Category Archives: Eco-doc

Ten million pounds of sludge: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2024)

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

In case you missed it, Earth Day (this past Monday) and Arbor Day (this past Friday) came and went with nary a whimper, Also, we’re at the tail end of National Park Week. I suppose the media had other shiny things to chase after; important and impactful stories to be sure, but from a planetary perspective…will all of this fussing and fighting  really matter in 50 years? As Grace Slick once sang, doesn’t mean shit to a tree. Believe me, over the millenniums Mother Nature has seen worse; and from her perspective, Earth is only mostly dead.

So there is still hope.

The photo above 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:

We just lived through the hottest year since record-keeping began more than a century ago, but before too long, 2023 might not stand out as the pinnacle of extreme heat.

That’s because it’s unlikely to be the only hottest year that we experience. Our climate is changing, growing warmer due to the emissions from burning fossil fuels, and our weather is changing with it. It’s possible that this year may turn out to be hotter still.

In March, scientists from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said February 2024 was the hottest February according to records that stretch back to 1940. The news came on the heels of their report in early January that, as expected, 2023 was indeed the hottest year on record. Temperatures closed in on the critical 1.5-degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels, after which we will see irreversible damage to the planet. These aren’t freak outliers: The extreme heat we’re experiencing is something we’ll need to be prepared to deal with on a much more regular basis, along with storms, floods and drought. […]

A key trend highlighted by the US government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment, published in November, was that climate change is provoking extreme weather events across the country that are both more frequent and more severe. It pointed to an increase in heatwaves and wildfires in the West over the past few decades, the increased drought risk in the Southwest over the past century and more extreme rainfall east of the Rockies. Hurricanes have also been intensifying, as those who have found themselves in the path of a storm know all too well. […]

Even if you live in a region that hasn’t yet directly been impacted by a climate-linked weather event, you’re not off the hook.

“As the climate continues to warm, most areas will be at an increased risk of some types of climate-linked extreme weather,” says Russell Vose, chief of the Monitoring and Assessment Branch at NOAA’ National Centers for Environmental Information and one of the NCA’s authors. “Perhaps the best example is extreme heat – it can occur anywhere.”

He points to the scorching heat dome that descended on the Pacific Northwest in June and July 2021, which was unprecedented in the historical record. The unpredictable nature of such extreme heat means no regions are marked as safe.

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 ? How’s the air today? The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report for 2024  is out, and…let’s just say, I wouldn’t toss those N95s away yet:

The “State of the Air” 2024 report finds that despite decades of progress cleaning up air pollution, 39% of people living in America—131.2 million people—still live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. This is 11.7 million more people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report.

The significant rise in the number of individuals whose health is at risk is the result of a combination of factors. Extreme heat, drought and wildfires are contributing to a steady increase in deadly particle pollution, especially in the western U.S. Also, this year’s “State of the Air” report is using EPA’s new, more protective national air quality standard for year-round levels of fine particle pollution, which allows for the recognition that many more people are breathing unhealthy air than was acknowledged under the previous weak standard. […]

“State of the Air” 2024 is the 25th edition of this annual report, which was first published in 2000. From the beginning, the findings in “State of the Air” have reflected the successes of the Clean Air Act, as emissions from transportation, power plants and manufacturing have been reduced. In recent years, however, the findings of the report continue adding to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution related to extreme heat, drought and wildfires are putting millions of people at risk and adding challenges to the work that states and cities are doing across the nation to clean up air pollution.

I’m  just here to bring you good cheer.

Anyway, 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 ongoing 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.

# # #

Bonus Tracks!

Here’s an environmentally-sound mixtape for Earth Day:


SIFF 2019: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

Co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky put the band back together for this update on their cautionary 2007 eco-doc Manufacturing Landscapes. In my original review of that film, I likened the photographic imagery to “…a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher”. I’m sad to report there’s been little improvement on humankind’s mistreatment of our planet-as evidenced by this likewise visually striking and equally sobering document.

But he plays one on TV-Bill Nye: Science Guy (***)

By Dennis Hartley

In a nonsensical world such as ours, it somehow makes perfect sense that it took a Cornell-educated Boeing engineer-turned TV sketch comic-turned-goofy kid’s science show host to become logic’s ultimate champion in the sometimes downright insane public debate among (alleged) adults regarding human-caused global warming.

Such is the long strange trip of Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy”, recounted in a new “warts and all” documentary by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg called (wait for it) Bill Nye: Science Guy. While the filmmakers’ non-linear structure (which vacillates abruptly between eco-doc,  spotty biography and science lesson) takes acclimation, there does seem to be a method to the madness.

