October was a “picture collection month” for us. We went back to both Scotland and Italy, to collect shots that would help us show the countries that we are speaking about in our film. And they are splendid countries indeed.
Since early 2018, we have spent a lot of time with our protagonist Katherine Trebeck. In the summer of last year, we also traveled to Costa Rica together, to film her while she was speaking at a conference about sustainable fashion, and while she met the Costa Rican First Lady.
On that trip, she told us about an idea that I forgot about later, and that I was again reminded of recently. It is a beautiful thought that very convincingly illustrates how much we must change our notion of what progress actually means.
You have a very tough challenge to overcome when you try to move away from an economy that is measured by the “growth” it produces, in terms of financially measurable output. Or, in other words, by how much it increases GDP every year. GDP is such an established measurement: Everyone has heard of it, it seems so incredibly familiar (even though most people have no idea what it really is), and that’s why people have a really hard time letting go of it.
Now, how does the growth of GDP tell us that a society is improving?
Well, it measures how much a society makes every year, in terms of how much money is being spent on things in that society. And then it assumes that we are doing better if more things are made and sold next year. And so on. Forever. More stuff is better. It’s as simple as that.
We are now finding out that more is not better. Up to a certain point, yes. But after that, more just hurts more: It hurts nature. It hurts equality in society. It hurts the psychological health in a population. It hurts the climate. Etc.
In the western world, and after we’d broken everything in World War II (“thanks” to the nation I come from, Germany), looking at the GDP was probably a good idea, for a while. We could simply count how much we are making and then assume that we’re doing better if we are producing more next year. It meant more people in jobs, more people could afford things, life was getting better. But those days are gone. We are no longer better off if the GDP keeps growing, we’re actually worse off, nowadays. And we’re clearly ruining the planet this way.
So we speak a lot about what might be a better measure. There’s not going to be a single thing that replaces GDP, of course. But if you ask Katherine which single measure she would pick if she could use only one, to analyse if a society is actually doing better year after year, she’ll say this:
Why not get countries to measure the number of girls who bicycle to school?
Ok, this may seem very strange at first glance. What? Rather than looking at how much economic output our country is producing, let’s count girls on bikes?
Think about it. It makes a heap of sense:
If more and more girls ride a bike to school, it means it’s safer and safer to cycle in traffic.
If more and more girls ride bikes to school, it means that bikes are increasinly accepted as a means of transport. And it means less parents’ cars — who are now doing the “parent taxi” thing (a big issue here in Germany) — are polluting the air and creating dangerous traffic jams outside schools.
If more and more girls cycle to school, it means that more and more girls are actually going to school and getting an education, period. That’s an important achievement in many countries.
If more girls are cycling to school, it means that they’ll get used to this mode of transport, it will translate to better health for them in the future, and to less pollution in society in the future.
If more girls go to school on bikes, it means that they are not afraid to be attacked by predators who do them harm.
If more and more girls ride bikes to school, more and more boys will do that, too.
If more and more girls cycle to school, it means that more of them are empowered and unafraid.
I think I agree with Katherine: This is an incredibly convincing measure of progress. And one that deserves serious consideration as a replacement for GDP. And I am not joking one bit.
Free photo by @luizmedeirosph.
Our final trip to Rome, Jeffrey Sachs about Wellbeing vs. Trump, a prime minister bailing out, and a Tesla breaking down — all in under four minutes!
In some parts of Africa, poor families are cutting down wild trees so they can live their lives — for cooking and heating; they have nothing else to burn. As a result, the vegetation goes away, the desert expands, and slowly but surely it is making more and more land uninhabitable. Additionally, those trees that are cut can no longer take CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, so the process also contributes to climate change.
The German non-profit Atmosfair have found a way to help: They provide families in these parts of the world with very energy-efficient ovens that only need a fraction of the wood to provide the same amount of heat and cooking power.
