As the voice of reason in the eco-friendly documentary The Age of Stupid, UK actor Pete Postlethwaite is acutely aware of the need to practice what he preaches.
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19 Aug 2009 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

While visiting friends in the UK recently the conversation turned to global warming. My friends were particularly concerned that we, as individuals, hadn't grasped the seriousness of the issue, got to grips with the need to alter our lifestyles. The seriousness of the coming crisis meant we all had to take personal responsibility to bring down our carbon emissions and live a sustainable lifestyle.

Well yes, I replied somewhat smart-arsedly, so how does that explain that humungous new flat-screen TV in your living room and the huge amount of energy it burns up compared to the old tellies?” Immediately shot back dear friend: “The same way as you explain the amount of carbon emissions produced by your flight half-way across the world to get here?” Touche.

When it comes to global warming the vast majority of us could well be issuing mea culpas. As the face of a striking new UK documentary on the perils of ignoring global warming called The Age of Stupid, Peter Postlethwaite is especially aware of the difficulty of being entirely pure on the issue. The British actor is aware that he's likely to be criticised for hypocrisy. “I'm prepared to take the flak for that,” he sighs.

Still, he and his wife are doing the best they can: they have a wind turbine on their property in rural West of England that produces enough electricity to not only meet all their needs but to on-sell to local energy authorities. It was an article about this that partly led to his being offered the role. But being 100 percent ecologically pure is easier said than done – one of the film's themes.

The psychological and cultural difficulty we face in reaching this potentially disastrous challenge is precisely the subject of film, directed by Franny Armstrong, who previously took on McDonalds in McLibel. Unlike Davis Guggenheim's Al Gore vehicle The Inconvenient Truth, the new film accepts that its audience will already be aware of the basic fact of global warming. Armstrong is keen to examine the social, political, cultural and personal obstacles that lay in the way of a solution, and to communicate a sense of the urgency we find it all too easy to let slide.

Separate sequences illustrate different aspects of 21st century life and the environment: a French Alpine guide who's run out of glacier on which to guide tourists around; a US oil executive who's also an environmentalist; an idealistic Indian airline owner who dreams his compatriates should have the same rights to cheap air travel as westerners; a Nigerian whose poverty is not alleviated by the plentiful oil all around her. Perhaps most disturbing is a vigorous local campaign by UK country folk to stop a wind farm from being built because they think it'll spoil their views.

In a fictional, science fiction framing device, Postlethwaite appears as a future scientist working in an ark above the Arctic Circle containing samples of near-extinct flora and fauna, asking why we didn't do more to stop ecological disaster while we still had the chance.

Postlethwaite is not responsible for the text – he's there, of course, as an actor – but nonetheless took the role because he believes strongly in the cause. “It's true, your friends are right,” he says. “Bob Dylan said it years ago when he said we've got to change our way of thinking. 'Do we really need that flat screen TV?' ” Travelling around Australia on his last visit he noticed with sadness the lack of solar panels in a country where there's little excuse for their relative absence. “It's the human psyche, people are very hesitant to change what is a comfortable lifestyle.”

If the film, with its mixture of fiction and documentary, takes a strikingly original form, its “green carpet” launch in Sydney last night was no less mould-breaking. From its screening at the Sydney Theatre the film is being beamed to more than 50 cinemas around the country and a claimed audience of more than 10,000, with guests arriving “by bicycle, solar car, rickshaw or electric car”. Every aspect of the event – from transport to the heating to the drinks and the power supply – was be genuinely green, says Armstrong, who adds that the film's UK launch produced just 1 percent of the emissions of an average Hollywood premiere.

In the UK the doco has already had an effect. Members of the public used to come up to Postlethwaite and talk to him about his appearances in films like The Usual Suspects, In the Name of the Father and Brassed Off, but now they immediately start talking about The Age of Stupid, he says, adding that he finds it difficult to answer some of the many queries thrown his way. “People think you should know all the details, know everything. I don't – I'm the first to put my hand up and say that.” Still, he adds, “maybe they are right. Maybe I should know everything about it.”

The Age of Stupid is screening at selected Hoyts cinemas until August 27. Watch the trailer here.