Amid heated debates on the Egyptian Constitution and two weeks before the referendum on proposed amendments to it, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Wadleigh gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo titled "The Future of Humanity: The Future of Egyptians."
The lecture linked data from the UN’s 2010 Egypt Human Development Report to Wadleigh’s life-long project, "Homo Sapiens Report: The Future of Humanity."
“I hope the Egyptian people would consider some of the points I raise in this lecture while developing a new constitution for their country,” he told his audience.
Conceptualized as a scientific look at planet Earth and the history of humanity from an outsider — an alien — the report discusses issues of sustainable development and the “institutionalization of consumer culture as a synonym for good life.” For years, Wadleigh has been collecting research from the UN, Harvard University, MIT and NASA on the availability versus the consumption rate of natural resources.
Through his report, he seeks to present this data in accessible and appealing ways, comparing the growing rate of product development to the utilization of finite natural resources. The report is organized as a narrative of human history, where data complements drawings by Wadleigh — mostly inspired by the visual imagery of sci-fi films.
By touring universities, Wadleigh hopes to engage students with the topic and encourage them to reflect on current legislation and policies that focus less on the conservation of the planet and, hence, the sustainability of human life. UNESCO has found the approach highly rewarding and has supported it for the past three years.
The challenges that humans are facing cannot be solved just by moving to renewable energy sources, explained Wadleigh. For instance, providing the 6.8 billion inhabitants of the planet with wind power for 35 years would require 48 million windmills. Each of the windmill’s four blades is made up of metals equivalent to ten automobiles and stands on a base equivalent to fifty automobiles — meaning that within a few decades, humans would break the earth’s metal bank.
“Scientific breakthroughs do not seem to be happening very fast,” he told his audience. Hence, much of the solution can happen from changes in values and habits — “thinking in finite terms, instead of infinite resources.”
Wadleigh, who studied physics and medicine, is best known for his iconic documentary film of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: 3 Days of Peace and Music,
which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1970, and was nominated for Best Sound.
During the sixties through the eighties, Wadleigh wrote and directed more than 100 feature and documentary films that often dealt with politics — some in very subtle ways.
The 1981 feature film Wolfen dealt with the hardships of the Native American community although the public labeled it a horror movie, Wadleigh explained. He also worked on two documentary films with Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a documentation of the 1968 student protests at Sorbonne University in Paris.
For the past 25 years, however, Wadleigh has shifted his career toward sustainable development research and awareness campaigns in collaboration with his life partner Dr. Birgit Van Munster. The Homo Sapiens Report represents the culmination of his research efforts and it is constantly evolving based on new research and discussions with his students. “The communication and feedback I get continues to inform my project and help me develop it,” he told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
It seemed pertinent for Wadleigh to give the lecture in Egypt at this point, because of possibilities of change brought about by the 25 January uprising. While developing constitutions, people often look at western democracies, with their “models of abundance.”
The viability of those models, however, relies on creating and sustaining consumer economies. “They focus less on the conservation of the planet and hence the sustainability of human life,” explained Wadleigh. The US constitution, for instance, promotes values such as freedom of expression, freedom to vote and exchange of goods and services. “The truth, however, is not required,” he added.
Wadleigh would like to complement these values with those of knowledge and information sharing through education and free internet for all.
“We need to return to the basics — the real needs and causes of happiness,” he told his audience. Many consumer values are created and sustained through advertising by attaching meanings to specific products — and hence can be done without, while achieving sustained developmental goals and associated standards of living. In addition to basic needs of food and shelter, health and education, people derive happiness and fulfilment from human interaction and the abilities to reason and create.
Many attending criticized the presentation as naive and impractical — an extension of the counter-culture of the Woodstock generation.
Wadleigh, however, is not calling for a destruction of industry or saying that developing countries maintain low human development indices and standards of living to sustain the planet and the lives of the developed world. He is trying to introduce values that can be incorporated into legislation that advocates development, that might be associated with less consumerism and hence greater sustainability in the long run.
“When building a new Egypt, think about being in a spaceship, solving problems as if nothing else is coming in from the outside world,” Wadleigh says — a scenario which he believes is likely in the future as resources deplete and people have little to exchange with one another.
To demonstrate the possibilities of change, Wadleigh is working on a documentary film about Egypt from 1970 until 2050. In cooperation with Bibliotecca Alexandrina, he will be collecting images, footage and data on the past 40 years to show how much has changed and to make projections of the future of the coming 40 years in Egypt.