then harvest palm oil crops and sell it to global distribution companies that apparently are aware that the oil they are purchasing is illegally obtained.
This makes Ford angry. So he confronts and interrogates every person he deems assailable in the illegal trade. His first suspect is Franky Widjaja, a member of Indonesia’s wealthiest family, a dynasty whose total net worth of $7 billion came from selling this product. Ford forcefully explains to Widjaja the destruction wrought from his operations, and all but blames him for global warming.
“Do you ever feel guilty about that?” Ford asks him.
It’s great theater for patriot games. But how is Widjaja supposed to respond to this? As a viewer, you’re either nonplussed like I was, or you’re somehow invested in Widjaja’s guilt, even if there’s no return on it. No answer to the question would feel like an inch closer to a solution, though. Widjaja responds how any businessman would when questioned about his business ethics: he blames the government for letting him do it.
This leads Ford to his next target, Indonesia’s Minister of Forestry Zulkifli Hasan who Ford believes is a minister of corruption for allowing businesses to destroy the forests with impunity.
Ford is smug, contemptuous and cantankerous in his deposition of Hasan, pointing and wagging his finger at the high-ranking government official like he was a truant school student. When his indictments of corruption trigger giggles from Hasan, Ford rankles and says sternly, “That’s not funny.” He’s John Wayne in a Cowboys vs. Aliens movie, not leaving until he kicks some alien ass.
Replies Hasan to Ford’s accusations: “We are only now experiencing what you call a democracy. This is not America. This is different. We have just now started with what we call reform…. People are just starting to taste freedom. Sometimes we have too much freedom.”
The scene is reminiscent of Mike Wallace’s 1996 interview of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan on 60 Minutes (coincidentally, the Years of Living Dangerously creators are 60 Minutes producers). In that exchange, Wallace goaded Farrakhan about Nigeria, repeatedly describing it as the most corrupt nation in the world. Farrakhan’s response was classic: “Fine. So what? Thirty-five years old—that’s what that nation is. Now, here is America, 226 years old. You love democracy, but there in Africa you are trying to force these people into a system of government that you just accepted thirty years ago [when] black folks got the right to vote.”
Consider this: Indonesia spent much of the twentieth century under the autocratic rule of Suharto, and held its first democratic presidential election since then only fifteen years ago. It is in the bottom third of poorest nations based on gross domestic product. The United States is among the top ten wealthiest. Indonesia is responsible for a little less than 2 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita. The United States: 17.6. No wonder Hasan was giggling.
Still, Ford is not impressed with Hasan’s defense. He rolls his eyes and scolds Hasan some more about “all of this wealth at the top of the heap” and a “bunch of inequity, illegality and corruption” at the bottom of the nation. He’s not talking about America. He ends his polemic by putting his glasses back on his face—he was so flung with rage, you never notice him take them off—telling the Forestry Minister snarkily, “Thank you for your time.”
You’d think climate change was solved in this transaction. You get the sense that Ford wanted to tell Hasan to get off of his plane, even though he was in Hasan’s office.
Tucked between these swordfights is a tiny two-minute segment in which Ford meets with Bustar Matir, leader of the Indonesian chapter of Greenpeace. All too briefly, we learn about a three-and-a-half year campaign of boycotts and public demonstrations that Greenpeace led to stem deforestation and force Widjaja to stop peddling illegal palm oil.
But a segment on grassroots organizing and social movements must not have fit neatly into Ford’s Indonesia Jones plotline, where a single, white hero saves the day. So it’s not long before we’re with Ford in the interrogation room again, this time with the president of Indonesia, who disappoints Ford even more with his answers about government corruption. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono explains that he takes the corruption charges seriously, but the problem is larger than he can manage right now. (Maybe because this new form of government is only fifteen years old).
It’s in Yudhoyono’s response that the viewers will, hopefully, finally understand that the fault of climate change can’t be placed entirely at the government’s feet. A problem of this magnitude, in fact, exposes the limitations of government. It’s easy to name “corruption” as a villain, as Ford does, like it’s some virus that just infected his laptop. This explains nothing, though, if the corrupting force is not named, which Ford does not. Leaving Indonesia, Ford wonders “if there is just too much pressure to develop the forest [for palm oil] for anything to change.”
What is this nameless, odorless “pressure”? Who is doing the pressuring? It just might be capitalism. It just might be the United States. It just might be us. In other words, we’re the ones living dangerously because we can afford to, while Indonesia is living through a more compelled kind of danger. Ford won’t say this, and neither is it mentioned much in the first two episodes. I hope it is acknowledged in future episodes. But many nations, including America, are buying that palm oil. It is not a black market item.
Back in California, When Ford interviews a representative of the company Unilever, a top purchaser of Indonesian palm oil, none of his previous rage is present. His finger never wags, his cheeks never flush, he doesn’t ask the Unilever rep if he feels guilty. The company rep tells Ford that, when you consider how many products are made with palm oil, whole markets would crumble if Unilever were to stop buying it. It’s too big to fail. Again, no righteous indignation from Ford.
In the show, we see that a partial solution is eventually achieved, which the Unilever rep credits ironically to the Greenpeace anti-deforestation movement. But Ford delivers a sermon at the end that sounds like he wants the credit.
It’s just one inexplicably problematic narrative among the three stronger ones led by Cheadle, Schwarzenegger and Friedman, and there are at least a half-dozen other stories to come in future episodes. And for all the “government is in the way” Tea Party logic shared, there’s tremendous value in the tender scenes where the celebrities are taking the time to learn about other people’s lives.
It’s not clear after two episodes if the “living dangerously” refers to the fact that today we already are living with extreme weather events, or if it refers to government officials and corporations engaging in reckless practices that fuel climate change. I’m hoping this is hashed out as the season progresses, because the distinction is needed.
As Farrakhan alluded, America has been guilty of dangerous living for far too long to play morally superior. For the US storylines alone, the title should be “Centuries of Living Dangerously.” Businessmen here were getting their deforestin’ on in the name of profits since the slave trade. Southern states built plantations amidst the ashes long before Indonesia. It wasn’t called living dangerously. It was called capitalism. Important distinctions are needed between what Indonesia is doing, while escaping poverty, and what the United States has done for decades, while living high off the hog. Showtime doesn’t parse this well, at least not in the beginning. Indonesia learned it from us. I hope this series is brave enough to acknowledge this.
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly named the president under whose “autocratic rule” Indonesia spent most of the previous century.