Ep 45 – Film Club – Arrival

When gigantic spaceships touchdown in 12 locations around the world. Linguist Louise Banks is approached to lead a team attempting to find a way to communicate with  extraterrestrial visitors. Pressure mounts as nations teeter on the verge of a global arms crisis which could be set off by a simple misunderstanding.

You may want to watch the film before listening and consider:

  • How does Louise’s approach to communication differ from the other characters?
  • Are there lessons which can be applied to environmental and science communication?
  • What preconceptions do other characters bring to the situation? 
  • Are the preconceptions helpful or a hindrance?

Guest on this episode: Atul Kumar, fundraising consultant, author, and podcaster

Changing perspective and reevaluating priorities

In the film

  • Shifting perspective and changing ways of thinking are major themes in the film
    • Louise must convince the military to accept a more nuanced view of what they want in order to reduce chances of miscommunication with the aliens.
    • We come to understand that the memories we are shown in the film is Louise gaining access to memories of her whole life, allowing her to see the consequences of her choices. This gives extra depth and poignancy to her decisions to begin a relationship with Ian and have a child.
  • In tackling environmental challenges
    • Nationalist concerns appear less significant when taking a global perspective. Greenhouse gas emissions do not respect national boundaries. Impacts of climate change will be felt globally. Etc.
    • Historical and future emissions are as important and current emissions.
    • Short term benefits might not be worth it when weighed against long term costs.
    • Evaluation of costs tend to focus on the local and short term.They ignore externalities (costs which are not born by the producer of a product). For example, environmental damage from resource extraction and the impact that has on local communities. Unless companies are forced to repair the damage or contribute to the community, often the cost of this damage is ignored.
    • Being able to shift perspective allows us to better take into account externalities and re-evaluate what is important

More about externalities:

IMF – Externalities: Prices do not reflect all costs – Article

Personal perspectives, biases, and ideology

  • Perspective relates to what we can see. What information is available/hidden.
  • Ideology encompasses ideas about: value/importance, morality, responsibility; and that a version of these ideas are natural or universal truth. Like a lens which colours what we see.
  • Bias describes the result of how ideology interacts with our perspective. Our blind-spots; how we interpret things; the directions we lean; what we are likely to believe or agree with

Starting point for further reading

Malka A, Krosnick JA, Langer G. The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Analysis. 2009 May;29(5):633-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2009.01220.x. Epub 2009 Mar 12.

In the film

  • Louise has a very different perspective from Ian because she knows what will happen if she has a child. 
  • Her perspective may give her a bias towards choosing not to change her decision to have a relationship with Ian and to have a child because she has experienced the positives of the loving relationship with Ian and their daughter. 
  • Ian doesn’t have a clear bias one way or another when asked whether he would change things if he could see his whole life, start to finish. He has no relevant experience to inform him.
  • Louise places high value on the experiences with her daughter, and that this outweighs consequences of her daughter dying young. Ian’s values and sense of morality, lead him to a different conclusion. Differences in their ideology (values etc.) lead them to different conclusions about the ‘rightness’ of their choices.

In communication about the environment

  • Confirmation bias – people are more likely to believe information which fits in with what they already ‘know’.
  • Trust in science/scientists can have an effect on how knowledge is correlated with concern or willingness to take action.
  • The reality of climate change, its causes and consequences, is as removed from individual ideologies as we can get. This is the goal of scientific processes.
  • There is an understanding of what we need to achieve: reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. What should be done to reach that goal is less clear because it is tightly linked to ideology; what we place value on, how we think about morality and responsibility etc. 
  • Being aware of our own bias and attempting to take different perspectives can help us recognize how ideology affects how we interpret physical reality and rebalance how we weigh information. It tends to encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate surroundings, and instead consider the global community and long term consequences.

More detailed explanations of ideology

How we communicate affects how the message is received

  • Louise points out that using a game as a medium for communication can frame messages in terms of opposition and conflict.
  • How we communicate about climate change can affect how those messages are received.
  • Too much focus on the scale of the problem can be overwhelming, or lead to a kind of ‘compassion fatigue‘.
  • Learning more about a problem may not help with taking action if the learning doesn’t include solutions.

Bjarne Bruun Jensen (2002): Knowledge, Action and Pro- environmental Behaviour, Environmental Education Research, 8:3, 325-334

Episode 8 – Nature in films

In this episode we explore how nature is depicted in films and share ideas for using film to explore themes in ecology and conservation.

