Fauchere, Christophe & Joyce Johnson
2009 The Great Squeeze: Surviving the Human Project. Denver, CO: Tiroir a Films. Video Project.
Notes: DVD, 67 minutes plus extra
Reviewed 14 Jan 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Petroleum industry and trade
ABSTRACT: This rather alarming video features anthropologists and other scholars explaining the state of global climate and resources and predicting major changes to human social organization as the era of cheap abundant fuel comes inevitably to an end.
If there is one essential message from anthropology, it is that people everywhere do not live the way we do, nor have we lived forever the way we do. Further, the particular lifeways of a people can be related holistically with each other, as well as with the physical environment and the technologies available at any given place and time. Leslie White, a champion of neoevolutionism in culture, went so far as to postulate that the level of cultural evolution was a direct function of the amount of energy that a society could harness and/or of the efficiency of the use of that energy.
Everyone has heard these days about the debate over global warming, or, more neutrally, ‘climate change.’ “The Great Squeeze” comes down solidly on the side not only of the truth of global warming but of the existing crisis of the environment on many fronts, and it does so in a remarkably anthropological way. The first thing is reminds us is that we are living basically in the ‘anthropocenic’ era, during which human action is a decisive factor in the changing environment.
The key to the current cultural and climatic age, as White would happily accept, is the amount of cheap energy that humans have been able to exploit recently. Richard Heinbert, one of the experts in the film, stresses that we have gotten used to circumstances that are really unusual, based on cheap abundant fossil fuel. The film asserts that the energy in one gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 8-10 weeks of hard human labor, so of course we would experience as much mechanization of labor as possible. Humans, or at least Western industrial humans, accordingly built an entire civilization and worldview on cheap oil. James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, adds that the society born from cheap oil was a self-organizing emergent organism, which is unsuited for the years ahead. Its obvious effects have been a proliferation of cars, suburbs, and an overall increase in per capita consumption. The resulting ‘economic growth machine’ has come to be seen as normal.
The film is organized into several named sections, including ‘A Depleting World’ which explores not only ‘peak oil’ but peak everything. A dwindling oil supply, together with declines in resources of natural gas, coal, and even topsoil and metals, will mean intensified future competition for limited materials. Already we witness the expansion of demand in China and India: the documentary claims that at the current growth rate, in 2031 China will consume two-thirds of the world’s grain and more oil than total current world consumption. World population growth, as we have heard for decades, carries the potential for geopolitical problems.
But, as the section titled ‘The Emerging Crisis’ emphasizes, the most precious commodity may be water, and “water is the axis issue of the 21st century.” E. O. Wilson insists that history will be made with water, especially as the demand for food leads to more irrigation and the exhaustion of aquifers and other sources of freshwater. ‘The Final Straw: Climate Change’ surveys the current effects of warming on places like Africa, where yields from rain-dependent agriculture could be cut in half. Elsewhere, floods will bring too much water. And, as the film sagely states, drought already is and increasingly will be less a meteorological problem (the amount of rainfall) than a demographic problem (we use all the rain that falls). ‘Climate Change and the Global Economy’ warns that events like the loss of Himalaya glaciers are not merely local problems. If and when the Ganges or Yangtze River becomes a seasonal river, flowing only during rainy season (possibly within mere decades), this will impact not just the food economy in China and India but the global food economy, since those countries will have to compete for food in the global market.And, as ‘A Stressed Ecosystem’ reminds us, the threat is not only to humans. We are seeing a profound loss of rainforest and of animal species. Vertebrate species have declined by one-third since 1970, and the threat to oceans and marine life is astounding: 97% of big fish are already gone/eaten. One of the most disgusting facts is the killing of up to 100 million sharks per year for the use of just 2% of their body: the fins are cut off and the helpless animals are thrown back in the water. Meanwhile oceanic carbon dioxide levels, lower pH, and “dead zones” with little dissolved oxygen are making the seas uninhabitable. E. O. Wilson’s dire warning is that if we only try to save the physical environment, we will lose both the physical and living environment.
Thanks to ‘Warnings from the Past,’ we can see all of this coming: ancient societies like Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest have already gone through a version of what we are encountering. Chaco created the equivalent of a modern growth economy, but then drought led to abandonment. And those problems were more or less local; today, massive failure in one region would affect the entire global system.
‘The Great Change’ predicts that the human project of the next century will be cutting back our consumption and ultimately establishing a low-growth or no-growth economy, a kind of ‘steady state’ that is completely anathema to modern economic theory and political aspiration. The speakers in the film agree that we will have to let go of a lot and downscale virtually everything we do; the Western model will not be so attractive to other developing societies. And no doubt, the greatest challenges will be social and political, not technical: we have or will have the technology to make the transformation, but the way we live and consume will change radically and painfully. But, as the film suggests, everything has a beginning and an end, and choices have consequences. It even discusses previous examples of quick and extensive restructurings of U.S. economy, including the war effort in the 1940s and the later 1960s space program.
Interestingly, “The Great Squeeze” actually features anthropologists, beyond simply describing issues of interest to anthropology. In fact, David Stuart from the University of New Mexico gets one of the last words, including a direct plug for anthropology: “The trick to this is to use what we know in anthropology to guide us gently into some transformations where we gain more of what’s rich about being human than we lose of the toys that don’t matter as much in the local haul.”
The debate, if we can call it that, over climate change and global resource depletion will continue, but after watching “The Great Squeeze” it is hard to imagine that there is much left to argue about. The future of humanity will be an interesting test of White’s theory of cultural evolution and an even more absolute test of humankind’s ability to adjust and to make difficult choices—and of anthropology’s capacity to contribute usefully to voluntary and involuntary change.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, environmental anthropology, anthropology of development, economic anthropology, and industrial/globalization studies, as well as general audiences.