Thursday, February 23, 2012

On scale, responsibility, and the latest George Clooney film

A few weeks ago I saw the film The Descendants, and have been thinking about it fairly regularly ever since. Set in Hawaii, it has two basic plot lines, connected through the character of middle-aged lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney. At the beginning of the film, Matt's wife, a fun-loving material girl, is involved in a speedboat accident that leaves her in a coma. Matt has been checked out from his family for a while; his elder, teenaged daughter is off at boarding school where she spends most of her time wasted; his younger daughter, a teeny-bopper, has trouble socializing with other kids. The accident prompts Matt to reassemble his family and attempt parenting again, only to get a shock: his eldest daughter informs him that her mother was having an extra-marital affair with, they soon discover, a plastic jerk of a real estate agent. Matt spends much of the movie trying to find this guy, but I won't spoil this story any further.

The second plot line is that Matt and his extended family, numbering in the dozens of cousins, etc, are heirs to one of the largest pieces of undeveloped private coastline in Hawaii. The family came to this inheritance due to a fortuitous 19th century marriage between one of their ancestors and the daughter of an important native Hawaiian family. The land was supposed to remain in the family in perpituity, but state laws have changed to prohibit this, and so the family must decide what to do with the land. Several large property developers have offered to pay outrageous sums of money to transform the land into condos, hotels, golf courses, etc. Matt has executive authority over the property on behalf of the descendants (hence the title of the film), and has agreed to put the decision of what to do with it to a vote amongst his relatives. It is clear from the outset that most of the descendants want to become fabulously rich by selling the land, even though it's clear that few of them have any financial woes.

As the film progresses, Matt starts to rethink the meaning of his own life (especially in terms of his relationship with his children) as well as what it means to be responsible for the land his extended family has been fortunate enough to have inherited. What quickly becomes apparent to him and to the viewer is that these two things are not divisible. It is this dialectic that has had me thinking so often about the film.

Geographers are often interested in questions of scale, and the potential connections between seemingly distinct phenomena that occur at different scales. Are landslides in rural Nepal connected somehow with sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean? (They are). Could landslides in Honduras be prevented by fair-trade coffee labelling in Canada? (Potentially.) Does my decision to buy a fast-food outlet's junk-quality coffee in a disposable cup with plastic lid contribute to anthropogenic climate change, deforestation, and consequent landslides in Nepal and Honduras? (Yes, but the size of the contribution is comparable to the contribution of a drop of water to filling a swimming pool).

The Descendants revisits, and provides an appealling answer to, the age old question of "what is the purpose of my life". Note here I do not say the "meaning of life" - that is too broad a question, since it includes the meaning of an eartworm's life, a tree's life, the evolution of living organisms from primordial ooze, is there a God, and so on. No, I explicitly mean the purpose of the life of any one of us as individual living things within the context of a much larger planet of other living and non-living things. This is an important question to ponder from time to time (but not to obsess over - thart would be unhealthy).

All living things have purpose in aggregate. In terms of the greater operation of the ecological systems of the planet, earthworms are as important a species as humans - in fact, probably more so. Earthworms survive just fine without humans, but human food systems depend heavily on the actions of earthworms. However, any one individual human can have, at least potentially, an almost infinitely greater impact on the functioning of the plant than can an individual earthworm.

Of course, many of us live lives like earthworms in that we as individuals have little direct impact on things beyond our immediate vicinity or day-to-day existence. We make bumps in our couch each evening as we watch TV, dig flower gardens in the yard, choose to take this route to go shopping and not that one, hope for a promotion at work, and so forth. Each of these actions has consequences for the people and places we encounter along the way, but at no greater scale than that. Rarely do we deliberately set out to change our neighborhood, much less the world at large. It is only through aggregation, like the drops that fill the swimming pool, that our actions effect change over the long term and/or across wide spatial scales. That is one reason why it is so hard to get people stop consuming low-grade coffee from disposable cups or to care about climate change - if I'm but one drop in the pool, what do my actions matter?

At the same time, we all recognize the potential for any one of us to have impacts across scales spatial and temporal scales is remarkable. Certain individuals have had and will continue to have, a disproportionate impact on the history and shape of the planet. Sometimes it happens through chance discovery, other times through hard work and dedication. Some individuals change the world for the better, others for the worse, others for a mix of both. Some will have their names remembered by legions of other people in perpituity (like Charles Darwin), others will not (Alfred Wallace). Many of those who set out deliberately to change their neighbourhood or the world for the good do so knowing (or not caring if) their names will not go down in history. Others, like George Clooney's Matt King character in The Descendants, may have high-consequence decisions thrust upon them.

But I think most of us are in none of these camps. We are simply people who try to live by some basic ethical code and, if opportunity or chance should thrust us into positions of importance, we'll try our best not to mess things up too much. It is for us that the message of The Descendants has the most resonance. The answer to the question "what is my purpose in life?" is simple: to take good emotional care of the people closest to you. To do this is a decision from which all downstream actions and consequences are invariably positive, healthy and, when circumstances allow, will scale outwards in beneficial fashion. Through seeking to heal his family and atone for years of neglecting them, Matt King simultaneously appreciates his responsibility to the people and the land of Hawaii.

This mesage, that greater good is achieved through love of close family, is emphasized in another way in this movie. Unlike the story of how European settlers in other places stole the land from native peoples, Matt King's family acquired title to their Hawaiian land not through violence or theft, but through marriage. He is not simply Hawaiian by choice of residence but, at least in part, by blood (although it is evident that few of the descendants of that first union ever married anyone but non-native Hawaiians). Through caring for his daughters, Matt King remembers that he is native to this place, and that his decisions today should reflect not just his own immediate aspirations, but must pass on to his own descendants a legacy at least as good as the one he received from his ancestors. In first-year environmental science textbooks, this is referred to as "sustainability", but the film does a nicer job of illustrating it.

This posting has gone on much longer than I intended. If nothing else, take it to mean that The Descendants is worth seeing if you haven't already done so. Clooney is excellent. So, too, is the rest of the cast. Watch for Beau Bridges in a superb bit role.

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