Documentary Review: ‘Time To Choose’

Review by Justin Goodman

Mary Nichols is frustrated by our reaction to climate change. As she’s the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, this seems fair. In Charles Ferguson’s (No End In Sight, Inside Job) newest documentary, Time to Choose, she expresses as much, saying, “first people deny that they’re part of the problem. Then they deny there’s a solution. Then they tell you that if there is a solution, it’s too expensive.” And it’s this tone, unlike his previous films, a mixture of hope and frustration, that define Ferguson’s heavily researched polemics. While maintaining his standards of quality with a sleekness and variety as engaging as it is beautiful, this tendency for hope is also frustrating in itself. It’s a varnished surface that deflects any substantial and serious concerns thrown against it, turning even a coal dust mound as big as a beach into something misleadingly clean.

I’m generally inclined to be sceptical about high, bright tones when it comes to climate change primarily because, while it’s true that deniers move goal posts as Nichols suggests, advocates tend towards exaggerations. Opening Time to Choose is a rallying cry of “we can stop climate change.” No, we can’t. The gateway to that particular underworld has already opened (in Siberia in fact), and runaway carbon emissions have begun the process of permafrost thaw and releasing of trapped methane that mark a heady progression into cataclysm. At best we can slow down climate change, as numerous studies have noted. We still need to fight against fossil fuel dependency–we’re already beginning to, as the documentary shows–but it’ll be the difference between my grandchildren watching the earth be irreparably altered and my great grandchildren doing so.

Misconceptions cleared up, Time to Choose is divided into three parts: Coal and Electricity, Oils and Cars, and Land and Food. From footage of American mountain tops leveled off by explosives and Chinese coal miners dying in collapses, to revealing wide angles of sludgy and now-carcinogenic African waters, there’s nothing that Ferguson leaves out regarding corporate impacts on the environment. Cancer rates, extinction, pollution; one montage is, sadly, composed entirely of oil leaks and oil-based fires. Perhaps to the disappointment of some, these graphic displays rarely lead to specific indictments of figureheads–for instance, no mention of BP CEO Tony Hayward who referred to the Deepwater Horizon spill as”relatively tiny.” And so there’s no pot stirring here but for flashes of implied corruption as with James Inhofe (Scarily, Chairman of the Environment and Public Works committee) whose climate change denial was followed by a list of his oil & gas donors.

Despite CEO refusal to accept responsibility–much like Tobacco industry CEOs who claimed nicotine wasn’t addictive, fossil fuel industry leaders knew about climate change though publicly lambasted the idea–it’s with this that Ferguson leaves off levying blame. His sunny disposition leads him to showcase energy leaders of the future across the globe, from wind turbine manufacturers in China to solar power companies in California, there’s a glimmer of hope furthered by the fact that clean energy technology costs (shown in several graphs) have dropped and continue to drop. To refer to it as revolutionary is, like Bernie Sander’s revolution, a rhetorical device giving pomp and energy to steady, uphill advancements. And while it’s peculiar to hear Oscar Isaac declare an energy revolution is occurring in a documentary calling for increased dedication to that very same alternative energy, the cheery certainty in which he claims it is contagious.

Some time is given to the Northern Muriqui Monkey that, to the date of this review, is critically endangered. The focused interest on the Northern Muriqui is not only because the nigh-eradication is due to deforestation and hunting though. Northern Muriquis are unique primates. Unlike the typical primate hierarchical structure, their social groupings are equalitarian. The suggestion, of course, is that we should imitate them. That we are extinguishing them instead seems almost poetic. It speaks to the thematic confrontation that Time to Choose puts before us: will we continue to kill our best selves, or will we change while we can? It’s difficult not to agree with the teleological view of clean energy that Ferguson presents, however. In fact, it’s already here in the shape of Tesla and Solarcity and China Guodian Corporation, in the shape of Norway’s commitment to zero deforestation. Now it’s just a matter of time.

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