Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Don't Be Evil

One of the ironies of our society is that, while people demand transparency, they're not always willing to provide it if there is any possibility that transparency could lead to their own personal or professional embarrassment. "Do as we say, not as we do," seems to be the underlying message.

Paranoia, however, often leads to irony. In today's world of digital media, video clips can easily be found of past statements that contradict what a politician has just said (the research crew at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has honed this curious curatorial technique to perfection). Similarly, when a major corporation like Apple gets exposed for questionable labor practices in their Chinese assembly plants, it should surprise no one that a whistleblower like monologist Mike Daisey gets targeted as a scapegoat who must be discredited and diminished in the public's eye.

More often than not, damage control is a preemptive process. Celebrity publicists are paid lots of money to keep certain stories out of the news. But when a person or corporation (which, according to Mitt Romney, is a person) gets caught flashing its dirty underwear to the world, the cover-up is often worse than the incident. Just ask John Travolta.

Two films recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival depict the bizarre effects of corporate misbehavior on the working class and the environment. One is simple, observational, and narrated by the filmmaker. The other involves a mammoth journalistic effort focused on an impending global crisis.

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First screened in 1895, the following footage of workers leaving the Lumière Brothers' factory in Lyon, France is regarded as one of the first real motion pictures (and probably the first silent documentary).

Video editor Andrew Norman Wilson modeled his documentary short, Workers Leaving The Googleplex (which won a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival), after Louis Lumière's groundbreaking film. However, as his voiceover makes clear, his attempt to make a simple film came with a hefty price tag.

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With more and more headlines about how potable water is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, I was elated to read about a new technology that could provide an easy way for people (especially those in Third World countries) to be able to draw fresh water from the atmosphere. As one watches Eole Water's promotional clip describing this new technology, one can't help but feel a sense of relief and increased optimism.

Then one watches Jessica Yu's provocative new documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, and despair returns with a vengeance. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be grateful for Yu's talent as a filmmaker:
  • The opening title sequence (in which water is photographed with the kind of lush sensuality that could land her work in an art museum) is so alluring that one feels primed for another segment of Planet Earth.
  • Last Call At The Oasis brings the tenacious Erin Brockovich back to the screen.
  • Yu has found a way to frame an increasingly dire message in a format that includes humor, reason, and enough common sense to break through lobbying efforts by climate change deniers.
Bubbling water in the fountains of The Bellagio Hotel

The facts, however, are beyond appalling. In 2005, Vice President Cheney helped push through legislation creating the “Halliburton loophole” by which companies involved in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are exempted from having to disclose the chemicals they employ in the process. In Yu's documentary, when Brockovich visits Midland, Texas, she learns that the bright green water found in the community’s domestic wells contains much higher levels of hexavalent chromium than she helped to uncover in Hinkley, California during the 1990s. As the filmmaker explains:
“It’s important that these threats aren’t dismissed as treehuggers’ hand-wringing. Not only are we not protected in the way we like to believe, the system doesn’t allow us to hold polluters accountable. The EPA doesn’t have the funding or legislative tools it needs to do its job. The public is largely unaware of the threats to its water supply -– and things aren’t likely to change unless they become aware. People don’t have faith in their environmental agencies anymore. Erin Brockovich has been on the front lines for over 20 years now and is still fighting so many battles. It’s very telling that she’s receiving thousands of emails a month. She’s compassionate, relentless and totally kick-ass. People are contacting her, not the EPA."
Erin Brockovich at a protest

Some people continue to deny the effects of climate change (even some of the Australian farmers who have suffered through a 10-year drought don't believe that climate change is the cause of their problems). But today's technology affords surprising opportunities to step outside the usual parameters and view the situation through a much wider lens.

Geological data reveals that the elevation of Lake Mead has been dropping around 10 feet every year. While Yu was filming, it was about 40% full at 1,086 feet. Las Vegas will lose its upper intake at a water elevation of 1,050 feet (when Hoover Dam stops generating electricity). With the lake currently at a 40% full level and Clark County's growing population at two million, that deadline is only four years away

Meanwhile, twin satellites launched by G.R.A.C.E (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) in 2002 have shown groundwater losses in Australia that are equivalent to almost 10 Lake Meads. As James S. Famiglietti, a Professor of Earth Science Systems at the University of California, Irvine, explains:

Tyrone Hayes, a Professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, discovered that, even at low levels, the most common contaminant of drinking water and groundwater (an herbicide named Atrazine) causes some male frogs to produce enough estrogen to actually turn them into females. Hayes stresses that:
“In Europe they utilize something called the precautionary principle, which says that if there is any data to suggest that something’s harmful, the manufacturer has to prove that it’s safe or it’s off the market. So you’re guilty until proven innocent. In the United States, it's the opposite. You’re innocent until proven guilty. So, the company’s charged with proving that their compound’s bad, otherwise it stays on the market. The U.S. Geological Survey says they can detect it [Atrazine] in the rainwater in Minnesota from when they’re applying it in Kansas.”

Lynn Henning, a farmer and water sentinel for the Michigan Sierra Club, has documented massive amounts of livestock manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are filled with antibiotics, growth hormones, chemicals, toxic waste, and bacteria seeping into the water table. Although CAFOs generate 500 million tons of manure per year (the same amount as many American cities), they are not required to process wastewater in the same way as municipalities.

"Within a 10-mile radius here, we have over 60 lagoons that hold over 400 million gallons of waste," notes Henning.

One of the most important segments of Last Call At The Oasis is devoted to battling the American public's misconceptions about the inferiority of tap water to bottled water (an $11.2 billion industry in America). Paul Rozin (a psychologist who studies disgust) had been hired by both the government of Singapore and the Orange County water district to help get the general public to accept recycled sewage water in their drinking water supply.

Working together with actor Jack Black, Rozin and Yu create a deliciously comic approach to explaining why "toilet to tap" water is often purer than bottled water.

Last Call At The Oasis contains many jaw-dropping moments (my favorite takes place during a Senate hearing when Barbara Boxer asks why people are contacting Erin Brockovich instead of the NIH or the EPA). Any way you look at it, Jessica Yu's documentary is a sobering wake-up call for those who have kept their heads buried in the sand. Here's the trailer:

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