Sunday, September 6, 2009

This Island Earth

In recent years, environmental concerns have been at the forefront of the news. Scientists have been forced to deal with people who, having been tragically misled by corporate propaganda, believe that global warming is a hoax and that the best way out of an energy crisis is to Drill, baby, drill!

Such idiocy was only compounded on April 30, 2001, when Vice President Dick Cheney said that "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Within two weeks, Tom McNichol had retaliated with a list of Dick Cheney's 10 Tips To Conserve Energy.

From December 6-18, 2009 (twelve years after a critical meeting that established the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions) representatives of more than 170 nations will gather in Copenhagen for an international Climate Conference hosted by the government of Denmark in association with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Recent years have brought audiences a series of documentaries dealing with environmental issues. Among them are:
The latest to open in theaters is Robert Stone's thought-provoking Earth Days, which comes from a very deep place in the filmmaker's heart. Stone recalls that:
"Growing up in the 1960s in a small town in New Jersey, there was little evidence of the environmental crisis that has now become such a dominant feature in our lives. If you needed to buy something you walked -- yes, walked -- into town and there on the main street were stores that catered to your every need. The area around the town was full of beautiful acres of farmland and open skies. Traffic moved swiftly and easily through the town and beyond. Things seemed to be in balance.

But you didn't have to go far to see another reality. On trips to New York City with my parents we would have to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike through Newark and I remember the air was so bad that it would make you choke. It was the kind of air pollution that people speak about now after returning from industrial parts of China. Urban areas and industrial zones back then were the first to feel the full brunt of environmental deterioration. But it still seemed that outside of the cities there was little cause for alarm.

In 1970, when I was in the seventh grade, the first Earth Day took place. It forced us to take a look around and see that, even in our seemingly idyllic little town, the cars were spewing out lethal exhaust, the sidewalks were strewn with litter, our lakes and streams were polluted, etc. We'd just never paid much attention before. Along with many of my friends, I participated in local Earth Day activities on that sunny day in April 1970 (I remember crushing cans that people brought for recycling -- a novel concept at the time). I put up an Earth Day flag in my bedroom in a place of honor alongside my NASA photo of the earth from space.

A year or two later, a huge new shopping mall was built out on the highway. Most of the shops in my town went out of business and were replaced by pricey boutiques, gift shops, and eventually fast food restaurants. Much of the farmland in the nearby countryside was dug up to make way for cheap housing developments. The streets and roads became clogged with traffic, and on and on. And then I began to notice that the lake we used to skate on in the winter no longer froze over. This was a pattern repeated across America (at an increasingly rapid rate) to the point that, at age 50, it's hard to recognize this country as the same one in which I grew up not so very long ago."

In his director's statement, Stone explains that:
"In this film, we come to see the environmental changes that began to take place after World War II, changes which compounded upon themselves to the point of reaching a crisis by the end of the 1960s. We see the beginning of a huge political movement coming together to address these issues and witness the fruits of their extraordinary successes (as well as the results and lessons of their missteps).

To my mind, this is the great forgotten story of the 1960s and '70s, obscured perhaps by the simultaneous efforts at civil rights and ending the Vietnam War. Within a single generation we fundamentally altered how we perceive the relationship between man and nature. it can almost be seen as a sudden evolutionary leap that we took as a species, and it's one that has never before been documented. Ultimately, perhaps, environmentalism is the greatest legacy of the social and political upheaval of that period."
While ecology is now a major global issue, when Rachel Carson's ground-breaking book, The Silent Spring, was first published in September 1962 very few people were thinking about conserving the environment. Airplanes and factories routinely belched soot and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Gas guzzlers roamed the nation's highways. Thick clouds of smog blanketed many large urban areas.
  • In 1969, peace activist John McConnell introduced the idea of a global holiday (timed to the March equinox) entitled "Earth Day" at a UNESCO conference devoted to the environment.
  • On March 21, 1970, the first Earth Day Proclamation was issued by San Francisco's Mayor, Joseph Alioto.
  • On April 22, 1970, nearly 20 million Americans participated in the event.
Designed as a nationwide teach-in, the first Earth Day celebration was founded by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (who hired Denis Hayes as the event's coordinator). By 1972, Congress had established the Environmental Protection Agency, enacted the first fuel emission standards for cars, passed the Endangered Species Act and phased out the use of pesticides like DDT.

During the 1973 oil crisis, Americans had to wait in long lines at gas stations after OPEC announced an embargo on oil exports. On April 18, 1977, President Jimmy Carter made an unprecedented address to the nation about the energy crisis.

However, as soon as Ronald Reagan came into office, he set about reversing most of Carter's forward-thinking policies with regard to alternative energy and conservation. In 1986, Reagan even had the solar panels that Carter had installed on the roof of the White House removed. "We lost thirty years because both sides ossified into their ideologies," notes environmentalist Hunter Lovins, "and if we've learned anything, it's that we're all in this together. We still have a lot of options -- if we haven't already passed the tipping point."

This year's conference in Copenhagen is timed to what some scientists believe will be a point of no return for planet earth. With diminishing supplies of fossil fuels and steadily rising Arctic temperatures, it's hard to watch the following video and wonder if, indeed, we can really still save the earth's environment.

Stone's documentary is filled with wonderful archival footage (especially the ads for suburban lifestyle enhancements and new automobiles of the 1950s and 1960s) as well as horrifying reminders of industrial pollution. Important narrative contributions come from:
As conservatives continually try to undermine global efforts to stop ecologic decay, Stone's documentary offers a valuable lesson in how the environmental movement got started, how it has progressed, and how critical the results of December's conference in Copenhagen will be toward arresting climate change. Here's the trailer:

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No matter how much documentarians try to explain global warming and its consequences, some people tune out whenever facts, figures, or depressing data head their way. How then, does a filmmaker help people understand what could happen to our world if we fail to take timely action?

The answer, of course, is through the power of art. Hayao Miyazaki's new full-length animation feature, Ponyo, does a superb job of demonstrating how life would change if the seas were to rise by 20-30 feet. Although this Studio Ghibli film is being distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, Ponyo differs from most full-length Disney animation features with its lack of an easily identifiable villain. Instead Ponyo looks through a child's eyes at what would happen if the earth lost its balance and global flooding ensued.

As with Miyazaki's previous films, the artwork is often breathtaking. Watch this trailer and pay careful attention to the moment -- at about 1:47 -- when Ponyo and Sosuke kneel down and peer into the water where they can see giant fish swimming above what was once a local highway. Then go see the film. It's a most enjoyable pick-me-up.

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