On this blog, we’ve mentioned a number of times that we are trying to limit the climate impact of making this film (and of our lives in general). In terms of our travels, we do our long journeys with all our equipment in an electric car which we charge with renewable energy. And only in rare instances, when there is no other way for us to do it — let’s say because we need to go to South Korea for our story, or because we have to go to Scotland and have only two days for it because of other commitments — we do take a plane.
And when we do, we compensate for (or: offset) the CO2 emissions from these flights — by paying for these ovens that Atmosfair is bringing to these families.
Many people who are concerned about the climate believe that offsetting CO2 emissions is actually a bad thing — they believe it makes people feel good about something bad that they just shouldn’t be doing. And that it does not solve any climate problem. It just makes everything worse because people who compensate keep up their bad lifestyle, rather than becoming part of the solution for a better world.
There is a lot of truth to that. Flying, in particular, is especially bad for our climate. And it’s important to seriously consider any flight anybody wants to go on, and whether there is not another way to achieve the same objective. A return flight from Rome to Reykjavík, for instance, emits roughly the entire yearly CO2 budget that a human being on earth can afford to produce in a year if we want to live sustainable lives. In other words, if you’ve done that flight, theoretically you cannot really consume … well, actually, live after that.
But we would like to explain why we still go on flights, and why we believe that compensating — at least the way we are doing it — is a good compromise.
When it comes to compensating CO2 emissions, there are a lot of climate-destroying habits that should absolutely not be compensated. A good example is a steak house telling its customers that their food is “climate neutral” because they pay for compensation for their meat production. That is truly a bad idea. Our current meat consumption habits cannot go on, and there is no way of solving that problem by compensating. Instead, it falsely suggests to customers that somehow this meat isn’t so bad. Instead, we simply must get used to eating other things than meat, in order to keep earth inhabitable for humans. And we can — we do not need meat to live. The same goes for CO2-emitting cars, or for any other activity that can be carried out with alternative means.
That is a little different with flying. We cannot really live without it anymore, if we assume that encounters with people in other parts of the world and experiences abroad are good for us: Arguably, our world becomes a better place when we meet each other, when we see other places and people in far away countries. The more we establish human connections across borders, continents, disparate parts of the world, the more we will (hopefully) be able to understand that we are all part of one big family, and that our lives are connected and intertwined. If we decided to ban all flying (if that was even possible), the effects would be very negative — and I don’t mean just in terms of economic impact. I mean in terms of the effect on us as open, connected, curious human beings.
So the first point is: A lot of flying is truly and substantially wrong — a business man who thinks he needs to be flying from Frankfurt to Hamburg and back for a business conversation which could also happen by video conference is simply an idiot, climatically speaking. And so is the hipster couple that decide they “need” a weekend in Mallorca just to relax. And don’t get me started on people who fly to Paris for a day just to go shopping. But Brasilians who live in England should be able to visit their families in Brasil. A person living abroad to make money for the family back home must have a chance to go and see them. And (arguably), if we are making a documentary about how we need to change our economic system, we should be able to fly to South Korea if the story demands it.
Yes, these are moral choices. I fully acknowledge that I am making a call on what is good and what is bad travel. We must get to a point where we can have this conversation, otherwise we’re not going to make progress. “I need my freedom and anything goes as long as I can pay for it” is not a position we can maintain in a world with limited resources. We need to start arguing about what’s needed and what isn’t.
Secondly, flying will become climate-neutral. What’s necessary to make that happen are synthetic fuels — they exist already today, and they are made by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and combining it with other molecules, to create fuels that, when they are burned, simply return that CO2 to the atmosphere, rather than adding more CO2 to it. The problem with these fuels is that they are still very expensive to make, and for that reason, they are not widely available yet. Mass production needs to be developed. But we really have no choice — we need to make that happen.
