Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Film review: ‘2040’

Warning. * contains spoilers *

‘2040’ is a remarkably brave film. It tells the story of Damon Gameau, an Australian actor who also produced ‘That Sugar Film’, who sets out to create a vision of the future he hopes might lie ahead for his young daughter, Velvet. It is a film that unashamedly focuses on solutions, but he sets himself the condition that the solutions he proposes must already exist today in some form. He calls it “an exercise in fact-based dreaming”. It is, as you might imagine, an exercise very close to my own heart.

Like in the French film ‘Demain’, he then sets off around the world to visit the most inspiring examples he can find of the future he longs for. But unlike Demain he also introduces a powerful CGI element, bringing to life his vision in a very graphic three-dimensional way (as you can see in the trailer above). He visits food projects, energy projects and speaks to some amazing people.  It takes real guts to set out in public a vision for what the future could be and for that I can’t applaud this film enough. Many of the ‘transforming 2019 into 2040’ sections are very powerful.

Parts of ‘2040 were a revelation. The section on ‘marine permaculture’, and the potential of cultivating seaweed as a way of locking up carbon, was new to me, utterly fascinating and worth the price of admission alone. The interview with Kate Raworth and Damon’s graphically bringing her ‘Doughnut Economics’ approach to life was brilliant. Its focus on the central role of the education and empowerment of women was excellent. The sequences of children today talking about their hopes for the future were very moving. There were many sequences of the film that I found very powerful, and its animations of the future were skilfully done, especially sequences such as the reforesting of the Alberta tar sands. Goosebumps stuff.

Clearly anyone who watches this film will have bits of it they agree with and bits they don’t. As I wrote in From What Is to What If, our visions of what a zero carbon future will be like will differ, but what matters most is that we start to create them and share them. And this is certainly one of the best I’ve yet seen. That said, I do have some reservations about the film which I’d like to share.

Firstly, it struck me that Damon’s family manage to start the film, in 2019, living a very comfortable middle class Australian lifestyle, and by the end, after 21 years of profound societal change and what he acknowledges will be two decades in which “the intensity of the weather will increase”, they are still living a very comfortable middle class Australian lifestyle. They had somehow managed to weather the storm without losing anything, seemingly with no letting go of anything, no grief or sadness. No relinquishment. It appears to have all been seamless.

I appreciate that the aim of ‘2040 is to be a feel-good film, but there are parts of its narrative that for me don’t quite stack up. It reminds me of a German friend who told me that the generation who survived the War and who rebuilt the economy into a powerhouse (his parents) “gave us everything, but they didn’t share their grief with us”. I wonder, given that the 21 years between then and now will be complex, difficult and potentially traumatic as well as being deeply transformative and extraordinary, if Velvet may come to say the same thing in 2040?

The film can, in places, look rather like a promotional film for Google, with a section about driverless cars, a widespread use of Google glasses, smartphones, smart homes, and Alexa-type devices everywhere. It feels clear watching the film that top of Damon’s book pile while he was researching the film were Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ and Paul Hawken’s book ‘Drawdown’. But missing from the pile was clearly Shushona Zuboff’s seminal book ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. In it, she wrote:

“Our dependency is at the heart of the commercial surveillance project, in which our felt needs for effective life vie against the inclination to resist its bold incursions. This conflict produces a psychic numbing that inures us to the realities of being tracked, parsed, mined and modified”.

Yet somehow by 2040, this has all gone unchallenged. There is, for example, no concern about the impacts of mining the precious metals vital to the manufacture of the devices this type of future make necessary. There is no consideration of the data-gathering implications of Google self-drive cars, or of the possibility that if current trends around surveillance and data gathering continue, 2040 might look more like China does today with its ‘social credit rating’ scores on every citizen.

If 2040 is not to end up like that, what happened in 2020 that meant people discovered a new way of being in relationship to these technologies? Already, in 2019, the people who actually understand how these technologies have permeated everything and been co-opted and captured tell us that free and fair elections are no longer really possible. So what changed between now and 2019?

Damon Gameau

What I would love to have seen more of is how the process between now and then unfolded. Was it a seamless journey in one direction, every step easier than the previous one? Were there no moments when it felt like it wasn’t going to happen? When everything felt lost? When people who were unconvinced were won over? When large industries who had previously blocked progress changed their thinking? The film suggests that by 2040, Walmart and Ikea still exist, leading me to wonder whether the 2040 of this film has actually deeply challenged the existing power structures, the underlying economic model, or whether it is still rooted in growth-based capitalist economics?

These might seem like pernickety criticisms, and certainly ‘2040’ has much to be said for it, but fundamentally, I feel the criteria by which any film that tells a story about the future that we could still create should be judged is whether it creates longing or not. In that regard, for me ‘2040’ is only a partial success. Do I long for a world where huge tech giants still hoover up whatever data they can get in order observe, manipulate and monetise every aspect of our lives? Do I long for a world where our transport system is managed by such companies as much as a data-harvesting exercise as a transportation system. No. But I do long for cities freed from cars, full of trees, gardens and biodiversity, seas coming back to life, forests spreading around the world, and ‘2040’ brings that alive in a remarkable way.

For the world as set out in ‘2040’ to become a reality, at least for the bits of ‘2040’ that resonate with me, a deep power shift would need to have happened, a reclaiming of democracy, a withdrawal of power from large companies, a  deep shift in the collective sense of possibility, a complete re-imagining of what it means to be a citizen. Yet most of that passes by unchallenged, meaning that rather than a deep, rich, moving taste of what 2040 might be like, we are left with something that feels quite superficial and which I don’t think would win over many cynics. I hope I’m wrong.

But fundamentally, as I already said, I think ‘2040 is an incredibly brave film to have made. I hope it is the first of many films that tries to bring alive a future in which we have done all that we could possibly do. None will be perfect. All will have blind spots. Yet what matters most is that they try. And ‘2040’ really gives it a good go. While you may not resonate with it all, it will definitely, if watched with other people, lead to a deeply stimulating conversation which may go on for several hours, a conversation which is long overdue.


  1. Fruttorti Parma
    December 2, 2019

    So well said Rob! Unfortunately most people can’t push their imagination as far as we wish. Drones, home automation, driverless cars, AI and the like dominate the scene of the future due not to real desirability but to the manipulation of our imagination perpetuated by powerful businesses. The same applies when it comes to imagine and to put in practice a different and sustainable agricultural system.

  2. Steve Allin
    December 2, 2019

    Thanks Rob I haven’t seen it yet but am trying to arrange a screening for the New Year here in Kerry. Your comments about the future use of 5G powered machine control is to me and many around here a nightmare we are fighting. All scenarios that assume the ‘roll out’ of more High tech in the future are missing the point or the understanding of the level of Chaos likely to grow in the near future as the natural and man-made systems break down and how that is also likely to be the only thing that will hasn’t any positive moves to make our positive dreams be made real.

  3. D G
    December 8, 2019

    Nobody likes lying, cheating money grabbers. But
    I tire of politically motivated polemics criticizing stories of realistic, yet optimistic future scenarios. What facts determine that all hard working, money earning ventures are evil?
    Are the capitalists of B corporations and other owner operated small businesses evil?
    Try a well written story like Gallileo’s Dream or any other climate fiction from Kim Stanley Robinson for example. Climate savvy, well meaning people can and will change the world, with capital. Without it, we are powerless. Climate solutions may or may not include the downfall or reform of capitalism. Certainly, more facts, and wise governance of all our worst behaviors will be needed. Blind rage against anyone will only divide us and make the task harder.

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