Is there “madness” behind Nye’s transition from the bubbly “Science Guy” persona to the relatively more glum-faced crusader we have seen in more recent years taking the science deniers to task? Even the film’s subject himself is unsure of exactly “who” he is at times; as revealed in a fascinating segment where Nye is interviewed by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, who is conducting a study on the effects of celebrity and fame on the brain and the psyche.

She sees in Nye “a great test case” with which to explore her thesis. After admitting that the pressures of fame have made him “close [himself] off” in his public and personal life, Nye becomes palpably (and uncharacteristically) uncomfortable in front of the camera.

As if to further assure us that they are not making a hagiography , the film makers allow some of their subject’s former TV collaborators to dish some passive-aggressive disgruntlement that suggests Nye’s desire for fame and fortune (in the early days, at least) may have trumped any altruistic intentions to bring science to the masses. That said, there are still a number of admirers like Neil deGrasse Tyson on camera to praise Nye and his accomplishments.

My favorite part is where Nye goes to Kentucky for a public debate with anti-evolutionist Ken Ham. Nye first takes us along on a tour of Ham’s Creation Museum, where he finds one particular exhibit suggesting dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the same time to be “very troubling”. Luckily, for viewers like myself who are fully ready at this point to begin hurling objects at the screen, an antidote is administered soon thereafter with a shift back to reality (and sanity) when Nye attends the National Science Teacher’s Conference.

There are also some genuinely touching moments; during a family visit, Nye reveals that his brother and sister struggle with Ataxia, a rare neurological disease that affects balance and gait. While it is a hereditary affliction in his family (his father had it), Nye has never shown any signs to date of having inherited the malady himself. Consequently, he admits to suffering from a kind of “survivor’s guilt”, which has haunted him all of his adult life.

Another chunk is devoted to examining Nye’s current “day job” as CEO of The Planetary Society, which was co-founded by his mentor Carl Sagan (Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 PBS series Cosmos and is the creator-producer-writer of the 2014 sequel Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, also appears throughout the film).

While they may not have crafted a definitive portrait of Nye, the filmmakers do manage to pass on his “Science Guy” persona’s infectious enthusiasm for the joy of discovery. And it did leave me with the comforting thought that he’s one of the good ones who are out there, holding up the line of defense against blind superstition and purposeful disinformation. In light of the current state of our union, we need all the help we can get in that department.

SIFF 2016: Death By Design ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

Sue Williams’ eco-doc takes a hard look at what you might call the “iButterfly Effect” that the unceasing demand for new and improved personal high-tech devices is having on our planet. Granted, your average consumer who lines up at midnight for first crack at the latest smart phone has probably never heard of a suicide net, nor are they tossing and turning at night, haunted by visions of impoverished Third World children picking through chemical-leaching e-waste. But it’s never too late to start.

The river must flow: Watermark ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

Oh, how pretty…depressing: Watermark

You know that schoolyard taunt, “Take a picture…it’ll last longer”? Sadly, that could one day become a truism in regards to our planet’s most essential element: water. This explains why photographer Edward Burtynsky refers to his beautiful yet disturbing bird’s-eye images that are featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark as a “lament” to this dissipating resource. I hear snickering. Water is a finite resource?! As long as it keeps raining, we’re cool, right? Until you recall that 97.5% of the water on Earth is saltwater (which we continue to pollute like there’s no tomorrow) leaving 2.5% freshwater…out of which 70% remains frozen in the polar icecaps (and they are shrinking). As Jacques Cousteau once wisely advised, “We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.”

This documentary represents the second collaboration between Burtynsky and Baichwal; their first was 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes. In my review of that film, I wrote:

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a sort of 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 a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Ditto the imagery paraded before us in Watermark. Like its predecessor, the film is equal parts visual tone poem and cautionary eco-doc; although the emphasis here is on mankind’s cavalier attitude toward that aforementioned link between the life and water cycles. Some happy exceptions are evidenced, within certain venerated rituals of Earth’s more ancient cultures.

One such event, the mass river-bathing ceremonies conducted by tens of millions of Hindu faithful who congregate at the confluence of India’s holiest rivers during the annual Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, provides the film’s most beautiful sequence. Yet, within a stone’s throw of the same Mother Ganges, we also witness the doings at a water-intensive Bangladesh tannery, where poisons are spewed right back into the water table. This is the maddening dichotomy that gets to the heart of the matter. At this point in time (and as evidenced by Burtynsky’s photographic “laments”) Mother Earth isn’t politely asking, she’s telling: Clean up your room…NOW.

