Film Review: Time to Choose

Documentary argues that it's not too late to stop climate change.
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The drumbeat of bad news about the environment has led many to believe that fighting climate change is a hopeless cause. Time to Choose tries to counteract that attitude by highlighting steps we can take today to improve our climate.

Broken into three chapters, Charles Ferguson's documentary first points out problems affecting the environment, then offers potential solutions. In "Coal and Electricity," for example, narrator Oscar Isaac explains how mountaintop-removal—a method of physically stripping away earth to get at the veins of coal underneath—has led to an increase in cancer in West Virginia.

As Michael Brune, president of The Sierra Club, points out, coal and its byproducts contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the area. And conditions are much worse in China and India.

But several experts testify that energy from renewable resources like wind and solar has become competitive with energy derived from fossil fuels. Time to Choose shows solar panel arrays in China and fields of windmills in California. The switch to renewables is most noticeable in Europe. Denmark is close to relying entirely on renewable energy.

A second chapter concentrates on oil and cars, focusing first on the ecological damage drilling for oil has caused in places like Nigeria. According to Time to Choose, weaning society from an oil-based economy will require two steps: a switch to electric cars, and a radical redesign of urban spaces. Curitiba, a city in Brazil, is a model for using city planning and infrastructure to lessen the need for cars.

In its third chapter, "Land and Food," Time to Choose addresses industrial agriculture. Its massive scale has led to deforestation of the rain forests in Brazil (primarily to grow soy) and Indonesia (for palm oil plantations).

And as author Michael Pollan points out, the secret ingredient that permits monoculture agriculture is fossil fuel. Petrochemicals dominate modern farming. Pesticides are derived from World War II nerve gas; fertilizer, from the ammonium nitrate that was previously an ingredient in bombs.

Time to Choose has a bit more trouble finding a way out of this set of problems, which it claims is responsible for 30 percent of global warming. Given our appetite for meat (livestock is a significant source of greenhouse gases), and the corruption now defeating efforts to preserve rainforests, the only real solution for industrial agriculture is wholesale social change.

The documentary argues that we should switch to electric cars and locally sourced food because they make economic sense, as well as help the environment. What the movie never specifically addresses is that without a radical shift in government, the changes we really need will never take place. Selling X number of Teslas is not going to stop an oil industry that has invested $650 billion in energy exploration.

Instead, Time to Choose uses the lulling imagery of luxury TV commercials to convince viewers that they did the right thing by purchasing a hybrid or paying extra at a farm-to-table restaurant. And the presence of experts like Pollan, Jerry Brown and James Hansen—red flags to the radical right—will deter the very audience Ferguson needs to convince the most.

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