Is it possible to make an optimistic documentary about climate change in the age of Trump? Michael Bonfiglio manages to do just that in From the Ashes.
I saw the Bloomberg Philanthropies documentary Wednesday night at a special screening., hosted by San Francisco mayor Ed Lee. The film will probably not receive a theatrical run in the Bay Area, but it will be available on National Geographic television on June 25.
It’s worth catching.
Coal powered the 19th and much of the 20th century, created the industrial revolution, and made American a powerful nation. But it did that at a very high cost, and the cost is getting higher. Mining destroys the local environment. Burning coal – usually for generating electricity – throws poison into the air and water. And worldwide, it’s the biggest contributor to global warming.
Meanwhile, the people running the US government care only about enriching the already rich. They want more coal mines, more coal-based power plants, and less health and safety regulations (about 7,500 Americans die each year from coal-related illnesses).
The good news is no matter what Trump says, coal isn’t coming back – and the reasons have nothing to do with protecting the planet. Natural gas – cleaner than coal but still a carbon-based fossil fuel – is plentiful and cheaper. And renewables – solar, wind, and water – are dropping in price.
Several sequences show essentially conservative people embracing renewables and conservation. Montana ranchers join up with Native Americans to protect their local environment (“We’re literally cowboys and Indians against the coal company.”) The mayor of a small, very rightwing Texas town pushes renewables for health and financial reasons.
This is good for the Earth, but it’s horrible for the coal miners. From the Ashes wisely avoids demonizing those losing their jobs. These are people who have lived in the same communities, doing the same work, for generations. Although the coal mines are screwing them left and right, many blame environmentalists for their problems. One tells us that he used to get $35 an hour, but now only gets $10. The film honors the coal miners of the past, who worked hard in dirty and dangerous jobs, to help build the country. And it advocates retraining miners (something the Trump administration has no interest in).
A lot of people get interviewed in the movie. But the sheer number of interviewees waters down the film’s emotional impact. It would have worked better if more time was spent on a select few who we would really get to know.
Since November, I’ve felt very pessimistic about the human race. From the Ashes made me feel a little better.