Moving beyond just sustaining, director Damon Gameau explores how we can regenerate communities and landscapes in his latest film Regenerate Australia.
Words by Ella Liascos
Releasing his latest film Regenerating Australia earlier this year, director Damon Gameau gives us a look into one possible future that awaits if we can transition to new, regenerative systems. Set in 2030, the film is formatted like a news story and looks back at the decade’s catastrophic beginning with a pandemic and natural disasters that became the turning point for regenerative transformation. It paints a utopic picture of healthy farmers, communities and nutrient-rich soil. Wildlife corridors, thriving regenerative industries and consulting Indigenous wisdom to inform environmental practices.
We caught up with Damon to chat about the progress already being made to regenerate global and local systems. This compelling conversation delves into the ways our current system is geared for individualism, ill health and imbalanced wealth and how we can restore it into connected communities, a healthy environment and therefore, a healthy humanity.
Regenerating Australia shows an uplifting window into the future, which is a refreshing contrast compared to most climate related content. Have you noticed a different response from the film as a result of this approach?
I suppose it’s a similar approach we took with 2040, so I think we sort of know what to expect. The reason that we went with this format again, was we just saw the film translate into so much action, with the projects that people supported, whether that was through crowdfunding or financial investment or their own change in careers… because they wanted to contribute to that collective vision. That’s why we took that approach this time.
“Talking about the better world that’s possible on the other side of this crisis, or all the things we could change is important”
The whole film is predicated on a four month listening exercise with Indigenous groups, tradies, farmers, teenagers and people in the cities and we just asked them what kind of country they want to see after Covid, what changes would they like to see and we took all that and put it into this shared vision.
The learning from 2040 was that people are so overwhelmed and there’s so much existential threat to so many aspects of our life right now that people are disengaging. We’re losing people to that nihilism. They think it’s all too hard, it’s much easier just to numb yourself through the myriad of distractions that our current system provides, whether it’s food or the internet. We’ve got to be so careful that we don’t lose people to that state. So talking about the better world that’s possible on the other side of this crisis, or all the things we could change is important, because a lot of people are frustrated with the system. They’re working too hard, they don’t think it’s fair, it’s destroying the living world, you know — there’s a chance to build a better one and that’s the story I think we’ve got to be telling and really amplifying and get as many people on board, because that’s what’s up for grabs in this moment. We have a few different pathways ahead of us and a couple of them are super bleak and there’s one that says, you know, there’s still a chance to do things really differently, but it’s going to take all of us coming together and if people can’t see or imagine that first then we’ve got no hope of bringing them along.
“We’re a great example of that, how we’ve “othered” coal workers and how they’ve been used as political pawns, instead of actually seeing the humanity”
You’ve spoken about Renee Lurtzman’s work on the psychology of climate action. What parts of her work resonated with you and how has it influenced the film?
Yeah, I guess it was just the idea of the way that the brain responds and how our brains work and how they’re wired to deal with certain information. If we’re only overwhelming people and scaring them then, they just shut down. That’s how the brain operates, it shuts down the really crucial parts of our brain that problem solve and think creatively. So I think inadvertently we paralyze most of the world because they don’t know what to do.
I think a lot of people care about this topic but they’re not meaningfully engaged. I’d say that less than 5% are meaningfully engaged, because they don’t know what to do, they don’t even know where to start. When you’re just talking about these huge systemic problems, people go “well far out, what can I do about it living in my house, or trying to feed my kids at the same time.” The humanising element is really important, especially in this country.
We’re a great example of how we’ve “othered” coal workers and how they’ve been used as political pawns, instead of seeing the humanity in them. They care about their jobs like anyone does and they care about a thriving community like anyone does and that industry provides that for them. So rather than waltzing in, demonising them and making them the pariahs of this problem, how about we assist them in a transition and provide new work opportunities. The ones I’ve spoken to, a lot of them are really up for that. They know what’s coming and they know their industry is at threat. They’ve said “if you swap it out for a green hydrogen project or steel, or making electric buses or wind turbines, we’re all in. Just don’t march into our towns and tell us that we’re wrong and we’re terrible people.” I think they’ve sort of suffered from that a bit from this country in particular.