As more people move to urban areas, and our lives get more technology focused, our experiences of nature increasingly come from media sources rather than first-hand experience. Research from marketing and advertising has shown that media depictions of a place can have a big impact on our image of a place and our desire to visit (Kim and Richardson, 2003). It seems likely that how nature is depicted in film could influence our desire to get outdoors and shape our expectations for what nature and wildlife are like. In Disney films, natural environments have become visually simpler and wildlife less diverse (Prevot, Julliard, and Clayton, 2014).

**Spoiler alert for The Lion King, Avatar, and all three How to Train Your Dragon films**

Ecology and realism in The Lion King

The circle of life theme, in both the 1994 and 2019, films is an excellent link to concepts of relationships between parts of an ecosystem. 

  • Food chains make a good introduction to the topic.

 Lions > Antelope > Grass. 

  • Circle of Life is a richer picture, following the flow of energy/nutrients.

Lions eat antelope. When lions die their bodies are broken down and become part of the soil. Grass grows in the soil. Antelope eat the grass. 

The 2019 film includes an excellent pair of scenes which can lead to deeper discussions. In the first Timon describes his view of life as a series of parallel lines; our lives are lived until the end of that line and the balance is to not impact anyone else’s line. Soon after, a tuft of Simba’s fur blows away on the wind and touches on the lives of other creatures before finally making its way to Rafiki.

Simba’s return to a desolated Pridelands illustrates an extreme potential result of disruption to an ecosystem. Over-hunting of large herbivores can lead to dramatic changes in vegetation. Loss of large herbivores in particular may have impacts on the whole landscapes.

A few related articles:

The 2020 Lion King also has remarkable CGI. While it lacks the brightness and vibrancy of the original movie, the realism of the animals and habitats may facilitate sustained engagement with nature. Pumba is the most stark example of the difference. The original animated pumba is an incredibly lovable character but he is only recognizable as a warthog from his general shape. The unrealistic, ‘Disneyfied’ image of what a warthog may set people up for a negative shock when they see a real one. A realistic looking, yet still endearing, warthog may be a first impression which petter prepares people for the real thing.

Humans and the environment in Avatar

Avatar presents a fairly clear cut story of humans exploiting natural resources and harming local populations and ecosystems. This can be used as a starting point to a deeper discussion around why people are seeking to exploit those resources, and what the potential consequences are for those people if they do not.

Deforestation on Borneo acts as a real-life example of the complex issues behind what on the surface appears to be simple resources extraction for profit. Communities on Borneo often resort to logging as a way of generating extra income to pay for large or unexpected medical expenses.

For more details about work tackling this kind of deforestation see:

How to train your Dragon and live sustainably with wildlife

The How to Train Your Dragon series of films is another excellent series for exploring the different ways humans and animals can interact. Initially we see the Birkians fearing and killing the dragons. They do not see a way to live with the dragons, only the threats that they pose. Eventually Hiccup discovers ways to avoid conflict with the Dragons, eventually showing the others that they can live together with the dragons. 

Real world connections

  • Images of sharks as dangerous killers
  • Farmer conflicts with predators like big cats or wolves.
  • Rural community conflicts with large animals like elephants or bears

The second film explores the nature of the human-dragon relationship. We see the Birkians develop willing partnerships with the dragons and confronting an enemy who has dominated them; using dragons for his own ends against their will.

Real world connections

  • Animals as pets. Is there a difference between ‘domestic’ animals and ‘wild’ animals as pets?
  • Animals in zoos vs. circuses

In the third installment we see the Birkians rescuing dragons from poachers and protecting them in their village. The situation is at once awe inspiring and clearly unsustainable. Just as we could protect all elephants by them in a giant zoo, but it would be wildly impractical and impossible for us to sustain. We are left with a bittersweet ending where dragons must live in a place totally inaccessible to people. Discussions could be had here around the pros/cons/feasibility of totally segregating people and wildlife.

  • Real world connections
  • Conservation in-situ (in the wild) vs. ex-situ (in captivity)
  • Pros and cons of conservation areas which allow access to people.

Papers discussed

Kim, Hyounggon & Richardson, Sarah. (2003). Motion Picture Impacts on Destination Images. Annals of Tourism Research. 30. 216-237. 10.1016/S0160-7383(02)00062-2. 

Prevot, Anne-Caroline & Julliard, Romain & Clayton, Susan. (2014). Historical evidence for nature disconnection in a 70-year time series of Disney animated films. Public understanding of science (Bristol, England). 24. 10.1177/0963662513519042.

Intro/Outro music:

Selfish by Derek Clegg

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