So a CO2-neutral solution is actually already available for flying — and in that respect, flying is different from a steak. Unless we truly find a way of making synthetic steaks (which people keep talking about, but they still seems a bit far from reality), our meat consumption needs to change. Our flying habits, on the other hand, can become sustainable.
This is why we think flying is an acceptable thing to do if three conditions are in place:
- Any flight is carefully considered, and only done if there is no other means of achieving the same outcome.
- A flight is understood as what it is: something profound and rare, and not a thing we do as easily as taking a subway or a bus.
- The CO2 emissions of the flight are compensated with a provider that understands that CO2 compensation is only the last resort.
The people at Atmosfair don’t think that compensating is a good solution — they consider it only the third-best option. They consult with companies and individuals, and they primarily focus on avoiding CO2. If that cannot be done, then they will try to reduce CO2 emissions. And only as a third response to CO2 emissions, they propose to compensate. (And they will not sell compensation to the steak house mentioned above.)
As it says on their website:
For climate protection reasons, CO₂ avoidance should have priority over other measures. If it is not possible to avoid CO₂ emissions, at least measures should be taken in order to reduce them as much as possible. atmosfair can offset unavoidable emissions for you through high-quality CDM Gold Standard climate protection projects.
So, we do acknowledge that flying is currently still a very dangerous thing for our world. We believe that flights should only be taken if absolutely no other option is available, and if their meaning is truly appreciated. And finally, when we do fly, we compensate with Atmosfair, because we have met with them, and they do take this issue very seriously.
And we cannot wait for synthetic fuels to become widely available.
The year is drawing to a close — here’s a look back on what has happened in our project so far. 2018 has been an incredible ride for us, in many respects.
It all started back in February, when we found out that two things were going to happen. One, a group of government representatives from Scotland, Costa Rica and Slovenia were going to gather in Ljubiljana in March, to say openly to the world that they want to pursue a different type of politics in economics, an approach that respects the needs of people and planet. At the same time, we heard that one of the people working on making this government summit happen, Lorenzo Fioramonti (a fierce critic of the GDP and of the way most economic policies are currently being designed), was going to leave academia and join the world of Italian politics, and run for office with the 5 Star Movement. Since the 5 Stars were the strongest contender in the Italian election, this was very interesting news — there was the potential that a man who had written books about how bad a measure the GDP is could become a minister in a new Italian Government!
So we decided that we just had to start filming this story, no matter what — a story about people who want to move our world away from its endless “growth obsession”. So without funding (there was no time to wait for funding), and with only a vague concept of what kind of a story we wanted to tell, we went on our first trip: In the middle of February, we drove up to Scotland, to meet with Katherine Trebeck and other people at Oxfam, to find out what that government summit was going to be about. Katherine had worked on this thing from within the Scottish Oxfam offices, where she’d been a researcher.
(Also, Nick still had to move most of his stuff from a storage in Glasgow to Berlin, so we did it all in one go, with a hired truck. That’s a fossil fuel burning vehicle, of course, and since we want to be as climate-friendly as we can, we compensated the CO2 emissions on that trip. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any other way to move house these days than using a truck that burns Diesel.)
A few days after returning from this one, we were already off on our second trip — down to Italy. And this time we went fully electric. We met with Lorenzo in Brescia where he had to give a campaign talk, and then we drove him down to Rome. We had been invited to stay at his parents’ place outside Rome, to be able to follow Lorenzo around during this last week of campaigning before the election on March 4th. Lorenzo’s family and his home were still in South Africa where he had been living for many years. As he was launching his career in Italian politics, he turned his parents’ house — which has lots of space — into his new temp home as well.
The week we spent together in Rome was remarkable. We were traveling around the city non stop, went on lots of campaign appointments, saw plenty behind the scenes stuff in the “5 Star Campaign”, we went to their secret campaign headquarters in the center of Rome, and felt the vibe behind and on the stage at the big campaign rallies and events. It felt a little bit like being inside a real-world “House of Cards”.
