The Root Cause


Human activity on the planet is a geological force, changing the climate and the oceans, reshaping the landscape, causing pollution, and driving extinctions of other species. As a result, human civilization as we know it is facing its own demise. Can humans change the way we interact with the environment and change our future to avert disaster, or are we bound by our innate nature to continue as a destructive geological force?

Story summary

The environmental and existential issue covered in the story is that humans are causing a new geological epoch named the Anthropocene, and this activity may be devastating to us and many other species alive today. Yet we are not the first species to change the course of evolution and drive planetary scale change. Billions of years ago cyanobacteria evolved to photosynthesize, produce oxygen and send the planet on the evolutionary trajectory that led to life on Earth as we know it today. Cyanobacteria were not aware of their effect on Earth, but we humans can measure and see what we are doing. How are we reacting to the changes we are causing? Are we capable of rationally figuring out a way forward that will protect life and civilization as we know it? Are we in control or are we similar to cyanobacteria?

It is important to take a look at what defines the Anthropocene. The film outlines the various areas in which human activity is influencing planetary-scale change. Probably, every person has heard of climate change, regardless of whether they deny the science or accept it. But there is much more happening in the Anthropocene epoch. The film narrative explores the definition of Anthropocene. This environmental sustainability film is narrated by the director. Narration is interspersed with interviews from six experts. There are interviews with academic researchers and experts on the various effects of the Anthropocene to provide an overview of all the impacts we humans are having on the planet.

The scale of human activity is enormous due to industrial processes and due to issues of population and consumption. There are unprecedented numbers of humans alive today. And many of us mindlessly consume with complete disregard to the environmental cost of our behaviors. The film takes a look at demographics and projections for future population. As our numbers increase, it is only morally right that every human should expect adequate food, water, safety, education, and to have a so-called developed world lifestyle. Yet what does this mean for the future demands on the environment. No society has yet developed without fossil fuels; can future societies be different? The main issue impacting the survival of the human species is how the distribution of consumers evolves. If the Earth was populated by 7 billion high-level consumers today it is likely that the effects of human activity on the planet’s life systems would be much, much worse.

The film then examines our ability to respond to environmental threat and interviews an expert researcher in this area. By taking some time to examine our typical psychological responses the film asks if we able to fully grasp the extent of the problem that we face? And if we are, can we respond in time to protect and conserve our resources?

The film contends that one major problem to solving the Anthropocene is continuing with business as usual. If we are unable to take into account the true cost from cradle to grave of the production of goods and services, will we be able to have equitable and sustainable lifestyles for all people on Earth? Business as usual relies upon ever growing numbers of consumers of products and services. The numbers of consumers are increasing worldwide. The film takes a look at consumption and production under the business as usual rubric and poses possible alternatives.  A lawyer who is working to help people develop co-operatives, ways to promote a sharing economy rather than an exploitative system shares ideas for alternatives. Any solutions to the problems of the Anthropocene need to take a look at our business as usual practices.

The ending does not provide a clear answer, rather aims to stimulate the audience to take a look at themselves, their behaviors, and to think about ways that in their own lives they could participate in solutions. Are we humans different from bacteria, do we have the ability to think our way out of the situation that we have caused. If we believe that we are different from bacteria, that we can act and change our behaviors, then now is the time to prove it. We need to collectively participate in solutions, and to recognize the magnitude of the Anthropocene Epoch of our own making.

The interviewees in this film are academics (from Stanford University and UC Berkeley) and environmental and social justice activists in the San Francisco Bay Area.