Making safe an imagined future: the cruel optimism of Damon Gameau’s 2040

Damon Gameau’s new documentary, 2040, offers an antidote to the doom-and-gloom narrative that arguably dominates climate-change discourse. Told through his perspective as father to four-year-old Velvet, the film sets out on the well-meaning quest to find already-existing technology and ideas that might help mitigate, reverse or better understand climate change. In so doing, Gameau paints an optimistic vision of the future, where humans have successfully averted climate disaster by harnessing natural energy, sequestering carbon through aquatic and land-based plants, adopting electric, self-driving cars, better agricultural practices, new economic models and population control. Seductive as this vision may be, I have to wonder whether this quite desperate attempt to fashion hope out of our situation is actually doing more harm than good.

What are the consequences of envisioning a future made possible primarily through technological intervention? Is 2040 yet another example of our reluctance to name and address the problem? And, perhaps most importantly, in Gameau’s bright-eyed, utopian visions for the future, who and what is left out?

At first blush, 2040 appears well-researched, incorporating a broad range of specialists and ideas. Yet its perspective is based on a number of questionable assumptions, chief among them the implication that many aspects of our way of life today – our culture of convenience, comfort, technology and energy usage – can simply continue. The scenes set in 2040 are established through the seductive appeal of familiarity: Velvet’s world is clean, organised and streamlined. Her kitchen is shiny and well-stocked. A number of consumer technologies help her both manage her climate footprint – for instance by storing and selling the house’s solar energy – while also connecting her to her loved ones via video links. In fact, Velvet’s world seems not only unchanged but improved.

This depiction of climate change as opportunity is founded upon a particular notion of temporality, where the privileging of an imaginary future subsumes any knowledge of the devastation in the present or losses from the past. Most significantly, this view obscures the toll of climate change on human life as it is lived today.

In an article for The Conversation, Nicholas Beuret has made a succinct case for the role of climate change in accelerating global inequality. As we have known for a number of years and successive climate panel reports, its effects strike disproportionately the world’s poorest communities, which are also least responsible for the problem. As these countries are often situated in already warm parts of the globe, the effects of rising temperatures and ever more extreme weather patterns increase the severity of natural disasters, prolong droughts and disrupt agricultural systems in ways that can result in mass displacement or death. This is not a problem for the future, but a lived reality that exists in the present.

Though 2040 may seem to offer a generous or much-needed sense of optimism in a time that otherwise feels bleak, this optimism is predicated on exclusion. Poverty in particular remains that which is unseen, unimportant. Gameau’s film is thus indicative of a much broader problem in today’s debate, where our reticence on issues pertaining to social justice – for the ways in which climate change intersects with and exacerbates already-existing divisions between the rich and the poor – is in fact contributing to our inability to act. By focusing on an idealised future that is presumed to be for everyone but in reality will be reserved for the privileged few, we are making claims about who and what is of real importance, and what it may take to prompt our leaders into an effective state of climate emergency.

Not only does Gameau fail to name or acknowledge any fundamental barriers against today’s sustainability efforts but his climate change origin story is brief, simplified and grossly lacking in nuance. It is akin to the soft approach a father might take in explaining climate change to his frightened child – which, I suppose, is fitting, as the entire film is shot through his reassuring paternal gaze. However, like a father protecting his child from the truth, Gameau fails to articulate how and why we’ve got to where we are. In the final analysis, his optimism is passive and, thus, disempowering. It depoliticises a problem that is, at its core, political.

In her 2011 book by the same name, political theorist Lauren Berlant describes ‘cruel optimism’ as a relation that exists ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing’. This is not to suggest that optimism is always bad, but that our desire for those attachments – for something hopeful to hold onto, for the ‘feel good’ portrayal of a safe and just future –might just be the very thing obstructing our capacity for real engagement with the problem. Feminist academic Donna Harraway sympathises with the human need for optimism in her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble, writing:

in urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations.

Damon Gameau’s 2040 perfectly encapsulates this temptation to ‘make an imagined future safe’ at the expense of those living (and dying) in the present. In her writing, Haraway suggests a few solutions. Among them, ‘staying in the trouble’, ‘sitting in the now’ or wrestling with the present, and, from this, ‘a genuine mourning for those countless others being driven over the edge with extinction’. Those others might include The Great Barrier Reef, where half of the once iridescent coral is now bleached white and crumbling in the warming oceans. Or perhaps the Maldives, the lowest-lying country in the world, where whole communities, cultures and landscapes are at risk of vanishing entirely due to rising ocean levels. These realities should instil in us a sense of fear, a sense of urgency, and, more importantly, a sense of responsibility. When a narrative excludes these concepts, it is just giving us permission to remain complicit.

Alana Scully

Alana Scully is a writer based in Melbourne. Her work has featured in Overland, The Melbourne Arts Journal and The Suburban Review, among others.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your perspective Alana, and the image that “staying with the trouble” evokes.
    I agree that any narrative which proposes current cosseted and unequal lifestyles can seamlessly evolve is simplistic. I would rather emphasise that it is the realities of human evolution that “should instil in us a sense of fear, a sense of urgency, and, more importantly, a sense of responsibility.” As a species we continue to be slow to adapt and react to existential challenges. I wonder whether fear, urgency and responsibility be changed to courage, vision and commitment.

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