In early May, it had turned out that the summit in Slovenia was not going to take place — so we had to go back to Glasgow and speak with the team there again — about what was going to happen next. Timing was tight, and we had to somehow fit the trip in. We couldn’t drive — it takes four days driving time alone to go up there and back — so we flew this time around. But we compensated for our CO2 emissions with Atmosfair — like we do with every flight which we cannot avoid.
It wasn’t until later in April that we went traveling again — but that doesn’t mean we sat idly in the meantime. We produced a small comedy show in Berlin, I moved house, and more importantly, we had to work hard on defining our story.
In theory, a documentary filmmaker only starts rolling his camera after s/he has thoroughly investigated and written down what the story is meant to be, exactly, that s/he wants to tell in the film. Based on this description, you go out into the world, and try to collect your story — or the version of it that reality will present you with. It’s obvious that life will never turn out the way you intend it in your head. But it’s still incredibly helpful to have that idea — otherwise you don’t know what you are shooting for.
It didn’t quite happen that way in our case. Instead, we had already started rolling the cameras, but we only knew that we wanted to follow these two people — Katherine and Lorenzo — to document what they were trying to do, to help us move to a post-GDP world. But what does that mean in terms of the story that we’re telling? How do we structure it, how do we intend to keep viewers engaged in a topic that may seem very technical to many people. We had lots and lots of conversations with lots and lots of people, and particularly with my friend Kim Münster, an experienced film director and producer, who agreed to produce our film and help me — a novice to the whole process — structure the whole thing.
To structure it meant primarily to write a treatment. Which is essentially the screenplay to the documentary — a description of the intention I have as a filmmaker for the story I want to tell. It was a hard process to do this, and the treatment got rewritten a number of times, and it changed around a lot. But I learned an awful lot about what it means to be a documentary filmmaker, and how I need to think, in order to make a film that anybody will want to see.
In April, we returned to Rome for our second trip there. On the way down, we stopped over in Venice, to meet with and interview Petra Reski. She’s a German writer, but she has been living in Italy (closely following the “5 Star Movement”) for decades now, and she gave us a very helpful perspective on what this movement means for Italy. Then we journeyed on to Rome. Lorenzo had won his seat in the Italian election, and we spent another 5-day work week with him around town — while the party was trying to form the new Italian government. The negotiations with the “League” had failed, and now the 5 Stars were trying to figure out how they could potentially form a government with the “Partito Democratico”. And Lorenzo was trying to prepare for his new role, potentially as the Minister for Industrial Development in the new government.
On May 7th, we had the chance to meet up with Tim Jackson in Berlin. He’s a very well-known professor, researcher, author and speaker, working on the post-growth agenda. I’d met him once before, in 2017, as we were preparing our climate change show “vollehalle”. It was fun to meet him again in Berlin. He gave a speech in the very impressive hall of the Evangelische Akademie Berlin — check out the floor lights in the pictures below — and we were allowed to film that speech.
And then at the end of May, we returned to Scotland. This time with the Tesla, again getting on the Le Shuttle train under the Channel. I really love that train! The trip first took us to Tim Jackson’s university in Surrey, where we had the chance to do a sit-down with him, and interview him for about an hour.
Then we journeyed on to Glasgow and then Edinburgh, for a very particular reason: on May 23rd, the Task Force meeting for the Wellbeing Economy Governments — the group that was originally supposed to meet officially in Slovenia in March — was happening at a hotel in Edinburgh. The idea was to plan the next potential official public meeting, which could now be in South Korea at an OECD conference, at the end of November. So there were representatives from the Scottish, Costa Rican and Slovenian governments, plus people from Oxfam and a couple of universities, getting together to hash out how they could develop their group until that conference. And we were in the room, with the cameras rolling! It was very exciting!