“We outsource our dreaming and our imagination and our information, we don’t allow ourselves to actually stop and think about the future. We’re kept in the present by other forces and that’s having a really deleterious impact.”
Victor Steffensen shares this beautiful quote in the film; “regeneration of country can’t happen without the regeneration of people.” How can we identify the areas where environmental and community-level regeneration needs to occur and take necessary action?
Everyone is just at their capacity in terms of inboxes, so many emails, social media management, whatever it might be. We’ve built this system around us that’s just not conducive to making the best decisions or taking the best care of ourselves. I’m sure you find that the minute you step away from all that, you do feel like a different person. Suddenly different parts of you come alive. You have more space, you’re more balanced, you’re a kinder person, you’re less edgy. That is what’s required, because while we stay on the treadmill, this limbic hijack system that we’ve got, whether it’s dopamine in our food or dopamine on the internet, or the attention economy — we don’t create space anymore. We outsource our dreaming and our imagination and our information, we don’t allow ourselves to actually stop and think about the future. We’re kept in the present by other forces and that’s having a really deleterious impact.
“There won’t be an individual savior, there won’t be one person, you know the Elon Musk that just saves everyone. That narrative’s gone, it’s dead. We actually need a community to get us through this and we’re being forced to come together.”
So that idea of stepping away, slowing down, working less if you’re privileged enough to do that is absolutely what’s going to be required, because when we do that, we start to see the world differently. And certainly, that connection we’ve lost to nature for so many of us — comes about when you do put the system down for a while and step aside — so you can start connecting. Because if we’re not connecting, we can’t care and if we’re not caring, we can’t save. That’s a big thing for our kids right now if you’re a parent, to make sure that they are connecting to nature. When you connect at that deeper level, then you can start thinking about the bigger picture. So it’s another example of the first nations wisdom that’s available to us in this moment that we just have to incorporate or else we’re not going to make it through.
“We inhabit a system that doesn’t bring out our humanity. In fact it incentivises the opposite. It rewards you if you are a hyper individual”
Towards the end of the film, community-led recovery is mentioned. The timing of this feels uncanny after the floods here in NSW/QLD and watching the community here mobilise so effectively without government assistance. Beyond disaster recovery, where are some areas we can channel our efforts to address the root of the issue?
We inhabit a system that doesn’t bring out our humanity, in fact, it incentivises the opposite. It rewards you if you are a hyper individual, if you show little compassion or empathy, if you have sociopathic tendencies; you become a CEO, a president. It attracts those people and then you get to set the rules to suit your own agenda and that’s the world we’re now inhabiting. Whereas 98% of us are largely altruistic. We care deeply about each other. Sure, we’ve got selfish traits, but we’re largely cooperative as we saw in our region. So really, how do we start thinking about a system that serves that part of us?
We’ve seen the fragility of a global system where the supply chains aren’t built for the shocks of the 21st century, whether they’re climate or a pandemic or whatever it might be. It’s been wound so tightly for efficiency to maximise every single dollar, that when something goes wrong, there’s no slack in it. It all falls apart very quickly.
We had horrible examples of people not being able to get their medical supplies or countries not getting chemicals, so they had locust plagues because all the supply chains shut down. We saw in our own region, the lack of food and petrol that happened in a very short amount of time. This is our future. So, I say that to all these communities, get to know your neighbours, because you’re going to need to know them in the next two decades more than you realise. Now’s the time to start building up those networks to create that resilience because the system is not going to save us in these disasters — it’s not designed for that. What we are designed for is forming our own decentralised robust networks in our communities that can respond to these moments, can grow our own food and provide our own energy. That’s the way we’re going to have to get through this in the decades ahead.
There are many systems that don’t make sense outside the lens of economic growth. One mentioned in the film was the selling of natural resources offshore, only to buy them back. You mention some potential solutions, including the introduction of a Federal Corruption Commission. Beyond voting and writing to our MP’s, how can we put the wheels in motion to make these things a reality?
We’re starting to see that happen, and that’s by forming networks. That’s how we’re going to get through this, by sharing those learnings and what happens in a crisis. To me that’s the fun work, because it’s all about connection. We’ve got to reconnect and come together to get through this. There won’t be an individual savior, there won’t be one person, you know — the Elon Musk that just saves everyone. That narrative is gone, it’s dead. We actually need a community to get us through this and we’re being forced to come together.
