Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Adapt and Change -- While There's Still Time

There's a reason Darwinism is often referred to as "survival of the fittest." Some creatures can't adapt sufficiently to make it to the finish line. Others never even had a fighting chance.

Catastrophic events have a way of focusing a person's attention on his own mortality. Consider the following:
  • On August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana, the storm left nearly 80% of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes flooded. Ecosystems were severely disrupted and a mass migration of the area's residents forever changed the makeup of one of America's great cities.
  • On April 20, 2010, the Gulf of Mexico suffered further insult and injury to its ecosystem with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • On February 22, 2011 the city of Christchurch, New Zealand was rocked by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Several hundred commercial buildings in the downtown district as well as 10,000 homes were targeted for demolition and nearly 70,000 people (approximately 20% of Christchurch's population) left the area. New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key stated that "There are some parts of Christchurch that can't be rebuilt due to damage from liquefaction. Potentially, there are some areas of Christchurch which will need to be abandoned. The land has been so badly damaged that we can't fix it (certainly not in a reasonable time frame)." 
A recent article in The Washington Post entitled Shifting Spring: Arctic Plankton Blooming Up To 50 Days Earlier Now outlines how climate change is having a severe impact on the food chain in the Arctic Ocean  and could take a devastating toll on regional fish, bird, and wildlife populations. Today's news reports also include a massive die-off of millions of anchovies in a marina near Redondo Beach, California.

Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided rude warnings to Americans about why infrastructure and environmental protection should never fall victim to corruption and petty politics. But as the world hurtles toward a peak oil tipping point -- and developing nations demonstrate a growing hunger for fossil fuels -- one wonders if the human race will be able to adapt to sustainable energy practices in time to save itself.

* * * * * * * * * *
The past few years have witnessed the release of numerous documentaries dealing with climate change.  From An Inconvenient Truth and Earth Days to The Age of Stupid; from A Sea Change and The 11th Hour to Everything's Cool, filmmakers have been trying to make people understand how dangerously close our climate has gotten to a tipping point that could prove fatal to life on earth.

The latest entry in this genre is a documentary by Peter Byck that tries to put a happier spin on the topic. The first thing one notices about Carbon Nation is its style of pastel-themed graphics (which are obviously meant to appeal to a younger generation's familiarity with information balloons on the Internet and in retail advertising). The second thing one notices is its tone.

Instead of dour forecasts of doom, Carbon Nation tries to paint happy solutions to climate change as being easy to adapt, fun to learn about, and the "cool" way to prepare for the future. Featuring interviews with people like Virgin Group founder and CEO, Richard Branson; New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman; and Van Jones (Oakland's civil rights activist, entrepreneur, and author of The Green Collar Economy), Carbon Nation also interviews loners like Bernie Karl, a self-proclaimed "wild Alaskan" who is harnessing geothermal power from Chena Hot Springs.

Green energy entrepreneur, Van Jones

Byck tries to keep his message light and airy. A biochemical engineer who is interviewed for the film stresses that “If you don’t give a damn about the environment, do it because you’re a greedy bastard and you just want cheap power!”

In his director’s statement, Byck writes:
"I became aware of climate change in 2006 and immediately wanted to know whether there were solutions. Along with my team, we set out to find the innovators and entrepreneurs who were laying the groundwork for a clean energy future. Midway through production, we met Bernie Karl, a wild Alaskan geothermal pioneer. When Bernie told me he didn’t think humans were the cause of climate change, it was a lightbulb moment. A person didn’t have to believe in climate science to still want clean air and clean water.
Once we filmed the Green Hawks in the Department of Defense, I realized that national security was another way into the clean energy world. In our travels, we filmed Bay Area radicals, utility CEOs, airlines execs and wonky economists. They all agreed that using as little energy as possible and making clean energy are important goals whether for solutions to climate change, national or energy security, or public health. I wanted to make a big-tent film where folks of all political stripes could find common ground.
Public opinion is sliding the wrong way. Far fewer people are concerned about climate change than even a year ago. While other good films have been about problems, blame and guilt, Carbon Nation is a film that celebrates solutions, inspiration and action.We’ve made Carbon Nation to give a majority of people an entertaining, informed and pragmatic primer about why it’s incredibly smart to be a part of the new, low-carbon economy: it’s good business. Carbon Nation's optimism and pragmatism are appealing across the political spectrum."