The voluptuous horror of mother earth: Chasing Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 17, 2012)

We’re down in the Poles: Chasing Ice

This is not a put down: Jeff Orlowski’s  Chasing Ice is glacially paced. Because  “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. These days, glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not portend well for the planet; as this ancient ice continues to dissipate at an alarmingly accelerating rate, leaving naught but barren rock in its wake, it is a red flag alert akin to Mother Earth experiencing a health-threatening hardening of the arteries. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. According to renowned nature photographer (and film subject) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Of course, there are those who continue to dismiss the concept of man-made global warming, despite the tangible evidence (and nearly unanimous scientific consensus). Orlowski opens his film with a montage of the usual braying deniers (Hannity, Beck, & co.) including one that surprised me (Weather Channel creator John Coleman…really?) interspersed with news footage of some of the freakish and catastrophic weather events that have become an all too frequent occurrence (gosh, it almost seems like last week…I seem to recall a “Hurricane Sandy” making a bit of a splash). Luckily, their appearances are brief, because the story centers on Balog’s eye-opening “Extreme Ice Survey” project.

His journey began in 2005, while on assignment for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change on the Arctic. Previous to that trip, Balog had counted himself among the skeptics, candidly admitting that he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of affecting the Earth’s weather patterns in such a profound manner.

His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project that he pursued with missionary fervor. His goal was to utilize specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that affective global warming had transcended academic speculation. After strategically placing the cameras next to sizable glaciers like Solheim in Iceland, Store in Greenland and several more in Alaska and Montana, Balog and his team began their painstaking waiting game.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. Balog’s stills and time-lapsed sequences are fantastical ice-wrought dioramas that look like they were imagined by Roger Dean and rendered by Dale Chihuly.

Finding these diamonds in the rough of pending ecological disaster reminded me of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary about photojournalist Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. The film also demonstrates the blood, sweat and tears that goes into professional photography (particularly in some hair-raising moments where Balog and a member of his team make a risky foray into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, just to grab a couple of shots).

While Balog makes a number of impassioned statements about the urgent need to get everyone on the same page regarding this issue, Orlowski stops just shy of taking  a strident polemical stance. This is wise, because he doesn’t need to hit us over the head to make his point about the  profound effects of global warming.

This is best illustrated in a scene where one of Balog’s teams captures the largest “calving” event ever so documented. The jaw-dropping sequence, depicting an ice peninsula equivalent in size to lower Manhattan (and twice the height of its tallest skyscrapers) sluicing off of Greenland’s massive Hulissat Glacier, handily trumps any amount of squawking that emits from  the bloviating gasbag deniers featured in the opening montage, and proves that the old adage will forever ring true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Crisis? What crisis? – Carbon Nation ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2011)

Remember those math story problems in elementary school? Good times. Anyway, here’s a fun one for you: Mankind’s daily energy use is 16 terawatts a day. Currently, an estimated 2 of those terawatts are derived from “green” sources. That means that the remaining 14 terawatts rely on traditional fossil fuels. Now, if the Sun alone (to name but one available form of “free” alternative energy) is bombarding the Earth with a potential tap of 86,000 terawatts a day, WTF IS WRONG WITH MANKIND? Oh-did you remember to carry the global warming deniers? Good! Now, you may put down your No. 2 pencils and pass your papers to the front of the class.

It’s a simple question, really. And it frames the premise of an eco-doc from director Peter Byck, called Carbon Nation. In all fairness, that little dig at the global warming deniers was my embellishment; the film’s tag line actually promises “a climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change”. This is either good news or bad news, depending on what you generally look for in an eco-doc.

If you are looking to have your worst fears confirmed about how screwed the planet might be (An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour) or a “catch ‘em with their pants down” muckraker about the fossil fuels industry, like GasLand-then you may be frustrated by Byck’s non-partisan approach. However, if you already “get” the part about the sky falling, yet are looking for some positive news on the “solutions” front, this film could be an inspiration.

Byck traverses America, profiling people who are striving to make a difference in lightening our carbon footprint. People like Cliff Etherege, a West Texas cotton farmer who talked a number of his neighbors into pooling their relatively small 500-acre farms together into forming an operation called Peak Wind, which is now (collectively) one of the largest wind farms in the world. The formation of the company literally saved the town of Roscoe, which had been slowly dying for a number of years.

