Jeff Bridges explores new ways of thinking about human nature and environmental crisis in “Living in the Future’s Past”

By Joe Piasecki

Jeff Bridges
Photo by Alan Kozlowski

For many fans of “The Big Lebowski,” actor Jeff Bridges is almost inseparable from The Dude — a much wiser, unflustered and self-aware embodiment of the ever-abiding Buddha of Los Angeles. His voice is calm, contemplative and comforting — ideally suited to discussing the weighty topic of humanity’s apparent death wish in the face of climate change’s cataclysmic impacts.

Bridges guides such a discussion in unexpected ways as producer and narrator of “Living in the Future’s Past,” an unconventional documentary that premieres Friday in L.A. and New York, with Westside screenings on Tuesday (Oct. 9) at Santa Monica’s Laemmle Monica Film Center and on Oct. 19 during the Gottlieb Native Garden Green Earth Festival at Loyola Marymount University’s new Playa Vista campus.

The film weaves together dozens of scientific, government, spiritual and academic sources who speak not so much about climate change — we already know what that’s about— as how our human species came to this point in history, and why we’re finding it so difficult to adjust. It’s a fluid narrative, reinforced by the often stunning photography of director/cinematographer Susan Kucera (“Breath of Life”) as well as Bridges’ narration.

“We are physical and biological beings living in an ocean of cosmic energy,” he tells us 15 minutes into the film. “That sounds pretty trippy, and it is.”

Experts in various fields proceed to show us that human behaviors shaped by pre-historic natural selection are having unexpected impacts in an environment now largely of our own creation. They challenge us to look at cities as superorganisms made up of interdependent beings, each of us and the whole fueled by a surplus of energy unlocked through consumption of fossil fuels. Where pre-industrial society ran on energy drawn from sunlight through agriculture, at present our food and mobility and infrastructure — the very stuff we’re individually and collectively made of — is the product of fossil fuels that simultaneously threaten the way of life we’ve created for ourselves, an unintended consequence of plenty. It’s a problem that won’t be easy to solve, but the film argues that our ability to create this world also gives us the capacity to change it.

“This is a giant conversation we can have with ourselves and each other — how we can do things differently, not be so thoughtless,” says Kucera. “It’s OK to want all these things that are harming the planet, but if we can harness these desires in a different way, that’s more exciting than telling people you can’t do this or that. … We tried to meet people where they were feeling vulnerable and not point fingers, because all of us are only human.”

Bridges discussed “Living in the Future’s Past” via telephone while traveling from his Santa Barbara County home to Los Angeles earlier this week.

The Argonaut: This isn’t the kind of documentary that comes right out and tells you all the answers.

Jeff Bridges: Yeah. We didn’t want to be shoving stuff down all of our throats. We felt there was enough doomsday material out there already, and we wanted to take a little different approach and concentrate on why we’re behaving the way we are in this situation. We have many different viewpoints: military, religious, scientific, all different angles. I thought that was interesting, almost like a holograph that brings the problem sharper and sharper into focus. … What I’m hoping is it’ll inspire people to engage — just do something that fits with their lives.

Susan Kucera said you insisted on including Republicans, the military and others who aren’t often cast as friendly figures in environmental documentaries.

It apparently seems to be getting worse and worse as far as how we’re moving into the future, and so rather than making a film saying how screwed things are and that it’s almost too late to do anything about it … rather than making a movie like that, I wanted an approach that was almost the antitheses to that. Rather than coming out of fear, more of a love of the planet. Trying to create a version of the planet we want to live in and want our kids and grandkids to live in by asking why we are behaving the way we are, when the situation is what it is. I think sometimes when we bring that stuff like that to light, other things become sharper in focus.

What ideas in the film were new or surprising to you?

That whole idea of emergent behavior, why our species is behaving this way. That was new to me. … We may not always make the wise choice, but we certainly have the capacity to be wise, you know, and flexible. We’re nature itself. We’re an expression of nature right now, as we’re living. And we can look at this [situation] and ask ourselves if this is a direction we want to go. … And so I think to bring the situation as realistically into focus as possible is a valuable thing to do.

