James Cameron's outlook: sunny with a chance of doom

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: It was a beautiful, sunny late afternoon in the Santa Monica Mountains, and James Cameron was sending mixed signals. The director of "Avatar" had just unveiled his latest invention: open-source solar sunflowers. This was a celebration, but there was a dark cloud on the director's mind.

Cameron was showing off one of the five whimsical solar sunflowers he had built on the campus of the Muse School in Las Virgenes Canyon in the hills above Malibu. The solar arrays feature 14 petals composing a 30-foot diameter photovoltaic blossom that "functions like a flower," Cameron said. "The tracking base moves the flower head the way a real flower will grow toward the sun."

Cameron300.jpgThe sunflowers were a gift to Cameron's wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, who co-founded the nonprofit, sustainability-oriented, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school with her sister Rebecca Amis. Cameron sketched the sunflowers, had a specialist in computer-generated imagery who worked on "Avatar" do the design, and supervised the engineering.

The solar arrays are "functional art," "fun," and "engaging to the eye," said Cameron. "The form is a celebration of life," he added. "You understand the symbolism immediately."

Cameron imagines the solar sunflowers sprouting in malls, civic centers, parks, and schools. To that end, he is making the design and engineering specifications open source, so that anyone can build them.

But when I cornered Cameron for a moment to ask him about the importance of fun and beauty for achieving sustainability, he had something more serious on his mind. "This isn't about how we win," he said. "It's about how badly we lose."

Cameron said all the current talk of a "2-degree world"--a world in which global warming is kept to no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase on average-- is "optimistic" but "doesn't have enough political reality."

"We're not going to make 2 degrees," Cameron told me. "If we wake up, maybe 3 degrees." And a "3-degree world" will be a much different planet. Even if we went to 100 percent renewable energy, which could take 20 years, Cameron said, that would take care of the energy sector, but only 30 to 40 percent of our carbon emissions.

"But we could cut 14.5 percent overnight by not eating meat and dairy," he added, with his wife standing by his side. "We could change now."

The Camerons have already gone vegan for environmental reasons. The Muse School will be completely "plant based" beginning this fall, said Suzy Cameron. "You can do it yourself," she said. "It's simple and elegant and easy on the pocketbook."

As the late afternoon sun beat down on the dry hills, she added that converting to a plant-based diet "would also cut our water consumption to one-half or a third."

"I wish we were talking about that," she said, as the solar celebration closed in around her and her husband.

I confess, I had come up the mountain hoping for some hope. I came back down chastened.

James Cameron had acknowledged: "If we don't make it fun, we won't make it."

That's what I like to think, too.

But he also seemed to be saying he doesn't think we are going to make it. We could change. But we probably won't.

And when I force myself to think critically sometimes I think that too.

Photo by Stefanie Keenan, courtesy of Muse School.

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