Even if we stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, climate change is still going to wreak havoc on the planet. The carbon dioxide already trapped in the atmosphere is predicted to be enough to cause sea levels to rise, species to go extinct, and coastal cities to disappear. Reflecting on this bleak reality raises vital questions about how we should live and what it means to be human.  

In his new film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, activist-filmmaker Josh Fox frames some of these questions by asking “What are all the things climate can’t change? What makes humanity worth saving?” Fox recently spoke with Tricycle to share some of the answers he’s found, such as compassion, resilience, and creativity. 

Are you a Buddhist?
I don’t participate in anything particularly organized, but I love Buddhism. The idea of nonattachment is extraordinarily important, especially right now in our consumerist, out-of-control world.

When I saw the title of your new film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change, I figured you were a Buddhist. The title reminded me of Buddhist Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
I’ve read that book and I think it’s a really valuable part of the conversation. He was able to imagine dying everyday and was still able to function in the world. In many ways, that’s what we have to do now, because the worst-case scenarios are here upon us, and they’re coming much faster than we thought they would.

What are you trying to add to the conversation with your film?
I am focusing on our value structure in the face of climate change. Our civilization today is based on greed, competition, violence, consumerism, individualism, and racism. Those cannot be our values going forward if we’re going to negotiate the climate catastrophe with any shred of humanity. We have to talk about compassion, humanity, resilience, democracy, innovation, creativity, and courage. We have to talk about group action and working together.

If you think about climate change and you ask, “What can I do as a single person to stop climate change?” the answer comes back, over and over again: “Almost nothing.” We have to act as a community. We have to start to focus on how we are parts of a collective rather than individuals competing against each other.

Josh Fox in a scene from How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. Photo courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.
Josh Fox in a scene from How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change | Photo courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.

My favorite scene in the film is when you are lying in the snow, pointing the camera at yourself, and then you let go of the camera. The camera must be attached to a drone because it shoots up into the air while you become a smaller and smaller speck on the landscape. As this is happening you deliver a monologue basically saying “We know all of these bad things are going to happen. I want to just stop.” It’s a moment of despair that many of us in the environmental movement could identify with.
I think it’s mislabeled as “despair,” at least for me personally. I would call it “catharsis.” The difference is that despair is often pushed down and away. But with catharsis, you feel it, go through it, and come out on the other side. [Climate activist] Tim DeChristopher is very eloquent about despair in the film saying, “In happy times the weight of despair is oppressive, but in stormy times that weight is an anchor that can get you through.” And I agree with that.

But the structure of the film is meant to show the cathartic explosion of going through those feelings. There is something on the other side of them. And what’s on the other side is joy. What’s on the other side is dance. What’s on the other side is a deeply profound, imbued knowledge that there’s a cleansing power to letting yourself grieve and show up on the other side.

In the film, the Pacific Climate Warriors—whose homes on the Pacific Islands are threatened by rising sea levels—show us what the other side looks like. They have real reasons to despair but instead they are joining together to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.
“We are not drowning; we are fighting.” That’s their rallying cry. It’s not just about water; it’s about not drowning in our emotions. We have faith in our own ability to be resilient and courageous.

So for me, when the camera flies away in the film it represents the deepest moment internally when we recognize the truth of what’s happening to our planet and also the way that we contextualize that moment as we see it from above. We cannot just say, “I know this is happening and it is upsetting me.” What we must ask is: “What are all the things climate can’t change? What makes humanity worth saving?” When you are despairing, you don’t want to ask questions. But when you experience catharsis and come back around to asking these questions, that’s an emotional journey.

So what do you mean when you say you’re “letting go of the world”? Listening to you talk it doesn’t sound like you are.
Well, I think there are many ways to view that title. One is that we need to let go of the world of greedy consumerism, violence, and competition. To let go of the world also means understanding that things are so bad that we probably will lose a lot of our major coastal cities at some point. That means we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we will lose some of the things that we love and that the world that we live in is going to change. Grasping to hold something that is going to change—to use a Buddhist idea—won’t help us.

We need to be able to experience deep loss without giving up on the world.
I think a lot of people working on climate issues feel this incredible burden all the time to save the world and save humanity. We live in these paradoxes: I don’t know how to save the world, yet I have to. I don’t know how to save myself, yet I have to.

That sounds like one of the bodhisattva vows, “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”
Yes, that’s right. Not to give the film away, but in the last monologue I say: “We’re all in the same boat. I don’t know how to save the world, yet I must save the world. I don’t know how to save myself, yet I must save myself. I don’t know where my soul resides, yet I must discover my soul because I live within it. This is the only planet that has love songs. This is the only planet, as far as we know, that has poetry. It’s time to celebrate that.” And then the last line is, “The world is lost and saved every day, not all at once.”