There's no doubt that Byck's documentary has plenty of optimism. Whether or not it can motivate people to embrace the solutions it suggests is quite another story. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Over the years, Paul Rudnick has developed a reputation for skillfully easing controversial gay issues down the public's throat by encasing them in jokes that are far sweeter than any sugar in Mary Poppins' cupboard. Whether tackling AIDS paranoia in Jeffrey (1995), a man coming to terms with his gay identity in 1997's In & Out, or his gay version of the Bible in 1998's The Most Fabulous Story Every Told, Rudnick has proven himself to be a skilled farceur. In works such as Valhalla (2004) and The New Century (2008) he has shown great skill at balancing his razor-sharp wit with a rare kind of pathos that rests on a foundation of wretched excess.

New Conservatory Theatre Center recently offered the Bay area premiere of Rudnick's 2006 comedy of manners, Regrets, Only at a moment in time which demonstrates how much things can change in five years. Set in a Manhattan penthouse in 2007, his play revolves around a wealthy family of Park Avenue socialites and their gay best friend. The key characters are:
  • Hank Hadley (Patrick Michael Dukeman), an extremely famous and wealthy designer of women's fashions who is recovering from the death of his long-time partner of 28 years. Although they didn't live together and never considered themselves to be "married," Hadley has been undergoing a political transformation since his partner's death.
  • Jack McCullough (Robin Schild), the straight attorney who helped Hank get started in business. Although they've been best friends forever, Jack has just been requested by President George W. Bush to help write a Constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
  • Spencer McCullough (Annamarie MacLeod), Jack's talented attorney daughter who has just announced her engagement to a wealthy investment banker. Spencer desperately wants Hank to design her wedding gown. Meanwhile, Jack wants Spencer to assist him on writing the anti-gay amendment.
  • Tibby McCullough (Sarah Shoshana David), Jack's sharp-witted wife. She and Hank are an inseparable item on the social circuit. Although Tibby tolerates Jack as her husband, she considers Hank to be her true soulmate
Jack (Robin Schild), Tibby (Sarah Shoshona David), Spencer 
(Annamarie MacLeod), and Myra Kesselman (Alison Sacha Ross) 
Photo by: Lois Tema

Recent events throw the strengths and weaknesses of Regrets, Only into a new light.
All of this adds to the impact of Regrets, Only's second act, in which an extremely privileged heterosexual white family -- who have always relied on gay men and lesbians to take care of their needs -- suddenly gets a shocking taste of what the term "shared sacrifice" really means. Whereas Harvey Milk urged LGBT people to "Come out, come out, wherever you are," Rudnick mines comic gold from the concept of what would happen if every LGBT person in American called in sick on the same day.

The cast of Regrets, Only (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Framed by Kuo-Hao Lo's tasteful unit set and Jorge R. Hernandez's costumes, NCTC's ensemble does its best to send Rudnick's zingers sailing out into the audience. However, in a decidedly strange imbalance, the audience often finds itself warming to Tibby's oft-married mother, Marietta Claypoole (RoyAnne Floence) and the McCullough family's white Jewish lesbian maid, Myra Kesselman (Alison Sacha Ross) much more than the play's four principles.

I can't quite put my finger on why Andrew Nance's stage direction doesn't always hit its mark, but I did feel that Robin Schild was strangely miscast as Jack McCullough. Thankfully, Rudnick's writing is so facile -- and his zingers so frequent -- that Regrets, Only does more to make gay marriage palatable than any street protest or courtroom showdown. Performances continue through April 3 at New Conservatory Theatre Center (you can order tickets here.)

No comments: