9 Jan 2012
Film review: Why ‘Thrive’ is best avoided
What do you do when you are the heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune and you have spent years surrounding yourself with new agey thinking and conspiracy theories? You make a film like ‘Thrive‘, the latest conspiracy theory movie that is popping up all over the place. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “have you seen ‘Thrive’?” Well I have now, and, to be frank, it’s dangerous tosh which deserves little other than our derision. It is also a very useful opportunity to look at a worldview which, according to Georgia Kelly writing at Huffington Post, masks “a reactionary, libertarian political agenda that stands in jarring contrast with the soothing tone of the presentation”. Here’s the trailer to give you a taste:
Visually the film is like some kind of Star Trek fan movie crossed with a National Geographic wildlife film, and is largely built around Gamble’s own years of ‘research’ into the question of what it is that “stops life on earth from thriving”. A reasonable question to ask, but his approach can hardly be called ‘research’ due to the low standards he accepts as ‘evidence’ and his all-round lack of critical analysis. His research, such as it is, is cherry-picked to deepen and support his established worldview, rather than the worldview being built from a careful analysis of the evidence. As we’ll see, this is a dangerous foundation.
So here’s the film’s argument in a nutshell. Humanity is killing itself and the world around it because free energy sources are being deliberately kept from us, cures for cancer are being kept from us, all because we are controlled by an invisible elite who want to create a ‘new world order’ to control us all and prevent us from thriving. So let’s look at some of the film’s central arguments in turn.
Free energy machines
One of the key threads of the film revolves around free energy, the idea that we can generate unlimited clean energy by just tapping into the ‘torus’, a shape that supposedly pervades the universe (see right), and which could yield endless free energy. ‘Thrive’ would have you believe that there are dedicated independent scientists around the world bravely defying the laws of thermodynamics only to have their work seized by the FBI, their patents bought up and ‘lost’, or harassed into silence. Yet all we are offered as evidence is some grainy film of machines that could be anything doing anything, and some smart computer graphics of spinning torus shapes.
If this amazing breakthrough that would rewrite science and win Nobel Prizes for anyone involved were actually a reality, and if you were going to spend huge amounts to make a film to argue for their existence which you would then put out into the public arena, surely you would get a working model of such a device into the studio with some impartial scientists to verify it in operation? If they actually exist, and actually work, then this wouldn’t be a big challenge surely? As Kyle Hill writes in his review of the film, “wanting something to be true does not make it more possible”, and “someone wanting to invent such a device is not evidence”. ‘Free energy’ is a world notoriously riddled with charlatans and cranks.
Gamble argues that these technologies could provide “enough energy to transform the entire earth”, and here’s a key point I want to challenge. The idea that free energy would be a universal good (even if it were feasible, which it’s not – the US Patent and Trademark Office gets so many nonsensical requests for patents on perpetual energy devices that they now refuse to even look at them without a working model) is deeply dubious. Kimberly Carter Gamble, Foster Gamble’s partner, states at one point in the film that:
“… so much of the pain on the planet has to do with the lack of access to energy”.
Wow, now there’s a statement. How many people on this planet would argue that much of the pain on the planet has to do with the developed world having lack of access to energy? While of course for millions in the developing world, lack of access to energy is a huge impediment to being able to attain a reasonable standard of living and to move beyond poverty, in the developed world, cheap energy (you could argue that for the past 150 years fossil fuels have been so cheap that they might as well have been ‘free energy’) has allowed Western nations to conquer, plunder, colonise, mine, clearcut, dominate and oppress.
While it has also allowed us to do many good things, energy cannot be seen in isolation from our relationship with other resources. Free energy would mean we would drain the aquifers faster, degrade the soils faster, work our way through the earth’s other depleting resources at an accelerated rate. Nowhere in the film is the idea of limits even mentioned, apart from occasional mentions that believing in ‘scarcity’ is one of our problems.
Can anyone seriously argue that the United States (which is principally the focus of this film) with a new free source of energy would be a more responsible member of the global community? Would they happily share it with the rest of the world? (the current stand-off about Iran’s nuclear energy programme rather indicates that they wouldn’t). I would argue that it is only the realisation that we are nearing the end of the age of cheap energy, cheap fossil fuels, that is finally bringing some sense, some awareness of the fact that we live on a finite planet and that we need to live more responsibly. Gamble’s argument that we could have enough free energy “to transform the entire earth” fills me with dread and foreboding rather than excitement.
