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An Environmental Cry of Alarm: Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”

Walter Moss: Given the real, alarming threat of climate change, the hostility of Trump and his supporters, and the appalling ho-hum attitude of the U. S. public to climate change threats, what are we to do?
paul schrader first reformed

Film buffs have long been familiar with the works of Paul Schrader (b. 1946) dating back to the writing of his first film script, Taxi Driver (1976), and his first directed film, Blue Collar (1978). And on this site, Peter Laarman has reviewed his latest film, First Reformed (available on Amazon Prime). But here I wish to focus on a specific aspect of that most recent film—its environmental cry of alarm.

Given the real, alarming threat of climate change, the hostility of Trump and his supporters, and the appalling ho-hum attitude of the U. S. public to climate change threats, what are we to do?

In a recent Fox News interview, Republican Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska, he with a Ph.D. in American History from Yale, stated “right now, you don't hear a lot of people who put climate as their number one issue. You don't hear a lot of them offering constructive innovative solutions for the future. It's usually just a lot of alarmism.”

These words came following Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical (2015), President Trump’s disastrous environmental policies, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change latest scary report (Oct. 2018), and Trump’s own government’s equally frightening Fourth National Climate Assessment Report (Nov. 2018), whose conclusions he rejects. (In December, another alarming report regarding global carbon emissions combined with continuing Trump anti-environmental policies.) Alarmism? If this is not a time to be alarmed, when is? Senator Sasse sees not, but Schrader does.

In “First Reformed” (all quotes from film script), Schrader has environmental activist Michael tell Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke):

By 2050, sea levels two feet higher on the East Coast. Low lying areas underwater across the world. Bangladesh, 20% loss of landmass. Central Africa, 50% reduction in crops due to drought. The Western reservoirs dried up. Climate change refugees. Epidemics. Extreme weather. . . . The bad times, will begin. And from that point, everything moves very quickly. You know, this social structure can't bear the stress of multiple crises. Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law, the tipping point. And this isn't in some, like, distant future. You will live to see this. You know, my children will experience this unliveability. This, uh . . . Damn. I'm sorry. I just . . . You know, I . . . I thought things could change, you know? I thought . . . I thought people would listen.

But in despair that most people were not listening, Michael kills himself. At his funeral service, a version of the Neil Young “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” protest song is sung.

paul schrader first reformed

. . . Take out the dams / stand up to oil / protect the plants and renew the soil / who’s gonna stand up and save the Earth?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

End fossil fuels / Draw the line /Before we build one more pipeline

End fracking now / let’s save the water / and build a life for our sons and daughters. . .

The service, however, was pre-planned by Michael, is poorly attended, and held not in a church, (not even in Toller’s always-sparsely-attended First Reformed) but at a hazardous waste site. The Rev. Toller presides but finds his own Reformed Church denomination unsympathetic to environmental activism—Schrader himself comes from a similar Reformed religious background having graduated from Michigan’s Calvin College.

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Toller complains to his patron, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) of the nearby Abundant Life megachurch, “I think this is an issue where . . . Where the church can lead. But . . . But they say nothing. . . . The U.S. Congress still denies climate change? Where were we when these people were elected? . . . We know who spoke for big business. Right? But who spoke for God?” But Jeffers rebuffs him, saying, “You don't live in the real world.”

Schrader himself shares Rev. Toller’s belief that religious leaders should be alarmed and speak up in behalf of what they believe is God’s creation. As he told actor Nicholas Cage in a 2018 interview:

We have chosen, more or less, not to sacrifice our present lifestyle for the lives of our children. There’s not much we can do about that. You and I have lived in the sweet spot of history: the baby boom, the least amount of war, the most leisure time, the most education, the best diet, the best health. And what did we do with all of those great moments in history? We got greedy. We ruined it for our grandchildren. So if the generation before us was the greatest generation, we are the most selfish.

Given the real, alarming threat of climate change, the hostility of Trump and his supporters, and the appalling ho-hum attitude of the U. S. public to climate change threats, what are we to do? Despair as Michael does? Contemplate a martyr-like act of protest clad in a suicide vest, as both Michael and later Rev. Toller agonize over? Or what?

Despite his harsh words of condemnation, Schrader himself does not suggest despair. At one point he has Rev. Toller quote Thomas Merton, the thoughtful anti-Vietnam-War Catholic monk of the 1960s: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one's certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.” In another passage the reverend states, “Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truthsin our mind, simultaneously. Hope and despair.” Moreover, the film’s ending—which I’ll not spoil by revealing—suggests that some type of love is the best way to deal with that demon despair.

My own view is that we need to display the type of love that Pope Francis called for in his environmental encyclical. “Social love,” he tells us, “moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation.” I am also heartened by the new hope that a Democratic-Party-dominated House of Representatives gives us and the Democrats’ talk of a “Green New Deal,” which a December 2018 Atlantic magazine calls “one of the most interesting—and strategic—left-wing policy interventions from the Democratic Party in years.”

paul schrader first reformed

The article also noted that at a recent “town hall led by Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez framed her chosen climate policy—the Green New Deal—through the lens of gallant American exceptionalism. ‘This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,’ she said.

A few weeks ago on the LA Progressive site, I indicated that what the Democrats need in 2020 is FDR-New-Deal-type thinking. Pushing for a “Green New Deal” in Congress in 2019 would be a great start.

Schrader quoted Thomas Merton, who possessed a strong love of this earth and its creatures—see here on the note he sent to Rachel Carson after her Silent Spring was published. Pope Francis is another religious leader in that tradition. Like Francis, an earlier Jesuit priest, Gerard Manly Hopkins (1844-1889), in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” expressed beautifully a hope that despite what we have done to our environment, a new “morning,” a new day can still spring up.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs . . .

That was written in 1877, when climate change was not yet a problem. Today, nearly a century and a half of environmental carelessness later, and with time running out, it is still not too late—in Pope Francis’s words—“to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation.” Still not too late for a new morning, for a “Green New Deal.”

walter moss

Walter A. Moss