WHAT’S YOUR 2040?

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Director and thinker Damon Gameau sees Climate Change as an opportunity for us all change. In his inspiring documentary 2040, he seeks to lift climate change into our everyday conversation and use all our collective skills to do something about it.

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Who are you?

I was born in Adelaide in the late 1970s. I am an only child, raised by my mother. I still saw my father regularly when I was growing up but have only developed a deeper relationship with him later in life, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I was taught by Jesuit priests, some of whom are now in jail, so I understand the power of ideologies. Although, I think my education did install some solid traits in me of caring for others and the joy that can provide them and yourself. For most of my adult life I’ve been an actor. It was a way of mainlining validation into my insecure veins. Over fifteen years of pursuing that dream I met many wonderful people, received the craved validation and did some terrific jobs (the highlights were Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker and Robert Connolly’s Balibo, for which I received an AFI nomination for best supporting actor). I eventually realised, however, that the constant rejection of being an actor plus the lack of jobs I really resonated with—as well as the fact that I began noticing myself in bars and complaining about the industry with other actors—meant that it wasn’t for me. So I decided to start making my own content. 

About the same time, I met my wife, Zoe, and my entire life changed. She was the most radiant human I had ever met, and I knew that Marlboro Lights and talking shit till sunrise just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So began a journey of self-discovery and the letting-go of a lot of downloaded parental and societal programs I had running. A trip to the Amazon helped, with a shamanic experience thrown in. I won Tropfest, the short film comp, in 2011 and was asked by Madman Productions if I wanted to make my first feature film with them. I decided to make That Sugar Film and it went on to be the highest-grossing Aussie doco of all time. 

Zoe and I had a daughter, Velvet, who couldn’t be more of a mix of us in every way. She’s perceptive and witty and already rolls her eyes at my jokes. 

What’s your experience in making docos?

I made That Sugar Film and learnt so much—both what to do and what not to do—very quickly. I reckon I would have been tough to work with, at times. I remember directing a scene with Stephen Fry and asking the cameraman to explain what the camera’s different lenses did. He said, “You’re asking me that now? Right here!” I learnt that you don’t actually have to know everything about filmmaking—you just have to have a strong idea, set an intention that others can agree on and want to follow, and then surround yourself with really talented and experienced humans.

I have now finished 2040, which was an entirely different beast yet seemed a lot easier because I wasn’t trying to direct while eating forty teaspoons of sugar a day. It’s amazing how productive you can be when you’re eating well. 

Where did the concept of 2040 come from?

I’ve always been interested in the power of images and story. I think society is often guided by imagery, and some pictures have enormously influenced history. Perhaps most famous was a drawing of rows and rows of slaves crammed into a slave ship in the early 19th century. It was probably one of the first ‘viral’ images and was reprinted thousands of times around the world. It changed people’s perceptions of the slave trade and was a turning point for the abolitionists. 

I was becoming aware of just how dystopian the images of our future were becoming. Our newspapers are filled with negative images, and nearly every Hollywood film set in the future portrays a cold, austere and robotic world devoid of nature. If we’re not careful, it’s a world we will unconsciously manifest and bring to life (if we aren’t already doing that). I wanted to throw an alternative vision into the mix and plant a different seed. If we want to move into a new and better world, then we have to be able to see it first, to imagine it. That what 2040 offers up, whether you agree or disagree with it.

What is 2040 about?

Environmentalist Paul Hawken says, “Every problem is just a solution in disguise.” The film presents climate change as an opportunity for global change. An opportunity to create a better world for every living thing. I spent three years researching and finding the best solutions for reversing global warming—not just mitigating or adapting to it but reversing it. And those solutions exist. The film is a love letter to my daughter, showing her what the world would look like in 2040 if we put those solutions into action today. 


Who is the film made for?

I made it for my daughter and her generation, but it’s really for everyone—we’re all in this. Climate change is the greatest challenge we humans have ever faced, and it’s not spoken about nearly enough. The film is for families to watch together and to discuss and decide what they want to do. My hope is that the film plays a small part in bringing the topic even more into the mainstream. 

Why do we need to see it?

Well, the news isn’t great. If the planet went to the doctor, the doctor would say, “You have a fever. You’re one degree warmer than when we saw you 100 years ago and you’re getting hotter. You’re losing 350 billion tonnes of ice from your Greenland ice sheet every year; your oceans are getting more acidic and warmer; your species are going extinct at much faster rates than is normal; and you have roughly sixty years of topsoil left. So you better lay off the smokestacks ’cause they’re killing ya.” But, like any good doctor, she won’t just give you the diagnosis: she’ll also give you some solutions, an action plan, and the chance to start a new and healthier life. This is the part that has been missing in the mainstream narrative, and it’s what I hope the film offers up. The understanding that there are things we can do, and some spectacular rewards await if we choose to pursue those things. 

What’s been the process of making this film?

Lots and lots of research, lots of late-night Skypes with scientists, travel to fourteen countries, a small brain haemorrhage and a beautiful collaboration with humans who want to live in a better world. 

How did you fund the film?

We were part of Good Pitch, which teams together social-impact documentaries and philanthropists. I had to pitch the film in seven minutes to a room of 400 donors at the Opera House in 2016. We had a wonderful response to the film and raised the money in just over a week. It was also funded by Screen Australia and Film Victoria. 

How have you involved your daughter?

Very carefully. She’s in the film, and the vision of the future is for her, but Zoe and I talked a lot about being careful with that. We didn’t want Velvet to feel like her future was being mapped out for her or what job she would be doing. I kept all the scenes of her in the future very generic and avoided specifics. I thought it was really important to involve her and the other children in the film. I find it frustrating that environmental issues get so politicised. They shouldn’t be. I wanted to show that the earth is our collective home, so it should be looked after, and that we are actually renting it from my daughter’s generation and those who will come after them.

