2040: A Doc to Build a Dream On

Michael D. Pulliam

2019 saw the release of 2040, an honest and hopeful documentary-meets-thought-experiment by award-winning director Damon Gameau. Combining bright visuals, masterful interpretive science communication, humor, and a dedication to solutions journalism, Gameau impactfully delivers what he calls “an exercise in fact-based dreaming.” Much of the film is presented as a letter to his daughter (4 years old at the time), and continually flashes forward to dramatizations of her young adulthood in the year 2040. Gameau asks and answers the big question, If we embraced at large scale some of the sustainable technologies that already exist, how would the world look in 20 years?

On an engaging and entertaining journey around the world,* Gameau introduces us to a variety of experts and visionaries. These activists, business people, and thinkers share ideas and innovations that are already being used sustainably in communities around the globe. Electricity microgrids that allow neighbors to buy and sell power locally, driverless on-demand vehicle networks that free up time and space for commuters and the cities they call home, innovations in agriculture on land and in the sea, and a vision of economic possibilities that could tilt the scales toward justice without causing a Red Scare. And at each stop, we see how these fascinating solutions could be applied to shift our societies toward a future filled with possibility.

In Bangladesh, Gameau plugs in with the ME SOLshare organization to see how a community prone to poverty has been turning on the light for each other—and keeping it lit. Using small-scale rooftop solar arrays, people have not only powered their homes and empowered themselves, but are united both electrically and financially. If your rooftop generates more power than needed, your neighbors can buy the excess (and vice versa), keeping money and energy flowing through a neighborhood. What if a system that unites 20 homes could unite 20,000? What if you sold (or donated) power and money throughout your community while away on vacation?

In Sweden, we learn the sustainable transportation genius of city buses that run on compost-generated methane. Using convenient municipal infrastructure, citizens drop food and other wastes into bins that run to an anaerobic biodigester, supplying the biofuel stations that power their public transit. Back in the U.S., Gameau test-rides a driverless vehicle that he may learn to trust taking his daughter to school. What if sustainably-fueled rideshares were the norm, and the average US household had 0 cars instead of 2? What could we do with the millions of acres of parking lots and highways we no longer needed?

Gameau also digs into agriculture. We get a lesson on some remarkable large-scale land farming practices that have regenerative effects on soil health, and even take a dive into a domestic kelp forest to learn about marine permaculture. Seaweed has incredible uses as a product, and plays a miraculous role in restoring marine ecosystems. (And it is fast and easy to grow!) What if we grew our food in places and in ways that strengthened the interrelated ecosystems? What abundance could we ensure for our children and grandchildren?

Gameau’s final topic is as heartwarming as it is surprising: to counteract climate change, one of the most effective things we can do is educate young girls. Most climate action plans focus on technical or natural solutions, while social programs that empower women and girls can actually make a similar difference, especially over time. It can only be worthwhile to invest in a more equitable and sustainable social structure that opens more opportunity for everyone. Providing education and family planning for girls and women is also much more cost-effective than many solutions in engineering or manufacturing. What if a generation of girls grew up learning anything that interests them and were able to choose their own paths? What if the women who have been marginalized over centuries could add their voices and ideas to the problems that affect us all?

One of the guiding visuals throughout the film comes from English economist Kate Raworth in “Doughnut Economics.” Simply put, this “playfully serious” model of economic challenges gives us two bold circles, one enclosing the other: the outer boundary of natural resources and the inner boundary of basic social necessities, like a circular donut with a hole in the middle. We fall short if we don’t provide basic necessities, letting people drop through the inner hole. We overshoot if we continue unsustainably, pushing too hard against the outer edge. Raworth encourages us to find ways of making the ‘meat’ of the doughnut as inclusive and sustainable as possible. 2040 keeps this sweet spot in mind as the chapters unfold, revisiting the visual.

Taken together, 2040 is enlightening, charming, and inspiring—a breath of fresh air amidst the doomsday documentaries on global warming. Gameau’s dedication to addressing this overwhelming issue with proven, real-world technologies give us fact-based substantiation for hope. The approach of solutions journalism can remind us that what we focus on will grow: if we think of the future and see despair, we may resign ourselves to it; if we think of the future and see possibility, we can be energized and galvanized to create it.

So let’s get dreaming!


Visit whatsyour2040.com to get info on film screenings, updates, and current projects. Also take a moment to build your personal Climate Action Plan. Every act makes an impact.


*The filmmakers clarify early on that their production is carbon-neutral via credits and offsets.