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Filmmaker Damon Gameau Headlines a Sarasota Conference on Nature and the Environment

December's EcoSummit and Green Living Expo will stimulate audiences with a wide range of speakers and activities, including talks by Gameau and novelist Carl Hiaasen.

By Cooper Levey-Baker October 17, 2023

Damon Gameau in his 2019 film 2040.

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau is a big believer in stories. When it comes to climate change, he says, we're not telling the right ones.

In a widely seen 2022 TED Talk, Gameau offers a brief history of humanity's relationship to nature—highlighting how people shifted from seeing themselves as integrated into the natural world and duty-bound to revere and care for it, to today, an era in which people no longer see the natural world "as a living thing to be revered and respected, but instead as a machine to be manipulated for the benefits of mankind."


But, Gameau argues, the science of climate change upends that narrative. "The old story was supported by the science," he says, "and it was telling the people that every breath they took was dependent on trees and phytoplankton, and that trillions of bacteria and fungi lived on them and in them and kept them alive. Viewing the natural world as separate to humans was now empirically false. Humans are nature."

If we're going to address climate change, Gameau concludes, we need storytellers to tell that tale. "Perhaps, one day, a few hundred years from now," he says,
"historians will look back to this moment, and they'll see that, amongst the chaos and the nihilism and the fear and the extinctions, that there were groups of people who chose to turn the page and begin to write a new chapter for humanity—a chapter full of diverse characters, from a range of professions and places, who came together to create a thriving, regenerative, ecological future."

Jennifer Shafer is the president of Shafer Consulting, a local science policy and communications firm, as well as the co-executive director of the nonprofit Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, which is organizing a series of events called the EcoSummit and Green Living Expo in Sarasota from Dec. 2 to 6. She says that when she stumbled across Gameau's talk, a lightbulb went off.

"We were searching for that perfect keynote," she says, "and it took us months, going down a bunch of YouTube rabbit holes." When EcoSummit organizers heard Gameau speak, she says, "We immediately connected with his message, and, for me, his message is about the power of storytelling and the stories we tell ourselves."

Gameau is traveling from Australia to Sarasota to participate in the event. He will screen his 2019 documentary 2040 outside at The Bay on Monday, Dec. 4, and offer an opening keynote the following morning at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Other big names include beloved novelist Carl Hiaasen, who will speak on Tuesday, Dec. 5, at the Van Wezel, along with environmental journalist and author Craig Pittman. Virginia alt-country singer Karen Jones and bandmates will also be in town for the event, performing music throughout.

Topics covered at the summit will include population growth and development patterns, preserving land and saving wildlife, water quality and pollution and much more. On top of all that, the expo will introduce visitors to dozens of businesses offering info about sustainable products and services. Events will be spread out around The Bay, with some at the Van Wezel and others at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.

Shafer says the motivating idea behind the summit and expo is to avoid what she calls "death by PowerPoint" and to offer a broad range of events to draw in as many people as possible. Whether you're already deeply invested in protecting our watershed or just looking for tips on solar energy for your home, you'll find something of interest. "Our message is that all are welcome," says Shafer. "I think this is the largest environmental event series ever produced on the Suncoast."

The story Shafer and other conference organizers want to tell is about our area's long history of environmental stewardship and leadership. Shafer cites several forward-thinking local policies that have protected the environment and made Sarasota the desirable place to live that it is today: Sarasota County's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, the three National Estuary Programs that protect water quality from Tampa Bay to Lee County, smart growth plans like Sarasota 2050 and more.

"The Sarasota region has an environmental legacy of being a leader," says Shafer, "and it's time for us to tell that story again, to claim that identity again, because the newcomers that arrive see paradise, but what we see is that there's more to do to protect our environment, which then protects our quality of life."

Gameau's film 2040 tells a similarly upbeat story. It's framed as a letter to Gameau's daughter, envisioning what the world might look like in 2040 if people and governments around the world act now to solve climate change. But in speculating about the future, Gameau limited himself to only depicting technology and solutions that existed at the time of the film's making—there is no technological deus ex machina that steps in to reverse the climate crisis. Gameau calls the film an "excercise in fact-based dreaming."

Gameau worked as an actor before shifting to documentary filmmaking with That Sugar Film, which looked at hidden sugars in mass-produced foods, in 2014. With 2040, he deliberately set out to create a climate change film that shows the possibilities for transformation. It was a deliberate choice on his part not to depict doomsday scenarios.

"I think I've always been a pretty glass-half-full person," Gameau says via Zoom from Australia. "I'm inherently optimistic about things and I believe in human beings. I think that we're being grotesquely misled and manipulated right now by very well-funded and well-organized structures. I do think, aside from all that, we do deeply care. We are very loving people. We care about our children. We care about the future."

Gameau argues that simply reciting dire scientific warnings clearly isn't getting through to people. "I really do think that stories are the only way through," he says. "Think about how much money we spend on stories that largely distract people from the reality of what we're facing. If we can convince enough storytellers with incredible talent and big hearts to use their powers for good, then I think that's a key way of creating change."

But while 2040 is an optimistic film, that doesn't mean that Gameau sugarcoats what's at stake. He’s clear-eyed about what he calls the “deeper value shift that’s required,” beyond just improving renewable technology and implementing other climate change solutions.

"If we switch to entirely renewable energy in the next 20 years, but we're still destroying life and we're still filling our oceans with plastic and plundering forests, what's the point?” he asks. “It doesn't matter what energy source we use. Unless we can fundamentally redesign our system to value the living world more, it's all fruitless. I know that's a tougher message, but I feel like that's the only way forward, and it has to start with stories."

In 2040, Gameau uses those stories to connect with the audience on an emotional level, discussing not just how better mass transit might reduce carbon emissions, for example, but also how it could free people from the stress of being stuck in traffic.

"We've really relied on the scientists and we've relied on graphs and data and thinking, 'Oh, that next bit of data is going to convince people,' but it never has and it never will," says Gameau. "We need to be more strategic and appeal to those basic everyday life things that everyone's grappling with."

That lines up with Shafer's goal of creating what she calls "a multisensory experience" that can appeal to all types of people. "It's more than a science conference," she says. "It's a community gathering. You can expect to be stimulated."

The EcoSummit and Green Living Expo will take place Dec. 2-6 at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. For tickets and info, visit scienceandenvironment.org.

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