Gerard Ungerman is a film maker and journalist who has made a number of documentaries that focus mainly on environmental and human rights issues. In 1995, together with Audrey Brohy he formed Free-Will Productions, an independent documentary production company that survives through sales of its product and private donations.
Gerard's latest film, "Belonging", looks at humankind's relationship with nature. He compares how the Inuit have historically lived in harmony with the land, and contrasts how most of the rest of us live in a way that is laying waste to the Earth. After watching the film I decided to contact Gerard to see if he would be interested in answering a few questions about his film and the issues it raises.
Ban T-shirts: "Belonging" is a very inspired title for your film. Do you think that people need to have a sense of belonging to the Earth in order for humanity to survive as a species?
Gerard: Belonging is an essential quest for human beings and most other animals. We need to belong to a group and a place for our own sake but also for the sake of the group and the place we ought to belong to. But belonging is a two-way street. Problem is, when you destroy the place in which you seek to "belong" and when you exploit and victimize the group in which you also pretend to belong to, then do you really "belong"? These are also essential questions. Talking about "sustainability" for our current model of hyper consuming society and relying on the hope for new technologies alone won't cut it. I would like my film "BELONGING" to be a first step in a deeper reflection about our rights AND responsibilities as human beings on this little, finite planet. Belonging is like being sustainable, it is by no means a right or a given. One must work hard at these things from a place of love and respect. Otherwise we just don't belong and won't be sustainable or sustained.
Ban T-shirts: At the beginning of the film you spend some time exploring the Inuit relationship with the land and contrast it to the ecological isolation that most people now live in. Has humankind lost touch with nature for good? Is there any way to reestablish that connection once it has been lost?
Gerard: All humans and animals live off the Earth for the most basic of their survival needs. Some are keenly aware of that because they spend a fair share of their time foraging for food and water. And some have become totally cut off from this reality. Most modern humans have no clue where their food comes from, no clue that clean water is absolutely not a given, no clue about what energy is and where it comes from, no clue that survival is the product of striving for resources in a constant competition with other species. At this point, as a modern human being, you can only be aware about such things if you are into thinking about such things. Then you pay attention, then the naturally obvious is obvious to you. Now if you do not want to pay attention to such things because you are too busy working in some ivory or crystal tower, using and paying your credit card, moving around in our modern oil-powered vehicles, playing with our electronic gismos and watching television, when you lose complete touch with the reality of life on Earth. And there is a good chance that you will remain willfully oblivious of it as long as energy runs through our pipes and wires and as long as the feedbag remains full. Some among us will re-establish connections with nature, many won't. There is a good reason why Rome went from a population of a million and a half at the end of the second century to about 25,000 by the middle of the 3rd century. Fat and over-entertained Roman citizens didn't want to see it coming and they did nothing to prepare. When wheat stopped flowing, Rome was totally incapable of feeding itself and it collapsed in a very short time. Poor countries where many still painstakingly work the land with their own hands will most probably fare better than us. There is no such thing as "humanity". There are peoples and societies and each get a chance to rise and fall throughout the cycles of history. The higher the fall, the harder the landing...
Ban T-shirts: Humanity's relationship with the land has been changing over thousands of years but it has altered most dramatically in the last century or two, as society has become increasingly industrialized. Do you think that material wealth is incompatible with a healthy planet?
Gerard: As I said in the previous answer, there are many different types of cultures and societies. Wealth essentially means that one person or one social segment starts accumulating more than they could do by themselves. Various schemes allow for some to harness the work of others. There was a time when one social class could use brute force to terrorize local villagers into feeding them. Today entire nations use brute force to somehow coerce poorer countries into giving them their labor and resources. The plus on the receiving end is that you end up eating much more food that you would if you were eating the sole produce of your work; you end up wearing way many more clothes than you could ever make on your own; you end up living in a much bigger and more comfortable house that you could ever build with your own hands; and you can travel much further than you would if you were relying on your own two legs. On the down side, you have no clue of how to work the land and make food; even cooking raw food is beyond the ability of most modern Westerners; you can't even mend the holes in your socks, let alone make the most rudimentary clothes; you couldn't even build a garden shed; and there is a good chance that walking a mere mile is beyond your physical (and mental) capability... The planet has seen many up and down cycles; when one species dominates all others, it creates its own demise by over-tapping its resources. The Roman citizens of today are over-tapping the resources they have access to and when these resources run out, or at least do not grow anymore at a sufficient pace, they will not only collapse but they will for the most part have no basic skills to fall back to. Other societies will thrive on their ruins. The planet for its part will probably enter another hot era like the it has seen in the past and human groups might revert for the most part to having a small scale, nomadic lifestyle.
Ban T-shirts: Do we need to learn to live with less, rather than constantly striving for bigger, better and more? If so how can we change people's attitudes?
Gerard: We are trained as modern humans to seek satisfaction constantly. Satisfaction is the end game of it all. There is not much we can do about that. Those among us who choose to live a simpler life do it in search for the satisfaction of having less credit card bills, less stuff to worry about, less headaches, more time to hang out with friends. We can try to show others how satisfying a simpler life can be but the truth is everybody has their own idea or illusion of what satisfaction is and simpler life will only appeal to one segment of society. We can only show an example and it will appeal to whoever is open to that. Voluntary simplicity comes as a "hobby" in the midst of rich societies, unless you lost everything and became homeless that is. On the real large scale, the kind of simplicity that will reverse the trashing of the Earth will only come from a total wealth collapse when no-one will be able to pollute and generate the kind of garbage that most Westerners generate today.