There is Alaskan entrepreneur Bernie Karl (who I had the pleasure of meeting through my Fairbanks radio gig many moons ago). Karl is the owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination about 60 miles north of Fairbanks. He has devised a machine that generates geothermal power from a water temperature of 165 degrees. 95% of the liquid drilled from the ground by most oil wells is water, which averages a temperature of…165 degrees. In an ideal universe, each of those wells would have one of Bernie’s converters on hand-which would create a power output equivalent to 10 nuclear plants. Oil companies currently view the water simply as waste-but we can dream, right?

One of the more admirable folks profiled is Van Jones, the civil rights advocate who has become a green jobs organizer. He was a key advocate for the Green Jobs Act (signed into law back in 2007). Armed with an uplifting catchphrase (“Green jobs, not jails”) Jones is shown spreading his message through economically challenged urban communities like Richmond, California, where disadvantaged youths have found steady employment installing solar panels on neighborhood homes through one of his programs. It’s quite inspirational to see that someone has figured a way to mesh the idea of sustaining a green economy with making a positive social impact.

Byck also touches base with “Green Hawks” who are working with the Department of Defense to make overseas military support operations more energy efficient via wind and solar power. One of them, ex-CIA head R. James Woolsey, delivers the film’s money quote. In consideration of the “blood and treasure” sacrifices that we suffer as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels, he observes, “President (George Herbert Walker) Bush probably would not have felt like he had to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, if the Persian Gulf had been home to 2/3 of the world’s proven supply of broccoli.”

Woolsey’s comment is the closest that the film comes to being polemical; as I stated at the top of the review, Byck has made a concerted effort to just accentuate the positive. Which is all well and good (who can’t use an uplift and a little inspiration now and then?), but in a way it’s a bit of a shame, particularly with the timing of the film’s release (have any change left after filling your tank recently?).

With all the eco-docs that have dealt with the global warming/fossil fuels dependency issues, I’ve yet to see one that acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the room: Despite the fact that this is one issue that should transcend politics, it has been co-opted as a political football, and we need to get away from that (at least if we ever hope to see more planet-friendly legislation).

During my morning commute the other day I was listening to “Democracy Now” and heard Amy Goodman interviewing Naomi Klein, who is working on a new book about climate change and the climate change deniers. I thought Klein offered some thoughtful observations on why most of the deniers come from the Right:

But something very different is going on on the right, and I think we need to understand what that is. Why is climate change seen as such a threat? I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable fear. I think it is—it’s unreasonable to believe that scientists are making up the science. They’re not. It’s not a hoax. But actually, climate change really is a profound threat to a great many things that right-wing ideologues believe in. So, in fact, if you really wrestle with the implications of the science and what real climate action would mean, here’s just a few examples what it would mean.

Well, it would mean upending the whole free trade agenda, because it would mean that we would have to localize our economies, because we have the most energy-inefficient trade system that you could imagine. And this is the legacy of the free trade era. So, this has been a signature policy of the right, pushing globalization and free trade. That would have to be reversed.

You would have to deal with inequality. You would have to redistribute wealth, because this is a crisis that was created in the North, and the effects are being felt in the South. So, on the most basic, basic, “you broke it, you bought it,” polluter pays, you would have to redistribute wealth, which is also against their ideology.

You would have to regulate corporations. You simply would have to. I mean, any serious climate action has to intervene in the economy. You would have to subsidize renewable energy, which also breaks their worldview.

You would have to have a really strong United Nations, because individual countries can’t do this alone. You absolutely have to have a strong international architecture.

So when you go through this, you see, it challenges everything that they believe in. So they’re choosing to disbelieve it, because it’s easier to deny the science than to say, “OK, I accept that my whole worldview is going to fall apart,” that we have to have massive investments in public infrastructure, that we have to reverse free trade deals, that we have to have huge transfers of wealth from the North to the South. Imagine actually contending with that. It’s a lot easier to deny it.

Klein did go on to say that a lot of the major green groups are in a “kind of denial” as well; in that they don’t want to confront the fact that it this a political and economic issue. Getting back to Byck’s film, many of the people and companies he profiles are, in fact, proving that sustainability can be both an earth-friendly and economically sound proposition. So what’s stopping everybody from getting together on the same page? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Don’t make me turn this into another math story problem…

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)

In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.

Krill, baby, krill: Disney’s Oceans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2010)

 Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

-Rachel Carson, author of The Sea around Us

 We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.

