How Hollywood Could Save the Planet
Last week, I came across an interview Woody Allen gave to Esquire magazine for a series entitled “What I’ve Learned.” In it, he talked about his mother’s worldview and the fact that according to her, the world is a horrible, horrible place. That everybody and everything on the planet is going to die, our friends are going to disappear and the earth is going to be consumed by the sun. Her response to this reality was to keep herself incredibly busy. Growing up with this parental role model, Mr. Allen concluded that the best thing you can do to get through life is to keep yourself distracted by a billion different methods. The key to happiness is to distract yourself from the fact that the world will end.
I do not believe he is alone in this approach and that raises an interesting challenge for sustainability. I have often talked about the divide that separates those who believe the climate science data and those who do not, but it seems to me that there is another way of looking at this. There is one group of people who keep themselves perpetually distracted from reality with busy jobs, hectic schedules, complicated love lives or indeed, and somewhat ironically, large doses of “reality” TV. There is another, probably significantly smaller, group who accepts our temporary status on earth, but believe that we owe it to future generations to be mindful of our actions while here. This latter group persists in dragging morbidity and mortality out for everyone to deal with when the first group would rather play golf on a nicely irrigated green and live their lives the best they can while they can.
This brings me back to the most vexing question at the center of all sustainability issues. How do we, individually and collectively, come to accept the notion that the future is necessarily a constituent of every decision we make? Whether we look it in the face or turn the other cheek, the reality is that every decision we make today has an impact, positive or negative, on somebody’s future. The evidence is under our noses. Indeed, even for those of us in the perpetual distraction category, our fictions — our movies, music, books, video games — are filled with dystopic visions of post-apocalyptic cities, where the surviving humans scurry like rats in subterranean tunnels and the elite few live in Olympian seclusion.
And this is where I think Woody Allen and his fellows can help. For many years, one of my favorite stories about sustainability has been the short novel by Ray Bradbury entitled “The Toynbee Convector.” In this tale (spoiler alert), the protagonist claims to have invented a time machine — the titular Toynbee Convector — which he uses to travel 100 years into the future. Upon his return, he shows a skeptical society evidence of a technologically advanced society with many wonderful, helpful inventions living in harmony with nature. Unable to disprove or explain away his claims, the people of the present are inspired by his vision and, unconstrained by doubt, set about creating the future he described. One hundred years later, the time traveler confesses to a journalist, “I lied.” He had concocted this tale to give the people a goal and hope — confident that they had the talent and skill to make it a reality. The wise journalist chose to keep his secret.
Humanity has told stories for time immemorial. Today, those stories are told through multimedia, film, video games, music, art and a myriad other inputs on a daily basis. I believe it is time for those great thinkers among us, those powerful storytellers, people of vision, of wit, of wisdom, to give us a vision we can all rally around. It is time to channel our distraction into something more positive. Perhaps it is not our technology that will pave the way to a successful future, but our culture.
Mr. Allen? Are you up to the challenge?
Gary Lawrence is vice president and chief sustainability officer of AECOM Technology Corporation. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
AECOM is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government. With approximately 45,000 employees around the world, AECOM is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence in delivering solutions that create, enhance and sustain the world's built, natural, and social environments. A Fortune 500 company, AECOM serves clients in more than 140 countries and had revenue of $8.2 billion during the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2013. More information on AECOM and its services can be found at www.aecom.com.
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