Film Review: How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

'Gasland' director Josh Fox broadens his scope to the international fight against fossil-fuel-powered climate devastation in this hit-and-miss mashup of environmental call to arms and willfully goofy rumination on hope and fatalism.
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Josh Fox’s first two films—Gasland and Gasland Part II—were micro-targeted issue documentaries about the environmental dangers of fracking for natural gas, particularly near his home in upstate New York. So it makes sense that his newest film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, would start off in the same vein. He opens on a shot of him dancing with a charming lack of rhythm to the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” It’s a way of celebrating the rare victory: After years of activism, fracking was outlawed in the Delaware River watershed.

But just as Fox is about to slide into a Thoreau-like withdrawal into the complacent beauty of the gurgling stream and chirping birds, he realizes that one battle does not win a war. From there, Fox rather awkwardly jumps to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, framing it as a wakeup call to the immediate effects of climate change. For scientific backup, he enlists Bill McKibben, who proposes renaming Sandy “Hurricane Exxon” to draw a bright line between fossil-fuel emissions and dangerous changes to the Earth’s weather patterns.

Fox then assembles a murderer’s row of experts to paint a terrifying portrait of catastrophic changes, from storms to surging sea levels to widespread extinctions and hundreds of millions of climate refugees fighting over scarce resources, that are probably too far along to be stopped. It’s all a rather ragged mix of topics, with the occasional rhetorical overstep that fogs the film as a whole (the stacks of lifeguard chairs in Brooklyn “that couldn’t save the beach from drowning”).

The filmmaker seems here to be pulling material from his other projects (a 2012 short on Occupy Sandy and an upcoming film about McKibben’s climate-change tour) while looking for a thesis. Fortunately, at about the half-hour mark, he steps back and finds one. After peaking early in a blizzard of apocalyptic statements spliced with a vacuum of leadership, Fox as narrator starts muttering “overwhelmed, overwhelmed,” channeling the audience’s fright and despair. He then hits on a question: “What are the things that climate change can’t destroy?”

The film that follows that point is a more joyful, though often just as disorganized, experience. Fox hops about the planet to find other groups like the Sandy recovery volunteers he spotlighted early on, whose ways of life are threatened by fossil-fuel emissions but who aren’t lying down and giving up. It’s an eye-opening travelogue, with the bespectacled and banjo-picking Fox playing at times like a nerdy Anthony Bourdain eco-exploration show.

In the Amazon, Fox canoes into the deep rainforest to find the indigenous people monitoring and protesting the massive oil pipeline spills devastating their environment. In Ecuador, he meets more indigenous people actively blocking military-backed fossil-fuel exploitation. Crossing the Pacific, Fox hops into a hand-carved canoe to join a small flotilla of Pacific Islanders whose homes are threatened by sea-level rise to block an Australian coal barge the size of the Empire State Building from leaving port. In the film’s most poignant sequence, he goes to smog-choked China to experience (with gas mask and all) the deadly cycle of pollution: Coal-created smog sends people indoors, where they crank up the air conditioning, increasing energy demands, which means more coal is burned.

With every chapter, given inspirational labels like “Creativity” and “Courage,” Fox discovers reasons to hope, not to mention dance. The rough POV footage is interspersed with a repeated visual motif: Fox tossing a drone-carried camera into the air, where it reveals soaring vistas of beauty, and impending devastation. Viewers will be impressed as well by the resilient activists who aren’t accepting that nothing can be done, and may in fact wish that Fox had stepped back from his rambling and unfocused narration to give them more screen time.

Fox’s film is a grab-bag, the overwhelmed activist frenetically clutching at straws. But in finding acceptance of the challenges to come, and trying to locate heroes instead of reasons to despair, Fox hits that sweet spot between realism and idealism which few of his cinematic eco-activists have so far achieved.

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