-Jacques Yves Cousteau, author of The Silent World


-Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez

 In their magnificent documentary, Oceans, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud don’t need to hit us over the head with cautionary rhetoric about mankind’s tendency to perennially poison the precious well of life that covers three-quarters of our planet with pollution, over-fishing and unchecked oil exploration. Any viewer, who becomes immersed in this stunningly photographed portrait of the delicately balanced aquatic ecosystem, yet fails to feel connected to the omniverse we cohabit (and a sense of responsibility) surely has something missing in their soul.

More of an aqueous 2001: a Space Odyssey than Discovery Channel nature romp, the film follows a narrative path reminiscent of Perrin and Cluzaud’s previous collaborative effort, Winged Migration. In that 2001 film, the pair (with Michael Debats) introduced audiences to a new paradigm in nature documentaries. The innovative camera work conveyed a bird’s eye view of, well, a bird’s world, that literally made you feel like a member of the flock, disaffected by gravity and those other pesky laws of physics which conspire to keep bipedal creatures earthbound. The narration was sparse, poetic, at time stream of consciousness. Corny as this sounds, I felt truly bonded with the avian “protagonists” by the end of the film. Ditto for Oceans.

Not that one normally “bonds” with a cuttlefish or a mantis shrimp in a conventional sense, mind you. However, if your contemplation of marine biology rarely extends beyond schlepping the occasional Mrs. Paul’s Breaded Fish Filet from the freezer to the microwave, this film will be a guaranteed eye-opener for you.

Granted, some of the scenarios have been covered in other nature documentaries; orcas snatching seals right off the beach, newborn sea turtles making a desperate break for the surf through a gauntlet of predators, and requisite footage of everyone’s favorite Antarctic marine birds-although the penguin antics are mercifully brief.

That said, there are unique, exquisitely rendered sequences in the film as well. A pod of humpback whales, breaching majestically in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A vast army of spider crabs (seemingly numbering in the tens of thousands) scuttling about the ocean floor en mass. A gargantuan ball of sardines getting decimated simultaneously from above and below by lightning-fast dolphins and dive-bombing sea birds. And in the film’s most sublime moment, an unexpectedly balletic display of maternal tenderness by a walrus, gently coddling her calf through his first undersea swim.

I would love to see the European cut of the film, which apparently runs 14 minutes longer; chiefly because I’m quite curious to see what Disney has excised. According to some reports, the chopped footage centers on our negative impact on the marine ecosystem. There is some extrapolation along those lines (endangered species entangled in tuna nets, satellite photos that clearly reveal ominously dark tentacles of pollution snaking the globe through every major body of water, etc.) but it does seem perfunctory in the U.S. cut.

The narration by Pierce Brosnan, while competent, doesn’t carry the gravitas that this type of meditation cries out for. Those few quibbles aside, I feel that this film is well worth your time. And as that horrendous oil “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated, this rumination about what is at stake could not be any timelier.

SIFF 2010: Queen of the Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but northwest filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun is one such film. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past decade, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds harbor a high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

It turns out that there have been voices in the wilderness over the years; although they have been largely ignored. Albert Einstein once said: “If bees die, man will only have four years of life left.”  As early as 1923, Austrian philosopher-scientist-social thinker and bio-dynamic agriculturalist icon Rudolph Steiner warned that within 100 years, without careful cultivation and continued awareness of the delicate symbiotic relationship we share with them, the honeybees would begin to dissipate (silly Rudy).

Siegel documents how, in the 80-odd year interim between Steiner’s dire prediction and what is happening now, we have plowed ahead in our typical clueless fashion, taking and taking and not giving enough back. Siegel rounds up the usual suspects, like mite infestations, pesticides, and the use of domesticated colonies in mechanized industrial pollination (especially in regards to mono-cropping, for which the bees are sometimes fortified with corn syrup, of all things).

The film is not all gloom and doom.  In countries where toxic pesticides are currently banned, Colony Collapse Syndrome has been virtually non-existent (surprise surprise).  And there are  uplifting interludes throughout profiling individuals who offer a philosophical/spiritual perspective on the human-bee connection.

And perhaps most importantly, we meet people proactively working on solutions; biodynamic beekeepers, organic farmers, and some urban beekeepers in the heart of the Bronx who are risking actual imprisonment for maintaining their rooftop hives (obviously, there are some ridiculous laws that are screaming to be stricken from the books). The film is beautifully photographed, well-paced and features a lovely score by Jami Sieber. I’ll tell you one thing- after watching this you’ll never take that jar of honey for granted again.