Feeling climate grief? The Magnitude of All Things is the film for you
Jennifer Abbott's documentary will be screened at the Vancity Theatre
Directed, written, and edited by Jennifer Abbott. Produced by Jennifer Abbott and Cedar Island Films in partnership with the National Film Board, Telus, and Telefilm
Climate leaders in the western world repeatedly urge us to remain hopeful.
For example, geophysicist and climatologist Michael Mann, science educator and broadcaster David Suzuki, former U.S. vice president Al Gore, and even Greta Thunberg—in a recent article in the Guardian—have all suggested that there’s still time to avert mass extinction.
While these inspirational figures and many others do this with the best of intentions, this optimistic messaging can be troubling for some.
That’s because it leaves those of us who believe there’s no real hope of averting hundreds of millions of human deaths feeling like we’re bad people for having these thoughts.
We know that the future is likely going to be extremely gruesome—perhaps worse than any horror story we can imagine. That’s apparent to anyone paying attention to the possibility of massive amounts of carbon being released from the soil and oceans.
The same can be said for those who’ve read about the chance of monumental methane emissions from the Arctic regions. This isn’t incorporated into Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s temperature forecasts for this century.
There’s a legitimate reason for feeling that ultimately, it’s game over for humanity on Earth. Especially when one considers that the so-called negative-emission technologies have little likelihood of achieving the reductions forecast by so many governments.
Then there’s the "Hothouse Earth trajectory", which was outlined in a 2018 scientific paper. It underscored the number of climate feedback loops that will likely kick in at various temperature increases. That too reinforces the sense that it’s going to be lights out for all of us, sooner or later.
And what about the research exploring links between heat domes in the Northern Hemisphere and a slowing jet stream? These air currents could be hampered by diminishing temperature differences between the Arctic and temperate regions in the summer.
For British Columbians, in particular, it’s horrific to contemplate what’s in store for us in the coming years after 570 heat-related sudden deaths this summer and the wildfire that roared through Lytton.
Before the summer of 2021, many of us on the south coast of B.C. thought that we were safe from some of the worst effects of the climate emergency. We suspected that it was primarily a problem for people living in the tropics.
But nobody’s safe if a slowing jet stream, induced by high summer Arctic temperatures, is the real cause of the heat dome. Not even those living on the south coast of B.C.
Even for those who don’t read the scientific literature, the grim reality is apparent in more intense wildfires in other parts of the world (check out what’s happening in Siberia every year and in Australia in 2019-20), deadly heat waves, destructive Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, and island nations in peril from rising sea levels.
Is it any wonder that Extinction Rebellion Vancouver demonstrators gathered on October 21 outside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building to demand that the media start telling the truth?
But not everyone is stifling the truth. In fact, there’s a Vancouver-produced documentary that doesn’t sugar-coat reality. It’s a movie about climate that doesn’t leave us feeling guilty for having thoughts of impending doom. A movie that allows us to mourn over what’s already happened and what’s still to come.
Filmmaker Jennifer Abbott’s The Magnitude of All Things is a riveting exploration of grief, both personal and planetary. It was available on the film-festival circuit in 2020 and will have a theatrical release on Friday (October 29) at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver.
In this deeply emotional film, Abbott brilliantly weaves together her personal experience with grief, which came as a result of her sister’s cancer diagnosis, with the sense of loss that people in different parts of the world are feeling as a result of the climate breakdown. The editing is magnificent, making the transition from the personal to the planetary so utterly natural.
Her sister, Saille Brock Abbott, is performed by Tara Samuel as an adult as Saille’s letters are read aloud. Jessa Abbott Bailint and Tahlea Abbott Bailint play the sisters as children.
Alongside their affecting story are the real-life stories of climate-induced grief being experienced by articulate and informed activists and researchers in many parts of the world.
The imagery, music, and storytelling are utterly captivating as Abbott takes viewers on a spellbinding and heartbreaking journey through grief. She shows through grief circles and kitchen-table conversations how accepting and processing loss can lead to personal renewal, which sets the stage for authentic responses.
In The Magnitude of All Things, the climate crisis plays out right before people’s eyes in the upper Amazon, Australia, Labrador, and the small South-Pacific nation of Kiribati, among other locales.
Climate pessimists, such as Extinction Rebellion cofounders Roger Hallam and Clare Farrell, former Kiribati president Anote Tong, coral-reef specialist Charlie Veron, and fire-science researcher David Bowman are given significant airtime to express their points of view and share their feelings about the state of the planet.
This is unusual in climate documentaries, which tend to amplify the voices of the optimists.
At one point, Memorial University health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo acknowledges in the film that humanity has entered “a period of grief without end”.
“Somehow, we need to make peace with the grief but not just give up,” Cunsolo says.
In addition, Abbott also showcases the grief felt by the Inuit, including Sarah Baike and artist Derrick Pottle, as well as Sápara Nation leader Manari Ushugua and Sápara youths in the Amazon region in Ecuador. It’s a global problem.
While there are flashes of Burtynskylike photography—most notably in the overhead shot of a hideous Australian coal project—the imagery is more often utterly beautiful, reinforcing what’s at stake from the relentless pursuit of economic growth.
Abbott’s previous films, including The Corporation and The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (both made with Joel Bakan and the first made with Mark Achbar), reflected a deep understanding of how geopolitical realities are shaped by psychopathology and greed.
Her newest film, The Magnitude of All Things, goes one step further by offering everyday people a path forward in the wake of this.
This is not your usual climate documentary created with the intention to educate people about a crisis that audiences already know about. It’s far, far more personal than that.
“What does it take to atone for the loss?” Cunsolo asks in The Magnitude of All Things. “How do we make right what we have done as a species when we talk about mass extinction?”
To her credit, Abbott actually offers an answer in her film. It’s a movie for the ages—and one that will remain compelling for years to come.