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The Next Industrial Revolution

    Earth Literacy Web participant Earthome Productions is doing the Great Work through film. Earthome's Shelley Morhaim describes the making of a film on the work of visionary architect William McDonough, the first in a series of films inspired by the new cosmology.

by Susan Kleihauer

EarthLight Magazine #43, Fall 2001


Fabric that's good enough to eat. A building like a tree at Oberlin College. A Nike designer who can't sleep at night because of her excitement about creating new products in harmony with nature. A greenhouse furniture factory where productivity has skyrocketed and perfect attendance has become the norm. A huge American automaker that's declared itself native to its bioregion and plans a $2 billion project to restore the watershed it calls home.

These are some of the stories of hope in Shelley Morhaim and Chris Bedford's new documentary film about the movement Bill McDonough is leading to bring together commerce and ecology to change the world. McDonough, an architect and designer, believes that harnessing the creativity and energy of commerce is the key to saving the planet. In his vision, humanity takes nature itself as its guide, reinventing technical enterprises to be as safe and ever-renewing as natural processes.

McDonough and his partner chemist Michael Braungart call this The Next Industrial Revolution, the title of this inspiring 55-minute film. "It's been a great project to work on because it's so hopeful," Morhaim said, in an interview with EarthLight . "People get very excited because it's a real vision, a great manifestation of what Thomas Berry writes about; it really is going down to a very deep level to reinvent culture. Bill saying we have to go back and look at nature's operating system and fashion ours off of that is such a different way of looking at the world. He says it's not about using nature as a tool, it's about humans becoming a tool of nature. Morhaim particularly loves McDonough's stance on abundance, not seeing the planetary crisis as a question of learning to live within limits.

"He sees nature as abundant, which again derives from Thomas' writings about the Universe as an incredibly creative event that's continuing to unfold.

"The thing I like too is he talks about balancing: to be sustainable, it has to be ecologically sustainable, economically sustainable, and equitably sustainable-that is, how we treat each other as people."

As a filmmaker, storyteller, and longtime activist in changing the way people think, Morhaim says the film has been a "great vehicle to get people talking about issues and to engage them by saying, 'Look what is out there.' It is so exciting. I have kids in high school and college. They've seen this and they say, 'Wow, there's really a future out there!'"

Morhaim says she didn't realize how despairing people were until they started test screenings of the film. At the first big public showing in Boston in early October, the theater holding 400 people was packed. Audience members included the director of the organization Second Nature, which helps colleges and universities integrate sustainability, who wanted to use the film in workshops.

A member of the Prince Georges County, Maryland, school board, attended one of the screenings. Afterward, she said, "I've got to get this film and show it to the school board; this is what we should be thinking about when we build new schools." This is just the way the filmmakers hope the video will be used, that people will buy it to show to their circles of influence. "I see this as spreading seeds," she says. "I just want to get it out there and let it germinate where it will."

Business will be one major audience for the film. "Last spring we showed a clip at the Environ Design Conference, a conference for people across many industries, product designers, architects, corporate executives who are grappling with environmental issues. People said, 'When can I get this film?' It's a way to explain sustainability to their customers, suppliers, colleagues. The fact that Nike and Ford are in there gives a level of credibility that can be hard sometimes."

Serendipity led Morhaim to filmmaking late in life, and from making feature films to this, her first documentary. She had started writing as a more serious endeavor when her kids got older and ended up taking a screenwriting class because the novel writing class she wanted was cancelled. She found she loved screenwriting. After selling several scripts, one for a comedy, "Mixed Blessings," was independently produced. One of the people attending the comedy's premiere was a foundation supporter of Earthome, the nonprofit educational organization she's been actively involved with in Baltimore. (Earthome is a member of the Earth Literacy Web-see page 44.)

That person encouraged her to put the two parts of her life, filmmaking and environmental activism, together and make a funding proposal for a documentary. "I said the Universe seems to be saying something to me here."

She wanted to do a film about Thomas Berry, but he was not interested. "I'm not the story here," he told her when she visited him. "The story is the human species reinventing itself." He sent her off with referrals and books. "What I discovered during this period of doing research and interviewing people is the human species is absolutely reinventing human culture across the board," she says. She eventually chose to do a film about McDonough because of his unique ability to communicate with people across a broad spectrum and because "you can see his vision manifested in the buildings and products he designs."

Morhaim has also been very influenced by Sr. Miriam MacGillis at Genesis Farm and Brian Swimme. "Brian talks about the timing of creativity. That just struck me as such a powerful thought: If it's the right time, you've got the power of the whole Universe behind you. So really your job is to find out what you're supposed to be doing."

At various points along the way in this project, even after she had started her research but couldn't move another step, she had spiritual experiences that made her next direction clear. For example, she met co-producer and co-director Bedford, a distinguished documentary filmmaker and Sierra Club activist, at a political fundraiser in Maryland. He did the camera work for the film, which was produced on a micro budget. "I started with a teeny amount of seed money from a local foundation," she says. "When I got to the bottom of the bank account, somebody stepped up and I always got just the amount of money I needed, which was probably much better because I had to educate people about it, talk about it, think it through. It really was the experience of saying if this is meant to happen it's going to happen."

Another connection between the work McDonough and Braungart are doing and her roots in Genesis Farm, Earth Literacy thinking is the idea of being native to a place. "Bill talks about that a lot. Once you declare yourself native, you start thinking in the long-term because you're not going anywhere. It's something that was very meaningful to me when I first became interested in Thomas's work, the whole idea of claiming your bioregion, which in my case is the Chesapeake Bay bioregion.

"Ford Motor Company has essentially declared itself native to Dearborn, Michigan. Instead of picking up and moving to Mexico, they're saying we're going to reclaim the Rouge River watershed. It's going to take them twenty years to do it, but you can only do those kinds of things once you say I'm not going anywhere. There's a really deep spiritual dimension to all of this.

"McDonough and Braungart call this 'The Next Industrial Revolution' because, like the first one, it will change the way we live and profoundly affect the way humans interact with each other and the natural world. As Thomas Berry says, we're going to reinvent ourselves through story and shared dream experience. This film offers the kind of stories that provide the vital nourishment we need to reinvent ourselves in these challenging times."


The Next Industrial Revolution sells for $35, shipping and handling included. To purchase copies, or for more information, contact: Earthome Productions, P.O. Box 212, Stevenson, MD 21153; (410) 902-3400; filmwork@earthome.org. The website is www.thenextindustrialrevolution.com

Susan Kleihauer, EarthLight's Editor-at-Large, lives in the Cascade foothills of Oregon.


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