You present five solutions in the film. Can you talk us through them?

It was tough to narrow them down, but I chose solutions that benefit our environment but also have a range of cascading benefits for communities, health, children and biodiversity. These include decentralised microgrids for energy, which let people share their energy with each other in the community. Transport that becomes ‘on demand’ like Netflix or Spotify, which reduces the number of vehicles in cities. Regenerative agriculture, which takes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it in the soil. Marine permaculture, which helps regenerate the oceans. Finally, empowering girls.

Where did you travel to make the film?

I interviewed almost 100 children between the ages of six and eleven in Tanzania, Sweden, New York, Ohio, Bangladesh, Singapore and Australia. We travelled to around fourteen countries all up. But thankfully we offset all our travel and planted a native forest at the end of the film that will sequester around ninety tonnes of carbon by 2040.

Which country affected you the most?

They all left an impression in some way. Northern Europe (Rotterdam and Sweden) is already living a very 2040 lifestyle, and it was painful to see how far behind Australia really is. Bangladesh was inspiring, because they’re adapting so fast to their changing climate (a sea-level rise of just half a metre will wipe out 40 per cent of their country), and Tanzania was also special due to their regenerative agriculture. One practice they’re doing is called ‘multi-strata agroforestry’, where they grow macadamias, coffee, avocados, cacao and vegetables all on the same small patch of land. The soil is eight feet deep and jet black because it’s full of carbon. This is something we should be doing in warmer climates all over the world.

What did you learn about the world while making this film?

That’s a tough one, and hard to narrow down. Probably that while humans can be selfish at times, we are ultimately a collaborative bunch who crave connection and community (there’s a reason ’solitary confinement’ is a form of punishment). We are also brilliant and creative, and I now know that we can actually pull this thing off. I had my doubts at the start but now have full confidence that we have the know-how. The big question is whether we’ll rise to the challenge. I also learnt that it’s up to us. Predominantly, our leaders are the least authentic, the least noble and certainly the least visionary among us. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves to get this one over the line. I love Robert Swan’s line: “The greatest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”

What did you learn about yourself while making this film?

That I do have a role to play in trying to solve this dilemma. Every one of us has a role. I found mine, which is telling stories and communicating information in a fun way. We now need more and more people to find what lights them up in this area and join the ‘Regeneration’. I feel I found my true passion on this journey. I am guided by my daughter and all her friends. I feel very lucky to have found that passion and know that this is something I will work on for the rest of my days. That’s a comforting feeling—to have lit your flame. Why is it not enough anymore to work on a micro level (composting at home, and so on)?

How can we, as individuals make a larger impact in our communities?

It’s going to take a monumental effort from all facets of society. We’re going to need huge momentum and pressure from the grassroots, supported by leaders with courage and vision. We know that 50 per cent of emissions come from the wealthiest 7 per cent of the population, and that 71 per cent of emissions come from just 100 companies. These seem like good areas to target for immediate action.

I think our biggest challenge will be changing our cultural metaphors. Ever since the scientific revolution, we have seen the earth as something to conquer or extract from. We have removed its meaning and significance. Ancient cultures talked of being ‘reverent guests’ of the land, ‘custodians’ of the land, or they saw nature as a ‘giving parent’. Our challenge is to find meaning in our environment again so we can honour and protect it. This will be extremely difficult as more and more people are spending time on screens or inside, disconnected from nature. 

How do you maintain hope about our future planet?

Because of the people I’ve met and because of the almost 100 children I interviewed along the way. They spoke with such authenticity that even though I could often feel their sadness at what’s happening to the planet, I also felt their determination. Look out when these kids get some power. We just have to make sure we haven’t driven off the cliff before they get behind the wheel.

The 2040 project goes way beyond the movie. What are your plans for 2040 beyond the screen?

Our relationship with Good Pitch and the philanthropic community meant we raised some money to create a school study guide mapped to the Australian curriculum, plus an online platform of solutions. We’re also working with a US organisation called Purpose, who are building a website that lets people tailor their own climate change action plan based upon their availability, financial position and other factors. It’s very exciting. I’ve written a book, being published by Pan Macmillan, that explains many things I had to leave out of the film, plus it includes around sixty suggestions for what you can do at home or school or work to help out. There are also fifty recipes using foods that help the soil and our environment.

You’ll no doubt receive flak for taking on this project. What are you expecting people or companies to be critical of, and why?

I think some people are beginning to think that humanity might be a lost cause, that we can’t pull this off. They may think the film is too utopian. My answer to that is that it’s utopian to believe we can continue as we are, constantly growing at an exponential rate and churning through resources on a planet with a limited amount. It’s also worth remembering that the abolitionists were seen as utopian: many thought the economy would collapse without slaves. Then there was women getting the vote. This was a utopian idea to the former US president Grover Cleveland, who said in 1904 that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilisation were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.” We simply don’t have time to get bogged down by deniers or doubters anymore. The earth and our children are in desperate need of doers and leaders. 

After all your research in the climate space, what’s the most important message you have about climate change? 

That it needs to be reframed as a gift, an opportunity for change. When we receive information that comes with fear or guilt, it activates the limbic system in our brain and shuts down our prefrontal cortex. This is where we think creatively and problem-solve. We need to be offered solutions to inspire action. And these solutions need to meet people’s basic needs—a sense of community, security, family, health and wellbeing. I’ve discovered over the past three years that such solutions already exist.  

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