In Edinburgh, Katherine also told us that she was going to go to Costa Rica herself, to speak at a conference, and to (potentially) meet the Costa Rican president, and tell him about this project, and get him excited about it. It was clear — we had to go, too! So we booked two seats on the same flight that she was going to be on (again, we compensated for our CO2 emissions with Atmosfair), to travel with her to Costa Rica, only two weeks later!
But just before that, I had the hunch that I had to go back down to Italy. The forming of the government there had become this never-ending thriller — negotiations with the PD had been cancelled only days after our last trip there, because of a very controversial TV appearance of the former leader of the PD, and so the 5 Stars turned back around to negotiate once again with the right-wing “Lega”. When they finally tried to propose a government together, the Italian President Mattarella refused to sign them into office, for fear of a European backlash against the new minister of economics, a Euro critic. It was apparently all coming to a blow, with the 5 Stars organising a rally to demonstrate against the President, when at the last minute a compromise was found, and the goverment was sworn in. And so the demonstration against the President turned into one to celebrate the first time the 5 Stars were in an Italian Government. Since I only had two days, there was no way to drive down again, so I went on yet another flight, and spent two days in Rome, and got a few great shots and impressions of the vibe both within the 5 Stars, and also from Lorenzo’s point of view, who — at that stage — seemed nowhere near becoming part of the new government, despite the fact that he had been quite close to Luigi di Maio and the party leadership during the election campaign.
And then, only three days later, we went to Costa Rica. It was a great experience — we met incredibly interesting people, the conference called Omina (about sustainable fashion) was inspiring, and even though Katherine did not manage to meet the President (he had to cancel his appearance at the conference), she did meet the First Lady. And we were in the room with them! We returned to Berlin on June 11th, after being away only six days — it had felt much longer because it had been so intense.
In the meantime, working on the proposals and trying to get funding kept right on going — unsuccessfully, however. The most irritating thing in this whole funding process is that with some German film funding institutions, you cannot get money if you apply after you have started filming. There is apparently a bit of wiggle room, but not enough for us, so a couple of sources of money for our film were already dry before we even started applying … There seem to be laws about public financing of films that make it so, but I don’t really understand it. And it is quite irritating that we are blocked from funding simply because we realised early that we simply had to start capturing this story. Otherwise, there would be no story.
The next trip took us back to Rome, we left Berlin on July 1st. This time, we wanted to be there when Lorenzo brought his whole family — his wife and the two kids — back from South Africa. We documented their arrival at Fiumicino Airport. But even more importantly, we had the chance to witness Lorenzo arriving at his new office — he eventually did end up in the government, he had been named Vice Minister in the Ministry of Education and Research (“MIUR”), and we were there to see his first days on the new job.
In mid August, we returned to Scotland once again — this time because Katherine was coming back from her summer holidays, and we wanted to be present (and film) as she was getting an update about the state of things with the Wellbeing Economy Governments from the Scottish government team.
The many remarkable and incredibly comfortable stays in Edinburgh for our film are only possible, by the way, thanks to Nick’s extremely generous and hospitable parents Pat and Howard Scholey — a massive thank-you to them!
Which takes us straight to our last Italian journey so far for the film, in early September — and this one was by far the most tiring because we went to so many different places. Our first stop was Geneva where we interviewed Alvaro Cedeno (he’s in the pictures from the Costa Rica trip — but he lives and works in Geneva). From there, we traveled to Milan, where we met up briefly with Katherine (!) who happened to be there that night, and then we shot an interview and other material with a start-up company that we may include in our film.
From there, we traveled on to Genua where the motorway bridge had crumbled a few weeks earlier, and we needed to get shots of that. And from there, we traveled on to Rome, where we spent some more time with Lorenzo — we drove him to a couple of TV studios, for example, where he was giving interviews. And finally, we went with him back up north, to Tuscany, where he had meetings in Pisa and Lucca. It was a super intense trip, but again well worth it.
