16 November 2009

Recipes for disaster, a movie review by Irene Cassarino

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Over the last months Experientia collaborator Irene Cassarino has been working intensively on the preparation of Experientia’s Low2No project in Helsinki, Finland (see project site and submission summary) — where our focus is specifically on enabling positive behavioural change towards more sustainable lifestyles.

Write-ups on the conferences she attended are on this website and now Irene also reviewed the the Finnish documentary Recipes for Disaster [which by the way seems somewhat similar in concept to No Impact Man].

Recipes for Disaster is not brand new (developed and produced between 2004 and 2007 and released in Dec 2007), but as often happens with good independent movies, if you don’t manage to catch them in festivals, you miss your chance to see them almost forever (unless you are Finn: then you could have seen this one in theatres).

Luckily, Cinemambiente (Cinema-environment), an association based in Turin, not only maintains – in a rich media library – similar documentaries, but also subtitles them and organises public projections. In the case of John Webster’s documentary, half the meaning would have been lost without subtitles, since the Anglo-Finnish family portrayed there speaks two languages. More specifically, John, the father, director and inspirer of the carbon-diet experiment, speaks English; his wife replies in Finnish and the two kids speak both.

Such a language gap – in my view – is an intentional element, which represents the usual friction between those who understand the way our lifestyle is seriously damaging the environment we (will) live in, and consequently establishes new norms of behaviour people have to adopt, and the majority of people who don’t see any opportunity, as an individual, to save the world, and are recalcitrant in discussing and possibly changing their beloved habits.

The documentary reports on the 1-year adventures of a family in Espoo, Finland, that wants to slim down its carbon emissions. John’s family regularly escapes from the Finnish darkness to warmer sides of the globe by plane, drives to and from home to work/school/shopping, pilots a motor boat across the beautiful lake … like any regular family with two kids.

John proposes a detox diet. They start from a carbon weight of almost 20 tons of C02 per capita, while the sustainable amount of emissions is 3 tons. Basic recommendations to lose weight are: no more car (the kids say a sentimental goodbye to it), just oars and muscles with the boat, no more airplanes, no more new plastic (!!), all this for one entire Finnish year. The three members of the family that had to accept – or better stand – the experiment, suffered in several ways: discomfort, shame (they didn’t want to tell others), social discrimination (especially the children)… but they got back the only value that is more scarce than energy resources: time. Time to spend together, to talk with the kids on the bus, to share and shape tiny details (how do I get toilet paper not wrapped in plastic?), to big issues (John ended up starting a new entrepreneurial activity: selling vegetable oil for cars).

At the end of the year, the most rewarding time eventually came: when John shared with his team the result of their diet (they lost 52% of their carbon “weight”!) and their joint satisfaction was enough to forget the pain of the past year and halt the anorexic temptations of John-director (he eventually realises: “Well, the experiment hasn’t been perfect. But who said it should have been?”).

This conveys the crucial message that information and feedback are extremely important to support behavioural change. The better they are provided (hopefully not just once per year, as in this case, and via voluntary difficult calculations), the bigger is the power in people’s hands to shape their own behaviours and habits accordingly: otherwise, every recommendation sounds like a duty and ends up being hated and refused (“Are you behaving like Jesus? You seem to want to change people’s minds”, says John’s wife in a peak of frustration).

The documentary is worth seeing. Waiting for the moment when the producer will decide to upload a digital copy with English subtitles, please ask Otto Suuronen of the Finnish Film Foundation for it.

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