‘Breaking Boundaries’ Might Actually Be Too Optimistic About Climate Change (Commentary)

The new Netflix film from David Attenborough and the “Our Planet” team is both depressing and hopeful — but is the hope warranted?

breaking boundaries johan strockman

The first 45 minutes or so of the new Netflix documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet” are insanely depressing. The film, like the book by Johan Rockstrom on which it’s based, provides a detailed breakdown of where we are with the climate crisis — and it’s no fun whatsoever.

That’s not a criticism of the film. Rather, it’s just not all that enjoyable to have to face the grim future we all face if we don’t collectively get it together. And, well, things seem pretty dire.

But “Breaking Boundaries” tries to provide somewhat of a light at the end of the terrifying tunnel in the last half-hour, as Rockstrom and Attenborough run us through the things humanity must do if we don’t want to have to live in a world that, as Rockstrom describes it, cannot support the level of civilization we currently enjoy.

This last portion of “Breaking Boundaries” is very similar to the endings of the episodes of “Our Planet” that tackled humanity’s negative impact on our world. Those eps typically wrap up on a positive note, with Attenborough being like, “All we need to do to fix this problem is this one weird trick.” They all make it sound so easy.

It’s not easy at all, though. From where we sit right now, it seems just about impossible. Here in America we have one political party that is dead-set against doing anything to head off the climate crisis, and the other isn’t willing to do what is needed to overcome that obstructionism, even though they represent far more Americans than the Republicans do.

And with those same Republicans openly opposing the concept of free and fair elections in an attempt to cement permanent power for their unpopular party, it’s not looking good for any kind of positive U.S. intervention.

The idea that actual substantive steps could be taken to halt the climate crisis in this environment kinda feels laughable.

“Breaking Boundaries” doesn’t really get into all that. Instead, it opts for a more vague “we all need to do our part” approach. Which I get, I guess, but it’s still a bummer. Because it is not at all on regular people to solve the climate crisis. There is, in fact, basically nothing that most of us could do to help if the actual major polluters don’t take drastic action as well.

For those of us who aren’t part of a major government or in some kind of major decision-making role at a polluting corporation, what are our options? We don’t really have any meaningful say in all this. We don’t decide what cars are available and affordable. We don’t decide what food is on our grocery store shelves. We don’t have the ability to plant trees en masse. We don’t get to choose whether the products we buy are recyclable.

Most of us are just along for this ride, because nothing we do as individuals will make any kind of dent in the climate change problem. Don’t believe me? A 2017 study demonstrated conclusively that just 100 fossil fuel companies (some private, some state owned) caused approximately 70 percent of total greenhouse gas pollution since we started measuring it. If you aren’t a high ranking government official or sitting on the board of one of those companies, there’s not a lot you can do to impact any of that.

Those who do have the power to solve the problem, meanwhile, don’t really seem to want to. Corporations care a lot about their near-term bottom lines, and very little about fixing the climate problem that they have caused. And so it’s on governments to force them — but they’re not trying hard enough.

And so it was a little bit amusing to me when Attenborough dropped this gem near the end of “Breaking Boundaries”: “There’s another transformation that is almost unbelievably simple, but it’s key to staying within our planet’s boundaries. It can be adopted by you or me — in fact, by anyone with the freedom to choose what food they eat.”

That sounds great! Unfortunately, it ignores how people work. You can’t just tell everyone they should eat the environmentally friendly food items and expect it to happen. There will always be a meaningful percentage of people who simply will not do it. Folks who are too committed to believing everything is fine to take action in a way that would require them to admit to themselves that, actually, everything is not fine.

Our future on Earth is in the hands of, by the scale of the entire population of Earth, a relatively small group of people. The rest of us can vote, tweet, write blog posts and make small, ultimately meaningless-to-the-big-picture attempts to make changes in our own lives. We’re not completely powerless, or completely at the mercy of those people who are in charge of stuff. But the power gap is enormous.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t bother doing anything. It’s extremely reasonable to expect that things will get really, really bad in the next few decades — bad enough that the powers-that-be will be forced to do what they should already be doing. The longer they drag their feet, the more abrupt the shift toward a new normal will be. So might as well get some practice in. You’re gonna have to do all this stuff eventually anyway, assuming the effects of climate change don’t kill you first.

And there is some meaning in doing what you can. You might not be able to do enough to save lives, but you should try anyway because it’s the right thing to do. But “the right thing to do” isn’t, in this case, the same thing as “the effective thing to do.” It’s great that “Breaking Boundaries” lays out the steps we need to take to handle the climate crisis — it’s just unfortunate that it seems to forget who actually has the power to solve.


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