In late September and early October, we started a little sub-project within our film project — this blog right here, and the social media accounts that we’re using, to publish behind-the-scenes stuff around making this film. We kicked it off by shooting, editing and posting our “Welcome Video”.
In the meantime, we had also learned that further hopes for external financing from film funds had fallen through. But I managed to open up another source of finances, so even though we don’t have any film fund supporting us right now, we can still continue to make the film. And we keep applying to other funds — more specifically now to a couple of US funds that also support international films.
Finally, in the middle of November, our most intense traveling and shooting period began. Within a very short time frame, we first went on our latest road trip back up to Scotland, met with Lorenzo in Berlin and then traveled to South Korea.
On the trip to Scotland, we were passsing through London once more where we did our interview with Rowan. Then we journeyed on, to interview my friend Basile in Northampton, and then on to Scotland again, where we met with the Scottish Government team again, and with Katherine.
Katherine’s husband Mark also agreed to be interviewed by us — which was really nice. And we joined one of his Dramble Tours: he himself does these guided tours of Glasgow that include stops in six carefully selected pubs where you get to sample six different carefully selected Scotch whiskys. We had fun. (I was just a bit cold, to tell the honest truth, my jacket wasn’t warm enough …)
Only two days after our return, Lorenzo came to Berlin! Together with his assistant Nicoletta they came for a few meetings. That made life easy for us — no need to travel to Italy to film our Italian protagonist!
And finally, our last trip this year: to South Korea. The Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative (“WEGo”, here is the website) was going to be launched at a big OECD conference on measurement and statistics there, so the Scottish Government team, teams from other governments, and Katherine were going to be there. And Lorenzo was coming as well. So we had to go, too, and see what it was going to be like, to see that initiative see the light of day. Just like in South Korea, we spent a good deal of time with Katherine, and even managed to fit in a last day of “light tourism” in the old part of Incheon — the city where the whole thing was taking place.
(I already posted a fairly extensive blog post about what we learned at the conference.)
So … that was the summary of what we’ve been up to this year, trying to make this film. (Not to mention other projects that we have worked on.) This does not include, of course, a whole bunch of little things that we were working on here at the office: editing work for funding applications, the countless revisions and reworkings of our various (German and English) treatments and other documents.
2019 will probably begin for the film in the second half of January, with yet another trip to Scotland. We hope to get done with the main bulk of shooting by March — in other words, more or less exactly a year after we started. And after that, we need to sit down and start to work out how to actually make this film — sift through all the material, edit it, and do all the prost production. There is a lot of work ahead of us, and it will be, without a doubt, another very interesting year.
We’ll hope to post another video, about the trip to South Korea, towards the end of this week — so stay tuned! And other than that, have a Merry Christmas Season, and all the best for 2019!
A quick snapshot from last week — one of the people we are speaking with for our film is Alvaro Cedeño Molinari, the current Costa Rican Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation. Alvaro is a fierce fighter for sustainable trade and for a sustainable development of our world, and it’s such a pleasure to talk to him. (Also, he is a much better-looking man than you might think after seeing this slightly distorted snapshot. 😉 )
Here I am speaking with him on Zoom (it’s like Skype, but much better video and sound quality), and we’re actually recording the conversation through the Zoom app.
We met Alvaro first at a “task force meeting” for the Wellbeing Eonomy Governments project in Edinburgh a few months ago, and then again in Costa Rica when we went there in the summer. And then we met his family and did a longer interview in Geneva, where he lives, in early September.
A lot is going on in Costa Rica these days, and some of it has an impact on the story of our film. So we need to stay in touch with Alvaro. And even though it’s the absolute best thing to go and see and meet people, we cannot travel all the time, and speak to someone like Alvaro in person as often as we want. (Not only, but in part also for reasons of sustainability.)
So I’ve started interviewing our protagonists online, from time to time. And we’ll most likely use some of this footage in our film.
Note: We are not getting endorsed by Zoom, or getting paid, we just like the service.