Sustainable business can be fun

The César-winning French documentary film Tomorrow, which is directed by actor Mélanie Laurent and activist Cyril Dion, shows people living by alternative economic models. Their drive and energy makes them beacons of hope in the battle against a global collapse. Following a successful opening in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Tomorrow is now playing in the German-speaking regions.

Interview: Yvonne von Hunnius, 23.05.2016

Portrait Cyril Dion

Cyril Dion is a French author, director and activist. On completing his studies at the Jean-Périmony School of Dramatic Arts in Paris, he worked as an actor but soon became involved in various foundations and initiatives on a full-time basis. He is the co-founder of a political journal and has published three books, including a volume of poetry. He wrote and co-directed his first film Tomorrow with the actress Mélanie Laurent, who starred in the Quentin Tarantino film Inglorious Basterds among others.

Your film starts with bad news about an impending global collapse but then presents examples of many initiatives for avoiding it and ends on an optimistic note. Are you whitewashing the problem?

Cyril Dion: We wanted to focus on solutions in this film. We wanted to explain how people run organic vegetable gardens and manage sustainable companies, and how a waste-free city  can work. And we approached the making of the film in the way we had experienced the process ourselves: we had read a study about the global collapse and were feeling quite desperate, so we felt we really had to do something. Neuroscience studies show that if you only focus on the disaster, fear and resignation win – all you want to do is escape. So solutions are important. We quote Ghandi at the beginning of the film: setting an example is not the best way to convince people – it’s the only way. That’s what we wanted to do. And the feedback from the viewers shows that at the end of the film they feel a lot of hope and want to do something. So it worked!

The projects you present in the film are regional. What about concerted global action?

Your question shows how we see the world. We see it as a big structure with the power concentrated at the top. And we think that to change the whole system we have to change something at the top of the pyramid. But that is not how it works. The people at the top who hold the power are not the ones who are willing to change. We believe that we should take our inspiration from nature and, particularly, ecosystems instead. There is no one in charge in an ecosystem, each component bears responsibility for it. So we must start the process of change in ourselves.

But how can we know that enough is being done to avoid the collapse?

Nobody knows the extent of the impact that all of these initiatives will have. The people we met aren’t doing what they do because they want to save the world and they don’t calculate the impact they make. They’re simply doing the best they can. It’s about setting an example to get as many people as possible on board.

Some of the initiatives, for example the one in Detroit, arose because the situation had reached rock bottom. Do we need to experience a complete collapse before we take action? If so, Switzerland is a long way from active change…

Everything does not have to be in ruins for new initiatives to emerge. But ask yourself: when do you make fundamental changes? When you experience a crisis. Many of the people in the film experienced some kind of crisis before launching these initiatives. Some of the regions we visited had experienced deindustrialisation on a massive scale. But we also wanted to find another way of encouraging change: through people’s individual desire and will. We wanted the audience to think “I want to live like that too, I want to have a more meaningful life.”

Why do you focus on initiatives in the western world like recycling in San Francisco?

We wanted cinema-goers in the western world to be able to identify with these activists. And we wanted people from other regions to realise that the western world understands the need to change things. For decades we’ve been sending out the message that our economic model is the best and only one. Everybody wants to live like we do, and lots of countries are destroying their evolved structures to follow our lead. We want to send out a different message: don’t try to live like a French or American person. You have valuable structures. And maybe we can embark on this path together to try to be more autonomous and interact in a different way.

Your film starts with an example of an initiative from the food sector, then moves on to energy, economy and democracy, and ends in the education sector. Why did you approach it in this order?

Food is our primary need. According to the studies on the possible collapse of civilisation, it is most likely to arise as a result of a breakdown in the food supply. We wanted to show that everything is linked. When we speak about food, we quickly become aware of our dependence on the powerful oil system. In relation to energy, we see that many regions are not able to participate in the energy transition because they are so indebted and ask ourselves why. So we delved into the area of economics and found some solutions. But we also saw that business takes power away from the democracy and asked ourselves: “How can we get the power back?” The examples we found only work because people are really taking their responsibility for society seriously. And this is something we should learn at school.

Permakulturen Interview Dion
Permaculture systems all over the world are showing that high levels of productivity can be achieved using the method. The film-makers met a lot of people who gave up well-paid jobs to work on permaculture farms.
© Filmcoopi Zürich

Digitisation is often presented as a driver of positive change. The film does not talk about that…

This was discussed at length, and we had a great conversation with the sociologist Jeremy Rifkin. But I felt uncomfortable about it. Technology is a tool that can be used in very different ways. The internet is great for the shared creation of knowledge, for mobilising people. It’s actually changing the world. But it is also leading to a concentration of power and could become our nightmare. So we focused on human beings and low-tech solutions, which always work.

How do you see things now? What is the biggest difference between the old and new economic solutions?

I’m about to publish a book on the symbiotic economy, which deals precisely with this question. We need to see the world as a big ecosystem made up of lots of small ecosystems. When each one is working well and properly linked with the others, the big system works in harmony. There is growth, but it is not infinite. If the system gets too big, it divides so that it can maintain the right balance. Changing the banking system would involve a fundamental change. Private banks are still at the top of the pyramid and create money through debt and interest. The new system would enable  companies, cities and states to create money  – like the entrepreneurs involved in the WIR Bank in Basel with its complementary currency system.

Komplementärwährungen Interview Dion
The film devotes particular attention to complementary currencies, which are aimed at stabilising the economic system at local level.
© Filmcoopi Zürich

So not as alternative but as complementary currencies…

Exactly. We need money for global exchange. But we also need currencies to stabilise local economies. The baker on the corner had nothing to do with the financial crisis in 2009. We need boundaries and links. If one tree species is dominant in a forest, it is very likely that the entire ecosystem will be lost in a fire. If there are different species of trees, some of which are more resistant to fire, the forest will be more resilient. And it’s pretty much the same with currencies and companies: if you have only a few big companies and they fail, then there’s nothing you can do. If we have strong economies with diversity, high rates of employment, and a certain degree of autonomy when it comes to their food and energy supply, we will also have greater resilience.

What role could Switzerland play in this ecosystem?

Every country should be an ecosystem in itself and autonomous to a certain extent. Switzerland does not have to be the world’s bank, China the world’s factory and France its wine cellar. The fact remains, however, that Switzerland has a major influence on the banking system. This must change and Swiss experts can help with this. Moreover, Switzerland has a lot of experience with democracy and can provide a good example for many other countries.  

Documentary an unexpected hit

The film Tomorrow opens in German-speaking Switzerland on 26 May. Over 100,000 people in the French-speaking region have seen the film since its release last December. It won a César for best documentary in 2016, garnered over one million viewers in France and has since become one of the most successful French documentary films of all time. It was financed by over 10,000 people through a crowdfunding project. The filmmakers had hoped to raise EUR 200,000 in two months but reached their target in just three days. They ultimately raised EUR 450,000 – a world record in crowdfunding for a documentary film.


A film with an impact

Cyril Dion is amazed by the response to the film. He reports on a women who saw the film in Brussels. She had been running an extensive  farming operation for the last 25 years and, as she told Dion, the film inspired her to change to a more ecological method of farming. Her husband did not agree with the changes she wanted to make so she got a divorce. A working group was established in Vienne (near Lyon) after a Q&A with Dion following a screening of Tomorrow. The group’s first meeting was attended by 60 people who organised five regional workshops on the main topics dealt with in the film. It’s second meeting attracted 120 people and the third was attended by 150.



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Last modification 25.05.2016

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