By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 22, 2023)
View of the Earth from the Moon, December 1968
Look at the powerful people
Stealing the sun from the day
Wish I could do something about it
When all I can do is pray
– from “Powerful People” by Gino Vannelli
If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.
Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.
A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans
– Hopi Prophecies sung in the soundtrack of the film Koyannasqatsi
The photo at the top of my post was taken December 24, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind that now iconic photo is on NASA’s website:
Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.
“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,’” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”
Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”
Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:
An international group of scientists who work with satellite data say the acceleration in the melting of Earth’s ice sheets is now unmistakable.
They calculate the planet’s frozen poles lost 7,560 billion tonnes in mass between 1992 and 2022.
Seven of the worst melting years have occurred in the past decade.
Mass loss from Greenland and Antarctica is now responsible for a quarter of all sea-level rise.
This contribution is five times what it was 30 years ago.
The latest assessment comes from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise, or Imbie. […]
The 7,560 billion tonnes of ice lost from Greenland and Antarctica during the study period pushed up sea-levels by 21mm.
Almost two-thirds (13.5mm) of this was due to melting in Greenland; one-third (7.4mm) was the result of melting in Antarctica.
“All this has profound implications for coastal communities around the world and their risk of being exposed to flooding and erosion,” said Dr Inès Otosaka from the UK’s Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM), who led the latest assessment.
“It’s really important that we have robust estimates for the future contribution to sea-level rise from the ice sheets so that we can go to these communities and say, ‘Yes, we understand what is happening and we can now start to plan mitigations’,” she told BBC News.
So hope does remain…provided that proactive steps are taken. Meanwhile, this week:
Killer heat waves are putting “unprecedented burdens” on India’s agriculture, economy and public health, with climate change undermining the country’s long-term efforts to reduce poverty, inequality and illness, a new study showed.
Extreme heat has caused more than 24,000 deaths since 1992 and has also driven up air pollution and accelerated glacial melt in northern India, said a team of scholars led by the University of Cambridge’s Rabit Debnath.
India is now “facing a collision of multiple, cumulative climate hazards”, with extreme weather happening almost every day from January to October last year, they said.
Debnath told Reuters that it was “very important to figure out how we measure vulnerabilities to frequent extreme events”, with the Indian government’s own “climate vulnerability index” believed to underestimate the impact that longer, earlier and more frequent heatwaves will have on development.
As much as 90% of India’s total area now lies in extreme heat danger zones, and it is not fully prepared, he warned.
At first glance, the image above may appear to be a still from a post-apocalyptic film-but it’s a photo I snapped outside my Seattle office in September of 2020. You’re looking due East across Lake Washington at around 10am…directly into the sun and toward the Bellevue skyline. I was not using any filters, nor was there any retouching of the photo. Normally, the view across the lake appears as it does in this photo I took:
We not only had a freakish late summer “heat dome” in the Pacific Northwest, but much of the West Coast was aflame. For over a month, resulting smoke made air quality so dangerous that local health officials recommended staying indoors and sealing up windows (good times for those of us with no A/C). It was also recommended to wear masks outdoors…which we were already doing for COVID indoors. Oy.
Was this a sneak preview of a near-future Earth? How’s the air out there today?
About 1 in 4 people in the United States – more than 119 million residents – live with air pollution that can hurt their health and shorten their lives, according to a new report from the American Lung Association. People of color are disproportionately affected, as are residents of Western cities.
Since President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, emissions of outdoor air pollutants have fallen 78%, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But Wednesday’s 2023 State of the Air report, which focuses on ozone and particle pollution, shows that millions put their health on the line every time they step outside. [,,,]
There were significant improvements in some areas. Generally, 17.6 million fewer people were breathing unhealthy air than in last year’s report, due largely to falling levels of ozone in some regions.
Ozone pollution is the main ingredient in smog. It comes from cars, power plants and refineries. Exposure to ozone can immediately exacerbate asthma symptoms, and people with long-term exposure to higher levels face a significantly higher risk of death from respiratory diseases than those who live with cleaner air.
Around 25% more counties got an A grade in the report for lower levels of ozone pollution. Some of that improvement can be attributed to the Clean Air Act, according to Katherine Pruitt, author of the report and the American Lung Association’s national senior director for policy.
Emission controls have helped, she said, as has the country’s continuing move away from its reliance on coal for its energy needs. Even something simple as the increase in the number of people who work from home has played a role.
“The Biden administration has set themselves a good, strong to do list of things that will help with environmental justice and climate protection,” Pruitt said. “They’re moving kind of slow, though. So we’d like them to pick up the pace.” […]
Particle pollution, the other form of pollution tracked in the report, still seems to be a significant issue for the US.
Often hard to see, particle pollution is a mix of solid and liquid droplets that may come in the form of dirt, dust, soot or smoke. Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants create it, as do cars, agriculture, unpaved roads, construction sites and wildfires.
Particle pollution is so tiny – 1/20th of a width of a human hair – that it can travel past your body’s usual defenses.
Instead of being carried out when you exhale, it can get stuck in your lungs or go into your bloodstream. The particles cause irritation and inflammation and may lead to respiratory problems. Exposure can cause cancer, stroke or heart attack; it could also aggravate asthma, and it has even been associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, studies show. […]
One driver of the high amounts of particle pollution are the wildfires that have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres. In 2021 alone, there were 14,407 fires, many in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. There used to be a wildfire season, experts say, but now they happen year-round.
Those fires are why the regions with the highest concentrations of air pollution are largely in the West.
I’m doomed. Oh well…Happy Earth Day, and could you please pass the Häagen-Dazs ?
With that in mind, here are my picks for the Top 10 eco-flicks. Erm…enjoy!
Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced. That is, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (“retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well. To be less flowery: we’re fucked. According to nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”
Balog’s journey began in 2005, while on assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of influencing weather patterns so profoundly. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing modified time-lapse cameras to capture alarming empirical evidence of the effects of global warming.
The images are beautiful, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film mirrors the dichotomy, equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images trump the montage of inane squawking by climate deniers in the opening, proving that a picture is worth 1,000 words.
The Emerald Forest– Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.
Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.
Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster– I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie).
An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.
Koyannisqatsi– In 1982 this genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).
The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).
Manufactured Landscapes– A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.
Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another great Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.
Queen of the Sun- I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us.
Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.
Dern plays the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth).
While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue-collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.
Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering current threats to our Social Security system, that doesn’t seem much of a stretch anymore).
Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.
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Here’s an environmentally-sound mixtape for Earth Day:
One more thing…
To end on a positive note-if you want to help keep the ethos of “think globally and act locally” alive, here are 10 great Earth Day activities and ideas via the Farmer’s Almanac.