Friday, May 15, 2009

Are we living in The Age of Stupid?

Here is another guest-blog from our friend and colleague Laura. Exciting news about new releases from the world of Celluloid. Timely to accompany the Cannes Festival right now. Enjoy!

I, like Crane & Matten, like to use film and literature to explore our subject in alternative ways which sometimes capture the imagination more profoundly than the average media report or academic case study. Business Ethics films seem to me to fall into two simple categories, the documentary-type film on the one hand and on the other the dramatisation of either a real or realistic example of ethically dubious business-related behaviour. In the documentary form I would include Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, Leonardo di Caprio’s The 11th Hour, Supersize Me, The Corporation, WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price, Orgasm Inc. and the ENRON documentary, The Smartest Guys in the Room. The contrasting dramatised approach includes Erin Brockovich, Blood Diamond, The Insider, Rogue Trader, There will be Blood, Michael Clayton and Fast Food Nation.

Each of these two approaches has their advantages and limitations of course. The documentary perspective can comfortably contain more factual information but can err on the preachy side – maybe that’s why the celebrity association seems to pep things up a little and hold interest. And even if you are basically in agreement with the premise, you can’t escape the certain knowledge that the version of events you are getting is clearly aiming to get one side of the story firmly across. This doesn’t move the arguments tremendously far forward but can focus the mind and provide ammunition for debate. The dramatisation approach to Business Ethics films are easier-going to watch in a sense, though of course the credibility of the message can get subsumed in the dramatic action.

A hybrid approach, with the detail and credibility of a documentary but the entertainment factor of a dramatisation, has potential to profit from the best of both worlds. In March a new film released in the UK managed to do just that and combine the documentary and the dramatic styles with considerable success to bring home the runaway catastrophe of climate change with a punch, and miraculously without making you feel like you have been lectured at.

The Age of Stupid is directed by Franny Armstrong and truly is a film which reaches parts you had forgotten you had. It stars Pete Postlethwaite (seems every film needs a celebrity, but then he is a brilliant actor) as an archivist living alone in 2055 in a world decimated by climate change. As he mutters to himself and his computer screen he reviews footage from 2008 and ponders why, when we had the chance, we didn’t do anything about the environmental damage we were causing.

The documentary aspect comes through as the archivist follows several real stories from around the world: an octogenarian French mountain guide who has watched his beloved landscape change; an ambitious entrepreneur starting a low-cost airline in India and seeking the advantages there which the developed world has long enjoyed; a Shell oilman from New Orleans who sees no real contradiction between a life spent in the oil industry and the horrendous damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, in which he helped to save over 100 people’s lives; a young Nigerian woman who is doing all she can to earn money to put herself through medical school and become a doctor (including fishing in the oil-polluted waters and washing fish with ‘Omo’ to make them ‘edible’); two Iraqi refugee children looking for their brother; and an English wind farm developer trying to overcome opposition in the form of formidable middle aged, middle class locals (he loses).

These real lives show intriguing, sometimes heart breaking perspectives on the fallout of climate change, almost all of which have some connection to corporations (Shell in particular come under the spotlight) and their activities, so useful business ethics material as well as a straight education on the complexity we cause by messing with the environment. For me what it did spectacularly well was bring home the point that climate change is not something for the younger (or future) generation to worry about – it is us, now, of all ages who need to get a grip. In fact, probably, the older we are, the more culpable, with our high cost, high energy consuming lifestyles and endless rooms of stuff we could easily live without. It is the oil man who points out that people looking back on our era will be bound to call it the Age of Stupid, for our failure to act on the damage we are causing.

The film is timed explicitly to galvanise action prior to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2009 in Copenhagen. This is the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Roadmap. Director Franny Armstrong puts it quite plainly herself “Copenhagen is our last chance”. Certainly, it will be an incredibly important political, social, environmental and economic event, and one in which we will see quite clearly the metal of our respective politicians. Legislation is at last being looked to as part of the solution, as we have seen in the Climate Change Act 2008 in the UK and may yet witness from the Climate Change Bill currently being debated in the House of Representatives in the US. This Bill, going under the official title of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 , should be considered by the Energy and Commerce Committee by the end of May 2009. The time for tackling climate change could hardly be any more ‘now’.

I –seriously – spent the next few evenings after seeing The Age of Stupid sitting in an unheated, darkened house desperately trying to save energy. The film is that moving and effective at waking you up to the situation we are in. Happily spring is here in the UK so I no longer need to take quite such chilling steps to do my bit. But at the risk of sounding evangelical (as if I haven’t already!), I would say – go and see the film, or better still arrange for it to be shown at your workplace/university/school/arts centre or wherever. If we are quick, we may just manage to be not as stupid as we look.

Laura J. Spence, Director, Centre for Research into Sustainability, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.

1 comment:

  1. Hi!, Just wanted to say that I love your blog and have drawn a great deal from it in addition to your handbooks. I have posted some of my conclusions that are based largely on your assertions. I would love to hear your comments/criticisms, you can find them at my blog - I would love to hear your comments on my "Corporate Social Responsibility - Introduction" and especially "Corporate Social Responsibility - Conclusions" posts.

    Best Regards!


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