Are We Living in ‘The Age of Stupid’?

Andrew C. Revkin
The New York Times
21 September 2009

Monday night is the global premiere of “ The Age of Stupid.” The film is a scorching appeal for humans to avoid knowingly up-ending the earth’s climate, delivered from the vantage-point of 2055, when the giant London Eye ferris wheel looks more like a waterwheel, with its bottom immersed in the Thames, along with much of central London. Its narrator, played by  Pete Postlethwaite, is a Beckett-style loner who is a caretaker for all that remains of human science, culture and history, packed in a tower rising from the wave-dappled Arctic Ocean somewhere near the North Pole. ( The Times reviewed the film in July.)

The film starts at the end, spinning through a fast-forward collection of the worst possible worst-case scenarios for climate should no effort be made to curb greenhouse gases. By 2055, the planet has been ravaged by drought and storm, coastlines have flooded, millions have been dislocated or thrust into conflict. Flicking a touch-screen computer, the caretaker of the Arctic archive, a variant on Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, wiles away the hours scrolling through video snippets from our decade, musing on how we had the knowledge and tools to transform our energy system, but chose to stick with business as usual.

“The Age of Stupid” is the product of six years of improvisational fund-raising, filmmaking and distribution work by Franny Armstrong, a Briton best known for  McLibel, her documentary on a seven-year court battle between  McDonald’s and two vegetarian anti-meat, anti-corporate campaigners.

I spoke with Ms. Armstrong, who is 37, by phone after watching a review copy of “The Age of Stupid” over the weekend.

From the beginning, around 2002, she said one goal was to humanize the climate challenge the same way the feature film “Traffic” took on the sweeping story of the drug trade. Initially she planned a conventional documentary following the stories of six people in different parts of the world whose lives were interrelated in some way by energy and related conflicts (including the war in Iraq). These characters include  a wealthy entrepreneur in India who wants to end poverty while creating the country’s first discount airline; a  young woman in Nigeria who aspires to be a doctor but scratches a living in lands fouled by oil extraction; a  young man in England fighting to install wind turbines but facing strident opposition from wealthy landowners who say they are worried about global warming, but appear more worried about their view.

The wind-power fight presents just about the most vivid portrait of the “nimby” (not in my back yard) syndrome that I can recall seeing. The scenes in India, with Jeh Wadia, the entrepreneur, traveling by private jet and chauffeured car, may not play well there or in other fast-growing developing countries, where millions of people are trying to build businesses. But Ms. Armstrong said she’s still in touch with the airline tycoon and he harbors no hard feelings.

The name for the film came from a comment by  Alvin DuVernay, who spent decades working for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico and lost his New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina. “With our use or misuse of resources the last 100 years or so, I’d probably rename this age something like The Age of Ignorance, The Age of Stupid.” he says.

Ms. Armstrong said she decided the material needed to be framed from the future because so much of the climate challenge derives from the time lag between emissions and the resulting climate change. “We have to deal now with something that’s going to happen in 30 years,” Ms. Armstrong said. “The only way to do that is to use our intellect. Otherwise we’re just yeast.”

Her first structure had two teenagers as narrators, but she realized that would result in viewers being bombarded with blame from end to end. She eventually settled on the curator character — whose tone is more a mix of sardonic and wistful than purely accusatory — and reached out to Mr. Postlethwaite after she learned he was trying to get a wind turbine installed on his home.

Ms. Armstrong, not content with pushing for climate action through the film alone, has helped create several new initiatives, one being, and the other the 10:10 movement, which is trying to get companies, schools, organizations and everyone else to commit to cutting emissions of greenhouse gases 10 percent by 2010.

The film opens in  440 theaters in the United States Monday evening and in  63 countries at last count, ranging from Israel to Madagascar. (There would have been 64, but the Nigerian government just canceled the screening in Lagos, she said, after realizing that part of the film focuses on accusations of government human-rights violations and misuse of oil money.)

If you get a chance to see it, or if you live in England where it had a release in March, weigh in with your reaction here. In the meantime, here’s a sampler of links to other coverage and reviews:  Wired,, Treehugger, the Observer. More will be added shortly.