We are told that oil companies are spending “huge amounts of money” suppressing free energy, with no evidence presented to support that at all. I would hazard a bet though that if even any money at all is spent on such things, it is a tiny fraction of what is spent on climate change denial, funding dubious organisations which attempt to undermine climate science, all of which gets no mention here. Of course we already have technologies that can harness natural energies and which provide clean energy – they are called renewables, we know they work, and we can install them today. ‘Free energy’ is a fantasy, and will always remain so. As Kyle Hill writes in his review, “just because the universe is hard to understand and many times mysterious, does not mean that anything goes”.
Down the conspiracy rabbithole
Then we are bombarded with the full range of conspiracy thinking. 9/11 was an inside job, there is a conspiracy to suppress natural medicines, “Big Brother’s not coming, it’s already here”, we are one step away from a “military dictatorship”, a climate treaty in Copenhagen would have been “a tax base for tyranny”, there are ‘chemtrails’ in the sky to deliberately poison us, there is a deliberate attempt to reduce the world’s population underway, there is only a cancer epidemic because all the cures have been suppressed, etc, etc.
UFOs are also brought into the picture, which is odd as they serve little to deepen his argument, rather the argument seems to go like this: there are UFOs and they are extraterrestrial craft, and in order for them to have got here, they must have free energy machines, so therefore the Elite must know about this and be keeping it from us. As he writes on the film’s website, “if we can expose the suppression, reveal the truth about ET visitation, and further develop new energy technologies that ETs apparently rely on, then we can decentralize power and make massive strides toward a thriving future”. I’ll leave you to decide whether that 2+2+2=9 kind of logic makes any sense to you, and whether the word ‘apparently’ constitutes an evidence base. Naturally, no evidence is presented to support this other than a few fuzzy videos of lights in the sky in different parts of the world.
Wheeled out as ‘experts’ to support the film’s arguments are Deepak Chopra and, erm, David Icke, among others. Gamble is keen on talking about “my research”, yet his research, such as it is, is so undemanding that I am reminded of Sir Terry Frost’s words, “if you know before you look, you cannot see for knowing”. Gamble wheels out the classic conspiracy theorists’ gambit, “could I be wrong? Perhaps. But what if I’m not?” No, you are wrong. And even if you were right, you have presented us with so little evidence to back up you claims that you would have no way of knowing whether you were right or not.
He also does the other classic conspiracy theorist’s trick of saying “don’t just take my word for it, do the research yourself”, offering links on the film’s website that all back up his arguments, rather than giving a rounded balanced view of arguments and counterarguments. There’s some dreadful rubbish on there, the film ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ is presented as evidence that climate change is probably not a problem, for example, and the appalling section on climate change beautifully states “those who point to solar activity as a cause of global warming are often ridiculed and accused of being funded by the oil industry, even when that’s not the case”. “Even when”?
Ah, so that’s what ‘Thrive’ is all about …
Then, at the end of the film, we finally get into Thrive’s manifesto, it’s vision for the future and how we might get there. There is lots in there that I wouldn’t disagree with, more local food, renewable energy, local banking, local shopping and so on, apart from free energy being thrown into the mix too. But now, it is in this final section of ‘Thrive’ that the dark side of the film emerges. One of the things put forward, alongside local food, renewables and so on, is “little or no taxes”. Eh? Where did that come from?! Ah, now we get into the real agenda of the film, a kind of New Age libertarianism, a sort of cosmic Tea Party, and it all starts to get deeply alarming.
Gamble sets out his 3 stages to get to humanity’s being able to thrive. Firstly, he argues, we need to hugely scale back the defence industry and the Federal Reserve. Well I could go along with that, but then the second is “shrink government’s role in order to protect individual liberty”, and the third is then, because we are now freer, with “no involuntary tax and no involuntary governance” and with “rules but no rules” (?), we can all now thrive. OK, whoa, let’s pause here for a moment. Indeed the film’s website goes further, describing ‘involuntary taxation’ as “plunder” and ‘involuntary governance’ as “tyranny”.
