Al Gore’s new climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, opened this summer.
The documentary, a follow-up to his 2006 effort titled An Inconvenient Truth, updates and details the danger facing the planet today from rising seas, warming temperatures and extreme weather.
Yet despite the urgency Gore expresses in both documentaries, he doesn’t seem to be sparking much in the way of mass public concern or outcry.
That wasn’t the case 35 years ago, when another documentary about the threat of global extinction was released.
Called If You Love This Planet and produced by Canada’s National Film Board, the 26-minute documentary featured Australian pediatrician and anti-war activist Dr. Helen Caldicott giving a lecture to university students about the dangers of nuclear war.
Appearing as it did during a height of cold war tension, Caldicott’s plain and passionate presentation caught the attention of a public genuinely fearful for the future of the planet.
“We are all children of the atomic age,” she stated in the documentary, which was interspersed with footage of atomic explosions and gruesome images of the burns and other injuries suffered by victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nuclear war, she stated, would be an “extermination.” People would be killed by the explosion, and also by buildings collapsing on them, burns, suffocation and by flying glass and debris.
Survivors of the blasts would have to deal with disease, plagues and epidemics, along with lack of food and clean water.
A month after the explosions, she said, 90 percent of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Russians would be dead.
The expressions on the faces of students in her audience said it all: Shock, worry, sadness, concern.
If You Love This Planet got an unexpected boost from the U.S. Department of Justice, which declared it "foreign political propaganda" and suppressed it in that country.
In 1983, when it won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, producer Terre Nash thanked the Reagan administration for the publicity generated by efforts to ban the film.
Here in Canada, the CBC initially decided against showing the documentary, claiming it lacked balance. But it broadcast it after it won the Oscar.
If You Love This Planet had a huge effect on the peace movement in North America and Europe—and in Winnipeg. As many as 20,000 people participated in peace marches in the city in the early 1980s.
It also helped create and galvanize action by religious groups as people of faith came together to call for an end to nuclear proliferation.
Caldicott herself was invited to speak to the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver in 1983. “Nuclear war is the single most urgent problem facing the human family today,” she told the assembly.
The documentary led to the creation in 1984 of Project Peacemakers, the well-known inter-church Winnipeg peace organization.
Project Peacemakers closed in 2016, but for 32 years it was a key voice for peace and justice in the city.
Today the threat of nuclear war is on the back burner, despite recent sabre rattling between Donald Trump and North Korea. Now it’s climate change that is seen as the major threat.
But unlike with Caldicott 35 years ago, the issue doesn’t seem to be generating the same mass public response.
And why is that? One reason is that climate change, unlike nuclear war in the 1980s, doesn’t seem like an imminent danger.
Back then, we really did worry that the world could end soon. Today, however, climate change is seen by many as a problem in the future, perhaps many decades or even further away.
Looking back, it’s hard to say whether all those marches, protests and letters to politicians made any real difference. But it certainly made those of us who did the marching and protesting and writing feel better; we were doing something.
And for that, we have Helen Caldicott to thank. Through her passion for nuclear disarmament, she convinced many millions of us that “if you love this planet . . . you will realize that you are going to have to change the priorities of your life.”
From the Sept. 2 Winnipeg Free Press. If You Love This Planet can be viewed on YouTube.