And that means looking into the past to ask questions about the future?

Yeah, that’s right. The long view is forward and back. How what we do might have served us in the past, but it’s not serving us anymore, and we can change that. … It’s almost like being addicted to the way it is. Another thing that human beings are capable of is addiction. We get addicted to the status quo, and that’s no longer serving us.

Was there any particular experience that inspired you to make this film?

I’ve been involved in the issue for quite a while now, with different organizations I’ve aligned myself to, and this is kind of a natural outgrowth from that. A couple of those organizations I can just shoot out there to you right now:

The Amazon Conservation Team, they work with 50 indigenous tribes in South America to preserve and protect and improve eight million acres of rainforest. The burning of rainforest, that ranks second only to the burning of fossil fuels in terms of creating greenhouse gases.

And there’s the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which is trying to do everything they can to get rid of single-use plastics, like those plastic bottles that are everywhere.

The environmental situation can be overwhelming, but the film takes a perspective that didn’t make me panic. I felt like we have a chance to turn it around.

One of my heroes is Buckminster Fuller. And he said when you want to change something, don’t go up against it directly — come up with something that makes it obsolete. A good example of that is I just got turned on to pasta straws. Straws that are made out of pasta. Noodles! They’re much stronger than paper straws. They can replace these plastic straws that hurt so much sea life.

What was it like to be caught in the mudslides after the Thomas Fire?

The Thomas Fire burned all the hillsides around our house, and there was going to be a big rain so we had sandbags and all that. But that turned out to be kind of a joke, because what actually happened was this debris flow where boulders the size of cars were coming down, and old trees. Man, it was really an amazing thing. Got rescued by helicopter. But so many people died. And that’s firsthand experience of what we’re talking about. … We’re rebuilding [our home] and we’re renting right now.

You aren’t going to believe it, but we’re going to have a story on Buckminster Fuller in this same issue.

Oh, great! Another inspiration he gave me — do you know about trim tabbing? … Well, Bucky made this insight. These big ocean-going tankers, the engineers were challenged by having to turn a huge rudder. It took too much energy to turn the ship using that big rudder. So he came up with the brilliant simple plan of putting a little tiny rudder on the big rudder, and that little rudder turns the big rudder and the big rudder turns the ship. And that little rudder is called a trim tab. And Bucky says this is a metaphor for how the individual affects society, that we are in fact trim tabs, that we’re connected to each other, through large organizations, people that we know. Bucky’s grave has inscribed on it: “Call me Trimtab.” That’s how he thought of himself. And so I like to think of myself as a trim tab, and I like to think of all of us, in fact, as trim tabs. We all make a difference in how we live our lives.

Since “The Big Lebowski,” a lot of people can’t help but see you as The Dude. Does that help you tell your story or get in the way?

No, sure. I mean, I think, you know, whatever celebrity I have can serve to shine a light on different things I want to shine a light on. Things I love. Things I want to turn people onto. That’s kind of the joy of life, giving what you got. Give what you got, man.

Is there anybody in the film you disagreed with or whose ideas directly challenged yours?

No, but there was a lot new information — oh, huh, that’s very interesting. Some of it sounds like a science fiction movie. Humanity as this giant superorganism, like The Blob, eating the world. But in a way that’s true, you know [laughs]. I can kind of see that now.

What are you hoping people think or feel when they leave the theater?

Amazon Conservation Team, Plastic Pollution Coalition … that’s an example for how people can get engaged. They can line up with organizations like those — there’s such a slew of them. Or they can come up with their own ideas. The guy who came up with those pasta straws, he owned a restaurant and they were shutting down the straw business, so he says “I’m going to do this instead.”

Become aware, and if it’s interesting to you now, now that you’ve listened to all these facts and opinions of what’s going on, and your own opinion has surfaced, let that move you into action. If you can just keep it in your mind, the action will turn up. There’ll be an opportunity for you to engage. You can either say no or yeah, you know? Just be sensitive to that. There’s going to be more and more opportunities to turn this thing around, because it’s so needed.

… And [channeling The Dude] that’s just, like, my opinion, man.”