“If you look at the mainstream press, it’s just all about the sacrifice; “your energy bills are going to go up,” all these things that we’re going to lose from switching to these new solutions. That’s a story that’s been protected by people that have vested interest in all those industries and unfortunately they’re the gatekeepers of the narratives in this country and have done it very very well.”
One argument from people who are reluctant to withdraw from the fossil fuel industry is the loss of jobs and instability. How can we respond to those concerns?
Well I guess the whole point of the film is to showcase the opportunity that our regions have in particular. Not just in terms of a renewable transition, that’s only one aspect of it. You know, the opportunity to really empower communities again. What we don’t want to do is have three or four ‘clean energy Barrons’ in 15 years in this country who’ve monopolised all the renewable energy and even though we’re at zero emissions, we’ve got a dysfunctional, fractured democracy like America. We have to be so careful we don’t leave the regions behind. That’s where we need smarter policies. This is where some of the independents I think are very exciting. Like Helen Haines who is saying “yeah, you can build the turbines and the farms here, but 30% of the profits are going to stay in our communities so that we benefit because you’re using our land.”
“We are so gifted in the resources we have, the First Nations wisdom we have. We have at least 60,000 years of acute observational science that’s embedded in these people and right across our landscapes that we could well do to integrate into our western thinking.”
Farmers really need to work through this transition as well. Conventional industrial practices are destroying so much of the land and the nutrients in our foods.rather than polarising and creating division with farmers, we say well “what are the opportunities to do things better, regeneratively that improves their own health?” They get higher value for the nutritional food that they’re providing and carbon and biodiversity markets are now emerging, which means that the farmers will get an extra income stream from looking after their land,protecting it and valuing the unique frogs and birds on their landscape. It’s happening as we speak. We just need to tell that story, so the farmer doesn’t think the only future for him is more chemicals and listening to those agronomists, that suddenly he realised he can play a role in changing the system and providing a healthier population. What a great story, to bring them into that.
“So that’s where we need storytellers in these spaces that have reach. We need these people to be telling these stories and getting people excited by the better future that we could create in this country.”
We are so gifted in the resources we have, the First Nations wisdom we have. We have at least 60,000 years of acute observational science that’s embedded in these people and right across our landscapes that we could well do to integrate into our western thinking in this moment, because we need it. That’s a gift. What an opportunity to come together and tell a united story in our country finally. If you look at the mainstream press, it’s just all about the sacrifice, your energy bills are going to go up, all these things that we’re going to lose from switching to these new solutions. That’s a story that’s been protected by people with vested interest in all those industries and unfortunately they’re the gatekeepers of the narratives in this country and have done it very very well.
We’re are ranked three in the world for the most concentrated media landscape. So obviously Murdoch owns 70% of our newspapers and Channel 7, 9 and 10 are owned by people who have links to extractive industries and mining as well —, so we have a completely hijacked narrative when it comes to anything new. They all work together to protect the incumbent system. That’s why in Australia, we are ranked across multiple metrics as last in the world for climate action. Out of any country in the world Australia ranks last. We’re so crippled by the messaging that people get in this country
So that’s where we need storytellers in these spaces that have reach. We need these people to be telling these stories and getting people excited by the better future that we could create.
“We need people to take action now. Really solid meaningful action in whatever way they can and whatever way they’re passionate about.”
What are some ways Australian communities can help the shift towards localizing our resources like food, petrol and energy?
Sometimes it can be counter productive to be prescriptive with this stuff. We’ve fallen into that trap in the past, saying to everyone, “change your light globes or plant a tree” or whatever it might be, but really everyone has their own individual passion in something they’re interested in and it’s really important to align it with that. It could be any number of things. There’s so much to do, but it’s just about putting the phone down, ignoring Instagram for a while, getting out there and doing it. Putting your hands in the soil. It’s so easy to think you’re taking action by posting something online or tweeting, but it’s more important to actually go meet the local farmer, buy organic, or connect with local school groups. We need people to take action now. Really solid meaningful action in whatever way they can and whatever way they’re passionate about.
Damon Gameau is an Australian film maker, actor and author. He's the director and lead role in 2040, That Sugar Film and Regenerate Australia.