In her review, Georgia Kelly quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying “taxes are what we pay for a civilised society”. In spite of all it’s cosmic graphics and pictures of forests from the air, it is in essence a kind of New Age Tea Party promo film, arguing for a society with no government, no taxes, no laws, alongside “interplanetary exploration”, which somehow combine to create a world that respects the rights of all. Apparently, this would lead to a world where “everyone would have the opportunity to thrive”. In reality, it would lead to a world in which the wealthy would thrive, but the rest of us would lose healthcare, social welfare, libraries, public transport, pension entitlement, social housing etc etc. Sounds more like a surefire route to the kind of Dickensian world that led to the creation of a welfare state in the first place.
Responding to any of the truly global issues, such as climate change (which ‘Thrive’ clearly dismisses as part of the conspiracy), would no longer happen due to intergovernmental co-operation presumably being interpreted as steps towards a ‘one world government’. The film presents its suggestions in complete isolation from any notions of ‘society’ and community, presenting a vision of the future where the entire global population is living the same lifestyle as Gamble, the resources to enable this presumably being imported from other planets, or perhaps created afresh using magic?
Nowhere in the film do you hear the words ‘less’, or anything about reduced consumption in the West. Just as free energy and cures for cancer are our birthright, so, presumably, is the right to consume as much as we like – to think otherwise is to lapse into a ‘scarcity’ mindset. What I find most alarming about ‘Thrive’ is that most of the people who have asked me “have you seen Thrive?” are under 20, and they seem genuinely excited by it. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the message that appeals, the “all we need to do is” clarity of its ask. But having to discuss why free energy machines are impossible and the shortcomings of conspiracy theories with otherwise educated young people who are inheriting a warming world with its many deep and complex challenges is deeply depressing.
How we might actually help the world thrive
‘Thrive’ is dangerous because it invites us to put our faith for the future in a fantasy. A fantasy that free energy is possible, a fantasy that the only thing that is preventing us from creating a benign and enlightened society is a handful of powerful families. Things that are already very successfully preventing the world from thriving include:
- climate change (you try thriving in a world with a world whose temperature has risen 11°F, as the IEA warned this week)
- the fact that we fail to see reducing our oil demand as a key as a key aspect of energy security, oil prices having quadrupled since 2003 and going nowhere other than up, UK North Sea oil production falling by 22.5% in 2011 (a record fall) and North Sea natural gas production falling by 29.5% (a record fall) in 2011
- Social inequality, which as the book ‘The Spirit Level’ so brilliantly showed, underpins many of our other social problems
- Our economic system, designed to channel money upwards rather than downwards and to enrich the 1%, but this is a sufficiently abhorrent system (see, for example, Nicholas Shaxson’s brilliant ‘Treasure Islands’, review coming soon) without invoking secret societies and conspiracies to explain it
The solutions are already out there, there are proven technologies, proven strategies, and we need to work on all levels, as indeed the film argues, and to withdraw our support from a corrupt and ineffectual model which is taking us over the brink, and put that support into creating a more resilient, localised and accountable model. However, it’s not about ‘interplanetary travel’, it’s about finding our feet, here and now, in the communities and the soils that surround us. It’s not about ‘free energy’, it’s about learning to appreciate what a precious thing energy is and learning to live well with less of it. It’s not about ‘no involuntary taxation’, it’s about taxes that disincentivise the things that are narrowing our future options, and incentivising the things we need to get in place urgently. It’s not about ‘no government’, it’s about truly democratic government using its considerable powers to build resilience, decarbonise society, shift the collective focus. The few countries in the world that are actually seriously engaging with the climate issue are those with stronger government, not weaker government.
I have occasionally been interviewed for a film and then squirmed with embarrassment when I have seen the final context in which my interview has been used. I can only imagine that some of the progressives, such as Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, who appear in this film, are similarly horrified with ‘Thrive’. It is a film that offers us nothing, and which, taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to our having thrown away the few options for actually thriving that remain open to us. It is the film equivalent of a self-published book, with no critical editor rounding off the corners, and as a self-funded film a sense that you can do what you like. Avoid.